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Towards a Unification of Pedagogies (Part 11 of 14)

Which is best:  Inquiry-based learning?  Technology-driven classes?  Socratic discussion?  Others?  These pedagogical approaches seem to have their own disciples, each claiming the One Pedagogy To Rule Them All.  How is a teacher to know?  How understand which to use when?  And why?

I used to have a "grass is always greener" feeling about this.  I wondered: could everything my colleagues are doing be better than what I'm doing?  I always admired (and still do) the fervent proselytizing different schools of thought attract.  But clarity came for me when I made the realization in the previous blog post: that our habits and dispositions directly engage different stages of the cognitive process.  When I understood that the cognitive model of attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval explains how “non-cognitive skills” influence learning in different ways, then I began to consider how it might similarly cast our different pedagogical strategies into a singular frame of reference built around our students.  

And this brought a new coherence to me for our different approaches:

Just as certain dispositions promote complementary stages of the cognitive process, so, too, do different pedagogical strategies complement each other and engage in the full process of learning:

Inquiry-based teaching focuses on using targeted, guiding questions that propel and focus attention.  And, when coupled with field work or other immersive scenarios or research environments, it can promote rich encoding as well.  (It’s important to note that it isn’t that inquiry-based teaching doesn’t promote good storage and retrieval--only that its focus is more explicitly on the earlier stages in the cognitive model: attention and encoding.)  

The rhetoric surrounding technology in the classroom looks different; it revolves around two different arguments.  First, some advocates promote technology as a tool to capture attention.  This camp suggests that we compel attention through our use of tools that are relevant and familiar to the world our students know.  Kids use technology every day in their lives; they ought to use it in school.  There is some sense to this.  Another camp argues that technology promotes rich encoding.  Digital media provide fuller visual, auditory, and kinesthetic experiences than plain text.  And, they say that digital sources can be adaptive.  With technology, the argument goes, students are stimulated in more ways, and their environments can adaptively meet students where their prior knowledge is.

Spiraling focuses on the back end of the cognitive process.  A pedagogical pattern built around recursively returning to material, spiraling creates repeated exposures to content with increasing complexity, drawing information from long-term memory, re-encoding it, and providing opportunities for consolidation in storage before retrieving it again as the process starts anew.  In this way, spiraling cycles through encoding, storage, and retrieval.  (Here again, as with other categories, if the approach is led by a thoughtful and careful teacher, it will engage all stages of the cognitive process--but the practice explicitly focuses on a selection of them.)

Similarly, Socratic questioning and seminar discussion cycles students through retrieval and encoding, as discussion constantly pulls information out of storage, and re-encoding it.  But, with a similar focus on questions, like inquiry-based teaching, Socratic dialog also commands the attention of participating students.  In this way, we see that even a practice 2400 years old can fully engage our cognitive lives, providing a complete cognitive experience and reminding us that old school is not necessarily bad school.  


And so the question for teachers isn't an either/or or best/worst question.  Instead, the question really is: which pedagogical approach fits the content at hand?  Which suits our goals and objectives?  Which suits the students we have before us?  

Clarifying the focal area and impact of pedagogical practices helps us see them as complementary options as opposed to competing philosophies.  It helps us connect each technique to a different outcome:  Do we seek to encourage reflection and re-evaluation of prior knowledge?  Socratic discussion or a spiraling approach may work best.  Introducing new information?  Aim for the immersion and rich multi-sensory experience of experiential learning or a technology-enriched environment.  

Which approaches do you prefer?  What stages of cognitive understanding do they engage?

Do you like teaching old school?  Not necessarily a bad thing--remember Socrates!  

And this is the focus of the next post: When is old school good school?

This is the eleventh of fourteen posts in a series about the role of cognitive science in education.
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