Brain developmentalism and constructivism: More recent times

Research into the workings of the human brain began to make headway during the 20th century. There is still a lot that we don’t understand about the brain but, thanks to the research disciplines that are today called ‘cognitive science’ and ‘neuroscience’, we are beginning to understand more.

See Davidson on Brain Basics.

The focus of brain research is on the workings of the developing brain. What conclusions can be drawn from knowledge of the brain for theories of learning and education? Some research into the brain examines its physiology (Koch 2004). Other strands in what we call the ‘brain-developmental’ approach make inferences about the growth and workings of the brain from our developing ways of thinking and use of language.

In contrast to the behaviourists, many brain developmentalists regard the human brain to be uniquely different from other animal brains. In its basic architecture, the human brain is closely related to the brains of other animals, particularly primates. However, in other respects – its capacities for language, consciousness and culture, for instance – it is so different that comparisons with other animals for the purposes of understanding the processes of learning may not even be meaningful (Deacon 1997).

Although the methodologies used in the various strands of brain developmentalism are at times quite different, they share a basic assumption: that we can find out about learning by investigating the working of the brain (not just behaviour). And when we observe behaviour, we can make meaningful inferences about the nature of the brain and the character of human consciousness. We discuss several examples of this work here: Piaget’s developmentalism, Chomsky’s linguistics and recent work in the cognitive sciences.

Dimension 1: The processes of learning

Jean Piaget was a leading exponent of a theory of brain developmentalism that is often called ‘constructivism’. We discussed Piaget’s stages of child development in Chapter 5. Children’s mental capacities grow through four major stages: from sensorimotor or pre-language, to pre-operational language and thought, to concrete operations or logical thought and multiple perspectives and, finally, by mid-adolescence, to the formal or propositional operations embodied in abstract reasoning. These stages occur at certain ages, before which learners are not ready to learn certain things. Learning occurs through processes of assimilation, in which you make the things you experience in the material or social world it into your existing mental framework, and through accommodation in which your mental world takes shape in response to the things you experience (Piaget 1923; 1929; 1971).

According to constructivist theory, once a learner’s brain has developed to a certain stage of ‘readiness’, the learner themselves needs to build their capacities to think in the ways characteristic of that stage. This the learner does by figuring things out for themselves. They do this by actively working backwards and forwards between the two mental processes of accommodation (taking on board new things as they experience them) and assimilation (making sense of new experiences in terms of what they know already). The learner’s mind will only achieve a new stage of development if, when they are ready, they construct that particular understanding of the world on the basis of their developing mental capacities. Learning does not simply ‘come naturally’. Mental capacities are no more than a potentiality, which the child has to turn into cognitive reality by doing the mental work required to conduct a particular ‘operation’. Although children may live in vastly different social conditions in different parts of the world, Piaget believed that the stages of self-development of human potentiality on the part of the child were universal and thus fundamentally the same.

See Piaget on Child Development.

Linguist Noam Chomsky also focuses on common human factors, but in his case on the nature and origins of language. He is one of the most devastatingly effective critics of behaviourism, contributing in a significant way to its eclipse as a theory of learning (Chomsky 1959). Chomsky argues that language is so profoundly complex that it cannot be learned in a few short years and from repeated stimulus and response or environmental experience alone. There could never be enough behavioural stimulus-response cycles in those years to explain the fullness and subtleties of language. The basic structures of language, Chomsky concludes, must be already present in the brain in a kind of ‘language organ’. These are then filled out with the specifics of the language or languages to which an infant happens to be exposed (Chomsky 2000; 2002). A student of Chomsky, Stephen Pinker, calls this innate capacity ‘the language instinct’ (Pinker 1995).

See Pinker on the Language Instinct.

More recently, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have begun to develop a detailed understanding of the workings of the brain, including the differences in brain physiology and learning for infants whose brains are rapidly developing, compared to children and adults (Pinker 1997; Rose 2005).

See Bransford, Brown and Cocking on How the Brain Learns.

Dimension 2: The sources of ability

There is an ongoing debate in education about the relative roles of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ in the sources of ability. To what extent is our intelligence innate and inherited, or to what extent is it a cultural product and learned? The behaviourists professed not to be able to know much about consciousness and mind. So, they focused exclusively on behaviour, from which they attempted to draw conclusions about an individual’s level of intelligence. Meanwhile, the inventors of IQ tests tried to iso- late innate intelligence from acquired knowledge, inferring levels of intelligence from examinees’ responses to batteries of test prompts.

The brain developmentalists also draw conclusions about an individual’s nature, literally – the stuff in their brain. Their conclusions, however, are rather more egalitarian and socially optimistic than the creators of the idea of innate intelligence. Those following Piaget argue that everyone, except people with physiologically grounded disabilities, goes through the same developmental stages. And those like Chomsky and Pinker who believe there is some kind of language organ in the brain assume that every human, unless specifically disabled, has much the same basic learning capacities written into their brain physiology.

Dimension 3: Infrastructure for learning

For Piaget, students will only learn what they are developmentally ready to learn. Some of this learning will happen sooner or later, with or without the formal structures of education. Nor are ‘language instinct’ theorists very concerned about how language is learned, because they consider its basic structures to be innate and thus unteachable. Today’s cognitive scientists also tend to tell stories of nature more than nurture when they discuss the brain. One of the occupational hazards of brain developmentalism in its various forms is to focus more on the nature side of the learning equation. As much as we need to understand their insights on the natural or physio- logical grounding of learning, the discipline of education needs to pay more attention to the nurture side of that equation.

The naturalistic inclinations of these approaches make them suited to what we have earlier in this book called ‘authentic education’. In Piagetian developmentalism, the learner will only learn what and when they are ‘ready’. Let the learner progress at their own pace, so don’t try to teach them things for which they are not ready. And when they are ready, their learning will be through an active process of accommodation and assimilation. The learner must be understood to be an active player in the world, constructing their mental conceptions. Teaching, then, should be true to this readiness. It should create conditions in which learners can construct understandings at levels appropriate to their stage of developmental readiness.

So, too, in Chomskian linguistics, immersion in a particular language ills the learner with the symbolism of a specific language. They already have the basic structures of language in the biological inheritance that is their brain.

A teacher working on the basis of these learning theories may tend to be less interventionist, and less didactic, than the teacher operating off behaviourist learning theory. Rather, they may set out to create experiential learning opportunities in which students can self-activate or construct mental operations and knowledge on the basis of their natural capacities at a certain age or stage in their development.

Dimension 4: Measuring learning

Modern learning science has thoroughly discredited theories about differential intelligence, and certainly those claiming that class and racial inequality are the result of inherited differences in intelligence (Shenk 2010; Ceci 1996; Nisbett 2009).

See Chomsky on IQ and Inequality.

However, the understanding of learning that underlies brain developmentalism can also be criticised for its at-times monocultural perspective and individualistic bias. Again, the perspectives of the brain developmentalists are not necessarily deficient – they just need to be balanced with an analysis of socio-cultural factors. To take the point about culture, for instance, the examples of the mental games Piaget pro- vides feel rather schoolish and academic – a peculiar developmental trajectory that may have been very different from that of peasant-subsistence farmers, or hunters and gatherers of earlier times. Or people in today’s societies may develop different kinds of intelligence in different ways, rather than follow the same developmental trajectory (Gardner 2006). If you regard Piaget’s stages as a universal, quasi-natural sequence, there can’t be much space for human variety. If, however, you regard these stages as something peculiar to particular modern societies, and, more specifically, the kinds of intelligence that schools and their tests archetypically value, then their biological basis is thrown into question.

Similarly, Chomsky is often criticised from the point of view of a comparative and contrastive linguistics (Searle 2002). Some languages speak about the world in such different ways that they imply quite different ways of thinking on the part of their speakers (Sapir 1921; Whorf 1956). Indeed, there is so much variation between languages, and such profound subtle variations in meaning from language to language, that it is hard to imagine a hard-wired, universal language instinct. More broadly, cognitive science also often speaks in general human terms, without sufficiently recognising social and cultural differences (Gee 1992).

Finally, the focus on what’s happening in the brain tends to be individual. In the case of the idea of constructivism, the individual child makes their own understandings of the world by interacting in the world, based on their developmental stage. Learning, in constructivist theories, is driven by the motivated ego. In the case of ‘the language instinct’, that instinct is something that is to be found in a person’s head, less than it is in, and of, and from, their social and cultural surroundings. So, too, cognitive science studies the brain as a singular physiological object.

To counter-balance this individualistic emphasis, we also need to take social and cultural factors into account. Human intelligence is social. It is not just the stuff we can hold in our head, but our capacity to look things up, to ask others when we need to know something we know they know, and to rely on other people’s expertise. We can’t know personally everything that we need to know to live our lives. A lot of our smartness, and a lot of our social effectiveness, is not in our heads but the social world upon which we rely and which supports us in our everyday lives.