Beyond Cognition: Addressing the Multidimensional Aspects of Learning and Education

In his presentation “Principles of Learning for the College Classroom,” Dr. Kevin Krahenbuhl addresses how to scaffold the curriculum appropriately to meet the demands of students’ cognitive abilities. Drawing from Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, Dr. Krahenbuhl extrapolates various principles from Willingham’s research in order to organize and structure his argument in regard to the essential aspects of learning. These learning principles related primarily to cognition and the scaffolding of assignments that were appropriately scaled to students’ cognitive abilities. Among them included Principle #1, that people are naturally curious; Principle #2, that factual knowledge precedes skill; and Principle #5, that extended practice is imperative for becoming proficient. These principles coincided with several other principles that related to the cognitive principles of learning, which Dr. Krahenbuhl argued to be imperative to learning and teaching students how to become successful in the classroom.

While I appreciated the helpful information for scaffolding the curriculum appropriately  through cognitive principles, especially as these principles are impactful for ensuring that the tasks set before students are within their range of mastery, I think these findings are limited insofar as they only address the cognitive principles of learning and do not acknowledge the ways in which learning is also social, emotional, cultural, and political. Indeed, so much of learning carries with it the weight of social, emotional, cultural, and political aspects which intersect with cognition. In other words, rather than envision learning to be one-dimensional (cognitive), we may envision that learning is multidimensional (cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and political), as students are conditioned to respond to the curriculum either negatively or positively (see especially Herb Kohl, Dana Driscoll, Paulo Freire, Geneva Gay, and Lev Vygotsky as just a few examples of necessary sources for these aspects of the curriculum).

As a teacher of writing and literature for general education classes, I experience first-hand the lack of interest and engagement that so many students bring with them to my classroom. Not only are the courses that I teach required classes, but they are also subjects that students tend to dislike the most-- reading and writing. And, despite our best efforts, most students’ attitudes, belief systems, and overall dispositions towards reading and writing will not be changed by merely focusing on the cognitive principles of learning alone. Moreover, because of the one-dimensional viewpoint expressed in the presentation, I find it problematic that some would advocate a position that argues that students “comprehend knowledge first rather than focusing on creating knowledge.” I find this problematic because I communicate to my students that my primary responsibility is to equip them with a tool-kit that allows them to create, as I hold the belief that mastering knowledge can only be done with creative endeavors where trial and error frequently surface.

Earlier this semester, my ENGL 1020 students discussed a podcast from the TED Radio Hour, “The Spirit of Inquiry.” In this podcast, former Bennington College President Liz Coleman argues that universities today do not cultivate students’ capacities to ask big picture questions because of the outdated model of education that aims to teach students to absorb knowledge rather the create knowledge. This ‘sage on the stage’ model of learning does not spark creativity and imagination. And it is this model of comprehension rather than creativity that a number of my colleagues seem to advocate. I concede that it is important that students master content knowledge, but this mastery of content knowledge must not always precede creativity. In fact, I would venture to argue that creation yields experience and only through experience do we cultivate mastery.

In essence, creation and mastery of content knowledge might work in tandem. As I explain to my students, I am teaching them to cultivate a toolkit that will allow you to create through their writing assignments. This toolkit can only be honed when students have organic and authentic experiences with writing. But the cultivation of this tool-kit is non-linear; because students come to our classrooms with various backgrounds and experiences, we cannot always gauge the speed at which students will acquire and master these skills. Some students may have already had experiences with the types of reading and writing I assign, so they might immediately have this tool-kit at their disposal. Others, however, will develop these skills as the semester progresses. As a result, most students will build skills, but not in a linear fashion. And it is this non-linear model of learning where creation and mastery of content knowledge intersect.