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November 11, 2005

Research Notes: switching between cognitive and behavioural/affective attention

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Acquiring IT skills often involves mastering detailled but prgrammatic patterns of behaviour concurrently with understanding theoretical and non-visually-presentable models. What can the experience of teaching such a subject tell us about extended cognition?

I have been reading What teachers know the final report of the project Attention and the knowledge bases of expertise (Michael Luntley and Janet Ainley). So far it has proved to be quite thought provoking, both in terms of philosophy and also in direct pedagogical implications. The aim of the project (broadly) is to examine the conjecture that the expert knowledge of the teacher goes much further than what is commonly and easily represented in a lesson plan. In fact, as I think they demonstrate, the most significant expert knowledge involves the teachers understanding of patterns of attentional activity amongst the students and themselves.

Teaching is, as I recognize from my own experience, about engaging with and guiding the attentional activity of the students in discovery, skills practice and moving towards independence. My recent work with concept mapping techniques, in which a map is used to focus and guide attention towards insight and discovery, has given demonstration of this.

There is, however, one assumption in the methodology of the project that is philosophically controversial, thought provoking, and significant. That is the disctinction used between cognitive tasks and behavioural/affective tasks. The challenge to this comes from Andy Clark's extended cognition thesis. The nature of the challenge is a concerted effort by Clark to show that many practical activities, and the tools that they use, are in fact inseperable from and definitively part of cognitive activities. The relationship between mind and world is porous. The case of IT teaching would support this. The process of carrying out an algorithm on a computer, physically operating the interface, is a classic case of thinking through a non-brain-contained activity. It could also be said to have an affective component (this is more contentious).

The teaching observations and subsequent interviews carried out as part of the research noted one very significant, and to me familiar, case where the difference between the cognitive and the behavioural/affective has to be considered. Most teachers recognize this situation:

  • a class is working on a physical ativity, requiring the playing out of a set of behaviours;
  • the teacher wants the class to abstract out of that activity a concept (or model) that summarizes, extends, makes generic, or contextualises the activity;
  • the teacher must somehow shift the attention of the students from the physical activity to conceptual thought.

You will often hear me signposting this in a lesson: "we now need to focus on the following concepts which you should think and use during the practical activity". That's fine when I'm teaching adults, but with children it is much more difficult.

This is interesting because it indicated that there are two different forms of activity, and teachers must understand the relationship between them. The challenge back to Clark is: does this experience mark out a separation of the physical and the cognitive? I would say that there is a clear difference between these two modes of learning, but it is not a physical/cognitive distinction. As evidence, consider the use of physical tools in the understanding of a concept or model – the classic example being a concept map shown by the teacher at the point of teaching the concept.

The really significant issue is: what are the differences that mark out the two modes of learning. From experience I would say that there is a difference. This difference, I argue, marks out the separation of behavioural and conceptual. I suspect that considering this distinction more fully would give a better understanding of attention, insight, learning etc. So then, what is a concept?

Note that I don't think that this in any way undermines the argument about attention. In fact it may add weight and subtlety to it. Teachers should certainly be aware of the grey areas between the physical and the mental, as that may be where most learning actually happens. A big question for every teacher is: how does a physical embedded activity become an independent concept?

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November 08, 2005

Research Notes: what is a concept? and the role of attention

Am considering the "what is a concept?" chapter of Deleuze and Guattari's What Is Philosophy? in the light of real teaching experience and the AHRB project Attention and the Knowledge Bases of Expertise (Luntley and Ainley).

Here's an initial concept map:

November 06, 2004


Does it have to have a word or phrase associated with it? Or is it enough just to have some identifier that indicates its presence?

It must make a deifinite difference when used, not necessarily always precisely the same difference. But that difference must make a different eventuality occur or at least be possible whenever it is deployed (Leibniz?).

Like a tool, its cutting edge changes slowly, but how we handle it can be altered radically.