The Cognitive Age: Building Brains that Learn Better
It’s the skills revolution.
We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information.
If we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be, the role of education has to change from preparing students for a knowable future to preparing them for an unknowable future in which they will have to continually learn and adapt.
By: Betsy Hill and Roger Stark
In these days of brain science, many long-standing assumptions about education are being called into question. The model of education that arose to address the industrial age has been asked to prepare students for the “ages” that have come in quick succession – the “information age,” the “technology revolution,” and whatever will come next.
The fact of the matter is that we don’t know for sure what comes next, which is why David Brooks, in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, calls our current era The Cognitive Age. He begins by explaining that the primary force transforming our economy is not globalization, as many have claimed. Instead…
“It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information…
The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches – the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it?”
In other words, if we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be, the role of education has to change from preparing students for a knowable future to preparing them for an unknowable future in which they will have to continually learn and adapt.
The late Peter Kline was an educator known for his ability to inspire students, a thespian known for his practiced pratfalls and patter, and a prolific thinker and author (Why America’s Children Can’t Think and The Everyday Genius, among them). He thought profoundly and wrote about the changes needed in education for us to thrive in The Cognitive Age. We had the great good fortune to consider Peter a friend and mentor. When Peter read Brooks’s article, he wrote us the following:
“With the age of the computer… suddenly, in order to earn a decent living, you had to master new information at warp speed. You had to learn about concepts and processes that didn’t even exist a few years before.
“But people still went to school and learned almost exactly the same things their grandparents had been taught in school. School became a means of keeping the status quo, a place where the knowledge being delivered and the skills being taught were no longer sufficient for or sometimes even applicable to what was now needed in the workforce. And worse, it failed to develop any understanding or sense that we can all change our brains and our cognitive effectiveness.
“Today nobody even knows what people are going to need to know tomorrow. As new concepts keep entering the economy faster and faster, it’s like living in the jungle. You just have to figure out how to stay alive. Staying alive in the jungle of modern life (the Cognitive Age) requires lots of strong COGNITIVE SKILLS.”
What David Brooks perceived, what Peter Kline projected from the evolving science, and what we can attest to from our own experience and research, is that “we can all change our brains and our cognitive effectiveness,” to use Peter’s words.
But what if kids don’t bring “lots of strong COGNITIVE SKILLS” with them to the classroom? What can we do about the kids who really struggle with learning? What do we do about kids with attention issues and developmental delays and learning differences? How can they survive and thrive in the jungle of The Cognitive Age?
What we can do is help them develop stronger cognitive skills with classroom-ready technology that incorporates what we know about how the brain learns and the science of motivation. Anne Budicin, Principal of Glenwood Academy (IL), explains it this way, “Because of our students’ backgrounds, we are always striving to provide them with opportunities that close academic gaps and help them achieve their true potential. Cognitive training is an essential part of achieving this. It helps our students improve their short-term, long-term and working memory. Teachers have seen improvement in attentiveness and noted better recall of information.”
Kanika Johnson, the school’s Dean of Students and former Technology Director at the school, calls it “an essential part of our students’ learning experience.” And technology plays an integral role. “The vivid, enjoyable interactive digital environment is stimulating and fun, while strengthening cognitive skills and reasoning abilities. It improves students’ aptitude to learn in creative and innovative ways.”
In our next column, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of cognitive training, and how it really works, and you’ll hear from other educators who are very excited to be able to add cognitive training to an already successful curriculum. It’s a different spin on education, to be sure. But our children are different people. They will make their marks in a different time. And they will need the cognitive capacity to survive and thrive in an unpredictable future.
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain?
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