Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Cognition and Representation: A Way to Pursue the American Dream?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Cognition and Representation: A Way to Pursue the American Dream?

Article excerpt

Reflection on the role that forms of representation play in the creation of mind has been all but neglected in framing curricular policy, Mr. Eisner notes. We need to remedy that.

In some ways it's an old idea. I'm talking about the idea that the forms we use to represent what we think - literal language, visual images, number, poetry - have an impact on how we think and what we can think about. If different forms of representation performed identical cognitive functions, then there would be no need to dance, compute, or draw. Why would we want to write poetry, history, fiction, drama, or factual accounts of what we have experienced? Yet this apparently obvious idea has not been a prominent consideration in setting curricular agendas in America's schools or in shaping education policy. The articles in this special section of the Kappan are intended to illustrate the ways in which forms of representation, or what are sometimes called "symbol systems," function in our mental lives and to explore their contributions to the development of mind.

Among the various aims we consider important in education, two are especially so. We would like our children to be well informed - that is, to understand ideas that are important, useful, beautiful, and powerful. And we also want them to have the appetite and ability to think analytically and critically, to be able to speculate and imagine, to see connections among ideas, and to be able to use what they know to enhance their own lives and to contribute to their culture.

Neither of these two goals is likely to be achieved if schools are inattentive to the variety of ways that humans have represented what they have thought, felt, and imagined. Nor will these goals be achieved if we fail to appreciate culture's role in making these processes of representation possible. After all, human products owe their existence not only to the achievements of individual minds, but to the forms of representation available in the culture - forms that enable us to make our ideas and feelings public. Put another way, we can't have a musical idea without thinking and representing what we have thought musically. We can't have a mathematical idea without mathematics. And neither is possible without a form of representation that affords our ideas the possibility of life. It is the school as a representative of culture that provides access to those forms. It is the school that fosters their skillful use among the young.

Minds, then, in a curious but profound way, are made. Their shape and capacities are influenced by what we are given an opportunity to learn when young. Given this conception of the genesis of mind, the curriculum is a mind-altering device. Decisions that policy makers and educators make about what will be accessible to children help shape the kinds of minds they will come to own. The character of their minds, in turn, will help shape the culture in which we all live.

Brains, in contrast to minds, are biological - they are given by nature. Minds are cultural - they are the result of experience. And the kinds of experience the child secures in school are significantly influenced by the decisions we make about what to teach. As I indicated, as important a consideration as this might be, reflection on the role that forms of representation play in the creation of mind has been all but neglected in framing curricular policy. We need to remedy that.

Ours is a school system that gives pride of place to the skillful use of language and number, the venerable three R's. No one can cogently argue that the three R's are unimportant. Clearly, competency in their use is of primary importance. But even high levels of skill in their use are not enough to develop the variety of mental capacities that children possess. The three R's tap too little of what the mind can do. Where do we learn what the mind can do? We learn about its potentialities not only from psychologists who study the mind but also by looking at the culture - all cultures - because culture displays the forms humans have used to give expression to what they have imagined, understood, and felt. …

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