Thursday, July 10, 2014


Summary of the lesson:

A number of studies in education indicate the existence of a significant impact on the value of the teacher on student performance in the short and long term (impact on revenues, enrollment in college, socioeconomic status 20 years later). We are talking about the so-called "teacher effect". But the extent of this effect raises doubts (projects are underway to develop more sophisticated measures, including quantitative and qualitative) and no explanatory theory can account of it satisfactorily. 
Educational research has also dedicated much attention to cooperative learning (Slavin, 1996). It seems that group learning has positive effects on learners. But different forms of group learning are not all equally effective; also the positive effects do not affect each time the same results or the same classes of problems to solve. Finally, as in the case of the teacher effect, a satisfactory explanatory theory to account for the positive role of group work is still lacking. (the so-called "argumentative theory of reasoning purports to explain the effect, but takes into account only a particular  class of groups and problems to solve). Another known fact related to teaching is the tutoring effect, known in education as "2-sigma problem", since the study published in 1984 by Paul Bloom,  which shows the existence of a positive effect with 2 standard deviations tutoring 1: 1 compared to other forms of education. Although in this case the effect appears to be stronger and confirmed, we still found ourselves in the absence of a satisfactory explanatory theory. 

The question therefore arises of how to identify and characterize "good teachers" and effective teaching and to explain the effect that teachers seem to have on learning.

What makes a good teacher (or a bad one)? Is it only a matter of knowledge,  of mastery of the content taught? Of pedagogical knowledge (how to teach a certain content)? Or other cognitive qualities of the teacher count, too? 

Besides, we seem all to have intuitions about "what works in education", what learning is, and how to promote learning in others (teach). 

Do we have good insights on education? Can we trust them? Are there any teaching practices that would cons-intuitive yet effective? 

Cognitive science should be able to provide answers to these questions, and thus contributing to education, on the side of the teacher. But how?

First by demonstrating, as is the case for the naive theories of mind (folk psychology), the existence of naive theory of what learning and teaching (Strauss, 2001; Olson & Bruner, 1996). And by measuring their role and impact upon styles and strategies of teaching that are more or less effective. 
Then by studying in an objective, quantitative, experimental fashion the cognitive abilities involved in education: teacher cognition. 

It appears that this kind of studies is still relatively rare, and that available evidence is scattered among a variety of disciplines:

- Studies in the psychology of education, about teaching, teachers' training and teachers skills
- The debate on the specifics of cultural transmission and social cognition in humans (cultural learning) (Tomasello, Kruger, Ratner, 1993, Tomasello & Herrmann, 2010, Tomasello et al 2005, Herrmann et al, 2007). 
- Studies on social learning, imitation, the development of cooperation, in developmental psychology
- A recent a theoretical approach suggesting that teaching is a natural cognitive ability in humans(Strauss 2005, Strauss & Ziv, 2012)
- Studies on the different forms of social learning and cultural transmission among primates and other taxa (Byrne, 1996, Whiten 1999, 2000).

An turn point in the "history" studies about teacher cognition is represented by the functional definition of teaching made ​​by Caro & Hauser (1992), which extends the concept of education beyond the human and owning an explicit ToM and advanced metacognitive abilities and general "big brains", and paves the way to studies on teaching in different taxa (meerkats, ants tandem, ...) (Hoppitt et al 2006, Thornton & Raihani 2008 Thornton & McAuliffe 2006 Laland & Hoppitt 2003 and 2007 al Richardson, & Franks. , Richardson 2006). 
These studies contrast notably with the "traditional" approach to teacher cognition, which sees teaching as a specifically human capacity - a willing,  flexible, sophisticated form of transmission of knowledge, therefore based on ToM and metacognition (Olson & Bruner, 1996, Galef 1992 Premack & Premack 1994, 1996, Tomasello 1994, 1999). 

A further novelty in the panorama of the study of teacher cognition is represented by the theory of natural pedagogy (Csibra, 2007 Csibra & Gergely, 2006, 2009, 2011), which proposes the existence, in humans and humans only, a sort of instinct teaching, coupled with an instinct to learn from other cospecifics, based on a system of basic communicative signs and do not require reflection. 

The issue of the cognitive bases of education is therefore still open, and many questions await for an answer.

What skills are needed to teach? 
Are there different forms of teaching, which are based on a pool of different capacities? Eg education with advanced ToM, ToM education with basic education without ToM? 
Do children teach? Under which conditions? What are the cultural variants of education, within the human species?
Is there a specific form of "teaching disorder"? Are there cognitive disorders that are positively or negatively associated with the ability to teach (autism, psychopathy)? 

Why do we teach?  Is it an adaptation?  To what type of evolutionary problems this adaptation is meant to provide an answer? Is teaching an altruistic behavior that favors the learner at a cost for the teacher? Or are there cognitive or adaptive advantages in teaching that might have contributed to its evolution? 

For revising the lesson: 
  • Kline, M. (2014). How to learn about teaching: An evolutionary framework for the study of teaching behavior in humans and other animals - Preprint (to appear in BBS)
  • Skerry et al. (2013). The origins of pedagogy : Developmental and evolutionary perspectives. Evolutionary psychology, 11, 3, 550-572. 
Further readings:
  • Readings: Teaching

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