Mind, Brain, and Education: A Systemic Perspective

This working paper provides a sketch for a number of publications on Systemic Cognition and Education (SCE), its foundations, and its applications in curriculum development and student and teacher education. It proposes, from an educator’s viewpoint, an overall perspective on mind, brain, and education (MBE) that lays the ground for SCE as a generic pedagogical framework, and that would hopefully facilitate negotiations among concerned experts and contribute to bringing coherence to the field of MBE.

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Mind, Brain, and Education: A Systemic Perspective

Ibrahim Halloun

Our mind and brain affect each other and determine the way we learn in any setting. Formal education is supposed to help students make the best of their mental and cerebral faculties and potentials, and empower them for lifelong learning and continuous success in life. To this end, teachers, students, and all other stakeholders need a coherent pedagogical framework to guide their thoughts and actions in all scholastic respects. The framework should emerge from what reliable, yet still disparate, research in pertinent fields tell us about our students, especially in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education. In particular, it should conform to reliable findings on how our students actually are and think at specific school ages, what they can accomplish at a given age, and how they can realistically evolve throughout the years.
This article provides an educator’s interpretation of research findings he knows about in the fields in question, and subsequently proposes an outline of a pedagogical framework that is meant to serve the above purposes. The interpretation comes through specific conceptual lenses and leads to a systemic perspective on mind, brain, and education that may contribute to bringing researchers and practitioners in these fields to some common grounds, at least in relation to the proposed framework.
Recent developments in neuroscience are bringing us closer every day to a solid understanding of the human brain and mind, and to reliable lenses through which we can examine the abundant findings of many decades of serious research in cognitive psychology and education. Some laudable efforts have been made in the last decade to reap the fruits of these developments in education, but these efforts had so far limited and localized impact (Hruby, 2012; Knox, 2016; Schwartz, 2015; Shrag, 2011). A transdisciplinary field has emerged in the process that is supposed to bring together neuroscience, cognitive science, and education because of the conviction that for “scientists to carry out useful research for education and for teachers to optimally educate based on research evidence require interweaving the perspectives of research and practice” (Fischer et al., 2007). The new field was given different names including neuroeducation, educational neuroscience, and mind, brain, and education (MBE). Yet, and because “MBE spans several traditional disciplines, individuals within it often hold differing and potentially conflicting expertise, perspectives, and knowledge”, Knox (2016) argues in agreement with others, and continues that translation is needed among “research questions, goals, and findings between education and neuroscience in the pursuit of usable knowledge”. Along the same lines, Hruby (2012) had argued that, among other things, the new field requires “careful and explicit attention to intellectual coherence”, which would help “that diverse scholars and professionals may communicate findings and insights consistently across fields”.
This article proposes, from an educator’s viewpoint, an overall perspective on brain, mind, and education that lays the ground for a generic pedagogical framework, and that would hopefully facilitate negotiations among concerned experts and contribute to bringing coherence to MBE. The proposal comes from an interpretation of MBE related research through conceptual lenses derived from what physical science and philosophy of science tell us about the physical world we live in, and what cognitive science tells us about patterns of thought and practice that distinguish accomplished professionals (experts) from apprentices or novices (students of all levels).
The proposed perspective is grounded in systemism, a paradigm whereby the world within and around us is conceived as a world of dynamic systems that may interact with each other and affect the way each system is, operates, and evolves. An important faculty of the human mind is to constantly generate conceptual representations of the physical world, including our own selves, that would help us make sense of this world and devise conceptual and physical means for improving the quality of our lives and, hopefully, the world we live in. One such representation is the idea of a system as a set of elements, with particular properties of interest, that interact in well-defined ways under specific conditions to serve specific functions or purposes in specific domains.
The article comes in six sections and a short conclusion. It begins with a brief discussion of systemism, and then of humans as learning systems. It follows with a discussion of brain and mind as cognizant biological and cognitive systems respectively, and subsequently with specific implications on systemic education. The last section provides an outline proposal of “Systemic Cognition and Education” as a generic MBE-based pedagogical framework.
The first section argues that a systemic view of the world around us allows us to better make sense of this world, and especially of the patterns that predominate therein, from the astronomical scale of galaxies down to the microscopic scale of atoms and neural networks in the human brain. Such a worldview is also meant to enhance the efficiency of our transaction with concrete objects and to bring cohesion and coherence to our knowledge of and about the world. The argument is further made that all these objectives are best realized when systems are conceived in middle-out structures between big pictures (patterns, in particular) and elementary details, and when they are systematically put together in accordance with a six-dimensional schema for specifying system framework, scope, structure, ecology, operations, and outcomes.
The second section defines learners as dynamic systems for knowledge construction and deployment, and illustrates with an example that serves the discussion in subsequent sections how knowledge in experiential learning emerges from a realist-cognitive transaction between a learner and objects of learning with the possible assistance of some learning agents in a surrounding environment.
The third section presents a biological model of the brain as a dynamic, complex system composed of six distributed neural systems (relay, perceptual, motor, affective, rational, and epistemic) each of which serves well-defined functions in experiential learning that involves transaction with concrete objects of learning. This complex system allows sensory data processing and storage of emerging information through bio-chemical constituents and electro-chemical operations that involve the orderly formation of perceptual and conceptual images of the objects in question. The process begins with the unconscious filtration of sensory data in the relay system of the brain and formation of a perceptual image of each object. This image is then unconsciously analyzed in the perceptual system and broken down into unimodal information packages that are gradually synthesized afterwards in order to make up a conceptual image of the object. The synthesis begins unconsciously and then proceeds with conscious regulation carried out with the adduction of prior knowledge from memory under a number of metacognitive controls the most important of which are attention and particular emotions discussed in this section.
The fourth section retakes the formation of perceptual and conceptual images from a pure cognitive perspective in the mind system. Reiterative helicoidal cycles are discussed that gradually develop the images in question and sharpen the conceptual image by correspondence to objects of learning and prior knowledge in order to make sense of those objects and bring about desired learning outcomes in memory. Transient and sustained learning in short term memory and long term memory respectively are discussed with a new dynamic perspective on short term memory that encompasses what is known in the literature as working memory and highlights long term memory processes that are of prime importance to meaningful and sustainable learning. Processes include encoding, consolidation, storage, and retrieval of information under certain metacognitive controls that focus attention on lean systemic aspects of objects of learning and keep regulating the conceptual image insightfully until it brings any learning experience to its desired ends with the least cognitive load and the highest cognitive efficiency possible.
The fifth section draws implications from the discussion above to formal education. The argument is made for systemic education whereby an educational system is designed and operated at all levels as sets of interacting systems, including learners, teachers, and various other learning agents, and curricula are explicitly conceived and deployed in the context of systemic pedagogical frameworks. “Systemic Cognition and Education” (SCE) is proposed in the sixth section as a generic MBE-based framework that is meant to empower learners at all levels with dynamic systemic profiles for lifelong learning and success in all aspects of life. To this end, SCE calls for course materials and pedagogical practices to respect and take advantage of the systemic nature of the human brain and mind so as to promote meaningful and sustainable learning, and bring about well-rounded citizens with progressive minds, productive habits, profound knowledge, and principled affects (4P profiles).

More at: www.halloun.net/sce/

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