Social Implications of Cognitive Pruning
Human learning has been the focus of much of my studies this past year, so it surprised me when chapter four, human learning, was the source of a rather large epiphany. The beginning of the chapter was review. I had mulled over Pavlov and Skinner’s Behaviorism enough to realize that – beyond wanting Pavlov to come over and train my dog to do, well, anything – I knew that the Behaviorist approach was a teaching method that I wanted to keep out of my classroom; however, this is easier said than done.
As Brown points out, “Teachers in language classrooms often offer stimuli or reinforcement after a student performs in the foreign language” (2007, p.89). I would take this statement beyond the realm of foreign language and say most classrooms offer similar stimuli or reinforcement. Today, many classrooms are set up so that students are motivated to learn so that they can get good grades, be liked by the teacher, receive the gold star, etc. Note that these motivations are all external and have nothing to do with whether the information is relevant to the students’ lives or not.
This concept of learn this because I told you to was always slightly fascist in my mind, but I never thought there would be negative implications of this type of learning beyond that of students’ complaints. This is why the concepts of systematic forgetting and cognitive pruning were so disturbing to me. Brown defined cognitive pruning as, “the elimination of unnecessary clutter and a clearing of the way for more material to enter the cognitive field” (2007, p.94), but he never addressed the question, who is forgetting what and why? If students tend to retain information that their brains have deemed important because of personal connections, (cue my epiphany) what does this mean for students who are not of the white middleclass majority that dominates education?
I always knew that students, myself included, often forget material as time passes, but I never contemplated the idea that one student might be forgetting more than another based on the necessity of the information received. A white middleclass student, for example, might make a mental note when learning about accent marks in her Spanish class, because she wants to be an international businesswoman. Her brain flags this information as important, and she retains the concept, if not most of the details. Her fellow classmate, however, might view this information quite differently. He is a poor undocumented Latino student who already speaks Spanish but never learned to read or write in his native language. Accents seem like a joke. No one ever wanted him to speak Spanish before, so why should he worry about accents now? Which student is more likely to remember the information for the Spanish test? Hmmm, I wonder.
This is why I consider Rodger’s and Freire’s contributions to Constructivism so important. In this theory of learning, students are empowered to be active, social learners who have a voice in what they are learning. This type of learning helps the student create more personal connections to whatever is being learned therefore helping the student – from any background – to better retain the information. If the teacher helps the student realize that he should be proud of his native tongue and reading and writing it is one way to express this pride, it could help the student make a better personal connection and therefore increase his chances of having that information survive cognitive pruning.
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