August 26, 2022

John Thompson: Looking at the Extended Mind

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John Thompson takes a look at Annie Murphy Paul’s book about the brain, how it works, and what that means for students.

Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain pushes back on the belief that the brain is “a cordoned-off space where cognition happens.” Paul argues that, “the mind constructs our thought processes from the resources available outside the brain.” She explains that, “These resources include 1) the feelings and movements of our bodies; 2) the physical spaces in which we learn and work; and 3) the other minds with which we interact—our classmates, colleagues, teachers, supervisors, friends.”

I’m not qualified to critique the nuanced cognitive science presented by this biology and social science writer, so I’ll focus on the third resource, “the physical spaces in which we learn and work.” Being a retired teacher, her account of the interactions with other minds is not just persuasive; it reads like the lessons my students taught me, while teaching me how to teach them, as well as an incisive contribution to the cognitive science we need our schools to draw on.
Being a historian, I was struck by research from as early as 1947 that made the case that focusing on children’s brains and teachers inside the classroom, which would be essentially mandated by the 21st century’s corporate reformers, was too simplistic to succeed.  Over 25 years, Roger Barker’s “Midwest Study” made the case that was echoed last week by Raj Chetty et. al. Barker documented the roles of, “Order and consistency, spaces where they spend their time not personalities or I.Q  but the ‘place’ where children acted from classroom to playground to locker room.”
Chetty, previously was the lead author of one of the most dubious data-driven education policy studies. It was cited by reformers as evidence that using test score growth, measured by inappropriate algorithms to fire teachers, “would raise lifetime income, increase high school graduation rates, prevent teen pregnancies, and have lifelong effects on students.” However, last month, Chetty et. al’s “Social Capital I” found, “The share of high-SES [Socio-economic] friends among individuals with low SES—which we term economic connectedness—is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date.”
Also, in 1971, Elliot Aronson studied student behavior in Austin, Texas in order to find ways to make desegregation work better. Aronson concluded, Intelligence is not “a fixed lump of something that’s in our heads.” He said it is “a transaction” and “a fluid interaction among our brain, our bodies, our spaces, and our relationships.” Aronson then worked on ways to make those interactions respectful and thus more effective for reducing the achievement gap.
Moreover, Paul’s analysis explains why one of the most indefensible corporate reforms which, I believe, should have been recognized as doomed-to-fail, and took a problematic mindset and made it worse. She explains, “Our culture conditions us to see mind and body as separate.” In an effort to jack up test scores, recess and exercise was undermined or driven out of so many low-performing elementary schools.  Instead, Paul writes, “We should be figuring out how to incorporate bursts of physical activities into the work day and school day.”
Paul also cites two approaches that work. She recommends a school where students take “the morning mile” walk before classes begin. She also recommends efforts to get students out into Nature. It’s not just the exercise and social connections that are beneficial; Nature inspires a sense of “awe” that motivates meaningful learning.
Next, Paul constructively contributes to one of the bitter, longterm debates over reading and math instruction (which this former high school teacher largely stayed away from.) In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley estimated that there was a 30-million gap between words that affluent and poor children heard spoken. Since then, corporate reformers pushed high stakes 3rd grade tests to close the word and reading gaps. However, Paul explains that low-income, like affluent, children “must forge connections between the solid stuff of the world and the abstract symbols we use to represent it.” She cites “Move by Reading” where “children act out words on the page;” this approach can double reading comprehension gains.
The same approaches apply to learning math. Paul explains, “Very unlike computers – humans solve problems most effectively by imagining themselves into a given scenario.” And children must learn “the ‘story’ told within the math problem.” They learn by moving “up and down” a number line, taking small steps that are congruent with the mental operation. This method can make them “35% less likely to become distracted.”
As a teacher, I learned the benefit of graphs, photographs, charts, and photos in helping students’ grasp historical narratives, as opposed to just memorizing names and dates. I then learned how important gestures are to communicating those stories so that students could “think like a historian.” However, I was ignorant of the “gesture gap,” which compares in size and importance to the “word gap” between affluent and poor children.  A child’s gesturing at fourteen months is linked to their vocabulary at 4-1/2 years-old, and it also correlates with longterm outcomes. Paul then made suggestions for closing that gap by teaching “gestural foreshadowing” to parents.
Another revelation that was surprising to me was revealed as a response to some college professors’ lack of effectiveness in teaching physics. As with other subjects, the solutions were “creating occasions” for “setting up scenarios in which people move their hands.”  Students learned to “think like a physicist” by manipulating tools to get the feel of the physics processes.
And, surprise!, Paul cites research on teaching foreign languages and the conclusion, “we think best when we think socially.”
Paul notes the excellent results produced by Germany’s apprenticeship programs. Then she urges us to take that one step further. She recalls the scene in the movie “Mean Girls” where a student mapped out the places in lunchroom where different groups interact with themselves. And then Paul added, “Almost every adolescent maintains a mental flowchart.” So, why not build on those skills, and draw upon students to apprentice the apprentices?  She seeks a system of “cascading mentorship” where students “both teach and are taught” and enhance their and their classmates’ confidence and motivation.
Next, Paul offers research-based equity solutions. Although she is polite in critiquing Angela Duckworth’s education solution, building “grit,” she shows how it is a single, individualistic solution to a complex challenge. Paul seeks to build a “group mind” as an answer to our excessive individualism. And “Intense social engagement” is the key to teaching and “active learning.” We must also address “prejudiced places” that “unequally tax the emotions, cognitive function, and performance of some groups more than others.”
Solutions require respectful social interaction. In order to build “intrinsic motivation,” we need collective efforts. We must draw on “belonging and identity” to “bolster our motivation and improve [the students and] our performance.”
The same mindset can help close gender gaps. Paul notes that Asian- American girls do better on tests when they are reminded before the test of their ethnicity and do worse when reminded of their gender.
Other solutions to the “stereotype effect” include “arguing together” and fighting over ideas while showing mutual respect. Students then learn how to create stories that are “mental movies.” This nurtures “creative abrasion” as well as other benefits, such as resisting “confirmation bias.”
Summarizing her solutions, Paul acknowledges this “’curriculum of the extended mind’ is not currently taught in any school. While she seeks the development of the “group mind,” she also notes the ways that it can backfire. For instance, persons in a collaborative group may also respond to their social inclinations by agreeing as opposed to dissenting. She draws upon Jonathan Haidt to illustrate the challenge. Haidt says, “human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee.” We are competitive, self-interested but we also can be “ultra social” and engage in a “hive switch” from ‘I’ mode to ‘we’ mode.”
We must admit to being “loppy creatures,” as well as “sensually sensitive ones.” When humans seek solutions, we’ll get better performance from our brain not by issuing orders but by “creating situations that draw out the desired result.” And I strongly agree with Paul that “instead of instructing a team to cooperate” … plan an event where “mutual physiological arousal are bound to take place.”
As I said, I’m not qualified to comment on most of the research Paul describes, but I have seen so much of the education dynamics she recounts in my highest-challenge classrooms. That’s why The Extended Mind is both an analysis of rigorous scientific research, and a collection of insights and solutions that I see as common sense. Hopefully, today’s reformers will listen to Annie Murphy Paul’s wisdom.
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