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Thoughts from research presentations at the British Medical Association
8 October 2016

Nigel Armitstead
English Department, Shaftesbury School, also an Educational Psychologist

The second Neurocuriosity Symposium was held from 6 to 8th October 2016 in the grand surroundings of the British Medical Association. The event, led by the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (Birkbeck), explored ideas and research on information-seeking, curiosity and attention bringing together experts in neuroscience, psychology, developmental psychology and computational modelling. On the final day (8th October) the workshop also included an education focused discussion led by Derek Bell from Learnus. (More details on the symposium and a link to videos of the talks can be found here). 

A member of Learnus, Nigel Armistead, who teaches English at Shaftesbury School, Dorset and is an Educational Psychologist attended the education day of the symposium on 8th October and shares his 'take away messages' below. The views expressed are those of the author only and are presented here as a contribution to the wider dialogue of how finding from neuroscience might influence educational practice and policy.

Although the most of the presentations on this occasion concerned babies and infants, it seemed that much might be inferred regarding the education of older students.  Below I offer some feedback from the presentations which I have shamelessly reconstructed as information of potential value to working with our age group (11-18).

Professor Derek Bell, Director of Learnus, spoke of using new understanding from educational neuroscience to reduce student difficulty with learning.  Perhaps we could free the latent intelligence of the 'less able' by noting that it may well have become lost behind obstacles to its employment.  Neuroscience may help us to remove those obstacles.  Curiosity was cited as a particular area within the current field of research - i.e. as a working of intelligence which we should aim to foster in our students, reducing as necessary competing drives such as thirst, socialisation etc.  Prof. Bell, considering memory as another aspect of learning, noted that an obstacle for some students arose in the handling of a sequence of instructions.  We could help students with care over the cognitive load of instructions, for example by taking advantage of what we now understand about 'conflict monitoring' (the neuro mechanism for attending to information conflict in our environment) and 'cognitive distance' (the way in which the brain is far better equipped to manage concepts close in meaning than those of distant meaning).  Building a parallel 'metacognitive' curriculum would mean that we could help students employ their conflict monitoring and also support their management of the cognitive distance that sometimes crops up in new information.

Katerina Begus showed how two seconds of prior shared anticipation between an adult and a baby enhances brain process for subsequent interpretation of an object (increased theta rhythms).  The anticipation process was informational, and enhanced by language use but not dependent on it.  It seems that from an early age some kind of pre-engagement with its object or matter will enhance the subsequent thinking process.  It is therefore worth, reminding ourselves how important it is to have some kind of primer at the start of a lesson for the thinking that the rest of the lesson is going to entail.

Louise Goupil talked about the experience of having 'a feeling of knowing'.  This is a secondary level of mind, possibly closer to our consciousness than our anatomy based cognitive resources.  'Metacognition' could be explained as being the different aspects of 'a feeling of knowing'.  It allows us to be perceptive of our flow of mind states, to be conscious of our consciousness.  A thought arising was that the usefulness of an awareness of a 'feeling of knowing' might be the deliberate self stimulation of ideas to occur.  The speaker suggested that a particular facet of our feeling of knowing that we can all monitor is our feeling of uncertainty.  Perhaps overtly processing and strategically reducing feelings of uncertainty could strengthen a person's 'feeling of knowing' as a working of intelligence, with knock on benefits for the facility to self stimulate ideas.  As teachers we could discuss, and possibly rate with students, what feelings of uncertainty arise with instances of new learning.

Lisa Fiegenson talked of the way in which an impossible event provides a special opportunity for learning.  She showed how 16 month old children, having sufficient knowledge of elementary physics, will give enhanced attention to a ball that appears to have passed through a solid wall, or a toy train that appears to have driven off a cliff without falling.  Remarkably, she showed videos of two children who, in correspondence with these physical impossibilities, could be seen playing with a ball by testing its physical solidity and banging it against a table, or playing with a train by dropping it from their hand to see if it would fall.  The thought arising is that these children looked for some further information in order to reduce newly gained uncertainty by stimulating further ideas to occur.  Note that these children were not old enough to manage this as a language based activity using formal logic, so it seems that this is a working of intelligence at a fundamental level of mind.  Perhaps we could sometimes start with 'wrong answers' or 'misinformation' and ask students to 'check it out'.

Daphne  Bavelier made the fascinating point that automatisation is the enemy of generalisation.  In many contexts, the development of expertise involves abbreviating the level of thinking control down to near zero so that a repetitive task is being managed automatically.  Because the thinking has left the room, the opportunity to generalise ideas, cross reference with other thinking, and make inferences, is lost.  One suggested antidote to this is to promote 'structure learning'.  This brings the learning opportunity back into focus by ensuring that automatised skills have plenty of thinking hooks built up around them.   We could think of 'structure learning' as a focus on the cognitive space between what we have always discussed in terms of 'big picture' and 'specific details'.  In that interim space lie the patterns and rules which govern both the details and the big picture.  If we could sensitise ourselves to that epistomological zone then we could perhaps make it a persistent part of our teaching approach to highlight the ways in which new knowledge and skills fall within a structure of rules and patterns, typicalities and exceptions.

Alison Gopnik produced research to show that in some situations children are more open- minded in their thinking than adults.  It was suggested that children, when asked to provide a class or category example, consider a greater variety of ideas and possibilities with less cognitive filtering.  Adults consider fewer possibilities before drawing a conclusion.  The age at which research shows a clear transition to reduced consideration of possibilities is 12 years.  This coincides with Piaget's stage of formal operational thinking.  It also coincides with what is now recognised to be a major period of organic brain change, including the pruning away of redundant aspects of brain cells (unused dendrite connections).  We might think of this as a gain in learning power priced at the loss of cognitive innocence.  We could sustain the dynamism of childhood thinking as a valuable thing if we encouraged students to take absurd ideas seriously.  The absurd is often worth pursuing as an absurdity, providing a rich contrast with the more logical and correct, and it might be considered that many great advances of the human intellect and technology have arisen from persistence with the absurd. 

In summary the following ideas arise from the paragraphs above, and they may offer a stimulus to thoughts about strengthening existing good teaching practice and building thereupon:

•  We could build a parallel 'metacognitive' curriculum alongside the main knowledge and skills curriculum.  This could be as simple as recognising and talking about issues of cognitive distance within learning situations.

•  We could reinforce and build our use of primers at the start of a lesson for the thinking that is going to be entailed.

•  During and at the end of a teaching process we could talk about feelings of uncertainty, and how the follow up work might help reduce them.

•  We could use 'magic tricks', when available, and otherwise presentations of 'misinformation and error' (openly - i.e. understood by students to be deliberate misinformation) and invite students to check it out.  One hopes that this could be managed with a degree of intellectual wit, thus proving a rewarding task for students.

•  We could emphasise attention to structure knowledge - the rules, patterns, typicalities and exceptions that are involved.

•  We could make more use of absurd ideas and encourage students to pursue and elaborate on them, all the time keeping in mind that they are absurd and olny pursued as a good intellectual exercise.

I hope that somewhere amongst these suggestions is an idea that will prove useful pedagogical stimulus for each person who has been kind and patient enough to read this all the way through.

Nigel Amitstead