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Cognitive Development

Cognitive Studies on Mirror Neurons

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One of the interesting things about cognitive studies, or studies of how the brain works, is that oftentimes a piece of research into an area like medical research can also yield useful information for education or psychology. And so is the case with mirror neurons, a function of the brain, which has implications in all these areas.

Research into mirror neurons began for medical reasons; the literal use of mirrors to help ease the pain for people who had lost a limb and were experiencing ‘phantom limb’ sensations. These sensations caused pain for the patients, making them feel as if the lost limb were still there but in a severely cramped position. For instance, with a patient who lost their arm, mirrors were positioned to make it appear as if the remaining limb were in the place of the lost limb, and then basic physical therapy of stretching would be performed to work out the sensation of the muscle cramp. The patient would stretch, focusing in on an image that was mirroring relief, and over a short time, this proved to be a successful therapy for many patients.

Although it may not seem similar at first, this happens in learning too. When a student has a difficult topic to master, the frustration and stress can become heavy, and the student will either successfully learn the topic, or walk away from it. The use of mirroring can help in this instance. It would be similar to the instructional practice of modeling, but done in more of a one-on-one mode. A student could be walked through a set of procedures. Or, a student could be instructed through a series of questions that works as a dialogue, but also a monologue that the student can internalize.

There is a lot of research to be done on mirror neurons. What is known, is that this type of neuron (a neuron being the thing that actually does the processing and of which there are a vast many different types) is unique. It is unique in that mirror neurons are active in the same way when a person observes an act and performs an act. The implication for what a person is able to internalize and understand through observation is significant for educators.

Education is full of connections, both personal and in terms of knowledge. The recognition and understanding that occurs when a concept is learned stems from all of our use of mirror neurons. It can promote a lot of random learning, again from the simple power of observation, but it can also direct learning explicitly through closely connecting information together for a student, and transferring the knowledge from the adult to the child.

So, the question may not have been “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” It might have been more worthwhile to ask “Mirror Mirror on the wall, what do you know and what can you teach us all?”

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Cognitive: Teaching Young Minds’

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When a teacher is planning a lesson, beyond thinking through the skills, knowledge and concepts of what is being taught, the teacher also has to think about what the best way to get the information into the diversely able brains will be. Students learn differently and they come to class with different sets of prior knowledge to pull from. The teacher needs to use this information to determine what the instructional approach for the lesson will be.

Students learn using their senses; most commonly their visual, auditory and kinesthetic senses. Teachers need to understand what learning styles make up the class and prepare teaching materials that kids can see or read, hear or talk about, and physically interact with. Traditionally, direct instruction and textbook readings worked well for visual learners, but it left behind many auditory and very often the kinesthetic learners in the room.

Teachers have developed more integrated approaches that involve hands-on learning and more group work to increase spoken interaction between students. These additions to an instructional plan can mean that students will have direct instruction, targeted readings, and opportunities to explore and interact with the central concept of the lesson.

Another approach that teachers use is within the establishment of group work routines. Students can be grouped together with the same level of ability or with differing level of abilities. A homogeneous group allows for students to pace learning at a speed which works for them.  A group of differing abilities means that students take on different roles of teacher and learner, allowing some students to learn from someone beside the teacher and some students the opportunity to teach.

Both grouping styles can be effective. A cognitive theory which supports the more diverse ability grouping is referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development, and suggests that a student will be able to intellectually develop based on the influence of their close peers. In a way, this is similar to a mentoring relationship which can significantly help individual learners understand what they need to know and do to succeed.

When children learn, they are not necessarily aware of the various instructional approaches and how they are mean to spark the learning centers of the brain. Parents can talk to their children to get more information about the school day, the lessons, and what really stuck for the child. By doing this, parents will understand what have been effective instructional approaches for their child and can use that to advocate for their education. Students definitely know if they like a lesson or “got it” and that usually turns into a true appreciation for the subject.

SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Denver, CO visit: Tutoring in Denver, CO.

Concept Learning: Seeing the Lightbulb Come On

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Concept learning is a type of learning that you can almost see happening. When a student masters a concept, it is like watching a light bulb turn on. On the one hand, it makes it quite simple to assess that student has mastered the concept; however, oftentimes it is getting them there which is the real challenge.

Conceptual learning happens for students of all ages. It is the moment when something you concretely know turns into something you abstractly understand. For instance, the first time a child sees a dump truck hauling off rubbish and asks what happens to that trash, they are approaching the precipice of some concept learning. If that moment is fostered with questions such as “Do you think it goes into the ocean?” or “Do you think it goes into the land?” the child might start to really think about where the trash goes, and start to understand the concept of environmental waste.

Concepts become increasingly complex as we get older and experience life’s intersecting interests. A concept in action such as government can generate thinking about concepts such as taxation. This is what is referred to as a defined concept and its associated concepts. In high school, students are expected to start developing this line of thinking. Scaffolding acronyms like SPICE are meant to remind students to think about the Social, Political, Intellectual, Cultural and Economic implications of an event in history helping them to explore a concept and its associated concepts from an organized approach.

Complex concepts are the interactions and understandings that we develop about how things work in the world and society. Doing business is an area where complex concepts about accepted practices guide our trust in the system, but also give a form to the boundaries from which innovation can grow. On one level, the world which we know is increasingly abstracted into a web-based form allowing services and opportunities for social and professional connections to come into existence. Pushing the boundaries of the concept of doing business, and transferring it to an entirely new platform seemed like science-fiction years ago, but is well within our conceptual understanding today.

The keys to successful concept learning are fairly straightforward. Inquiry and discovery are at its heart. Examples and models are useful. Questioning and discussion often switch the light bulb on, as well. Even a simple word can trigger the next great conceptual leap. Mostly though, in this realm of learning, experience really counts.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Denver, CO visit: Tutoring in Denver, CO.

Cognitive Character Education

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When we send our children to school we can expect that schools will focus on their character education.  Although ‘Character Education’ is not a formal class, most schools have a formal policy that oversees character education and suggests ways in which it can be integrated into daily teaching and learning.

Character, or moral, development has been an aspect of cognitive educational psychology for decades. The theory of moral development, from a cognitive standpoint, started with Lawrence Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development.

Now, first and most importantly is this: character is developed. It is both learned and natural. It is developed through interactions with family, peers, and any other major influences. A child of 5 and a child of 15 have different character and sense of morality. At 45, the difference is even deeper.

Over the years, character and morality deepen through our experiences and personal observations. Our thoughts, belief, what we read, and how we perceive will affect our character, and this should be factored into realistic character education models.

In Kohlberg’s theory, a person passes through stages: the first stage is pre-conventional. Such is youth, when the guiding questions are “what’s in it for me?” and” “how can I avoid trouble?” The moral and character development is self-interested, naturally, and oriented to punishment and consequences, environmentally.

However, life is more complicated, and we want the best for our new best friends, and we get jealous of the most popular person in class. And so with adolescence, interpersonal relations, social order, and even a tinge of authority bear down on what is the conventional stage of moral development.

Once adolescence is over, which can take some time, we move into what is called the post-conventional stage of moral development, in which the thoughts we take on include universal principles and ethics. The ability to think through these things, without rushing to judgment, is a mark of moral maturity, and shows academically.

Probably the best way to guide moral development for a child is to talk with them. By posing ethical and moral questions and offering up the opportunity to think things through, a child has a chance to grow. A child, most likely, will come back to the conversation in their mind at a later point, which deepens their thinking on the topic.

As with many aspects of intellectual development, real discussions can provide significant benefits. One-on-one conversation with a kid can spark an idea, or a drive, or a motivation, moving them forward in their personal development.

SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Lawrence, KS visit: Tutoring in Lawrence, KS.

Cognitive Friday: Holiday Shopping

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The holiday season is a special time for families. It is also a very special time for retailers, a segment of business that has mastered their understanding of the cognitive processes which people bring to the shopping experience. Consumer behaviors have been studied at length by marketers to understand how to get people to buy their products. These studies also show how consumers, particularly children, get parents to buy the items they want.

A number of years ago a study was conducted by James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing, in which the ways in that children try to get their parents to buy them that one toy which they really want was examined and classified. This information is critically useful for parents who ever take their child shopping. The difference between leaving the mall with a happy child and a screaming, whining, pleading child is a big difference, and having a plan to confront the inevitable begging for a new toy can mean sanity in shopping.

There is the pleading whine: the incessant “please, mommy, please please please… I love you, please. You are the best mom, please mommy, and I promise I’ll love you forever, if you can please please please just buy me THAT fluorescent stuffed bear.”

This is not the best way for our children to go about trying to get what they want; 9 out of 10 times the parent needs to say no, and move on to the next set of stimuli.

Kids also whine forcefully: the end game here is “I must have this, it will make me the best kid in the world, and if you say no, I’m gonna hit up dad.” The child has a plan of attack, an object of desire, and willful intent. As this is ultimately an effort at manipulation, parents must be united, or a parent faced with this on their own, will simply have to be strong in their denial. It has been said that “No” is a complete sentence.

Kids will employ the threatening whine, “I’ll never talk to you again, I’ll stop eating, I will NOT move from this store until I get what I want!!!!” Obviously, this is not an effective negotiation technique, and parents cannot accept being threatened at all. The answer is no, the child will get over it, and the parents should not give in and should also teach the child more effective ways to negotiate using these instances as a starting point.

There is the pity whine and the emotionally threatening whine. “If I don’t get this toy, I will have no friends…” or “I will never speak to you again if you don’t buy me this toy!!!!!” While neither of these are tactics to give into, they also speak to an insecurity the child is feeling, and when the moment is over, it is worth talking with your child about their thoughts about how having the right toy and having friends relate to each other, or they may need to be reminded of how much they are loved.

And, finally, there is the sugar-coated whine. “Please please please, I will love you forever, do the dishes for a year, and get straight A’s if you, just please get me this toy!!” Sweet as sugar may be, this is not the way that we want to teach our children to negotiate and so, the answer to this is no.

At the heart of these different patterns of whining, is the emergence of negotiation style. Negotiation uses perception and manipulation, and parents need to teach ethical ways of negotiating. This is a communication issue as well, and parents may find that the child’s whining style mirrors the style in which the parent asks the child to do something. In any event, a wide range of negotiating and communicating in-roads is more effective than any one single approach.

SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Glendale, AZ visit: Tutoring in Glendale, AZ .

Cog Friday: Group Cognition

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The human mind is a singular thing… until it enters a group. Group cognition is the study of how the mind processes information when people are in a group setting, and it has some interesting implications on thought processes.

It happens all the time that people who are working together will come up with the same idea or say the same thing at the same time. Before MRIs and brain technologies, we had “Jinx, buy me a Coke!” as a way of recognizing this aspect of group cognition. This emerges from the language-based interactions – speaking, listening and observing – and thought builds from the various utterances and expressions of members of the group.

Interaction-based thinking can be very productive; students who work on math projects in a group setting may be able to hit upon a solution more quickly than an individual. Because we all think differently – sometimes we diverge from a thought and bring in another idea that successfully yields a solution, and sometimes we converge from a thought and add the one piece of information that results in a satisfying solution.

Thought takes direction – tangential, convergent, divergent, and so on, and with multiple possibilities emerging from the individual cognitive processes of group members, the outcome can amount to an original group idea. Problem-solving may be one cognitive process particularly well-adapted to group cognition.

On the other hand, decision-making which is an outcome of problem-solving has been shown to be weakened by group cognition. An example of this phenomenon in cognitive literature is political decision-making. People in a group are more willing to accept a decision because they feel that it has been made based upon valid information, research or beliefs. Consequently, individuals do not always come to an individual conclusion and often go against an intuitive feeling when coming to a decision, or a vote.

This aspect of group cognition is worthy of consideration because, in democratic societies, people do in fact have the ability to make their own decision and do not need to go along with a group decision. This presents a difficult impasse, but on important issues, sometimes it is better to not go along with a group.

How this relates to education and students’ individual development is of great importance. Particularly during the teenage years, cognitive processes are booming. Why and how to diverge from a group decision is a critical thing to teach children, because social politics are important to the social-emotional-intellectual development of youth.

Students need to learn how to work with a group and how to walk away from a group. Students must listen to the ideas of others and listen to their own ideas. They must seek out and evaluate all the information they have and determine the right course of action (solution or decision) they should follow.

Students need to be told that there is a difference between their ideas and group ideas so that they have the basis for this discernment. Talking to kids about what they think, what their teachers and friends think, and what they would do in certain situation is the surest way to prepare them to be problem-solvers and decision-makers in their own right within a society that becomes increasingly complex, socially and politically, as we grow up.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Newmarket, ON visit: Tutoring in Newmarket, ON.

Cognitive Dissonance

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As with meta-cognition, cognitive dissonance is one of learning’s great leaps forward. Most generally, cognitive dissonance is the moment in which a person recognizes that something does not seem right, intellectually speaking, and they are driven to figure out why that is. That combination of non-understanding with drive for understanding propels deeper knowledge on a number of levels.

A moment of cognitive dissonance is either intentionally created or stumbled upon. It is not easy to hit upon teachable moments that emerge from cognitive dissonance, as it is a delicate series of events that have to happen in someone’s mind. The point is not to create confusion, rather the effect is more of wonderment.

The instances of cognitive dissonance can happen for students in any subject area. Literature is full of moments of cognitive dissonance, such as when a reader needs to read on to understand what is occurring, knowing full well that it will be worth it. Meeting a character in a novel that on all levels seems like a terrible character, but in fact is sympathetic, generates this sense of wonderment at how that can be. A person may well consider their judgments, biases, beliefs and intellectually grow.

Social studies and history can present their opportunities for cognitive dissonance to push students into deeper conceptual understanding. For instance, in a question about civil rights, the truly unassuming question, “Is everyone really equal?” thrown out to a group of teens can penetrate accepted beliefs and bring about a deeper analysis of the question. In a group with some idealistic teens, some apathetic teens, some over-achieving teens, this question can shift opinions coming from all different perspectives in a lively discussion.

Math and Science offer a great many opportunities to affect cognitive dissonance. Being presented with a problem and having to find the best method to solve the problem can have great outcomes. Likewise, learning a piece of information that is hard to believe and setting about to prove or disprove the theory or hypothesis has its roots in cognitive dissonance.

Allowing a little confusion is not a bad thing. Certainty does not exist in all things, and that is an important lesson for kids to learn. But, any moment that sparks intellectual searching for an answer should be grabbed and used, as it will be remembered.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Miami Gardens, FL visit: Tutoring in Miami Gardens, FL.

The Political Brain

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During a political season, it seems that all manner of subjects can relate to politics. And so it is with cognition, and in the run-up to a presidential election the question has been asked, what is the political brain and what are its main functions?

A new theory on this topic suggests that there are four major modalities of political cognition – that is, the combined thinking and actions of politicians. There are Directors, Negotiators, Builders, and Explorers. While this theory will have no impact on the election season, it can have an impact on how we instill leadership, decision-making, problem-solving, and other political skills that are important to us all.

The first step is recognizing the areas in which a person excels.

  • Is a person effective at directing some set of actions? (Director)
  • Can a person negotiate the best possible outcome? (Negotiator)
  • Is a person able to conceive of and build something? (Builder)
  • Can a person envision other possibilities and explore potential outcomes? (Explorer)

Using the answers to these questions then follows a consideration of how to build these skills in students. Project-based learning is effective – in a group project, students will take upon a Director role and find success doing so. Others may recognize that their group is out of hand, and step in to do the delicate task of the Negotiator. Individual projects are also excellent ways to bring about the Director role because the first person anyone must direct is themselves.

Builders and Explorers are found in the midst of exploratory and creative learning ventures. They are able to brainstorm and daydream, both of which are pure cognitive functions. Independently-guided learning and discovery-based experiences offer students new ways in which to see how to Build or the possibilities for Exploration.

Every four years there will be a new President elected, and that person will contain a well-balanced mix of all these qualities. Every single day, a child has a chance to grow up to be that President and so, ensuring that they receive opportunities to direct something, negotiate something, build something and explore something offers them the building blocks to become a great leader.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Tacoma, WA visit: Tutoring in Tacoma, WA.

Cognitive Development 101

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The field of education is full of jargon. There are buzzwords and talking points hammered home so that it is clear what the intentions of teaching (and assessment!) are.  One reason this happens is that teachers have specialized their education in order to become a teacher and have spent a good amount of time around other teachers.

The technical language of education mainly comes from teacher education and professional development. Giving parents a quick introduction into what teachers learn in graduate teaching programs can make the jargon a little more clear, and bring about ideas for ways in which parents can support their own child’s learning.

One of the first things teachers learn is about the cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget. Piaget was an educational researcher who developed a foundational stage theory about how children develop intellectually. This is limited to children, and theories suggest that adults also have stages of intellectual development of their own.

The youngest children, according to Piaget, are developmentally in a sensorimotor stage. They learn and develop based on their sensory and motor experiences. Language begins to take shape and word acquisition happens exponentially. Interesting connection between sensory, motor (motion), and language development occurring that effectively and simultaneously.

When children are in the early elementary grades, the stage they are in is referred to as the pre-operational stage. Formal operations and procedures are not known and children will make up their own rules and use symbolic play to represent the real world they are learning about. Both play and direct instruction are required at this stage.

Once students move into the pre-adolescent years, the thinking becomes more logical and systematic (which may come as a surprise, but this is the theory). This is the concrete operational stage. Symbols relate to real things and operations – and norms – begin to settle in. Children at this age aggregate in peer groups where they feel the most understood. Things need to be concrete. It is a significant transitional period, and kids flock to familiarity. In order to learn, students need to be in a comfortable environment.

Moving out of this stage, students begin to develop formal operational thinking. This type of thinking combines operations, symbols and allows students to begin to think abstractly. This is a jump in conceptual and cognitive development that teachers need to be concerned with as high school is the last certain chance that a person will experience formal education.

Moving a student into abstract thinking allows the reflection, analysis, and evaluation that are the foundation of critical thinking. For adults, they are of such great significance, that the development of abstract and conceptual thinking is a key to successfully developing past adolescence. Parents, just like teachers, have the teen years as the last chance before higher education and work take over to help promote higher-order cognition. Knowledge, discussion, opportunities to reflect and to extrapolate are some of the most important things parents can do. Simple as it may seem, the educational jargon is about just that.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in Lake Stevens, WA visit: Tutoring in Lake Stevens, WA.

Thinking about Thinking

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In learning, meta-cognition is a Holy Grail. Meta-cognition is a process of thinking about one’s own thinking, or of ‘being aware.’  Generally speaking, people are aware of their thoughts and acts of meta-cognition are not uncommon. Meta-cognition accompanies reflective and analytic thoughts and provides insight on why a person thinks or does something.

This cognitive process is as useful for academic, professional, and personal reasons as any thought process which we use; the complexity is understanding how to bring it about in student learning and daily living.

Writing and discussion are two of the surest ways to get at this. A single reflective journal entry, however, does not accomplish the task. A single reflective journal entry which is read, responded to, and asked questions of will be more effective in getting a student to think about why they think or believe whatever it is they wrote. Asking a student why they think something leads them down the path of meta-cognitive thought.

Discussion is another avenue to bring about meta-cognitive thought. Speaking and listening – with the freedom to express one’s honest viewpoint – is essential in developing understanding and awareness. Challenging a student’s opinion on an issue in such a way that they must rise above it (meta means above) and consider it from a new perspective can go a long way in developing meta-cognitive thought. However, the importance of students feeling free to openly express themselves is paramount. If they are not expressing honest thoughts, the opportunity to think meta-cognitively is lost.

Of course, not all students love all subjects. Just as many students fear Algebra, many students feel that they are “bad at English.” This is not so. It is a matter of perception and learning strategies. It may be that if a student who believes they are not strong in reading and writing approaches those tasks like a math problem rather than as a moment of literary analysis, it will make more sense.

Throughout all steps of a learning process, moments of meta-cognition surface that aid in learning. When someone “speaks to them self” when they are in the midst of a process-oriented task and are self-directing through their own words, this is a meta-cognitive strategy. Often, this is a very effective strategy in mathematics and scientific processes. Many of the scaffolds that we use to remember or self-direct are meta-cognitive strategies which each individual has adapted so it works best for them.

People are smart. They know how they learn best and those talents should be harnessed in all areas of academic learning. Particularly when a student is learning something new, using what they know and taking the time to think about how one piece of knowledge or learning strategy supports the new subject, can provide the bridge to understanding.

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SchoolTutoring Academy is the premier educational services company for K-12 and college students. We offer tutoring programs for students in K-12, AP classes, and college. To learn more about how we help parents and students in San Francisco, CA visit: Tutoring in San Francisco, CA.

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