4 Cognitive skills for successful learning

memory There is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned. This excludes natural body functions, such as breathing, as well as the reflexes, for example, the involuntary closing of the eye when an object approaches it. Apart from that, a human being knows nothing, or cannot do anything, that he has not learned. Therefore, all cognitive skills must be thought. Here are the most important cognitive skills:

1. CONCENTRATION

Paying attention has to be distinguished from concentration. Paying attention is a body function, and does not need to be taught. Paying attention is a function that is quite useless for the act of learning because it is only a fleeting occurrence. Attention usually shifts very quickly from one object or one thing to the next, so this is why the child must be taught to focus his attention on something and to keep his or her attention focused on this something for some length of time. When a person focuses his attention for a certain period of time, we refer to it as concentration.  Concentration is based on two grounds. First: it is an act of will and cannot take place automatically. Second: it is a cognitive skill, that has to be taught. Although learning disability specialists acknowledge that “the ability to concentrate and attend to a task for a prolonged period of time is essential for the student to receive necessary information and complete certain academic activities,” it seems that the ability to concentrate is considered as a “fafrotskies” , a word coined by Ivan T. Sanderson, standing for “things that fall from the sky.” Concentration must be taught, after which proficiency can be constantly improved by regular and sustained practice.

2. PERCEPTION

The terms “processing” and “perception” are often used interchangeably, so before one can learn anything, perception must take place, i.e. one has to become aware of it through one of the senses. Usually, one has to hear or see it. Subsequently one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard and then, perception means interpretation. Lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or as stated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “We see things not as they are but as we are.” The following situation illustrates how perception correlates with previous experience:  Suppose a person parked his car and walks away from it while continuing to look back at it. As he goes further and further away from his car, it will appear to him as if his car is getting smaller and smaller. In such a situation none of us, would gasp in horror and cry out: “My car is shrinking!” Although the sensory perception is that the car is rapidly shrinking, we do not interpret that the car is changing size. Through past experiences, we have learned that objects do not grow or shrink as we walk toward or away from them. You have learned that the actual size remains constant, despite the illusion. Even when one is five blocks away from one’s car and it seems no larger than one’s fingernail, one would interpret it as that it is still one’s car and that it has not actually changed size. This learned perception is known as size constancy. Interpretation is a sensory phenomenon, that can only be done on the basis of past experience of the same, similar or related phenomena. Perceptual ability heavily depends upon the amount of perceptual practice and experience that the subject has already enjoyed. Perception is a cognitive skill that can be improved tremendously through judicious practice and experience.

3. MEMORY

The ability to remember things can be defined as a memory. It is essential in gaining new skills, knowledge and behaviour. Memory can be categorised into the following subgroups: Receptive memory: the ability to note the physical features of a given stimulus to be able to recognise it at a later time. The child with receptive processing difficulties invariably fails to recognise visual or auditory stimuli such as the shapes or sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet, the number system, etc. Sequential memory: the ability to recall stimuli in their order of observation or presentation. Many dyslexics have poor visual sequential memory, whereas naturally, this will affect their ability to read and spell correctly. Every word consists of letters in a specific sequence and in order to read, one has to perceive the letters in sequence, and also remember what word is represented by that sequence of letters. By changing the sequence of the letters in “name” it can become “mean” or “amen”. Some also have poor auditory sequential memory, and therefore may be unable to repeat longer words orally, without getting the syllables in the wrong order, words like “preliminary” and “statistical” can be problematic for someone to pronounce them correctly. Rote memory: the ability to learn certain information as a habit pattern. The child who has problems in this area, can not recall with ease those responses which should have been automatic, such as the alphabet, the number system, multiplication tables, spelling rules, grammatical rules, etc.
Short-term memory: lasts from a few seconds to a minute with the exact amount of time varying. When you are trying to recall a telephone number that was heard a few seconds earlier, the name of a person who has just been introduced, or the substance of the remarks just made by a teacher in class, you are calling on short-term memory. You need this memory to retain ideas and thoughts when writing a letter since you must be able to keep the last sentence in mind as you compose the next. You also need this memory when you work on problems. Suppose a problem required that we first add two numbers together (step 1: add 10 + 26) and next divide the sum (step 2: divide sum by 2). If we did this problem in our heads, we would need to retain the result of step 1 (36) momentarily, while we apply the next step (divide by 2). Some space in our short-term memory is necessary to retain the results of step 1. Long-term memory: this is the ability to retrieve information about things learned in the past.  Learning disabled develop adequate skills in recalling information, i.e. they will continue to face each learning situation as though it is a new one. No progress can be attained by either the child or the teacher when the same ground has to be covered over and over because the child has forgotten. Most critical need that the learning disabled have, is to be helped to develop an effective processing system for remembering, as, without it, their performance will always remain at a level much below what their capabilities indicate.  While memory is universally considered a pre-requisite skill to successful learning, attempts to delineate its process in the learning disabled are few, and fewer still are methods to systematically improve it.

4. LOGICAL THINKING

“Brain Building” by Dr Karl Albrecht explains that logical thinking is not a magical process or a matter of genetic endowment, but a learned mental process. It is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion, where problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense.” The basis of all logical thinking is sequential thought, involving taking the important ideas, facts, and conclusions involved in a problem and arranging them in a chain-like progression that takes on a meaning in and of itself. To think logically is to think in steps, this is why the logical thinking is also an important foundational skill of math. “Learning mathematics is a highly sequential process,” says Dr Albrecht. “If you do not grasp a certain concept, fact, or procedure, you can never hope to grasp others that come later, which depend upon it. For example, to understand fractions you must first understand division, to understand simple equations in algebra requires that you understand fractions. In addition to this, solving ‘word problems’ depends on knowing how to set up and manipulate equations, and so on.” It has been proven that specific training in logical thinking processes can make people “smarter.” It is good to emphasize that logical thinking allows a child to reject quick and easy answers, such as “I don’t know,” or “this is too difficult,” by empowering him or her to deliver deeper into his or her thinking processes and understand better the methods used to arrive at a solution.