Skip to content
ascd logo

April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

On Teaching Brains to Think: A Conversation with Robert Sylwester

    Advances in neuroscience are confirming a biological base for much of what educators have learned about teaching thinking skills.

      Brain research is producing fascinating information, but it isn't necessarily answering the practical questions of educators. How can our growing knowledge of the human brain help us teach thinking skills?
      Some scientists say that it's too early to ask such specific questions (Bruer, 1998), but we are getting a lot of new information about the brain. And educators are looking for biological correlates to the things they've learned from teaching students and from doing educational research. Although some scientists say that it's too early to ask a specific question about how research helps us teach thinking skills, now that kind of information is emerging.
      Biophysicist Francis Crick (1994) wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis that we're nothing but a pack of neurons. He wasn't just being cute. Biology explores physical realities—not the sort of floating-about-essences that we call the mind. Scientists of the mind explore functional realities; cognitive neuroscientists explore the behavior of neuron assemblies and the distribution and effects of chemicals. Both kinds of scientists explore the same phenomena, but in different ways, and they describe things differently. If nonmaterial cognition exists, philosophers and theologians need to explore it, not biologists. To a neuroscientist, reducing cognition to physical realities is biologically sound.
      A few years ago when I began looking into the teaching of thinking, I found that there were different camps. Among them were the philosophical approach and the psychological approach. But biology presents a third approach. Some biologists, including Crick, charge that until recently, cognitive scientists ignored the physiological basis of what they were studying. Is that a fair criticism?
      I think it is. Education must change from relying mostly on social and behavioral science to being based more on biology. But until the last decade, it wouldn't have done cognitive scientists much good to worry about biology because such research tools as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) didn't exist. These new tools allow scientists to directly study brain activity in normal humans. Imaging played a key role in recent spectacular advances in the brain sciences.
      When some of us got together in the 1980s to try to make sense of the developments in teaching thinking, we cobbled together a framework to incorporate various perspectives on thinking, ranging from particular skills to such broad concepts as critical thinking (Marzano et al., 1988; Marzano & Pickering, 1997). To see how the various aspects might relate to one another, we proposed five "dimensions": (1) having positive attitudes toward learning, such as seeing the value of learning something; (2) acquiring and integrating declarative knowledge (knowing what) and procedural knowledge (knowing how); (3) refining and extending knowledge, such as finding analogies; (4) using knowledge for meaningful purposes, such as solving problems; and (5) developing productive habits of mind, such as thinking creatively. Do these many ways of conceptualizing thinking help students learn to think?
      The many facets of thinking may be something like grammar. A child learns to speak grammatically correct English without having a clue about prepositional phrases. Several years later, we explain grammar in school. When the now grammatically astute child speaks, there's still a good chance that he or she doesn't consciously consider syntactical formulations. But when I'm writing something that doesn't read well, I examine it grammatically and often discover the problem. Having a conscious grasp of grammar is useful to me, although most of the time, I'm not aware of how I'm using it automatically.
      Thinking may be similar. We probably have a lot of problem-solving heuristics in our heads that thinking theorists have made more explicit in thinking-strategy programs. They're useful when we are thinking through a difficult problem—consciously identifying and considering alternatives and so on. So explicit knowledge of both grammar and thinking can be useful, although outside the classroom, we may not use them very often.
      An intriguing theme addressed in some school programs is meta-cognition, the awareness of one's own thinking and the ability to "control" it to some degree. Can brain research help us understand that?
      Metacognition is probably a unique human ability. It's deeply grounded in the concept of consciousness. Human beings do a lot of introspection; as I think about your questions, I'm carrying on a conversation with myself. I suppose that it helps me consciously understand what I'm unconsciously doing (and have been doing since early childhood), and I suppose that metacognitive programs may enhance the process. But I'm afraid that brain researchers can't be of much help at this point.
      What about self-regulation, what Reuven Feuerstein calls "restraining impulsivity"? Does a knowledge of brain functioning help us understand the relationship between thinking and emotion?
      When it comes to regulating our impulsiveness, we seem to have a fast and a slow response system. The fast reflexive system emerged to deal with dangers and opportunities that were clearly immediate: act quickly or die or lose a fleeting opportunity for resources. The slower reflective system solves challenges that permit a rational consideration of alternative responses. Thinking programs encourage a greater use of reflective thought.
      The reflexive system is triggered by a strong emotional impulse, and it proceeds hell-bent without checking things out with the rational reflective cortical system. It's been called—mistakenly, in my view—downshifting. It's not that we can't think under threat; it's a different, but equally valuable, form of thinking. The fast reflexive system is obviously the default system because it keeps us alive and well fed, whereas the reflective system may only help us decide which necktie to purchase. Prisons are full of folks who wished that they had counted to 10 or had taken a thinking-skills program.
      You've said that the reflexive system is triggered by an emotional impulse, but don't both reflexive and reflective responses have an emotional element?
      True. Researchers have found that stored memories of our experiences include an emotional component, so even reasoned choices are probably influenced by associations that we're not aware of. What we call emotions are at the heart of an unconscious arousal system that triggers all sorts of conscious cognitive activity. A sort of biological thermostat activates attention (our focusing system), which then activates a rich set of problem-solving and response systems. Various emotions, such as fear and pleasure, probably provide an important initial response bias that speeds up and enhances the response.
      Stanley Greenspan (1997), a child psychiatrist, is worried about the emotional well-being of children in today's society. He and his colleagues have helped a number of autistic children by concentrating on their emotional needs.
      I may be going way beyond Greenspan's ideas, but I invite you to speculate for a moment. A classic conflict among researchers interested in teaching thinking is over the value of teaching conscious strategies, such as step-by-step protocols for making decisions, which are basic to the thinking-skills movement. Some researchers report success in getting students to use strategies that were taught directly, whereas others have concluded that in general, it's not effective (Brandt, 1989).
      Greenspan contends that good thinking depends not just on pure rationality but also on emotional overtones. He encourages parents to make sure that young children see the connections between their feelings and appropriate actions. If he's right, his findings may provide a clue to how people learn to think strategically and, therefore, to how we might more successfully teach thinking strategies.
      Emotion drives everything. We attempt to solve only problems that are emotionally important to us. Emotion is an unconscious arousal system that informs our body and brain that something important has occurred or will occur. Feelings are our conscious awareness of this unconscious emotional arousal. Feelings get us into conscious attentive and problem-solving behaviors.
      Greenspan provides excellent advice on how to guide this process. So the "getting in touch with your feelings movement" has some serious biological substance to it, even though lots of rationally driven folks laugh it off. Folks with no conscious understanding of their emotional state often do foolish things, so it's important to help children understand how emotions and feelings affect behavior.
      Most neuroscientists assume an evolutionary perspective: They think that evolution has played a big role in shaping human characteristics, including the structure of our brains. Some—Stephen Pinker (1997), Michael Gazzaniga (1998), and Henry Plotkin (1998), for example—insist that through evolution, many aspects of our brains are hardwired. They contend that our brains couldn't possibly use language or recognize faces if we weren't born with systems of neurons predesignated for that purpose. That makes me reconsider the idea of "teaching" thinking skills, because they are undoubtedly a basic part of our intellectual inheritance. Leslie Hart (1975), a pioneering interpreter of brain research, argued that "the brain doesn't have to be taught to think any more than the stomach has to be taught to digest food. That's what it does!"
      To stay alive long enough to procreate, organisms have to develop strategies to protect their vulnerable young in wombs, eggshells, nutshells, and so on. Because humans have a long childhood, they have to learn how to communicate and connect emotionally with older kin and others who will protect them and solve problems for them during their immaturity.
      We go through two childhoods. One is from birth to about 10, when children develop three essential human properties: an efficient motor system, a mastery of the local language, and a knowledge of the social rules and conventions that their local group espouses—that is, good manners. During the second childhood, from 10 to about 20, a person learns how to be a productive, reproductive human being. It involves the maturation of the frontal lobes and the concomitant gradual weaning from a dependency on parents' problem-solving abilities. This allows us to assume the more independent roles expected of adults: pulling our own economic weight in a highly interdependent society and rearing the next generation, directly through parenting and indirectly through the financial support of public institutions, including schools.
      Any capabilities that enhance these important tasks are genetically beneficial. Our brains may have several hundred distinct processing systems that enable us to address the myriad dangers and opportunities we confront. Some are online and functioning well at birth: circulation, respiration, suckling. Some function at a beginning but basically dysfunctional level: the ability to move fingers and legs but not to grasp or walk. Some may emerge years later: handwriting, running. The really important survival skills seem to emerge effortlessly and without formal instruction—articulate speech, grasping, walking—so we probably have some kind of innate system to get the important things going quickly. Biologically less important activities—tap dancing, learning calculus—must be explicitly taught and are mastered with effort.
      There's probably an upper biological limit in many of these skills beyond which normal human beings generally don't go (memorizing hundreds of phone numbers, running 50 miles an hour), and so we off-load such tasks to technologies (phone books, automobiles). Some virtuosos and savants can go way beyond normality in a skill, but their accomplishments may require an intense focus on a small segment of human capability, often to the detriment of other capabilities, often social capabilities.
      How would we go about developing a capability if our brain didn't have the essence of it hardwired? For example, the human visual system can't process the infrared segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, but insects can. We can experience it only as heat. It's important for the insect visual system to have this capability, because infrared provides important information on food sources. Because we don't seek the same food sources, we don't need the capability. The best teacher in the world couldn't teach a person to see infrared. It's possible to improve an existing innate system, but not to create a new one. We typically go outside the evolutionary processes into technology when we seek information beyond our capabilities, for example, when we develop an oscilloscope to see the visual representation of sounds that we can't hear.
      Thus, all human capabilities exist at birth, at least at a protolevel. Experience, instruction, and practice move these capabilities from dysfunctional to functional. Further, humans have the almost unique capability of imitating the behavior of others; we observe how others mix and match a set of basic capabilities into a problem-solving strategy and then try it, often in play activities, but also in school.
      In short, the idea that aspects of thinking may be inherent in the structure of our brains is not an argument against bringing these processes to consciousness and practicing to improve them. Thinking skills probably emerge as the structure of language emerges. We master both unconsciously before we consciously understand them.
      Some thinking-skills programs have students compare and classify familiar things, such as forks and spoons, so that when they encounter more complex matters, they'll be able to compare and classify those. The idea makes sense when we understand that "neurons that fire together wire together"—neurons that often fire at the same time as certain other neurons become more likely to fire whenever those other neurons fire. In other words, we use less brain energy when performing familiar functions than when learning new skills. But does that apply to such mental functions as comparing?
      Comparison and classification are monumental cognitive capabilities. They're at the absolute heart of language, which is nothing more than the verbalization of 500,000 categories. Put 50 maple leaves and one oak leaf on a table and ask 4-year-olds to indicate which one is different. They will typically point to the oak leaf, which is the wrong answer, because all 51 leaves differ from one another. The remarkable thing is that the children are humanly correct, because the oak leaf is more different from the maple leaves than the maple leaves are from one another. No one really teaches young children to make that kind of discrimination—and it's so essential to everything we cognitively do.
      Another illustration is the Pokémon trading cards and video game phenomenon that fascinates young children. Pokémon requires players to quickly classify and match more than 150 complex cartoon characters who constantly change their configurations during the game. My preschool grandchildren are way ahead of me in Pokémon capabilities. Adults weren't the ones who helped them develop their amazing classification proficiency. It makes me wonder whether we're seriously underestimating the capabilities of primary students with the simple, static classification tasks in some curriculums. Educators mustn't assume that children will never be able to think if we don't give them workbook exercises in thinking skills.
      Nevertheless, all brain systems move from a slow, awkward functional level to a fast, efficient level—crawling to toddling to walking to running. The ability to classify any set of objects, events, or qualities into categories begins with an ability to recognize only gross differences. With more experience and instruction, the person moves to a level at which the discriminations are sophisticated and quick. It requires much less cognitive energy to make a classification decision if the person has a lot of experience with the problem.
      It makes sense to focus on thinking skills, such as comparing and classifying. I'm on the side of those who believe that the right kind of learning experiences can enhance latent abilities.

      Brandt, R. (1988, December/1989, January). On learning research: A conversation with Lauren Resnick. Educational Leadership, 46, 12–16.

      Bruer, J. T. (1998, November). Brain science, brain fiction. Educational Leadership, 56, 14–18.

      Crick, F. (1994). The astonishing hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

      Gazzaniga, M. S. (1998). The mind's past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

      Greenspan, S. I. (1997). The growth of the mind and the endangered origins of intelligence. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

      Hart, L. A. (1975). How the brain works. New York: Basic Books.

      Marzano, R. J., Brandt, R. S., Hughes, C. S., Jones, B. F., Presseisen, B. Z., Rankin, S. C., & Suhor, C. (1988). Dimensions of thinking: A framework for curriculum and instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

      Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. et al. (1997). Dimensions of learning (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

      Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: W. W. Norton.

      Plotkin, H. (1998). Evolution in mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      From our issue
      Product cover image 100030.jpg
      Sustaining Change
      Go To Publication