Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future

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A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

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Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.

Additionally,

Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

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Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies

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Seeing the forest despite the trees.

Our nation’s educational focus continues to zero in on “achievement” as defined by test scores in specific academic areas and the resulting gaps therein. This hyper focus exacerbates our nearly systematic blind eye related to learning for living and cultivating life long learners. As a result, policies that increase the stakes of standardized assessments necessitate schools increase the amount of time spent on basic skills — reading and math, primarily — to the exclusion of a broad range of other skills, experiences, and competencies. In effect, we see a couple of trees, but miss the forest, or big picture ecology, of learning.

However, research suggests there are programs that have the dual benefits of both raising achievement and increasing student well being. It is in this realm where we learn to think about education in terms of the forest, despite our hyper focus on the trees.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is such an example. CASEL (Collaborative For Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is the leading organization working to build demand and capacity for SEL. Their work ranges from network building to conducting research to policy advocacy. Below is a graphic (source here) illustrating what they define as the core competencies for SEL.

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Additionally, they published a meta-analysis of research titled, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning” (download it here). The meta-analysis concluded:

The reviews indicate that SEL programs:

  • Are effective in both school and after-school settings and for students with and without behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Are effective for racially and ethnically diverse students from urban, rural, and suburban settings across the K-12 grade range.
  • Improve students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, and positive social behavior; and reduce conduct problems and emotional distress.
  • Improve students’ achievement test scores by 11 percentile points.

It all demonstrates that we must think more holistically about students, learning, and the ecology of education. Simply working to improve math and reading test achievement falls far short of ensuring that our students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported in the ways that matter most to their long term personal “achievement.”

Special thanks to Jackie Gerstein, whose post “Video Games and Social Emotional Learning” first pointed us to this chart.

This is a part of an ongoing series exploring components of QED’s Transformational Learning Model. This piece relates to Academic Access, Curriculum Frame, Curriculum Goals, and Student Support.

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The Science of Love

One last video take on the biology, chemistry, and neurology behind love. This one is by the creative folks over at AsapScience, who also produced the clever “Brain Tricks” video.

We promise to move on tomorrow, after Valentine’s Day. Until then, share this with a loved one.

Your Brain in Love (TEDtalk)

5958884664_8de3f445f1_bYour Brain — Valentine’s Edition.

Here is Helen Fisher’s TED Talk from TED 2008. Helen’s bio on the TED website reads,

Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. She’s best known as an expert on romantic love, and her beautifully penned books — including Anatomy of Love and Why We Love — lay bare the mysteries of our most treasured emotion.

This exploration of the brain’s response to love will hopefully be a fun, nerdy, and educational way to think about your loved ones during this Valentine’s Day week. Enjoy.

Want more on the brain in love?

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Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

By the time children and adolescents arrive at school, chances are that they’ve already interacted socially with a number of different people: their parents/caregivers, siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and bus driver, to name a few.  And once they’re in school, they assume the role of student. As students, they also interact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff around the school. When interacting with all these different individuals, students need to consider the audience, or person with whom they are interacting, in order to communicate effectively and “fit in” socially.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Students who are able to adjust their language in response to their current audience practice one of the most sophisticated aspects of social cognition: code switching. We don’t use the same language or speak in a similar manner with our parent(s) or caregiver(s) as we do with our friends; and we speak in a different voice when we are interacting with someone in authority (e.g., teacher, principal, or policemen). To effectively engage in code switching, students must devote attention to the understanding and use of language (i.e., code), as well as to the appropriate use of the language code of the particular audience. The ability to identify the audience and respond with the most appropriate code is a skill that we utilize throughout our lives.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with code switching:

The student …

  • modifies language for the audience, time, and place (e.g., chooses different words when speaking with her teacher than when talking with her friends at lunch about a favorite movie)
  • uses colloquialisms around friends
  • speaks respectfully to authority figures

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with code switching:

The student …

  • is teased for using “big words” or sounding too formal when interacting with other kids on the playground
  • gets into trouble for sounding disrespectful when speaking to others (e.g., uses slang when talking to the principal)
  • uses inappropriate language in front of adults or during class discussions

Strategies to help students struggling with code switching:

  • Guide students in identifying the conversational styles expected from different audiences (friends, teacher, parents, etc.). For example, have students complete a chart, writing down the language that they can and cannot use with different groups.
  • Students may need to improve their ability to modify both the content and the delivery of their interactions – both what they say and how they say it. Use role-play situations to help students develop these skills and structured opportunities for them to practice with school personnel. 
  • Students may benefit from examining the consequences of failing to switch conversation codes. Activities where students can play with language might include role-play activities and writing plays or short stories.
  • Students may need to develop an understanding of the language of their peer group to interact more effectively with their classmates. Setting up social skills training groups in your classroom may give students a chance to learn and field-test new skills and behaviors that contribute to social competence.  In order to maximize the likelihood that newly acquired knowledge and skills will transfer to other settings, talk with students about the need to accept others as well as how to develop adaptive coping strategies for unsuccessful attempts at social interaction.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with code switching.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

This is the last post in our blog series, Understanding Common Learning Challenges.  But not to worry — we’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming months and we’ll be continuing to post new entries regularly!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series  

  1. More information and strategies about using the appropriate language for a given group
  2. Related research on social cognition
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association article on Social Language Use