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Head, heart and hands: Cognitive science casts new light on some old words of wisdom

Written by: Christopher Tay
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11 min read

Over the 30-plus years of National Curriculum, balance and breadth have largely been a debate around the amount of time allocated between core and foundation subjects, with attendant concerns for standards of achievement in the former and quality of provision in the latter. In the context of high-stakes accountability, balance is skewed by attention to those aspects that contribute directly to school performance measures. The consequent narrowing of curriculum has led to a counter-revival of interest in the holistic tradition of educating the head, heart and hands. The ‘trivium’ of thinking, feeling and doing is once again the clarion call for a return to a more balanced and rounded education (see, for example, Hyman, 2017).

Evidence from cognitive science speaks to this debate in two distinct ways. Firstly, developmental studies of the brain add grist to the rationale for continuing breadth in learning experiences into adolescence and beyond. The key neurodevelopmental context for schools is the maturation of brain networks for specific functions like reading or executive control, which continues beyond childhood. The quality and breadth of those networks is dictated by the extent and variety of the experiences encountered by the learner. Therefore, presenting learning experiences across a variety of modalities – head, heart, hands – is essential in supporting healthy brain development.

Within certain functional networks, activity between regions associated with thinking, feeling and doing supports our ability to make sense of self, others and events in the environment. The Default Mode Network (DMN) and the social brain describe important functional networks whose development during school-age years underpins our capacity for meaning-making. Both networks entail a dynamic interplay between cognition, emotion and behaviour. Questions of balance, particularly in relation to how knowledge is experienced in different subject areas and teaching approaches, may have far-reaching consequences for developing this capability for living meaningfully.

Breadth in modalities

Brain development is a narrative of rapid early growth of neuronal resources followed by a longer period of consolidation, in which regions are fine-tuned and networks emerge to support functional behaviour. Structure, which underpins concepts, functions and processes, emerges in response to activity and experience. Although the adult brain consists of a set of regions, each associated with a specialised function, it would be wrong to infer from this that the infant brain shares those regional specialisations but in an immature form. The idea that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ or contains innate centres for language or other functions is not supported by recent evidence from neuroscience. Activity in the early brain is diffuse and it is only in interaction with its environment that the young brain develops discrete areas of efficient processing (Karmiloff-Smith, 2012).

Whilst the first two years of life represent a period of rapid development, the brain continues to change significantly, right into early adulthood. Development of increasingly specialised functions is characterised by two processes: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ – the generation or strengthening of connections (synapses) between brain cells, within regions and across networks, in response to repeated or novel use – and ‘use it or lose it’ – the process of removing redundant connections (synaptic pruning) in pursuit of greater cognitive precision (Costandi, 2016). The significance for educators is that the structuring of the immature brain continues through childhood and adolescence via interaction with the activities crafted by teachers within learning environments, focusing during school-age years on building networks of regions for particular purposes such as reading or maths (Grotheer et al., 2018). Developmentally, breadth in activity and experience will shape functional connectivity across the maturing brain, just as effectively as narrowness will limit the extent to which networks are formed that underpin higher-order cognition. For example, it is well known that limited early language experience correlates to later poor performance in literacy (Locke et al., 2002).

Metaphorically, the region of emotional thinking is not located in the brain at all: we speak of ‘following the heart’ as opposed to making decisions ‘with the head’. This duality of emotion and reason has a long-standing basis in Western thinking, but whilst there are regions of the brain associated with emotional thinking, the interconnections between these and regions associated with cognition are so prolific that there is literally no thinking without emotion. The origin of this deep connection is emotion’s long evolutionary shadow, which continues to direct us in avoiding or engaging with events in order to adopt the best course of action. In the learning place, the role of emotional thinking is often considered from the point of view of interfering with learning, as, for example, in maths anxiety. However, in areas such as learning, attention, memory, decision-making, motivation and social functioning, emotional thinking provides the ‘rudder’ that steers our attention towards the relevant knowledge for any given situation (Immordino-Yang, 2016).

Emotions are processes that develop, as with other brain functions, in response to activity in the environment, and like cognitive functions are open to intervention. Therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or mindfulness seek to create gaps between events, states of mind and the emotions that we attach to them in order to interrupt unhelpful thinking patterns. Transitions into school from home, between classrooms and from play to work are made easier by the use of meditation strategies (Jenkins, 2019). Programmes like MindUP have demonstrated significant increases in prosocial behaviour within primary school-age populations, where development of children’s emotional regulation enhances subsequent learning (Maloney et al., 2016).

The benefits of physical activity are obvious and urgent in relation to the current crisis in obesity. However, ‘doing’ has additional spin-offs in terms of enhancing learning.  Whilst we are familiar with the role of hands in the context of adding spatial or imagistic gestures to spoken language, evidence exists to indicate that hand gestures also aid thinking. Hand gestures may indicate implicit knowledge that the learner has yet to articulate. Often those gestures convey different ideas to the words being spoken, indicating a knowledge gap that the learner is attempting to fill. The role of gesture in activating students’ implicit thinking in areas as diverse as maths or morality is significant to the extent that teaching gesture has a pronounced effect on academic performance (Novack and Goldin-Meadow, 2015).

Gesture is just one of the many areas informed by the notion that aspects of cognition reside in the sensorimotor system. By studying word recall of students using keyboards and those using handwriting, it appears that the motor component of handwriting supports better outcomes in later performance (Mangen and Balsik, 2016). The value of active movement to aid understanding is a foundational principle of Montessori education. Performance-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare are known to improve engagement and understanding (Irish, 2011). Of relevance here is the idea that motor processes appear to extend the range or quality of information available for processing (Clark, 2011), adding a further link to the connection between modes of experience and the quality of functional connectivity in the maturing brain.

Cognitive science offers an alternative way to audit breadth to ensure that: learners are developing their thinking across a variety of contexts; time and opportunity are given to children to develop emotional thinking and learn about its role in thinking; and space is made for learning to be truly ‘hands-on’ so that the cognitive gains of gesturing, manipulating and moving can be exploited in learning across all subjects.

Balancing knowledge and experience

Balance between the learner’s personal experience of the world (world-as-I-know-it) and the world as it is presented through the curriculum (world-as-it-is) may have strong implications for the way in which children and young people develop their long-term capacity for making sense of self, others and events in the world. Key to this idea is the manner in which thinking, feeling and doing combine to form concepts of identity from childhood through to adolescence.

Central to the emergence of identity is development of self-concept. Early awareness of self emerges in newborn babies, developing into the concept of separate identity by 18 months. This notion of self becomes more comprehensive and differentiated during childhood, underpinned by our own evaluations of our responses to past experiences and our beliefs about how we are seen by others. In adolescence, three key factors arise. One, our impressions of how others see us (including how we think we are judged or valued) become more important in driving self-concept. Two, the environments in which we experience others change markedly from the relatively nurturing places of home and primary school. Three, significant structural and functional changes take place in the brain regions associated with self-processing (Sebastian et al., 2008).

The conditions are set for the vigorous fusion of thinking, feeling and doing that characterises this period of rapid development in the functions associated with the social brain. Social cognition (the ability to derive meaning from the intentions and actions of others) and social affective processing (the interplay between emotions and behaviour in the context of interaction with others) play a significant role in driving the risk-taking and reward-seeking behaviour typical of this sensitive period of growth. Whilst cognitive science reveals the neuroanatomical changes underpinning risk-taking tendencies, evidence is also emerging that behaviour can be positively influenced by prosocial peer contexts, suggesting that adolescence represents a development ‘window’ that is optimal for prevention of some of the social and mental health problems that emerge in adolescence or early adulthood (Kilford et al., 2016).

One general direction for intervention in support of healthy social brain function may lie in developing children’s and young people’s capacity for high-quality, introspective thinking. The discovery of extensive brain activity in the absence of external stimuli led cognitive scientists on a search for the purpose of this ‘down-time’ busy-ness. This activity occurs in both waking and sleeping states and is spontaneous and internally focused. One suggestion is that these spontaneous flurries of internal activity are crucial for the proper development and maintenance of synaptic pathways throughout the brain (Andrews-Hanna, 2012).

The most studied of these so-called resting state networks is the Default Mode Network (DMN), which describes functional connectivity between regions associated with autobiographical memory, emotional regulation and forward planning. Evidence exists to show that high-quality, introspective thinking in DMN is correlated with better performance on cognitive tasks. Success in learning situations is associated with the ability to efficiently toggle between the systems for ‘looking out’ and ‘looking in’, suggesting that introspective thinking is important to the functions of self-regulation and monitoring. Opportunity for reflection, meditation or ‘flow’ tasks (performed with ease and in a state of absorption) has been shown to improve both the functioning of DMN and subsequent attention to cognitive tasks (Immordino-Yang, 2016; Andrews-Hanna, 2012).

Resting state activity describes a wide range of processes, from spontaneous mind wandering to intense internal focus, which, in sifting over events, considering personal experience and imagining alternative choices, appear to be central to a person’s ability to make meaningful sense of life and determine better possibilities for future action. Given the importance of resting state activity to healthy brain function, unease is expressed over diminishing opportunities for children and young people to develop high-quality, introspective thinking. Of particular concern are high-pressure curricular regimes and the 24/7 nature of social media, where constant demands for external attention disrupt opportunities for introspection at a time when these internally focused networks are still maturing (Immordino-Yang, 2016).

Questions of identity, healthy brain function and the opportunity for reflecting on personal experience have timely implications for the debate over the knowledge curriculum. How we think about knowledge (particularly in its meaningful role of truth-bearing), how it is presented to learners and the idea of what it means to properly know something as an authentic experience  are (or ought to be) at the heart of the debate. Attitudes to learning are known to improve in schools that offer effective programmes in arts and cultural education (Henley, 2012). Through accumulation of the conventions for expression, these disciplines offer a stable arena for learners to reflect on personal experience in light of the world as it is. This may suggest that, in these subjects, something about the experience of knowledge offers children and young people a context for making learning meaningful. Counsell (2018) argues eloquently for a balance between the ‘established fact’ of substantive knowledge and the ‘tradition of enquiry’ that constitutes the process of knowledge production, made relevant by the learner’s participation in such acts of creation.

In presenting evidence of the psychological and physiological bases of learning, cognitive science offers a welcome impetus for enlarging the current debate to include developmentally sensitive issues surrounding choices of breadth and balance.


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