THE COGNITIVE APPROACH AS A BASIS FOR ENHANCED CURRICULA

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1 THE COGNITIVE APPROACH AS A BASIS FOR ENHANCED CURRICULA UOBRC - Dec. 8, 2005 Georges N. Nahas

2 SUMMARY Based on constructivism, personal development, and the mastering of communication tools, the cognitive approach is characterized by integrated curriculum, situated learning and application to real world settings. Improving the productivity of higher education (HE) is an ambitious objective, especially worthy in developing countries. Innovation at the level of the curriculum can have a major impact on HE productivity.

3 In many countries HE suffers from a lack of contextualization. Developing countries imported their academic programs, only to realize, often too late, that these programs did do not correspond to their needs nor do they meet their expectations. The end of the twentieth century witnessed a breakthrough in cognitive psychology that had enormous repercussions in the educational world. Educators in developing countries have been more skeptical when it came to applying the cognitive approach to secondary or university education.

4 OBJECTIVE My premise in this article is that the cognitive approach is a promising framework for enhancing productivity through substantial curricular changes. However, it requires comprehensive review and revision of teaching strategies and curriculum design policies and the development of cross-disciplinary programs.

5 THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (1) The cognitive approach described here is based on the original works of Gérard Vergnaud whose main innovation was the introduction of the conceptual field notion, an important starting point in the reconsideration of curricular practices. According to Vergnaud, a concept is defined by: - the set of situations in which it operates, - the set of invariables (specific vocabulary or theorems or functions) that make it operational, - and the set of symbols that allow communication and expression related to the concept.

6 The mastery of a concept is cumulative and interactive. It needs time to develop, and it must be related to other domains of knowledge and other concepts. The concept thus becomes an integral part of a more general knowledge entity called a conceptual field. According to Vergnaud there is no way to separate specific concept acquisition from conceptual field building: they are interrelated in time and content (Fig. X-1).

7 THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (2)

8 Figure X-1: The Relationship between Conceptual Fields. Each conceptual field is represented by an inverted cone; solid cones, labeled in bold font, represent the intersections of fields. Calculus intersects with the more theoretical domain of Topology in Applied Topology. Calculus also intersects with Physics in Applied Mathematics.

9 THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (3) The process of envisioning any curriculum content in terms of conceptual fields is far from being exhausted theoretically. However, as a practical matter, we need to know to what extent a conceptual field may be developed in a specific moment of knowledge construction, and in relation to which other conceptual fields. (For example, while introducing the concept of integration at the freshman level we need to know with which other concepts we have to link it and how this linkage is going to be developed and stressed from the freshman to the senior years.)

10 Thus there will never be a universal curriculum for any major. Any knowledge construction has to take into consideration scientific, cognitive, and educational components.

11 THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (4) Such an approach must call into question not only the independence of the concepts involved in building the learner s knowledge, but also the foundations of didactic techniques and curriculum building.: - Techniques used in university teaching have often been questioned, - but rarely have educators questioned the independence of the different disciplines or of the different domains of a particular discipline.

12 Utilization of the conceptual field theory has two direct impacts on curriculum design: - First, the experience of the learner must serve as a cognitive base for knowledge construction. - Second, educational planners must consider the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge.

13 AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM (1) Scientists, professors, and researchers in different domains share their expertise and problem solving skills to answer complex scientific questions. Such interdisciplinarity has proven productive in real world professional settings, but it has not yet become an important component of our academic undergraduate programs. Programs are usually set up as follows. In order to meet the requirements of students majoring in a given domain (A), the curriculum specifies a course (X) offered by a service department in domain (B). Such a course (X) is not specific to a well-defined group of students, and learners from either domains (A) or (B) (or sometimes, even more domains) take it.

14 Application of the conceptual field theory raises the following questions: - Does the content of course (X) have the same value for knowledge construction for students belonging to domains (A) and (B)? - What restructuring does course (X) need to meet the requirements of efficient knowledge construction?

15 AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM (2) The following two examples illustrate the difficulties that can arise: Basic calculus courses are usually offered by the mathematics department and are regularly taken by students from various departments, such as mathematics, physics and engineering. Whereas a theoretical approach is extolled by mathematicians, it is difficult for physicists and engineers to integrate such an approach into their need for problem solving.

16 A course in developmental psychology offered by the psychology department is taken jointly by psychology and education students. Whereas psychologists who teach this course minimize the sociological and educational issues compared to the relational ones, educators prefer to stress physical and mental development aspects that complete the relational dimension.

17 AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM (3) In both cases, the assumption behind a classical approach to curriculum design is that theory by itself is sufficient for problem solving. For non-major users of the mathematics and developmental psychology courses, the objectives are weakly achieved and redundant courses are offered to fill gaps (Fig. X-2).

18

19 Figure X-2: X Traditional Curriculum Design. A redundant course contains the same content as a course offered previously but with a specific flavor related to an applied field of knowledge. As represented by the cylinder shape, the intersection of domains and the horizontal enlargement of the field of knowledge are impossible.

20 AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM (4) In contrast, the cognitive approach claims that we must differentiate between information and knowledge. - Information (such as the definition of an integral in calculus, or stage of development in developmental psychology) is treated out of context, - While, treated with the proper tools and set of invariables (schemes, theorems) to ensure its operationality,, and with the symbols indispensable to its communicability (proper language information information becomes knowledge. Information regarding a specific concept becomes knowledge when it can be applied in new situations.

21 AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM (5) Fig. X-3 represents a curriculum design based on the cognitive approach. The shaded area of domain overlap can be accomplished through various instructional methods such as common lectures, specific sections for different domains, and integrative seminars. The applied flavor common to both fields is used as the basis for generalization and theoretical development. Such a design avoids redundancy.

22 New academic options must drive curriculum design towards new choices based on cognitive tools and curricular interfaces.

23 CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE CURRICULUM CONTENT (1) In traditional lecture based teaching approaches, the student is often left alone to find the path from theory to application. Physicists and engineers, for example, are asked to learn mathematical information in an artificial classroom environment and to apply it later to real world problems (Fig. X-X 4).

24 Figure X-4: X Traditional Teaching Approach. Instruction focuses on teaching theoretical information in advance of application, leading to difficulty in future real life problem solving.

25 CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE CURRICULUM CONTENT (2) Conceptual field theory considers the preparation phase of knowledge construction as very important. The objective of any preparatory phase is to help the learner master different cognitive schemes that lead to the ability to put concepts and theorems into action. A student centered approach linked with a communicative method of teaching in which the instructor is the manager of learning will: - promote critical thinking, - and incorporate the successive steps needed to change information into knowledge.

26 In such a process, productivity is not measured in terms of time, but in terms of ability to respond to the market, which often complains that the newly hired graduates need intensive training to become productive. The cognitive approach provides for contextualization of the curriculum content by adopting an experimental basis for knowledge acquisition.

27 CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE CURRICULUM CONTENT (3)

28 Figure X-5: X Cognitive Teaching Approach. Acts in real life situations are the main source of knowledge acquisition. The theoretical development that follows is reinforced within a dialectical process. When conceptualization is achieved, the learner is able to use his knowledge to deal with new situations. The difference between the traditional and cognitive approaches is a difference in depth between acquisition of information that is applied too late to real life situations, and knowledge building anchored from the very beginning in real life situations.

29 CASE TO ILLUSTRATE THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (1) Traditional Curriculum Design A traditional teacher education program prepares future elementary school teachers in a four-year program three years for the Bachelor of Arts (BA) plus one year for a supplemental Teaching Diploma (TD). This curriculum relied upon stand alone classes, without integration or application (Table X-1). X

30

31 CASE TO ILLUSTRATE THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (2) The Cognitive Approach to Curriculum Design The cognitive approach will adapt the curriculum design to address teacher preparation from a totally different perspective. The cognitive approach insures cross-disciplinarity in presenting the different conceptual fields that intersect with the main conceptual field, the education major (Fig. X-6). X The integration of the BA and TD curricula creates a three year program that highlights integrated knowledge building and application, through courses, class observation, training, personal and communication skills building and competence mastery. The time required to obtain a degree is reduced by one year, representing a substantial productivity increase.

32 CASE TO ILLUSTRATE THE COGNITIVE APPROACH (3) One criticism that could be leveled at the cognitive- based curriculum is that it is more intensive and compact, and therefore requires more concentrated time and effort on the part of students.

33 FINANCIAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE IMPLICATIONS University administrators sometimes advocate the traditional approach for reasons of financial efficiency, since it avoids seemingly redundant course offerings. In fact, the traditional approach can be redundant, and the development of common interest courses based on the cognitive approach can provide a significant financial benefit. Such curricular reorganization requires two main administrative changes:

34 Faculty must work together in teams. For example, a course in Psychology based on educational situations and on class observations requires multiple faculty to work together to design the course, and possibly to offer it also. Course offerings must be organized by program, rather than by department. The Program Coordinator must be more concerned with organizing cross- disciplinary teams than with allocating courses to faculty members within various departments.

35 CONCLUSION The cognitive approach, based on constructivism, is a promising framework for enhancing productivity through substantial curricular changes. Cognitive-based approaches require a drastic review of teaching strategies and curriculum design policies and the development of cross-disciplinary programs. The limited financial resources of developing countries allow little room for wasting time and effort. The costs are too great, and the benefits too large, for these countries to continue to base instruction on inefficient and outdated approaches. For these countries, the cognitive approach is best for linking HE to their immediate human and developmental needs.

36 Thank you.

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