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The Five Pillars of Language Evolution – and Why we Mustn’t Neglect them

I’m privileged to say that I’m part of a team of lecturers who is qualifying the first generation of bilingual education professionals according to the demands of recent legislation – yet to be approved – recommended by the National Education Council of Brazil. In this 120h course, our aim is to discuss important subjects about bilingualism, bilingual education, methodology, curriculum, and assessment. I teach Language and Cognition and my very first lesson starts with a quote by Dan Everett:

The greatest technological breakthrough of human beings is language

Dan Everett, TEDx Talk

I thought this would be a fitting start for my group of eager students to (re)consider for a moment the magnitude of the work they do. It also helps everyone rethink the role of language in society and how it is intrinsically connected to how we, humans, have evolved and become more intelligent than any other being on this planet – at least according to our own appraisal.

This blog post looks at five pillars I focused on when teaching this lesson on Brain and Language Evolution. It assumes that there are 5 elements that cannot be dissociated from language learning and must not be neglected in language teaching, even though they might be misunderstood by students and, oftentimes, by teachers themselves. They are:

  1. Grammar
  2. Play
  3. Arts
  4. Storytelling
  5. Reading

History of Language and Brain Development

There are over 7000 languages on this planet. Some are dying out and are expected to become extinct in the next years. Many have already disappeared from the face of the earth. If you look at some of the proposed beliefs to explain our incredible linguistic diversity, you’re bound to come across the biblical passage about the The Tower of Babel and the idea that after the flood, Noah’s descendants became one people with one language who wanted to build a tower to touch the heavens. God decided to confuse their languages and spread them all over the planet.

However, the idea that languages were created – in a relatively short period of time – does not seem to hold water. If we analyze this claim by comparing the tree of languages to the evolutionary tree of life, we’ll find striking similarities. Languages seemed to have evolved just like how every being on this planet evolved from a common ancestor – languages may have evolved from more than one. We can posit that the current configuration of languages is precisely what we’d expect given enough time and geographical isolation – and specialization – according to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Why have humans developed such incredible linguistic wealth? Why haven’t other animals accomplished this feat? Can we even say that they haven’t? I remember watching an episode of TV series Cosmos hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on which bees can communicate to their peers with incredible accuracy how to get to a food source by walking in circles and waggling their body inside the hive for everyone to see.

Bees and humans are quite different, though. What about animals that are closer to us from an evolutionary perspective? If you think about other primates, you may want to analyze the interesting case of Kanzi the Bonobo who can use a limited version of sign language and visual cues (on a lexigram) to tell his caregiver Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh what he wants or feels. Most of what he can communicate, though, is connected to immediate needs like what he wants to eat or where he wants to go.

Even though animals can communicate, most linguists would agree that they do not have language. Language has different layers or spheres such as phonetics – human sounds, phonology – sounds of a particular language, morphology – word formation, syntax – phrase/sentence construction, semantics – meaning, pragmatics – meaning in context.

As a matter of fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the very first language homids had was sign language. Since great apes do not have a very sophisticated vocal tract, making them unable to vocalize a wide range of sounds, and based on observations of bonobos, gorilas, and chimpanzees, we can assume that these animals started communicating through body language.

Anthropological and archeological records seem to suggest that the first hominid to speak was Homo erectus. H. erectus has been until this day the longest-living hominid to walk the earth (2.1 million years ago to 300,000 years ago)  and has conquered many geographical locations on the globe (including Europe and Asia, extending on Homo habilis’ feat of conquering most of eastern and southern Africa)

H. erectus was an incredible tool makers and had to be able to build boats to populate the many islands in Indonesia where fossil records were found. The reason why researchers believe they were the first ones to speak is tied to the fact that tool-making technologies had to be passed on to the next generations and communication at sea required more sophisticated symbology. It is also important to note that bipedalism freed H. erectus hands to use gestures more often and that the need to hold tools such as spears may have prompted them to vocalize their warnings and wishes.

Now think for a second about the advantages of being able to communicate efficiently on a range of topics and somehow saving a record of what one has learned. Think about the ability to pass this knowledge to other members of the species. Can you imagine the social and cognitive gains? This knowledge and the skills acquired through this process for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly more than 2 million years – gave humans unprecedented benefits.

Nevertheless, something was needed for this to happen. There had to be something that made language accessible, something that gave it its foundation. This thing was grammar

1. Grammar

Any given “phrase” produced by animals does not seem to follow a logic. If we look at a bonobo trying to say or sign something, their constructions might be like:

me – banana – me – me – want – banana – me – banana – banana

On the other hand, humans have learned to code language using a sequence that makes sense and that combines different items into novel sentences that can be understood by others. If we think about it, grammar – or at least more advanced grammar – is an important foundation of language and what differentiates us from animals since it gives us rules of how to combine our symbols in a way that makes sense and can be replicated ad infinitum. This is the idea behind recursion.

Let’s not get into the debate over a single universal grammar – or if there are other types of grammar – but we can certainly claim that humans have reached an unparalled ability to combine linguistic elements into constructions that can be passed on to other generations and create ever more complex language.

As a teacher you must have heard the following from one – or more – of your students:

I just want conversation classes. I don’t want – or need – to learn grammar

Some student

The problem here is that grammar is embedded in language. We can’t really teach language without grammar. What we can do, however, is to not teach grammar explicitly. Your students might not benefit from knowing the names or labels ascribed to different verb tenses for instance. They do however need to know how to use them and understand that apparently, without grammar, there’s no language really.

2. Play

With many parents watching remote classes due to COVID-19, I get a comment quite a lot. They normally say something like:

That teacher only plays with the kids. He doesn’t teach them anything

Some parent

That really shows how little importance they give to such a fundamental activity in human history. We can see play even in other animals – I certainly witness it daily with my two cats – and that sure means something. Play is the basis of social interaction and serves as a simulation for a number of tasks animals will have to carry out throughout their lives in order to survive. Hunting, escaping from predation, testing their body limits, communicating and negotiating. In humans, as Maria Montessori put it:

Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori

When we see kids playing, we realize that they’re sharing intention, communicating their feelings and thoughts, setting up goals and rules, engaging in physical and mental activity, collaborating and competing, analyzing others’ behavior, making predictions and decisions and more. As humans evolved, we can be sure that play played a vital role in how we developed language and, thus, our brains.

3. Arts

It is quite common to hear families who have children enrolled in an English course complain about how much kids draw, paint, and dance. If we think about how nature expresses intention and sends messages, we might think about how male peacocks show off their amazingly colored feathers to impress females, or how a type of puffer fish draws intricate circle patterns on the seafloor, or even how some whales sing, and other birds dance to attract the opposite sex or signal danger. Humans are no different. In fact, we have been able to take artistic expression to the next level.

Think about it. There’s evidence that humans could express themselves artistically for at least 40,000 years (cave paintings and sculptures). Many thousands of years before writing – which wasn’t invented until around 7,000 – 6,000 BC – humans used arts to record their stories, their knowledge, dreams, wishes, and daily lives.

Some experts claim that cave paintings, such as the ones found in Lascaux, France are so complex and intelligently designed that cavemen actually invented the movie theater. The projections on the wall as researchers enter the cave with a torch are most impressive and they move telling a story.

4. Storytelling

Again, telling stories doesn’t bode well with some school managers, teachers, and families. Sitting in circles and listening to the teacher read a big book and use props to bring a story to life seem like a waste of time to many. However, we must ask ourselves? How were humans able to secure language from generation to generation without a writing system?

H. sapiens, for instance, is believed to have been around for at least 200,000 years – maybe up to 400,000 years. That means that for the better part of our time on this planet, we couldn’t have kept language alive except for speaking it, and storytelling and mythology certainly played a role.

Gathering around the fire to exchange stories about the day, to tell someone about a new location with fresh fruit, to plan how to get a mammoth the next day, or to wonder about the stars and how it all started gave humans the ability to learn socially like no other animal. It created culture and shared values that allowed us to accumulate knowledge like never before. Arts and storytelling are fundamental mechanisms through which humans have explored and surpassed their creative capacity and further developed language.

5. Reading

I once watched an interview given by Carl Sagan in which he said that reading a book was like having a conversation with people from past centuries, dead for even thousands of years. Once humans were able to write down their ideas, we started building on the experience of others and our shared knowledge grew exponentially.

We can learn languages by reading them. Experts today might not know what some languages sounded like but they have deciphered their secrets and can translate texts in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Aramaic, Old Norse and other dead languages. We can also learn about how people taught and learned languages many years ago.

Literacy certainly develops cognition as well. It gives humans access to a wealth of knowledge and the capacity to understand symbology and develop abstract thinking to unprecedented levels. Extensive reading, for example, is connected with benefits that surpass students’ reading ability. It’s also related to increasing vocabulary, developing writing, and improving oral fluency.

Conclusion

Humans are animals. We’re primates and we’ve evolved from a common ape ancestor. As any other animal, our survival depended on some key elements that brought us here today. Moving, hunting, learning quickly from nature, passing on new knowledge to other members of our tribe, building knowledge collectively, creating culture – at least in our case. Our unmatched ability to communicate gave us the edge over other animals. Without language, it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Any educational system or – more specifically – language course that neglects the pillars on which we were able to build a solid foundation to evolve is deeply misguided. We must strike a balance between novel demands and base our teaching and learning on what has helped us evolve.

There is no language without grammar. Let your students understand that. Tell them that grammar is what allows humans to construct sentences and talk to one another through shared rules at a highly complex level.

Kids – and adults alike – need play to simulate real-life situations, learn to collaborate, set goals, rules, and develop empathy. Games require focus, negotiation skills, they’re engaging and memorable. Let’s use them more often.

Last I checked, teaching English fell under the category of language arts. Despite the movement pushing a STEM-oriented curriculum, we need to make sure schools put the “A” back where it belongs. Particularly for YLEs, when literacy is still being developed, we should see more music, drawing, painting, and acting in classes.

Storytelling has been responsible for keeping language and culture alive. We connect through stories. We relate to the characters and we learn from them. One of the most pleasing human endeavors is to gather around a fire or in a room and listen to funny, touching, fantastic stories.

Reading is a powerful tool. Sticking to the books without resorting to tales, novels, poems – literature in general – means missing an opportunity. Students can benefit a great deal from reading fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, magazines and the like.

It seems to me that these five pillars have given our species the key to unlock our cognitive potential like no other animal. We must embrace them as educators and reflect what they can tell us about who are and what it means to be human. Language is really a tool that allows us to see, interact with, and understand the world. It’s our most powerful weapon. Just think about major setbacks in our History. Authorities banning play, burning books, alienating the masses through language, censoring arts. When we get away from those pillars, apparently that’s when things are going wrong.

References

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton University Press.

Everett, D. (2017). How language began: The story of humanity’s greatest invention. Profile Books.

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge.

Schoenemann, P.T. (2012)Evolution of brain and language IN: HOFMAN, M. A., FALK, D. (Eds). Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, v. 195, p. 443-459, 2012

Sousa, A. M., Meyer, K. A., Santpere, G., Gulden, F. O., & Sestan, N. (2017). Evolution of the human nervous system function, structure, and development. Cell170(2), 226-247.

Four Japanese words, Minimalism, and Innovation: What about ELT?

Komorebi (木漏れ日)

Imagine getting out ot bed, putting on a hoodie – because it’s a little chilly – and walking out the door. You can hear all types of birds chirping, insects singing their melodic tunes, the wind gently blowing the bushes. You’re in a hilly area surrounded by plants and the early morning dew is dropping from the leaves right in front of you. You look up and you see the sunlight through the trees forming different shapes on the grass. This actually has a name in Japanese. It’s komorebi. It’s so important to the Japanese culture that they thought it deserved its own word.

Did you like the scenery I described? Well, I write this blog post from one of my favorite retreats: my mom’s house in São Roque, my hometown. A little piece of heaven on earth protected by huge pine trees to the east, a wall to the west where a small creek runs, and what remained of Mata Atlântica to the south (check out pictures below)

This is my first visit since the pandemic started. We’re all fully vaccinated now and I finally felt safe enough to come. I took two weeks off work and decided to spend a week here. I’ve also decided to reconnect with my roots. So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back to basics and simply enjoy the birds singing, the early morning chill, the trees, the wild animals that abound here, and my family. I’m also off Instagram and Facebook now to see how it feels.

I’ve come to realize that, like most people I know, I’m addicted to social media. It’s not really a fair fight, though. They’re designed to get our attention by showing us exactly what gets our attention. But that’s not even the biggest problem. What may be even more worrisome is that I feel like nothing is ever good enough since we’re either always behind on things we must do or always looking for the latest/next thing. Sometimes it feels like we can’t even rest because we’re constantly reminded that we should be working. We’ve really bought the idea that we need to keep producing and innovating to feel accomplished and, quite frankly, that’s exhausting.

Now if you’re wondering the purpose of this post, I suppose it’s only a reflection on how this feeling of always trying to be productive and innovative may do harm, especially when it drives you away from the essence of teaching, increasing your workload and heightening the sensation of “it’s not enough”, and when it makes you believe that there are revolutionary or magical shortcuts out there waiting to be found.

From VUCA to BANI

A few years ago many professionals who dealt with innovation and futurism started to talk about VUCA. Our world was suddenly:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

In such a world, it feels natural that we need to keep up as things change quite fast and some – if not all – of the work we do might become obsolete quite quickly. Think of whole industries that virtually disappeared because something else took their place: streaming services taking over blockbuster; flash drives and the cloud over CD-Roms. In such a world, if you want to survive, you have to stay relevant and that means to continually invest in your professional development.

Then 2020 happened. Covid-19 struck the world and Jamais Cascio came up with another acronym:

  • Brittle
  • Anxious
  • Nonlinear
  • Incomprehensible

We moved from VUCA to BANI and the latter emphasizes how things might be even more chaotic. In a BANI world, the possibility of world catastrophe seems more tangible and that causes anxiety. In such a world, rigidity and tradition should be avoided. The pot of gold of innovation has never been more important. But wait! Remember that it won’t last. Things can change dramatically overnight.

How does this scenario affect English classes?

A fast-paced world needs quick and effective solutions but that doesn’t mean that any quick fix will do. That message, sadly, seems to fall on deaf ears. To me, and many well-known and respected colleagues in the field would agree, it feels like more and more people are looking for English solutions that promise the earth. As a matter of fact, working closely with the marketing department of my company has given me lots of insight into what people want to “consume”. Things need to be “instagrammable”. Tips, drops, word of the day, the difference between make and do, how to pronounce this or that, 5 ways to organize your study routine, etc.

The idea this new world, whether you prefer VUCA or BANI, is selling is that things can be easily learned nowadays. It sells you the idea that things can – and worse, need to – be effortless otherwise they might be old-fashioned, ineffective, inadequate, not good enough.

Think of how the commercial department of many companies sells their solutions. They probably don’t have some of the solutions yet because they need to be created by the design team – but that doesn’t stop them from promising to deliver. And since the client is always right, they’ll very likely fit the solution to the demands of the client, even if that means it won’t be good enough.

How does this affect English classes? There is an enormous pressure on schools, and private teachers to offer solutions that are “instagrammable”. Become fluent in 18 months, We use a brand new method, Learn faster through NLP, Get access to an exclusive platform, Have lessons with native speakers, Receive daily tips on your phone, etc. Even more traditional schools, and teachers might feel compelled to put on a show to seduce new “clients”.

I used to believe that things like neuroscience could revolutionize how we learn – just check out my first posts on this blog to see for yourself. But as I mentioned in one of my latest posts:

Based on the body of work from Mind, Brain, and Education, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People sometimes fall for buzzwords and “revolutionary” claims (especially when they have the terms brain-based, brain-friendly or neuro attached to them). A word of advice: be careful. Using neurojargon and promising “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps” is probably a hoax. It generally disregards years of research conducted by several peers from around the world by claiming that someone made an incredible discovery and found a secret formula to maximize learning like never before!

Me

However, one thing we know about learning for sure and it’s that it requires effort and commitment. Depending on how fluent you want to become, how much available time you have, your background, your purpose, and if you already know a second language or not, it will certainly take a while, not just a few weeks or months. What can ELT tell us?

KonMari – Decluttering ELT: Is that good enough?

I remember watching Marie Kondo on Netflix. It was certainly something that caught my attention. Her philosophy had to do with keeping stuff that gave us joy and getting rid of things that didn’t – not before thanking them for their service in our lives. The method is known as KonMari. Her show led me to other shows, articles, and books on a trendy new word to me: minimalism. This word refers to focusing on the things you need and that are useful rather than the things that basically clutter your house and life. It’s really the idea of keeping it simple and going back to basics.

Even though KonMari’s website says it’s not about minimalism, despite Netflix’ algorithm leading me to a bunch of things on minimalism, I think we can all agree that it is about decluttering. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to moderate a very interesting session for Gallery Teachers delivered by Steve Hirschhorn, who not only proposed that we’re cluttering ELT with stuff from other areas, but also that we should go back to basics and use Second Language Acquisition as a guide.

Among some of the things Steve mentioned that don’t seem to do ELT any good are:

Despite disagreeing with Steve on a few things (such as the role of Critical Thinking, Flipped Classroom, Mindfulness, and Brain-friendly learning – even though I don’t like this name anymore), overall, I found myself nodding along as he presented his case. He did mention that most of the evidence was either showing that these “fads” don’t add anything or was inconclusive. I won’t get into the details of why he might be right about some of his claims and why I’m quite confident he’s wrong about others (I can do this some other time).

What I want to share here is his final message, which certainly struck a chord with me. He said we needed to go back to basics and master the essence first before going after the next “pot of gold”. And most importantly, he said that we should remain skeptical when the next trend pops up (but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a shot and see how it goes)

After 40 years, my conclusion is that I’m a slow learner

Steve Hirschhorn

This quote made me reflect on the role of the teacher in the classroom and how it has changed. Steve was a slow learner – so was I when I learned English as it took me several years – and it seems to me that because of VUCA and BANI, people feel that they don’t have time to go through the whole process and simply transfer lots of responsibility to the teacher to make them learn as quickly as possible. And, as I mentioned before, because of how things are advertised and how chaotic their lives are, they:

  1. Believe there are quick fixes and will find professionals to offer them that;
  2. Can’t commit to anything that actually takes longer;
  3. Can’t find the right fit as they are not interested in taking a proficiency exam, they just want to be functional at work;

There’s definitely a gap that needs addressing and serious and competent professionals need to find a way to reach these people. What I disagree about Steve’s thought-provoking session is other areas may have little to offer ELT or SLA. I believe some, like the Science of Learning, can lead to interesting reflections. Learning might not speed up as promised by charlatans, but it may certainly expand to other people who might have felt like they could not do it well.

Something I wholeheartedly agree with Steve is that what matters really is the essence. Anyone trying to learn something new needs exposure, practice, and feedback. Over a long period of time and in an incremental way. Give me a stick and I’ll use the sand on the beach as my black board. I also agree that students’ role as active agents of their learning is vital. You can pay whoever you want to teach you English, but if you don’t hold your part of the deal, it won’t work well. We need to make sure we remind students of that.

The corporate spirit of measuring

Another issue many of us deal with nowadays is performance measurement. For those in the corporate world, it is no surprise that there are questionnaires everywhere about nearly everything anyone can think of. Service, politeness, mood, quickness, product quality, packaging, tone of voice, eye contact. In a world of Uber, Amazon, and food delivery apps, getting 5 stars might be the difference between selling or not. It creeps me out to think we’re headed to what Black Mirror’s Nosedive episode depicts so intelligently.

In this world that also relies in word of mouth, having a positive reputation and “pleasing the customer” is certainly l’ordre du jour. The issue here is:

  • Can everything be measured?
  • Can everything be measured as fast as possible and show effective change?
  • Can the customer wait to see the change?
  • Can the customer understand when change happened and what it means?

KonMari, Karoshi (過労死), and Kintsugi (金継ぎ)

If you got this far, I promise it’s coming to a wrap soon. This is perhaps the most important part. Besides Komorebi (sunlight through trees), Japanese offers us other interesting words that begin with K.

The first, which has already been mentioned, is actually the method (trademark) used by Marie Kondo to bring joy into people’s lives by helping them to declutter. And as beautiful or magical as it may have seemed to me at first, like a philosophy we should live by, now I wonder how it turned into an extremely profitable business that has its own shop of household products you can buy – feel the irony? – and a certification course to make you a consultant. Wasn’t ” less is more” the most important point of it? Maybe it had to fit the market.

My question here is: must we always succumb to VUCA and BANI demands and market everything we do in a way that meets the customer’s needs? Must everyone make their work instagrammable to survive? Should we work overtime to learn digital marketing skills and be online all the time on social media to post tips, drops, stories, Tik Toks? Where is this leading us?

Karoshi is what happens to people who work to death. That’s right. It’s a real problem and it affects hundreds of thousands of Japanese people (and people elsewhere even though they might not have a word for it) annually who literally work themselves to their grave because of social demands and long work hours, all of which lead to exhaustion.

You should think that the culture that gave us such a beatiful word like Komorebi would at least take the time to appreciate nature. What we see in Japanese TV news and newspapers is actually quite the opposite. People dozing off in subway stations, many sleeping on their own shoulder up on their feet. As innovative as the Japanese are in many areas, they couldn’t figure out a way out of this loop.

What then? Can we break this vicious cycle, this never-ending loop of working too much, getting too exhausted, and looking for quick fixes? Perhaps another Japanese word might offer us an insight.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It sends out a beautiful message. Just because it’s broken, it doesn’t mean it’s useless. Actually, by restoring these flawed pots and embracing imperfections with such a noble material as gold, these items become more expensive and are viewed as more beautiful than the original. When you look at them, you can see exactly where the pot cracked. But you can also be sure that that area is stronger than ever now.

What am I trying to say after all?

I’m not sure I got lost along the way in this text. Maybe it makes little sense to you. Maybe it’s crystal clear. My time at my mom’s house allowed me to reflect on such things and I suppose I have more questions than answers. I would like to end this by sharing these questions with you and then telling you what I feel about this whole discussion:

  1. Do you have time to connect with yourself and with nature with the current job you have?
  2. Do you feel overwhelmed with the things you “should learn” in order to sell your services?
  3. Do you sometimes have excellent ideas/projects that you know would work but can’t really do them because results wouldn’t show for a while?
  4. Are you always looking for tips, courses, lives, lectures, webinars because you feel you can’t stop?
  5. Do you have to keep producing content and be active on social media to feel you’re connected?
  6. Are you searching for techniques, strategies, and routines to accelerate your students’ learning even though you know it takes longer than what they’d like?
  7. Do you feel like you’re not doing enough or that you’re always behind schedule?
  8. Would you like to disagree with your client (student) or boss but fear you’ll get some sort of retaliation?
  9. Are you always trying everything you can to make sure all students are learning at all times?
  10. Are you happy? Are you OK? Are you healthy?

I guess my message here is the following: we need balance. We need to find balance between our time in nature and our time on social media. Social media are addictive and that’s bad for us. We must unplug now and then, step back and take a deep breath.

We also need to balance how much we give in when it’s about the work we do. Sadly, and I wish this weren’t true, we live in a society that emphasizes something that “looks good” over something that actually “is good”. But we don’t have to compromise and sell our soul to the devil of quick fixes and magic formulas so that we can get more people to hire us. I think it’s quite the opposite. We need to be good at what we do – and qualified – and be vocal about scams and incompetent professionals. People need educating on these matters.

As for innovating, again, balance is key. Keeping up with the latest tech and trends can take too much time. Time we’re not necessarily getting paid for and that will take our leisure away from us. Learn the basics, stick to things that work and make you feel safer, focus on the content, not the appearance.

I enjoyed being away from social media for a while. I can’t say I truly relaxed as I kept thinking of the many projects I have to accomplish and how on earth I’d be able to. But I also read a book I wanted for a long time, I spent hours simply walking around and watching the birds, I had wonderful conversations with my family.

This connection with the land and the folk reignited my desire to be more rather than to appear more. At least that’s what I hope. I wish we can all witness more Komorebi in our days, and embrace our flaws and repair them with gold as in Kintsugi, always remembering how these imperfections tell our stories and how we learned from them. I also think we need to focus on the essence and get rid of the clutter. We may even be inspired by KonMari and start giving away things that don’t make a difference in our lives. Let’s admit we need some time off now and again, as to avoid Karoshi, and, above all else, we must find balance. I will certainly go back to social media. Nevertheless, I’ll try to reduce how much time I spend scrolling and will focus on time spent admiring the sunlight, the animals, the land, and the folk.

Maybe what we can do is what Steve is told us: to slow down

Care to share what you would like to do?

Making Thinking and Learning Visible: An Empirical Approach to Teaching

Many teachers in Brazil are going back to class this week and a major concern they share with school managers, policymakers, parents, and students themselves can probably be captured in the following question:

How much have students learned in the pandemic?

Perhaps an even more accurate question would be how much have they NOT learned? No matter which one you prefer, before you can answer them, you must at least assume two things:

  1. There are certain outcomes students must achieve in their learning experience;
  2. These outcomes can be measured/ascertained based on certain criteria;

Regardless of what you, dear teacher, might feel, you need to be able to check whether students were successful in getting from the place of “I don’t know this” to “I know this”. You need evidence and that usually means grades (at least in our educational system). There’s a problem, though. Can these numbers (grades) really tell us if our learners were able to accomplish the learning outcomes of their course? Can numerical grades truly measure learning? If not, how can students show their learning to us? In other words:

How can students make their learning visible?

If we think about it for a couple of minutes, we might come to the conclusion that, again, we need to find clues that can help us see what our learners are doing/producing. We might even consider that process quite similar to the scientific method. We start with a question – Are students in fact learning? – then we move on to a hypothesis – I believe this particular student is learning because of their grades – then we devise an experiment – But I suppose the test grades aren’t enough so I’ll ask them to work on a project – then we collect data, analyze, and come to a few conclusions (based on logical thinking, the specialized literature, which should be checked by peers)

All of that might feel quite daunting and you may be very uncomfortable with the idea of being like a scientist. You might even think that this is irrelevant and that you can rely on test grades to assess your students’ learning. What if I told you that much of what we have “learned” is forgotten by the end of the day, the week, or the month? What if you applied the exact same test on your students a few days after? Do you think they’d get the same test results? If things are quite easily forgotten, does it mean they have actually learned them?

Let’s do our own experiment. Go back to your time as a student. Perhaps even a language student. Try to remember a test you took and that you got a very good grade on. Reflecting on that experience now, can you tell me with confidence that you can still remember the concepts your “learned” then? If you took the same test today, would you be able to ace it? I remember getting very good grades in high school. I even got selected to represent my school with some other colleagues in a physics Olympiad because of my grades. The thing is: I’ve forgotten most of it and I’m pretty sure I’d fail pretty much any physics exam today.

Assessment of performance, Assessments of Learning, Assessment for Learning

Naturally, you might say (and I wouldn’t argue) that I haven’t practiced my physics problem-solving skills for decades and that’s why I can’t retrieve most of it. You may even tell me that it’s different with language learning, particularly when you keep using the language long after your classes have finished. You’d probably be right, after all:

Practice doesn’t make perfect but it makes more permanent

I’m not here to dispute that. What I want to raise your awareness to is the fact that in many cases we’re not really assessing learning. Rather we’re assessing performance. Learning and performance are two separate things. You may have learned something well and it will last for many years (yes, it’s possible to unlearn things) but you might fail a performance test. The opposite is also true. How many times have we gotten lucky and done well on a test simply by guessing the answers (this can happen a lot when we use multiple-choice tests)?

The Bjorks (2011), Robert and Elizabeth, a couple who happens to share the same passion and expertise for cognitive psychology, tell us that performance has to do with what can be observed and measured at the time of taking a test. Learning is what sticks with us. It changes our knowledge in a more permanent way and it can’t always be captured by standard testing.

If regular high-stakes tests (summative assessment) normally assess performance, what can we use instead? If standardized testing won’t do, how about using more personalized types of exam?

Think about two test models:

  1. Question with gap and multiple choices – previously chosen by the teacher
  2. Open question: what have you learned in our classes? – personalized, no prompts, no exclusion criteria

Sure, correcting test 1 would require a lot less work. But what if instead of applying many multiple choice tests, we could apply fewer and use more open-ended tests with our students? I suppose this would guarantee that their answers were “better evidence” of their learning, wouldn’t you agree? We can call this type, although still summative, assessment of learning. It does look at students’ work in retrospect, like assessment of performance, but it allows them to create their own script to some extent.

Another great way to think about assessment is by keeping track of students’ learning curve and shift the focus to the process instead of the product. That is concept of formative assessment. It doesn’t really require a single event on which a numerical grade will be given to students and that will determine how much they “know” or “don’t know”. Formative assessment is interested in how learners make progress toward the expected learning outcome (and possibly beyond) and that is the foundation of assessment for learning (AFL). In that sense, we can look at five important characteristics as discussed by Cambridge Assessment International Education:

1. Questioning enables a student, with the help of their teacher, to find out what level they are at.

2. The teacher provides feedback to each student about how to improve their learning.

3. Students understand what successful work looks like for each task they are doing.

4. Students become more independent in their learning, taking part in peer assessment and self-assessment.

5. Summative assessments (e.g. the student’s exam or portfolio submission) are also used formatively to help them improve.

The Cambridge Assessment International Education report goes on and mentions that:

AFL helps in making understanding and knowledge, as John Hattie describes it, ‘more visible’. AFL helps learners understand what excellence looks like and how they can develop their own work to reach that level.

Despite controversies about Hattie’s statistical methods when looking at more than 1000 meta-analyses, how he focused on academic achievement and left out other important variables, and how he chose the studies (click here for a summarized critique of his work) we can say that his work has certainly stirred things up in the last decade by claiming that certain things make learning more visible. What are they and how can we use them?

Making Thinking and Learning Visible

Before we discuss some insights and practical ideas based on the work of John Hattie, let me share a recent experience with you. I was invited by Gallery Teachers to deliver another masterclass (you can find the first one here) and the topic they suggested was making thinking visible. I embraced it and thought of connecting it to making learning visible. I must say I was quite happy with the result (which you can find here) especially because I had a wonderful panelist who, the amazing Neil Harris, who not only helped me think of quite relevant questions but also delivered a brilliant masterclass on assessment of, for, and as learning (which you can find here). If you’re happy with only the Q&A, you can find them below

Now let’s get down to business, shall we? If we assume that learning requires memory and attention and that deep learning takes place upon reflection, we can suggest that thinking precedes learning in many classroom contexts (sure there are types of learning that differ but let’s focus on this one). So we need to understand how to “see” our students thinking to make sure they’re on the right track toward their learning outcomes.

Project Zero by Harvard offers us incredible insights on how we can see our students thinking through a series of questions grouped under what they call thinking routines. If you visit their website, you’re bound to find lots of different routines and resources to help you make your students thinking more visible. I’ll focus on only three here and give you some practical examples:

  1. SEE-THINK-WONDER
  2. CLAIM-SUPPORT-QUESTION
  3. I used to think… Now I think

The first routine can be used to introduce a new topic. Learners might look at a prompt (an image, a video, a short paragraph, a word, a diagram) and start brainstorming things like:

I think it’s a… I believe we can used it for… I think it has to do with… I suppose it’s connected to…

Then they started reflecting on the things they cannot immediately see but would like to know:

I wonder if it can… I wonder where it can be used… I wonder how it can be used in a sentence…

The second routine may help you revise or practice a topic with your students. Think about a lesson in which you’d like to ask them about the past perfect tense. You might ask them to claim something about it like The past perfect tense is used for a situation that happened in the past. You can then ask them to support that claim by providing an example. They might say something like I had studied for our test. Then you could question their example by pointing out that you can’t really understande the difference between that and I studied for our test. You’d be encouraging them to think deeper and refine their answer. They might (and probably should) be the ones who question their own claims from time to time. That state of inquiry could lead them to self-directed study based on their curiosity and willingness to learn more about a particular subject.

Routine 3 is about contrasting what you thought you knew with what you believe you know now. That’s a great routine for you to reflect on how deep your learning is. You might want to use it with your students to revise materials, to encourage them to use new chunks, to help them think of errors they made in the past and use the correct forms, and to get them to self-assess.

How does all of that connect with Making Learning Visible? If we look at John Hattie’s list of things that impact learning based on the effect sizes of over 1000 meta-anlyses (remember the claims of lack of scientific rigor over his analysis), we’ll see teacher efficacy, student expectations, response to intervention, student efficacy, teacher clarity, and feedback (to mention only a few).

To give you more to reflect on now that you’re preparing for your school’s next term, we can focus on feeback (also supported by the works of Yeager and Dweck (2020) and student efficacy (discussed in the vast literature left by the late Albert Bandura (1984). A few simple strategies to make sure you help your students learn more based on everything discussed above are:

  1. Work with portfolios and e-portfolios. That way you’ll be able to follow your students work throughout the semester (you can use Jamboard, Padlet, Flipgrid or Canva);
  2. In remote classes, make sure your students have a “virtual space” to work in so that you can see them doing the things you asked (it can also be Jamboard or Padlet – Google Slides work too);
  3. Help them set their own deadlines and reflect on their work frequently. This allows you to guide them and give lots of feedback;
  4. Feedback is the key really. Be specific. Tell them what was just right, what could’ve been better, what was not good, and how they can make it better;
  5. Give students the opportunity to choose the layout/format of their work. As you’ll see below, not everything needs to be written;
  6. Spend some time working on study skills, goal setting, project management, metacognition and any tool that might help them develop their self-efficacy;
  7. Use low-stakes tests (pop quizzes on Kahoot for instance) to help them remember and reflect on the things they’re learning;
  8. Include peer assessment as much as you can. A fresh look from their colleagues can provide excellent insights;

Here’s my take on it: having worked with students from different levels, I believe AFL does make learning more visible. I can give a few examples from my own groups. I’m a guest lecturer of Language and Cognition at PUC-PR and my students don’t have any tests. They do have to share an e-portfolio and work on a final project for my subject. Their mission is to design a product based on the discussions we had in class (referencing the authors and texts we worked with.

One of my groups decided to create a podcast on managing emotions!

Another group made an amazing infographic about emotional intelligence

One of my students built her dream school based on the principles we discussed on The Sims! How incredible is that?

Conclusion

Learning is a complex phenomenon that cannot be easily measured, especially when we use conventional methods that basically turn everything students produce into numbers. However, we must be able to synthetize what students can do now when compared to when they started their course. I truly believe we can shift things if we start thinking about assessment for learning. That means we’ll pay a lot more attention to each of our learners’ individual paths rather than a snapshot of their learning experience captured on a test. If we do not obsess with a single format or a one-size-fits-all approach, we might get impressive work from our students (perhaps a podcast, an infographic, or a 3D model of a whole school!)

We can certainly benefit from from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines and Hattie’s Making Learning Visible (not without criticism). They offer some insightful and practical ideas of what makes learning happen and how we can “see” it happening before our eyes.

Remember that we need to be more empirical and that means looking for the evidence that our students are actually learning something. If we manage to do that, I believe that assessment can become a more functional aspect of learning as it will not simply get students ready to perform well that day, when they take the test, and get over it. Learning is not about getting your test results with barely any feedback on them, a few times during the semester and be done with it. It needs to be the foundation of learning in an ever-adjusting process of trying things out, getting feedback, trying again, keeping a record, and making slow but consistent improvements over time. Then it might stick with us for the rest of our lives.

References

Bandura, A. (1984). Recycling misconceptions of perceived self-efficacy. Cognitive therapy and research8(3), 231-255.

Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 56-64.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). What can be learned from growth mindset controversies?. American Psychologist75(9), 1269.

Language, Thought, and Time Perception: How far-fetched is the movie Arrival?

Written by André Hedlund and Rodolfo Mattiello

The idea that multilingualism develops cognitive potential and influences perception is well explored in the specialized literature. Linguists and cognitive scientists have long proposed the notion that language determines thoughts or at least shapes them depending on how adept they are to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Boroditsky, 2001). Several authors have also been able to find a high correlation between bilingual brains and executive functions (updating, switching, and inhibiting) as well as cognitive reserve, which buys the brain a few years before it develops dementia, thus, extending its protective effects (Perani & Abutalebi, 2015; Bialystok et al. 2004). It seems that learning languages have significant effects on cognition, however, what would happen if humans could access, be exposed to, and even learn an alien language? This premise is explored in one of Denis Villeneuve’s latest productions: the film Arrival (2016, Paramount).

Watching this amazing film can be interesting not only to language teachers but to all who actually like Neurocognitive Linguistics. Apart from the sci-fi aspect of the movie when they talk about time traveling based on how the alien language is perceived, first we can focus on the issue of how our perception is changed based on the new linguistic experiences. According to Fodor (2008),

Experience affects concept learning only as it is mentally represented

(Fodor, 2008: 135)

And in the case of the alien language in the film, in which chronological time is not essential for understanding, the main character (Amy Adams as a linguist) has a whole different perception of time.

Amy Adams tries to decode their written language: the logograms. Insterestingly, logograms are shaped as circles, which gives the linguist the impression of time circularity

It could be argued then that what Arrival promotes is based on our current understanding of how languages influence cognition and based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is important to highlight, though, that this hypothesis is still a matter of debate and we could claim that the movie goes one step, or perhaps several, too far in suggesting humans would be able to rewire the linear perspective of time hammered into the brain since birth (and even from the womb) by being exposed to an alien language for a relatively short period of time. 

When one learns a second language (L2), its initial stage is never the same as the initial stage of the learning process of a native language (L1) for concepts have already been learned and time, as an epistemic conceptualization, is part of it. In the film, when aliens use their language, time is not essential for communication. For instance, if they want to communicate ‘yesterday we saw that’ they would simply produce the words ‘we’, ‘that’, ‘see’ without any time modality because for them, time is perceived differently and it does not have an essential apparent role in their oral language. 

When Amy Adams learns this new language, her epistemic notion of time shifts since the concept of time that she possesses gets updated, remolded by the alien language. If we analyze the retrieval of concepts backwards, from words and grammar to concepts, the understanding of a new language will reshape epistemic parameters in order to grant effective communication (Dabrowska, 2004). When people engage in a conversation, some linguistic features such as phonemes, lexis, concepts, etc., must be shared otherwise it will not have an effective outcome (there will be misunderstandings). These concepts we share are developed as we interact and create schemas (Croft, 2007, Dabrowska, 2004, Fodor, 2008, Langacker, 2007) and they can always change depending on the language that will be used and the interlocutor.

The first argument we might throw at Villeneuve’s production and scriptwriters against the depiction of this alien encounter is that it’s quite unlikely for our species to fathom and be guided by a concept of time that is not based on our tridimensional existence. Time is perceived by us through our senses and internal biological clock which are intrinsically connected to our lifespans. It has a physiological aspect that could not possibly be affected by learning an incredibly different language. The second argument might be related to our technological limitations. The civilization of Abbot and Costello, the aliens portrayed in the movie, might have figured out how to warp the space-time fabric and that means that time to them works differently. 

To better illustrate this idea, let’s think of how new technologies have changed our perception of time. Before the telegram, letters would take several days to arrive at their destination. With telephones, humans were able to call many people from distant places and shorten the time to get an answer about any issue from a couple of weeks to a couple of hours. Nowadays we can virtually connect with most of the world and send messages that take less than a second to get to the receiver. These technological advances have shaped our perspective of time and how long things take to be done, nevertheless, time has remained a linear constant for humans because events still happen in a sequential manner, even if the next step of the sequence takes less than a second to occur.

Therefore, our epistemic concepts are susceptible to change as we are exposed to, learn and use new languages, no doubt. The schemas we develop become updated so that we can engage in an effective conversation with shared features. Nonetheless, it might be inconceivable for humans to be able to rewire the consolidated neural networks in our brains, which are the product of years of genetic, psychological, and social interactions, in such a way that would allow us to perceive time so differently.

The Pirahã, a native American tribe in the Amazon

Think for a second about cultures that might not value the future as we do. They live one day after the other, bound to the scarcity or abundance of their contexts. This is the case of the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon. According to linguist Dan Everett (2017), the Pirahã have developed a simple language based on just a few sounds, which gave them all the necessary resources to communicate effectively about their way of life. They do not have numerals, a distinction about the future and the past, or mythology. They are stuck in the present so to speak. They are limited by the boundaries of their empirical existence. They focus on what they can see and hear right in front of them or through someone else’s senses. Here is the thing: even though they do not place a lot of focus on the distant future and do not really plan it, they still experience time as a succession of events because that’s part of human biology. They can even refer to the future as something that would translate into “far time”

Now think of the time perception of a child. Children are hedonistic little people, very much like the Pirahã, trapped in the present. But that has to do with their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. Although a four or five-year-old can understand the notion of a future, they cannot really conceptualize such an abstract idea that is too distant from their lived reality. Imagine then an ape and how we could possibly teach them the notion of, let’s say, millions of years ago or say that in many billion years our sun is bound to consume its energy and explode. Their existence and lack of sophisticated language wouldn’t allow them to understand let alone rewire their brains to start experiencing time in a different way because even if we tried as hard as we could, they would simply lack the cognition to comprehend such abstractions. 

That might be the case for Amy Adams. In the film, she’s the ape and the aliens are the humans. If we consider language a vessel to convey our thoughts and perceptions, we will have to stick to the idea that no language, human or alien, will ever be able to fundamentally change how we experience the physical world when it comes to the limits of our existence. For now, the concept that a language can “unlock” hidden cognitive potential that could substantially transform the fabric of space-time and all the matter within right before our eyes will have to stay in the sci-fi section of our favorite streaming provider and books.

You can watch our Chá Pedagógico discussion of this movie below:

You can also listen to us on Spotify:

Learning Cosmos: A Conceptual Framework to Understand your Learner’s Universe

I feel incredibly accomplished. Yesterday, as I was checking my email, I noticed I had a package waiting for me. It had been delivered by Livraria Disal and I knew exactly what it was. As a matter of fact, I had been anxiously expecting that email and that package. The package had 5 printed samples of the latest issue of New Routes Magazine. I was so excited that I couldn’t even wait to get back to my apartment to open it. That moment was the realization of an achievement I’m very proud of and eager to share. After many months, as a result of years of exploring neuroscience and psychology, I was honored to introduce people to my Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework which made the cover of New Routes #74. You have no idea how proud I am of sharing this with you.

Isn’t the cover beautiful?

Allow me to tell you why I believe you should learn about this framework and what inspired me to create it.

From the Big Bang to the Solar System

It started in my childhood, when I noticed I tried to make connections. My mind was always wandering, looking for something to explore, like those probes sent to other planets or astronauts on a space voyage. I was the weird kid, the geek. I was into sci-fi, video games, dinossaurs (who wasn’t?), and, particularly, the universe. It made me wonder. I suppose I wanted to understand how it worked and how it affected us.

Science became one of my major interests in life. I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was a teenager because I loved watching ER and seeing how those doctors understood the human body. I was wrong about the profession but right about something else, something I like till today: the process of inquiry; the scientific method. But it was more than that. I asked questions that science couldn’t answer as well. I knew some things were simply impossible to test (at least now). Then another interest grew in me and the Greeks had already chosen a very suitable name for it: love of wisdom aka philosophy. I love asking questions. ‘What if we did it like this?’ or ‘What would happen if we changed that?’

Not knowing exactly what I wanted to pursue in life, I ended up studying International Relations. I learned about how sovereign states interacted in the global arena and how issues related to economy, politics, law, human rights, and military power influenced their decisions. It certainly taught me a lot and gave me a different perspective about life and people in general. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to specialize in that field. I started a master’s course in Political Science but came to terms with the idea that I wanted to work in education, which confirmed something I had been doing for over 10 years at the time and I was reluctant to admit.

After that realization, my interest in Neuroscience grew stronger. I knew I needed to understand how the brain works and get the proper credentials to talk about it to other professionals in education. I joined the BRAZ-TESOL Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) SIG, which inspired me to get qualification in the area and led me to my master’s course in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol. My MSc in Bristol opened my eyes to an amazing and often hidden world of how our brain and our mind function. I always thought I could help teachers understand that universe of learning principles somehow and that feeling even influenced the topic of my dissertation, which looked at effective classroom strategies based on MBE. All of this brought me to my Learning Cosmos framework.

What is the Learning Cosmos?

I truly believe that the Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework is possibly the most important work I’ll ever do in my life and I intend to keep developing it. It’s an illustration that condenses many learning principles based on cognitive psychology and neuroscience into levels of influence from the cognitive to the environmental (going through emotional, attitudes & beliefs, motivational, and learning design). It contains concentric spheres, which were inspired by Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) Ecological Systems Theory, and it uses a powerful analogy to help teachers understand it: the universe.

Think about it for a second. If we consider the multitude of principles, theories and frameworks that address learning, we can compare it to the expanding universe. Different spheres, each one influencing the others. The objective of this article is to design a Learning Cosmos diagram based on what learning entails. My hope is that this Learning Cosmos can help students, teachers, schools, families, and policymakers admire and reflect on the amazing universe surrounding our learners

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

It took me some time to come up with the name Learning Cosmos. I knew from the beginning that I needed something special for the cover of New Routes and that I wanted to include as much about learning as I possibly could. I suppose that was the natural next step after my text for New Routes #72, Teaching Mind and Brain: Contributions of the Science of Learning

My text in New Routes #72

When I look at the creation process, how many sketches I made, and the end result, I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was really the culmination of all those years and experiences. These things are never really created overnight. I make a point of sharing this because I want you to be inspired and, who knows, even feel motivated to get some of your old projects done. Even when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, I struggled. Look at how the whole thing evolved:

It took me several emails with different suggestions to make it just right. I had to think of the common thread connecting all those theories and how I’d call them. I even had to draw the whole thing on a wall with chalk to understand how I could make it all fit.

I have to admit, though, that I couldn’t be happier with the result of my interaction with Jack Scholes, New Routes Editor, the whole team who helped me at Disal, and Carol Di Mauro and her team at BrandBox, for capturing the essence of this concept and making my vision a reality. Can you imagine how I felt when I first got this in my email? I literally had tears in my eyes. I was looking at a vision I had inside my head. It was real now and it was out for everyone to see.

Where did I get the inspiration?

My main source of inspiration

It was one of those days that you’re just looking for something interesting to read. I had many new books on my shelf but the one that really stood out was my copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (illustrated and expanded as you can see). I had already read it but the cover was so compelling that I couldn’t resist. I may have been influence by something else, which probably gave me the final push. It was National Geographic’s remake of Cosmos, the amazing show about the universe and science presented by Carl Sagan a few decades ago. The new host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has most certainly confirmed and intensified my love for science and the mysteries of the universe.

These two brilliant scientists, Hawking and Sagan, taught me things so fascinating that I think I wanted to honor them somehow. Not only did they broaden my horizons to the wonders of science, but they also did it in such an elegant way using a powerful learning tool that deserves our attention. I’m talking about analogies. When Hawking explains in his book the concept of an expanding universe using a black balloon with white dots on the surface and how these dots move apart as blow air into the balloon or when Sagan uses a map to show us how Erastothenes was able to calculate our planet’s circumference thousands of years ago by measuring the shadow cast by different objects and the distance between two locations on an episode of Cosmos, I mean, WOW! That’s simply mindblowing to me.

Look at the incredible design

So I chose to use an analogy that made sense. I suppose I joined my passion for the universe and how intriguing it can be as we’re always finding out new things as we explore further and further. Here are a few examples of how I used this analogy:

Earth has the perfect conditions to be teeming with life. Its interaction with the sun and other planets in the solar system as well as its location have made our planet special and allowed it to support life in all its beauty and forms. This is exactly how we should think of our learners’ experience. We need to provide them with the best possible conditions so that the design of our lessons allows them to flourish. Let’s call this sphere Learning Design

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The interstellar level is about other stars and planets in our galaxy. Our Milky Way contains anywhere between 100 and 400 billion stars and it would take anyone trying to cross its diameter 100 thousand years at the speed of light. If we could take a picture of it, it would look like a spiral rotating around a massive black hole, a giant vortex that sucks everything that gets too close (including light). The interaction of all these elements form our context and resources, just like what we see when we think of our schools, their infrastructure, and mindset/policy

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The premise here is that just like the universe, we can choose to focus on different levels of analysis when we look at learning. We can look at how our planet offers conditions to support life and focus on that but we mustn’t forget that these conditions are the result of a very intricate relationship that involves our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and many of the objects contained within our universe. It depends on gravity, matter, dark matter, radiation, light, space and time. Similarly, we can focus on our student’s attention and memory, learn how they work and what we can do to help them, but we cannot forget that our students are whole. Their emotions are intrinsically connected to their cognition and those two are affected by their levels of motivation, what they believe about learning and their capabilities, and even their school’s approach to teaching. They are indeed but a small, however precious, part of this amazing universe.

What can you use the Learning Cosmos for?

I suppose the simplest answer is: to learn about learning according to the scientific literature on the topic. I’m not saying I was able to cover every possible principle and theory but I do think I got the major ones that I believe educators should know about. It’s also an invitation. An invitation to explore those principles and dig deeper. I’d love to think that one of the concepts in the Learning Cosmos could trigger a domino effect and send you on a quest to discover new things about learning, very much like Alice in Wonderland or Cooper, Brand, Doyle, and Romilly in Interstellar by Christopher Nola.

Let’s say you would like to know more about cognition. You’ll realize that I only covered attention, engagement, feedback, and consolidation (Howard-Jones et al. 2018, Dehaene, 2020). I know, however, that cognition relates to reasoning, judging, use of language, perception, and the like. You could start reading something about these concepts that I left out and, who knows, even apply what you learn about them to change something you do in the classroom. Or perhaps you’d like to start from the emotional level and realize that I mentioned emotion regulation (Gross & Thompson, 2007) but I left out self-regulation. Those two constructs are intimately connected and they are also related to emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), which I included. What I’m trying to say is that the framework encourages you to look further as well as find connections to things you might already know.

You can watch my interview for Dr. Brenda Owobu-Reosti about the Learning Cosmos

I believe the Learning Cosmos can be a great tool if used wisely as stated below:

Think of the Learning Cosmos as a useful guide that could work as a reflective tool for you to assess why learning might not be taking place. Its purpose is to allow you to ask whether the problem is on, let’s say, the emotional sphere or the cognitive one (or likely both). It may encourage you to consider all these authors and theories the next time you want to work on your professional development or when you plan and deliver your next lesson.

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

Be it as it may, the Learning Cosmos is my attempt to make the scientific literature about learning more accessible as I bring all of those fundamental elements about learning together in one illustration. I need to emphasize that the real work was done by all those scientists and authors who published their papers and books. My task was only to connect it all for you to use it as a guide.

My intention is to help teachers, parents, students, educators in general, and even policymakers to understand how beautiful and complex learning is. I want them to look at learning with awe and wonder. I want them to learn as much as they can about learning from multiple perspectives so that they talk about it and provide more effective solutions that will help our students achieve more positive learning outcomes. Let’s look beyond attention and memory, let’s embrace other spheres of influence and make an impact on education.

If you want to know more about the Learning Cosmos Framework, check out the link below and stay tuned. I’ll explore each sphere in the coming blog posts to give you practical ideas on how to work with those principles. Next, we’ll talk about the cognitive sphere.

I’d like to dedicate this to my parents, particularly my dad who ignited this love for science in me and who sadly passed away in 2019. I wish you were here, dad. Also my mom who’s always encouraged me to explore and be whatever I wanted to be. To my wife Cris for inspiring me and helping me aim for the stars. To all my friends and acquaintances who learned something from me or taught me something, especially Mirela Ramacciotti for introducing me to MBE.

I truly hope you liked it and that I was able to share (at least a little bit) how passionate I am about this and how much I want to contribute. Do share with friends and let me know your thoughts

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine… for Now. Penguin.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books, Inc.

Gross, J.J. & Thompson, Ross. (2007). Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Foundations. Handbook of Emotion Regulation. 3-27. 

Howard-Jones, P., Ioannou, K., Bailey, R., Prior, J., Yau, S. H., & Jay, T. (2018). Applying the science of learning in the classroom. Profession, 18, 19.

Hawking, S. (1996). The Illustrated A brief history of time.

Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 2: History of Education and English Teaching

Adapted from my text for PolicyBristol Blog. Don’t forget to access the first part of this series

“Challenging. The Brazilian Educational System is Huge”

This is written on the website of Todos Pela Educação (All for Education), an NGO that provides information about the Brazilian educational scenario in order to help boost quality and access to basic education.

Brazil has a history of elitism and oppression. Education was used as an evangelisation tool by the Jesuits to convert Indigenous Brazilians in the early colonial years, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Till this day, many schools are run by religious institutions. In the 19th century, the elite either had the luxury of private tutors or sent their children abroad, particularly Portugal, for their studies while slaves traded in from Africa were not allowed any type of education at all. Black people are still marginalised as a consequence of structural racism.

We can trace the origins of Brazilian current education legislation and structure back to the 1930s and 1940s.  In the next four decades, research and Higher Education institutes flourished but also came the military regime through the 1964 coup. The dictatorship was responsible for the persecution of intellectuals and left-wing supporters, undermining free speech and critical thinking.

A bright future and a sad reality

After more than two decades of an authoritarian period, the 90s seemed to be the beginning of a bright future. Enrolment rates of 15-17 year-old students in secondary education grew from 58.1% in 1991 to 77.7% in 2000 (Costa, 2013).When the Labour Party won the presidential elections in 2002, with Luiz Inácio da Silva (aka Lula) as president, Brazil went through important educational changes. Federal funding for education increased substantially – The Ministry of Education (MEC) nearly tripled its budget and the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb) was created. Access to basic education was de facto universalized and reinforced by social programs’ requirements such as Bolsa Família (a state-funded pension to families living under the poverty line provided their kids were enrolled and attending schools as well as vaccinated).

From 2002 to 2010, Brazil saw its low quality educational indexes rise. PISA scores grew, university enrolments skyrocketed, Federal Higher Education Institutes were inaugurated all over the country (almost doubling their numbers), illiteracy levels dropped, and scholarships, research grants, and travel grants were available to many students.

However, still during the Labour Party’s government, the education budget began to dwindle and it has not stopped since. A huge corruption scandal involving the Labour Party undermined its political capital and a massive political crisis grew.

Until today, basic reading comprehension and mathematical skills in high school have not improved significantly and Brazil has figured among the world’s champions in terms of physical violence against teachers.  Scientists have fled the country in a huge human capital flight movement because of the terrible conditions they worked under, often having to buy basic research tools or pay for analyses out of their own pockets.

That’s the sad reality of Brazil. When we look at international rankings, Brazil normally figures right at the bottom. But there’s more. We have one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the world (32 students per teacher), lowest salaries (comparable to Indonesia), the lowest value for money considering investment vs students’ results according to PISA. In many pre-service teacher training programs, such as the Modern Languages undergrad qualification in Brazil, teachers are not well-prepared to speak English and need to seek further qualification elsewhere.

It’s worth mentioning that our Higher Education entry exams are basically selecting rich teens to attend tuition-free and accreditted universities (our State and Federal universities) and forcing poorer teens to go to paid institutions which are not as good as the public ones. There are, however, affirmative action initiatives to give poorer teenagers access to Higher education. Funding programs and quotas for black people are some examples. Besides that, Brazil has unified its entry exams into a single National High School Exam (Enem) which will allow students to apply for several institutions at the same time. For that reason, most of the Brazilian educational system focuses on preparing students to pass this exam, prioritizing the memorization of general knowledge contents and neglecting more active learning methods (such as PBL).

Languages in Brazil

Brazil has been a multilingual country since its origin. Before our colonization, millions of indigenous people lived here with their customs, culture and, of course, languages. European languages ​​were brought to the territory from 1500 onwards. From Portugal, we receive Portuguese, the country’s official language and spoken by most of the population. However, the successive invasions and migratory waves, in addition to the need for communication with the indigenous people, created an environment in which many languages ​​were used. Today more than 230 languages ​​are present in Brazil.

Over the centuries and the establishment of different education systems, European languages ​​have consolidated themselves as prestigious languages. In addition to Portuguese, those few who had access to education sought to study foreign languages ​​such as French, German or Spanish. In the 20th century, immigrants from Italy and Germany created conglomerates in southern Brazil while Asians (Japanese, Koreans and Chinese) settled in the southeastern region. At the borders, Latin neighbors boosted the use of Spanish. The end of World War II propagated the English language as a language of global communication among peoples.

According to historical records, English, and French as foreign languages started to be taught in Brazil in 1809, a year after the Royal Family fled from Portugal to settle in their colony. For the better part of this period, teachers used the Grammar-Translation method, which emphasized reading classical texts and translating them. It was only in the third decade of the 20th century that the Direct Method was introduced and English began to be taught using the target language. In 1942, a educational reform gave foreign languages more hours of contact in the curriculum, however, between 1961 and 1971, a new reform did not include Foreign Language Learning in Brazilian curricula.

Things changed in 1996 when the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases (LDB) or Law of Guidelines and Bases made the inclusion of a foreign language to the curriculum mandatory in primary and secondary school. In 1998, when the Parâmetros Curriculares Nacionais (PCN) or National Curricular Standards were established, the importance of English teaching was stressed even more. Nevertheless, most regular schools have offered 1 or 2 hours of English a week in their curriculum.

All of these changes, however, did not impact most of the Brazilian population as it should. According to the British Council, in 2014 only 5% of the Brazilian population could speak English at some level and only 1% could do it proficiently. To make matters worse, Education First (EF) places Brazil at 53rd in its English Proficiency Index in 2020, which is considered low and behind other South American neighbors such as Uruguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile, and Argentina for instance. That scenario only reinforces that if anyone really wants to learn English in Brazil, they have to either go to a language center outside school or a bilingual school.

Bilingual schools / Bilingual Education in Brazil

The current universe of bilingual schools or schools with bilingual programs is tiny when compared to other countries. The estimates of the Brazilian Association for Bilingual Education (ABEBI) tell us that more than 90% of Brazilian schools have no bilingual solution in their curricula. The last decade, however, has brought an explosion of new bilingual teaching solutions on the market. With the consolidation of English as a predominant prestige language in Brazil and the spread of the idea of ​​English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), that is, the coexistence of several “Englishes” used as a global communication tool, regular schools started to focus on the differential of offering bilingual education.

According to ABEBI, based on the 2018 Ministry of Education (MEC) school census, Brazil (around 3%) lags behind other South American countries such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (around 8%) in percentage terms when it comes to bilingual education in private schools. This means that to reach the level of these neighbors, Brazil would need an increase of 5%, which corresponded to at least 2000 schools in 2018. Even so, more than 90% of private schools are outside this projection. This illustration demonstrates the growth potential of the bilingual education trend in the country.

Another recent development that indicates that bilingual education will be increasingly present in the Brazilian educational system is the document drafted by the National Education Council (CNE) on the National Curricular Guidelines for Plurilingual Education. The document came out for public consultation in mid-2020 and is still pending approval. It contains the history of Brazilian education, particularly the evolution of multilingual teaching (in border regions, in the case of deaf education with the Brazilian Sign Language – Libras and in regions of the indigenous population), the legal foundations, concepts bilingualism and plurilingualism, bilingual education in Brazil and Latin America, in addition to the relationship with the Common National Curricular Base (BNCC), our own common core.

Final Thoughts and What comes Next

We’ve looked at the History of Brazilian education. It saddens me to realize we still have many structural problems such as lack of funding, resources, proper teacher training and more. Brazil’s history is based on oppression, elitism, and content-driven curricula to help kids and teens memorize contents worked in different subjects to pass universities entry exam. There’s a huge gap between rich and poor kids and how much access they get to good quality education and English classes. The next blog post of this series will discuss the new document that will probably regulation bilingual education contexts in Brazil.


Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 1: What options are there?

In recent years, an important debate has been taking place on the concept of bilingual education and how it fits in the Brazilian educational system. With rare exceptions until recently, additional language learning, particularly English, was restricted to a few hours of contact a week at a regular school or in a language center outside the school building. However, with the boom of bilingual solutions on the market, in addition to the recent development with the publication of a document to regulate bilingual education in the country by the National Education Council (Conselho Nacional de Educação), what is the situation in this scenario today? What are the differences between a bilingual program, a bilingual school, an international school and a language course? 

This is the first part of a blog series on English learning in Brazil, particularly bilingual education. I intend to talk about the current scenario, historical background, the upcoming legislation, and some of the chosen approaches and methods used in different schools. If you are interested in bilingualism and want to know more about my country’s experience, this blog series is for you.

Concepts and Definitions

Bilingual Education and Translanguaging

First let’s define bilingualism. According to Hakuta (2009), bilingualism is the coexistence of more than one linguistic system in an individual. Grosjean (1982), posits that a bilingual subject is not simply two monolinguals put together. In that case, bilingual education is a broad term that encompasses different modalities of bilingual learning and teaching in different contexts. Megale (2018, p. 5) objectively proposes that Bilingual Education is based on:

Multidimensional development of two or more languages ​​involved, the promotion of knowledge between them and the valorization of translanguaging as a way of building comprehension of the bilingual subjects’ world.

Megale, 2018, p. 5.

The concept of translanguaging, widely used in works on bilingualism and plurilingualism, with authors such as Ofelia García and Colin Baker (2007) and Li Wei (2018), refers to the practice of using the entire linguistic repertoire of the bilingual subject to give meaning to discourse, to communicate with others, which implies a heteroglossic view of language, that is, the perspective that languages ​​do not form independent systems. This means that languages ​​are not stored separately in the brain and that they overlap and intertwine in a natural way (Busch, 2015). A simple example is that of two bilingual speakers of Portuguese and English who can talk using elements of both languages dynamically and in an intelligible way.

Bilingual School

Within this context of bilingual education, we have bilingual schools. The denomination of bilingual school is usually given to schools that:

  1. have the curriculum taught in Portuguese and in the additional language in an integrated way. This may mean taking classes of the same subject in Portuguese and in English, for example, or dividing the subjects so that some are mostly taught in the native language and others in the additional language;
  2. offer an additional curriculum (optional or not), with classes taught in the additional language, which may or may not be connected with the regular curriculum. This additional curriculum is, as a rule, created by the school itself; 

In the first example, schools use CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which, in short, is characterized by the use of the additional language as a means of instruction for the teaching of subjects in the curriculum. That is, math, history, geography or any other subject is given in English. Therefore, with this approach, both the subject and the additional language are learned. In the second example, the school can use CLIL (or some of its elements) as well as focus more on Project-Based Learning. 

Bilingual Program 

Unlike a bilingual school, a bilingual program is, in general, a service package offered by an unrelated outsourced company without any prior connection to the school. This company is responsible for the elaboration of teaching materials and professional development training based on approaches and methodologies related to the development of bilingualism and the idea of student-centeredness. Therefore, the bilingual program has all the necessary structure, including books, online platform, commercial and pedagogical support, as well as expertise to carry out implementation in any given school. 

It is worth noting that both bilingual and international schools, which I explain in the next section, need to have teachers who are experts in their subjects and proficient in the additional language, since the teaching of these subjects in the curriculum is done in that language. In the case of a bilingual program, the teachers at the school that adopts the program are usually the English-speaking teachers that the school has hired. These professionals undergo a linguistic assessment and, if they have the appropriate level of competence, go through an initial training about the program. They receive constant support from the program’s coordinators (who are normally called advisors, tutors or mentors) and follow didactic-pedagogical recommendations prepared by the program.

In short, a bilingual program is characterized, therefore, by the increment of contact hours with the additional language and by the use of more student-centered approaches, with the inclusion of project-based learning, immersion and CLIL. 

A school without a bilingual program usually has one or two times of contact with the English language in the curriculum during the week and the classes are mostly taught in Portuguese through a more teacher-centered approach. With a bilingual program, the school has an increased number of hours (three, five or even ten contact hours a week) for English classes, which are taught in English in a more communicative way, based on projects and with the insertion of CLIL elements. .

So, can a school with a bilingual program be called a bilingual school? The answer is no, or at least it shouldn’t. Bilingual schools have (or should have), of course, an even greater workload of the additional language and qualified teaching staff both in their subjects and in teaching through the additional language. This makes official Portuguese-English bilingual schools infinitely more exclusive in a country like Brazil, where only 5% of the population has some competence in English according to a 2014 British Council report (these numbers have surely changed but apparently not much).

It’s worth mentioning that the new document drafted by the National Education Council in Brazil labels this modality Extended Curriculum in Additional Language. If this document is approved and comes into force, the denomination Bilingual Programs will most likely stop being used.

International School 

International schools follow the school curriculum and timetable determined by the country of origin. They are like a piece of the foreign country’s territory and operate in accordance with that country’s legislation. A practical example is that of an American school, which works with subjects in English and follows the dates and curriculum guidelines of the United States. This school can offer courses in Portuguese, which can be integrated or not to the regular class time. Students at that school learn what students at a US school learn and therefore have the necessary certifications and / or diplomas to continue their education in the USA. It is worth remembering that Brazilian schools in foreign territories also make up this category.

Language Centers

Language centers are common in Brazil and their range of language options is extremely varied. It is common, however, to find language schools that offer English as their main language and add value with languages ​​such as Spanish and other elite languages ​​(usually European – German, French, Italian, etc.). These schools generally:

  • have their own materials or work with books from major publishers (often international);
  • have a curriculum that is not aligned with the curriculum used in the regular school;
  • work with varied approaches and methods that are different from other bilingual solutions (eg communicative approach and audiolingual method)
  • are physically separated from the regular school; 
  • work with smaller classes (up to a maximum of 20 students)
  • vary widely in terms of teacher training (some hire without previous experience or diploma in the area while others require international certifications)
  • may be associated or not to the government or institutions of countries that speak the additional language taught (such as binational centers linked to the US State Department or the British Council)

These schools usually offer between 2 and 5 contact hours a week with the language, mix students of different ages in the same class, offer intensive classes, holiday courses and classes on Saturdays in addition to occasionally creating agreements with regular schools to use their space to offer lessons in loco. However, the lack of convenience and practicality of having to take children to another place to learn English and then pick them up has given more value to bilingual solutions within the children’s regular school.

Final Thoughts and What comes Next

We’ve looked at some of the possible options for anyone seeking to receive a bilingual education in Brazil. It’s evident that the country offers a number of possibilities that are quite similar to those of other nations. Nevertheless, Brazilian levels of competent English speakers are quite low and millions of people do not even have access to English classes. With the rise of bilingual schools, many public school kids are being left behind since bilingual education rarely reaches those populations. The next blog post of this series will address the history of English teaching and learning in Brazil, access, levels of proficiency, and pre- as well as in-service program for teachers. Stay tuned!

References

Busch, B. The linguistic repertoire revisited. Applied linguistics, v. 33, n. 5, p. 503-523, 2012.

García, O; Baker, C, eds. Bilingual education: An introductory reader. Vol. 61. Multilingual matters, 2007.

Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with two languages: An introduction to bilingualism. Harvard University Press.

Hakuta, Kenji. “Bilingualism.” (2009): 173-178.

Megale, A. H. Bilingual education of prestigious languages ​​in Brazil: an analysis of official documents. The Especialist, v. 39, n. 2, 2018.

Wei, L. “Translanguaging and code-switching: What’s the difference.” Blog Post. OUPblog. Oxford UP 9 (2018).

Metacognition and Learning: What can the Renaissance teach us about how to learn best?

The narrative

It was a terribly cold day in April 2019 and I was incredibly frustrated at my failed attempt to drive for the very first time in the UK. About 10 minutes after I had picked up the car and started driving, I had a minor accident that knocked my left wind mirror off in a very stupid way. To defend myself, I was just getting used to driving on the left side of the road and a big white van was parked on the sidewalk. Since my brain was only getting adjusted to this rather challenging cognitive task, I couldn’t really tell how close I was when it happened. That van shouldn’t really be there.

I put the past behind me and enjoyed the rest of my journey to Liverpool where not only was I going to visit the city of one of my favorite bands, but I was also attending the IATEFL conference for the first time too. Right at the entrance, I bumped into the wonderful Vinnie Nobre, a reference in ELT and one of the founders of Troika, an educational consultancy based in São Paulo. I congratulated him for the enormous success and after talking and watching a few sessions together, he invited me to teach a course at Troika when I returned from my master’s course. I was certainly thrilled, no doubt, and I really wanted to offer a course that would help teachers reflect on their practice.

From coming back to Brazil to getting in touch with Troika and working out the details of the course, considering it all happened in the middle of the pandemic, it took around a year for me to actually teach it. But all the process helped me fine-tune my idea and create possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taught in my life.

I chose a topic I had been studying for a while and that I felt would make a difference: metacognition. This is the poster Troika designed for my course and I have to admit I simply loved it. They gave me, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect narrative for the course. That narrative was the Renaissance.

May be an image of 1 person
Troika’s poster of my course

I was inspired by the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael, Michelino and, especially, Da Vinci to create the slides of my course, which made reference to the cultural revival expressed through the art and science represented in the Vitruvian Man and in the perfection of Leonardo’s sketches.

The Renaissance was about questioning the status quo and learning about how things worked, particularly the human body, in order to create the most perfect depictions of the human figure on canvas, paper, stone or marble. It was about observation, questioning, and experimentation of different techniques and paradigms.

Metacognition

You might be wondering what the Renaissance has to do with the idea of metacognition. Before we can establish their relationship, let’s understand the term metacognition, which will require us to first think about the word cognition. According to the Free Online Dicitionary:

the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment

what becomes known through perception, reasoning or intuition; knowledge

Free Online Dictionary

A more technical definition is offered by the American Psychological Association:

Attention, use of language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking

American Psychological Association

If we think about our language classes at school, we might remember that the prefix meta comes from the Greek and it means beyond or transcending and it’s usually employed to give us the idea of the category within the category. That means that metalanguage is the language of language and metadata means the data about data. In that case, metacognition means the cognition of or about cognition. Since cognition is the object of study for many researchers concerned with our thought processes and how we learn, metacognition has been popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn.

Going back in time a few decades, we find out that the term metacognition was coined and popularized by American psychologist John Flavell. In his 1976 work, he describes metacognition as:

knowledge about one’s own COGNITIVE PROCESSES. Ability to CONTROL, ORGANIZE, MONITOR, ADAPT and REFLECT on one’s own thoughts

John Flavell (1976)

Notice the keywords. Metacognition involves not just learning things but questioning whether the way we learn is the best or most appropriate and regulating how we study. Its main question is:

Is there a more effective way to learn this?

In order to answer that question, Flavell discusses three categories of metacognition

  1. Metacognitive Knowledge
  2. Metacognitive Experiences
  3. Metacognitive Control Strategies

The first one refers to the knowledge people have about themselves and others as well as tasks and strategies. Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the violin. If they have metacognitive knowledge, they’re aware that people who learn how to play the violin need to have access to the instrument, an adequate place to study (a quiet studio for instance), the ability to read sheet music, a varied routine of exercises with lots of repetition and so on. The learner must also understand how people can learn music and how to play an instrument, that is, some basic universal principles of learning that particular skill, which is quite different from learning something like History. A metacognitive learner should also know how their teacher works and what they expect and, mainly, what works best for themselves. Perhaps they can only practice the violin at night when it’s quiet or maybe they consider themselves an early bird and prefer to do it in the morning.

Brown (1978, 1987); Flavell (1976, 1979)

The second and the third one fall under the category of metacognitive regulation (see image above). They’re about knowing which strategies work best and how to use them to achieve the desired result. That means that only possessing the knowledge of how to play the violin will not make anyone learn it if they are unable to plan their study, engage with the activities and stay on task, and assess whether it is working or not. A metacognitive learner is able to make the necessary adjustments to the process in order to reach the desired outcome. Let’s say our violin student realizes that they can’t practice at night because they’re disturbing their neighbors. They’ll have to either find another time or another place to practice because they understand its importance. They might even make the room where they practice soundproof or purchase an electric violin with an amplifier so that they can hear themselves play through headphones. A metacognitive learner develops regulation mechanisms to make sure they accomplish the tasks they are supposed to and evaluate what needs to be changed.

Metacognitive Cycle (Ambrose et al. 2010)

Ambrose et al. (2010) offer an insightful framework to help us become more metacognitive. In this metacognitive cycle, the first step is to evaluate the task at hand. What many learners do quite often when writing an essay or working on a project for instance is making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. They sometimes don’t read or understand the instructions and overdo the task or don’t do enough. Evaluating the task and what is asked is paramount if they want to be successful. The next step is to conduct a fair assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who cannot successfully assess that, can over- or underestimate their abilities and not plan enough time to accomplish the task.

Then comes the approach stage. Different tasks require different approaches and depending on how much time learners have, they might waste too much of it on ineffective or even useless strategies or simply not allocate enough of it to get things done. Students may often just skip this planning stage and go straight to the task without really understanding how they accomplish it the best way they can. Moreover, it’s important to keep track of the most suited strategies according to the task and make sure it all becomes part of the learning routine. Simply thinking about these strategies and not applying them won’t generate positive outcomes.

The final stage is perhaps the most important for metacognitive learners. It’s the stage of reflection and it allows learners to evaluate whether all the other stages were done properly and what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on the learning process can be quite painful but it can tell us a lot about what might not be working and what would take to change things. Here are some questions that might help:

  1. Was my plan adequate/realistic?
  2. Did I allocate enough time to accomplish the task?
  3. Was I committed/focused when I did the task?
  4. Did I have access to the right materials/resources?
  5. Did I seek help when I didn’t know what to do?
  6. Did I make the proper adjustments when things didn’t work out?

The question then is:

Does being a metacognitive learner pay off?

The research suggests that it does. As a matter of fact, a paper by Zulkiply (2009) summarizes many of the findings of other studies and states that:

recent research has revealed the significance of metacognitive awareness in learning. For instance, learners who score high on measures of metacognition are more strategic, more likely to use problem-solving heuristics, better at predicting their test scores, and generally outperform learners who score low on metacognitive measures. Metacognition has been shown to predict learning performance. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don’t know what to do; that is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do. More importantly, research has demonstrated the value of metacognition in predicting academic achievement. For example, greater metacognitive ability has been linked to grade point average, math achievement, and reading skill. In addition to this, studies explicitly show that metacognitive skills play an important role in effective learning that leads to academic success, and that academically achieving students are better on metacognitive measures

Zulkiply (2009)

Da Vinci: a man ahead of his time

When I think of all the things Leonardo Da Vinci created, it simply makes me admire his vision even more. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. And to think that many of his sketches of the human body are still used in medical schools today for their incredible degree of precision. Da Vinci used to go to underground morgues to study human anatomy. Can you imagine what a terrible hobby that was? Spending hours in the dark surrounded by putrid and stinky corpses lit by candles while he drew the most perfect lines. It sure wasn’t easy but his curiosity kept him going.

Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) "At a time in history when  few people had methodical… | Human anatomy drawing, Anatomy sketches,  Anatomy for artists
Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body. Retrieved from pinterest

Da Vinci was certainly the epitome of mastery and talent and is revered until today for his incredible contribution. I think he is the perfect illustration (no pun intended) of a metacognitive learner. He not only drew beautiful sketches and painted amazing canvases, but he also designed machines and ingenious devices that were way ahead of his time. A good example is his obsession with flying and how his early 15th-century designs of flying machines are remarkably similar to modern gliders and helicopters (which were invented more than 400 years later).

Leonardo da Vinci - Drawing | Da vinci sketches, Da vinci inventions, Leonardo  da vinci
Da Vinci’s flying machines. Retrieved from pinterest

Naturally, we can say that other Renaissance artists were experimenting on different things, trying new techniques and thinking outside the box. Michelangelo was definitely quite metacognitive when he had to come up with a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine how daunting the task was? Michelangelo not only pulled it off magnificently but he also created one of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art the world will ever see. But Da Vinci’s legacy and record really deserve special attention. They give us a glimpse of what this man did and how he thought. He was a questioner, a problem solver and a scientist at heart.

His most famous painting also gives us the perfect illustration of what metacognitive should not be about: procrastination. It is said that Da Vinci spent around 12 years to paint the lips of probably the most enigmatic smiles in the art history: The Mona Lisa. It might have been so because of procrastination or Leonardo’s obsession with getting the smile just right or even a hand paralysis he suffered from. Be it as it may, this interesting mystery gives us some insight into how some things might take a lot longer than what we might expect.

My car accident and Final Thoughts

Da Vinci’s designs and schemes did not have as great an impact on the society he lived in because they were exclusive then and forgotten for a long time. His inventions could have created unimaginable technological advances in his time. The idea of joining science and arts to create amazing work and to rethink the status quo is evident in Da Vinci’s work. His curiosity and obsession to try different things and really think outside the box, analyzing not only the object of his art but mainly how he created his art are more than enough proof of his metacognitive personality.

I wonder now if I was any metacognitive when I picked up the car to drive to Liverpool. The answer is probably no but I did try something new. I certainly watched videos of people telling their experience of driving on the other side of the road. I imagined myself doing it a couple of times before I got the car. I wrote down a few things to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I definitely drove around a few times to get more confidence while performing the task. But none of those things prevented me from having a minor accident. I hadn’t anticipated that a large van could be parked on the sidewalk for maintenance and the rest is history. Perhaps, if I had thought of that variable and had practiced a little more before driving around 3 hours from Bristol to Liverpool, I would have done better.

In Liverpool, before attending IATEFL’s first day of sessions, as a big Beatles fan, I decided to visit the Cavern Club where the four lads used to play. They were also a metacognitive bunch, weren’t they? Their musical legacy is so rich and innovative that they’re actually a great example of metacognition. The Beatles spent quite a lot of years recording in studio some of the most unusual sounds anyone had listened to because they constantly asked themselves if there were better or more effective ways to accomplish what they wanted. And look at what they gifted the world with!

If you are a teacher working with different subject areas or teaching English in a bilingual context, get inspired by the amazing artists of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, musicians such as The Beatles, or other incredible people who were not afraid to question things. People who understood the object of their work so well that they were able to create new paradigms and invent new techniques. We don’t have to be as brilliant as they were, but it will certainly be good enough for us to learn how learn more effectively.

Around a couple of months after my minor accident, my wife, her sister, and our nephew came to visit me in the UK. We rented a car to drive from London to Rochester, then Brighton, Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and back to Bristol. I certainly learned my lesson as I didn’t cause any accidents that time. The irony, though, is that someone hit our back bumper on the way to Stonehenge although I was driving quite comfortably and confidently. I can tell you one thing: it was certainly not my fault.

The lesson here I suppose is that even though metacognition can help you achieve your learning goals and improve your performance, you still can’t control all the variables. After all, accidents do happen.

But the most important lesson I want to leave you all with is the following: being metacognitive requires us to understand a little bit about cognition and how we learn so that we can base our strategies on research and make better informed decisions about which strategies might work more effectively. If we don’t do that, we might cause minor accidents along the way like the one I had. My bias of many years driving on the right side of the road made me misjudge the distance I was driving from the sidewalk. After that mistake, I realized I had to compensate for my bias and really monitor what I was doing. My accident made me more metacognitive and it may have prevented another accident.

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology ,Vol.1 (pp. 77-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911

Roediger, H. L. I., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2.

Zulkiply, N. (2009). Metacognition and its relationship with students’ academic performance. The International Journal of Learning15(11), 97-106.

The Origins of Mind, Brain, and Education and its Relation to ELT

There has been quite a lot of buzz around the idea of joining neuroscience and education. Many would claim that neuroscientific contributions have the potential to revolutionise how teachers teach and the impact they have on their learners’ outcomes. I myself have said that on many occasions. However, I currently believe that many of the things effective teachers do are already grounded in evidence (whether they know it or not) and other things might not be in their hands. There is, of course, room for adding a few classroom practices that might yield better results. Let’s take a look at how neuroscience made its way into education, how the science of Mind, Brain, and Education emerged, and what that means for ELT.

Neuroscience applied to education

It was only quite recently, however, that neuroscience became popular in educational debates and started to be referred to as a source of valuable knowledge that could have important implications for learning and, consequently, classroom practice (OECD, 2002; Ansari & Coch, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). With the quick advancements in neuroimaging studies and the increased number of publications in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s, many “brain-based” educational forums, workshops, and programmes started to emerge (Ansari & Coch, 2006, Howard-Jones, 2010, Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

On one hand, concerns of how dangerous it could be to try to connect neuroscience knowledge and education were being voiced, particularly after the publication of Education and the brain: a bridge too far (Bruer, 1997). Bruer illustrates the concerns by pointing out that neuroscience and education had so little in common that joining them would be an infeasible task. On the other hand, the pursuit of narrowing this bridge continued and an important landmark happened in 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) inaugurated the Learning Sciences and Brain Research project with two main objectives: to understand “a) how the brain processes information, and b) learning processes over the individual’s lifecycle” (OECD, 2007).

In 2000, the United Kingdom launched the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP), one of the biggest and most expensive initiatives with the objective of promoting educational research on how to improve students’ outcomes and what impacts teaching. The endeavour involved hundreds of researchers over the course of a decade who collaborated in 90 projects, including how neuroscience could be applied in education (Blakemore & Frith, 2005; James & Pollard, 2011). TLRP’s outcomes have been widely disseminated in educational settings. They include several publications based on evidence from the projects, including two book series on how to improve learning and teaching, as well as a summarised list of ten principles as shown in the table below (James & Pollard, 2011; TLRP, 2015).

Ten principles of effective teaching and learning proposed by the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP)

1. Effective pedagogy equips learners for life in its broadest sense.
2. Effective pedagogy engages with valued forms of knowledge
3. Effective pedagogy recognises the importance of prior experience and learning
4. Effective pedagogy requires learning to be scaffolded
5. Effective pedagogy needs assessment to be congruent with learning
6. Effective pedagogy promotes the active engagement of the learner
7. Effective pedagogy fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes
8. Effective pedagogy recognises the significance of informal learning
9. Effective pedagogy depends on the learning of all those who support the learning of others
10. Effective pedagogy demands consistent policy frameworks with support for learning as their primary focus
Source: TLRP (2015)

The OECD Report and Neuromyths

It is important to mention that in 2002, a report entitled Understanding The Brain: Towards a New Learning Science was published by OECD. This report brought together the discussions that had taken place in three different international forums about child, adolescent, and adult learning, some essential knowledge on neuroanatomy and brain function, including neuromyths, as well as how it all related to education and educational contexts (OECD, 2002).

It’s important to stress here that a neuromyth is a false claim or a wrong and widely held belief about how the brain works. The term was coined in OECD’s Understanding the Brain report (OECD, 2002). Some examples discussed in the report are the idea of a left-brain versus right-brain dominance, the notion that humans only use 10% of their brains, the concept that learning two languages at a time is harmful for kids (OECD, 2002)

The main contributions of this report, besides the call for dispelling neuromyths, were: a) the idea of neuroplasticity, that is, the brain’s capacity to learn and change as a consequence of learning; b) the crucial role of emotions and the environment in learning; c) a better understanding of underlying language acquisition and processing mechanisms; and d) a better understanding of underlying numeracy processes.

The end of this relevant report brought pertinent ethical considerations, such as the caution to avoid using neuroscience as a determinant of good teachers based on their impact on students’ brain, and the concern with the utilisation of brain imaging technology for commercial purposes (identifying students with certain brain patterns and labelling them, for instance) as well as the use of products that affect the brain (drugs) and how brain and technology can or should be integrated.

The report’s main conclusions and recommended future agenda included the recognition of neuroscience and its potential to inform practice and policy; the evidence for the importance of lifelong learning; the need for neuroscience-informed curricula and a better understanding of adolescents’ brains, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia; the need for a more holistic and personalised teaching approach (regarding emotional regulation and differentiation as importantly as memorisation);  and the birth of a learning science based on transdisciplinarity. OECD’s project Learning Sciences and Brain Research moved to its second phase focusing on literacy, numeracy, and lifelong learning (OECD, 2007).

The beginning of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)

It is worth mentioning that the idea of joining the perspectives from neuroscience, psychology, and education (transdisciplinary approach), can have different labels, such as Educational Neuroscience, NeuroeducationEducational Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology, Brain-based Education, Neuroconstructivism, and Science of Learning (SoL) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, Weinstein et al. 2018). A possible implication of this great variability is that these areas do not communicate well as they have slightly different focuses and standardisation of their findings may be difficult.

Other important developments in the pursuit of joining neuroscience and education were the creation of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s  Mind, Brain, and Education masters course in 2002, the MBE course at the University of Arlington Texas in 2005, the inauguration of the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience and Education in 2005, and the launch of the Journal Mind, Brain, and Education by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) in 2007, whose main objectives are to facilitate cross-cultural and transdisciplinary collaboration between cognitive sciences and education in addition to creating useful and applicable resources for teachers by identifying sound scientific information and promoting effective educational practices (IMBES, 2018).

From 2002 onwards, MBE became increasingly more propagated. MBE books, articles and more programmes surfaced, as illustrated by two best-selling books Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010) and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: a Comprehensive Guide to the new Brain-based Teaching (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). The role of MBE started being discussed in journals (Ansari & Coch 2006;  Fischer 2009; Ferrari & McBride 2011). Moreover, universities such as Johns Hopkins, University of Bristol, Dartmouth, UPenn started offering master’s courses and/or units in this new subject (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014; Ferrari & McBride, 2011). 

MBE’s goal is to bring together contributions from education and cognitives sciences (psychology and neuroscience) to inform teachers, school managers, and policymakers according to the latest evidence on how people learn and how that relates to classroom practice. This goal involves debunking neuromyths as they may have negatives consequences for students’ learning outcomes (Fischer, 2009; Dekker et al., 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). MBE does not make the assumption that any area is better in its own right than all of them together.

Disciplines and Subdisciplines in Mind, Brain, and Education Science
Source: Tokuhama-Espinosa (2011, p. 15)

The big goals of MBE revolve around research, practice, and policy. Research aims at providing information on mind and brain mechanisms, as well as biological aspects of the body and human behaviour, including those that come from social context (as socioeconomic factors and culture) in order to provide sound information on how humans learn in a holistic way. Practice aims at connecting the information provided by research and apply the new knowledge in real learning situations, particularly the classroom. Its objective is to inform and be informed by teaching practices. Policy is concerned with how neuroscientifically substantiated beliefs can translate into frameworks, governmental programmes, and private initiatives to influence the macrolevel of education (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

What does that have to do with ELT?

MBE has important knowledge and reflections for educators teaching any subject area or language. The rationale is to simplify, without oversimplifying, the evidence that can be useful in teaching practice and help students learn more effectively. The main principles of MBE are  (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010):

1) Each brain is unique and uniquely organized. Human brains are as unique as faces; 

2) All brains are not equal because context and ability influence learning; 

3) The brain is changed by experience; 

4) The brain is highly plastic; 

5) The brain connects new information to old

Eric Kandel, neuroscientist who won a Nobel Prize, lends another principle:

Learning requires attention and memory

Eric Kandel

These 6 priciples, although quite general, tell us that things like personalisation and differentiation, prior knowledge, and active learning, as well as emotions, beliefs and attitudes about learning are key. Nothing particularly revolutionary so far. 

Watch my webinar on MBE

MBE uses an inquiry-based approach that goes something like this: it looks at a particular classroom practice and asks: is there a theory in psychology that might explain why this is positive for learning? If there is, then the question becomes: is there neuroscientific evidence to support this? If the answer is yes, then we might want to keep doing it. If the answer from both psychology, neuroscience (and educational practice) is no, we might want to revisit the concept and try a different approach. 

MBE’s greatest objective is to fight neuromyths. Here’s an illustration: the learning styles theory. According to Paul Howard-Jones (2014, p. 1, 2):

The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.


Paul Howard-Jones

That means that, as ELT teachers, we should rethink the idea of labelling students according to their learning preferences since we have robust evidence that a multifaceted approach to teaching, in which we offer multiple representations of new knowledge, is beneficial to every learner. 

MBE also gives us quite a lot of insights about how languages are learned (and acquired). We have been witnessing the rise of bilingual schools and the shift from EFL to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). All these changes have important consequences for how language centers operate around the world. 

Based on the body of work from MBE, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People sometimes fall for buzzwords and “revolutionary” claims (especially when they have the terms brain-based, brain-friendly or neuro attached to them). A word of advice: be careful. Using neurojargon and promising “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps” is probably a hoax. It generally disregards years of research conducted by several peers from around the world by claiming that someone made an incredible discovery and found a secret formula to maximize learning like never before!

I do think, though, that MBE is worth learning about because it’s sober. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary to actually change many paradigms and positively impact learners. After all, teachers and policymakers have been doing the same old stuff based on tradition and are still prioritising types of assessment that do not seem to capture the wholeness of learning and often label students as not good enough. As I mentioned before, I myself have called it revolutionary a couple of times (and it might still slip now and again), but I believe MBE to be quite responsible and cautious. Remember, it doesn’t take much in this post-truth era for the media to start propagating fake news and that means we must be as evidence-based as possible to make sure people have the latest research available in terms they can understand to make important decisions about their lives and those of others.

As any good teacher, I’ll leave you with some research to do. We would certainly benefit from learning how to explore strategies such as brain breaks and interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced repetition, pretesting and prior knowledge activation, self-regulation and mindfulness, metacognition and mindsets. The list also goes on. I’ll let you figure out what else to study and a good place to start would be one of the resources below:

MBE Resources

BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG – sign up for our event in Portuguese about memory here.

https://www.facebook.com/btmbesig

https://www.instagram.com/braztesolmbesig/

INTERNATIONAL MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION SOCIETY

https://imbes.org/

SCIENCE OF LEARNING EBC

http://www.scienceoflearning-ebc.org/

CONEXIONES PLATAFORMA DE CIENCIAS DEL APRENDIZAJE

https://thelearningsciences.com/?lang=en

MIND BRAIN ED THINK TANKS +

https://www.mindbrained.org/

LEARNING SCIENTISTS

https://www.learningscientists.org/

References

Ansari, D., & Coch, D. (2006). Bridges over troubled waters: Education and cognitive neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences10(4), 146-151.

Blakemore, S. J., & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Blackwell publishing.

Bruer, J. T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge too far. Educational researcher, 26(8), 4-16.

Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Fischer, K. W. (2009). Mind, brain, and education: building a scientific groundwork for learning and teaching1. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(1), 3-16.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Taylor & Francis.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(12), 817-824.

IMBES (2018). Home. Retrieved from https://imbes.org/

James, M., & Pollard, A. (2011). TLRP’s ten principles for effective pedagogy: rationale, development, evidence, argument and impact. Research Papers in Education26(3), 275-328.

OECD. (2002). Understanding the brain: Towards a new learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD. (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III). Students’ Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.

TLRP, 2015. Publications. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20150918022927/http://www.tlrp.org/index.html

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. WW Norton & Company.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Paper photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

History of Learning and Learning Theories: Looking back to Move Forward

Yesterday was a particularly sad day for Brazil. It was our biggest death toll in 24 hours since the beginning of the pandemic: 1726 lives were lost due to COVID-19. Many families won’t see their loved ones anymore, many friends won’t be able to hug each other when this is over. Many dreams were shattered by this chaotic period we’re going through.

This all got me thinking. It made me reflect on why we seem to disregard (or refuse to learn from) the past when trying to move forward. Why are we trapped in a bubble of our own collective ignorance and keep making the same mistakes? Psychology and Neuroscience might offer relevant insights about this puzzle but we can discuss this some other day.

For this blog post, let us focus on how the concept of learning and education evolved throughout different ages. What can this evolution teach us about what we’re going through today and how can that impact what we value in formal education?

Humans have been fascinated with learning and how it occurs for as long as the earliest civilizations were formed. It was assumed by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek that intelligence, senses, and emotions were functions of the heart (Wickens, 2015). However, around the 5th century BC, a philosopher and physician by the name of Alcmaeon of Croton, had already suggested that the brain was the seat of the mind, that it controlled intelligence, as well as the senses (Wickens, 2015)

Other Ancient Greek philosophers who lived a century or so later such as Socrates and his disciples, particularly Plato, believed that knowledge was innate and it could be accessed, or brought out, through reflection (Cordasco, 1976).  Maieutics, commonly known as the Socratic Method, posits that the truth emerges through dialogue, or a series of questions, where the presentation of a claim (thesis) is challenged by another claim (antithesis) successively in an attempt to join the opposing views into a more refined truth (synthesis) or discard them altogether (refutation) only to start this process of inquiry again. It can be argued that Socrates gave rise to the early developments of critical pedagogy, although his methods would not become part of educational debates and policy until quite recently (Benson, 2000; Schunk, 2012)

Nevertheless, at the time of Socrates, in other parts of the Western world, such as Sparta and the Roman Empire, and in Asia, particularly China and India, the notion of learning through discipline and obedience was widespread. This notion of perfection through practice, and often penitence, has been replicated by many countries from the Middle Ages to more contemporary times. It was believed that physically punishing students was an effective way to make them learn and instil obedience and respect in them (Cordasco, 1976). For instance, it was only in the mid-1980s that corporal punishments at schools were forbidden in the United Kingdom (Ghandhi, 1984).

It is worth stressing that throughout most of education history, only a few, members of an elite, noblemen and royalty, were allowed to receive and could afford some sort of formal education (Schunk, 2012). These children would most likely have a private tutor, normally a monk, who taught them reading and writing, maths, rhetoric, arts, philosophy, astrology and history. The children of peasants, and serfs, during medieval times, were conditioned by their social status to learn how to farm and help their parents with the crops, and perhaps become an apprentice under the tutelage of a master who taught them a profession. The church was directly involved with formal education in medieval Europe and its main concern was to teach obedience so that the children would grow into adults who conformed to their position in society (Cordasco, 1976; Schunk, 2012).

In the late 17th century until the late 18th century, when the Enlightenment brought the so-called Age of Reason to Europe and America, which promoted the scientific revolution and a break from religious dogma, philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke and the French Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed what education should be like and how children should be educated (Gianoutsos, 2006; Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

Only with the establishment of modern psychology, in the late-1800s, that the notion of joining brain and mind science applied in education started to become a trend. Psychologists such as Thorndike, Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, Wallon, Pavlov, and Skinner wanted to understand features of children’s learning process through the observation of or experimentation with children’s development and behaviours (and through animal tests), which laid the foundation for one of the bases of the MBE science, that is, mind research. A newly born concern of how children develop and learn took its place in academia (Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

In retrospect, we can distinguish some very influential learning theories that have their origins in psychology. I provide five of them, their descriptions and main authors below.

Learning theories

TheoryDescriptionAuthors
PsychodynamicsChildhood experiences shape our personalities and remain in the unconscious, which influences our learningFreud (1915); Adler (1927); Erikson (1950); Jung (1964)
BehaviourismExternal factors, conditioning, learning as observable behaviourThorndike (1905); Watson (1930); Pavlov (1955); Skinner (1978)
CognitivismInternal processing, incremental stages, prior knowledgePiaget (1932, 1958) Piaget & Cook (1952); Chomsky (1957)
ConstructivismHumans create meaning, not acquire it. We construct knowledge through our experiences. Socio-constructivism: we learn through interactions with othersPiaget (1945, 1957); Montessori (1936; 1949); Vygotsky (1978)
HumanismHolistic learning, individual as a subject, learning is naturalMaslow (1943, 1968); Rogers (1946, 1959)
Source: authors mentioned in table

I do not intend to go over these theories here as I have already written about them in more detail for the New Routes Magazine and even delivered a webinar for BRAZ-TESOL on the topic:

However, I do want to ask a few reflective questions in the light of two (possibly three) of the theories mentioned above. Consider the following:

Many of Freud’s propositions are now considered pseudoscience but he was certainly right about childhood experiences influencing our adult lives. How damaged will kids from this generation be if we don’t reflect on how to provide safe learning environments that actually help them and do not put their lives (and that of their loved ones) in danger?

I wrote about the need for reflection on the school ecosystem here.

If we look at what authors such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori proposed (we could even talk about Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education), we might realize that education means preparation for life (to quote John Dewey) not academia only and that current formal education, in general, seems to have settled at promoting a fixed curriculum that keeps great distance from students’ real life. Contact with nature, arts, emotions (mental health and self-regulation), essential life skills, empathy and compassion have never been so important, nevertheless, they seem so scarce.

Think about when these theories/pedagogies took shape and became popular. After a period of incredible hardship (Great World War and the Spanish Flu). It’s as if they were created as a necessity to rethink the status quo and provide innovative solutions to an old educational system. Why haven’t we learned much from them 100 years after? Why do we insist on an outdated teacher-centered model that focuses on standardized test results and the job market? Is it something we can change or is the system immutable?

Finally, I’d like to talk about humanism. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’ll notice that we need food, shelter, safety, love, self-esteem and many other things that are directly connected to us as human beings, holistically, not simply thinking/reasoning brains.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Source: Simple Psychology website

That tells us something about what to prioritize in education and in society as a whole. However, can we say we have at least tried to use these lessons from the past to reflect on the needs of today and break the current educational paradigm? Can we honestly say that we drank from the source of wisdom left to us by the collective endeavor of human entrepreneurship and ingenuity in order to face this challenge in the best way we could with the least damage possible?

I know. Not everything is up to us. I wish I could say that if we really wanted to, we’d be able to make change. Proper change. The powers that be are set and we sometimes find ourselves in a straightjacket. Nonetheless, what are the lessons we can learn from how learning has evolved and how schooling is set up nowadays? I wrote about a few lessons here that might shed some light on this debate.

I suppose my takeaway is that even though formal education has been reaching more and more people, it is still quite old-fashioned, based on hierarchy/discipline and behaviorism, college/academia-oriented, and that families have delegated many of their parenting responsibilities to schools as they’re always busy. The wheel must keep turning no matter what. In that process, there’s no time to really stop and rethink the things we’re doing.

If we keep moving and don’t stop to learn from the past, someone once said, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. I wish I could say there’s hope. I wish I could say that we’ll get out of this terrible pandemic as soon as possible and that we’ll change education to suit the needs of our kids as future citizens that are connected to one another, to nature, people who have compassion and can work collaboratively to achieve solutions to benefit the world. However, based on what I’m witnessing, I dare say that History will keep on repeating itself and old mistakes will be made and replicated again an again.

I hope I’m wrong and I hope we learn something from the history of learning. What do you think?

References

Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg

Benson, H. (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cordasco, F. (1976). A brief history of education: a handbook of information on Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern educational practice (No. 67). Rowman & Littlefield.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Ghandhi, S. (1984). Spare the rod: Corporal punishment in schools and the European Convention on Human Rights. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 488-494.

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. B. B. Carter (Ed.). Calcutta: Orient Longmans.

Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind (Vol. 1). Lulu. com.

Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories an educational perspective sixth edition. Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on Behaviorism and Society. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Simon and Schuster

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Wickens, Andrew P. (2015) A History of the Brain: From Stone Age Surgery to Modern Neuroscience. London: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84872-365-8