In an effort to have a catchy title for a recent article, I asked if we were in our right mind when I should have asked if we were in our right brain
. This is because there is an important distinction to be made between brain and mind. It is mind that does the thinking for us. It is a remarkable human capability – to be able to 'replay' experience in thought which enables us to analyse and consequently plan future action. Human thinking involves making connections between symbols such as words and visual images. Using the lived experience coded in language we are able to construct propositions, arguments and 'explanations'.
The mind-brain distinction has fuelled much philosophical debate and is unlikely to be resolved in an SR article by an amateur in the field. But it is a matter of some interest in the context of education. I say, 'I have made up my mind', not, 'I have made up my brain'. Mind is the conscious aspect of experience in thought, perception and action. Learning is a conscious activity of mind.
When paramedics arrive at an accident, they may assess the patient as conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious. Leaving aside where we are when we sleep, these broad categories describing levels of alertness are helpful in directing medical procedures. However the term 'conscious' might make us suppose that it is a single state of mind. But we can direct our thoughts to different ends. This simple diagram shows some of the possible dimensions of consciousness. At any one time, our consciousness could be seen as a moving point in this three-dimensional space:
When students are in a class during a lesson, what determines their point of conscious attention? It's the last period of the day and the young boy is far more concerned about getting out of the class on time so he can join his football team which is travelling to an away game. At this point, why should he care about why we use alternating current for household supplies? Am I not following the correct teacher script when I agree with him and think the football match is going to be more beneficial to his development as a person? He will be actively involved, he will be refining a skill he cares about and he will be learning about social interaction. If it happens, he will experience the recognition which comes from winning. If the team loses, it might provide the spur for more training.
course, it might be my fault because I have not made the lesson 'interesting' enough. But where does interest come from? It comes from curiosity. I confess that I would have to do some thinking creatively myself to make alternating current supplies arouse curiosity. And to do that I would need the resources of a well-stocked physics laboratory. What I found during a recent spell of supply teaching was that I was provided with a textbook to hand out (there were not enough for students to take a copy home) and a stock of worksheets. The school really was doing its best but simply did not have enough money. I am not surprised that only those students driven by career ambitions put up with this situation, and it is clear that teaching, particularly in the sciences, is very severely under-resourced.
I have worked in private schools and know how much better is the provision of both staff and equipment in these establishments. Perhaps instead of trying to abolish private schools (which may have a function in providing boarding where a child simply cannot be looked after at home) we should aim to make all state schools as well-resourced as those in the private sector?
I remember a phrase used by an author talking about disadvantaged children. 'They were so poor they couldn't even pay attention'. This was not meant disparagingly, but was simply using a play on words to say that if your feet are wet because your shoes leak, if you are hungry because you have had no breakfast (and perhaps no proper evening meal the night before), or you look ridiculous because your trousers are your older brother's cast-offs, it will take a real effort of will to direct your point of consciousness to school learning. In the course of each day you will be learning, but it will be about the kind of society in which we live and how it treats you, rather than about a formula for resistors in series and parallel.
Perhaps there are techniques which could help students to direct their thoughts to school learning? It is difficult to open a book on educational 'theory' without coming across the notion of 'metacognition' as an aid to learning. This is usually described as 'thinking about thinking'. Now this is a very curious idea for if we could think about thinking we could also think about thinking about thinking – and where would it end? Let's be clear, there is only 'thinking'.
Classifications such as 'critical thinking' or 'analytical thinking' are dangerous in that they mislead us into supposing that somehow the process of thinking is different in each case. It isn't. We may be thinking about different ways of manipulating symbols but the process is the same irrespective of the circumstances in which it is used. Thus, we may be thinking critically or thinking analytically by directing our thoughts to particular ends, but there is only one process of thinking.
Just as metacognition is a recurrent myth in educational discussion, so too is the notion that everyone has a personal 'learning style' and that an individual will learn best if material is presented in their preferred style. In a model often used in schools, these styles are referred to as 'verbal', 'auditory', 'kinaesthetic' or 'tactile', sometimes including 'reading/writing' as a fourth element. The notion that everyone has their own learning style became popular in the 1970s and was immediately taken up by teacher trainers. If we could identify one 'ideal' approach to learning, we would be able to focus on it – and be consistently successful. By understanding other people's needs, we would know how best to support them to learn. It was claimed it could 'revolutionise' education and help all of us to 'reach our full potential' as learners. Yes, yet another of those revolutions!
The problem with this model and those of Kolb Experiential Learning and Honey and Mumford Practical Learning is that they are fabricated classifications without experimental support. Everyone's approach to learning is based on a complex mix of strengths and preferences. And we absorb and apply new concepts, skills and information in different ways at different times. How we learn depends on what and when we learn, and its perceived significance for us.
So what is significant for the student who is feeling hungry and whose feet are wet? It is unlikely to be school subjects. It is hardly surprising that these students are at a disadvantage relative to well-off students from a leafy suburb at the other end of town. What does the government propose to do about this? Why, we will give them more of the same insignificant (to them) learning to do.
Perhaps we should not criticise the government for its desire to help disadvantaged young people but it is difficult to see how the proposed policy of 'bridging the gap' in examination performance is going to do much good. When a school in a poor area does achieve better results (usually by a fairly coercive regime) the result is that results in all the other schools are marginally reduced. This is an inevitable consequence of a system which places students in a rank order of those taking the examination on that particular occasion.
The real gap which needs to be reduced is between those on low and those on high incomes. This is not to suggest that everyone should earn the same, only that the UK income gap is presently far too large. The outcomes of the school system in the UK have often been compared unfavourably with those in Finland. There are many factors involved in such international comparisons, but is it mere coincidence that Finland, after Norway, has the lowest income inequality in the EU? A situation created in those countries by an equitable tax regime.
That Sinking Feeling was a Bill Forsyth film from 1980 in which a group of teenagers discover they could make money by selling stainless steel sinks. Their plan to steal sinks from a warehouse dressed as girls doesn't entirely work out as planned. There's a new version from BFI available as a DVD/BluRay.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University