Cognitive enablers are thinking skills that enhance our thinking abilities. There are two kinds of cognitive enablers: concrete and abstract.
Concrete cognitive enablers are usually learned in primary and secondary school. These would include reading, writing, numeracy, and concrete problem-solving ability. concrete cognitive enablers have accelerated the progress of civilizations throughout history.
In the past, universities were places where people went to learn how to think. Places where concrete cognitive enablers were enhanced and abstract cognitive enablers were learned. However, with the massification of higher education between about 1950 and 1970, the learning of abstract cognitive enablers gradually disappeared from universities. There are various reasons for this, including the primacy of research as a core objective of a university and the general explosion of information which demanded more and more university time to teach students. Whatever the reasons, about 10% of university graduates demonstrate the ability to generally use some of the abstract cognitive enablers.
Although many educators expect students to arrive at university or college with abstract cognitive enablers, they don’t. This is because brain development isn’t complete enough for these enablers to be learned until late teens and early adulthood. The myelination of the frontal lobes enables some abstract thinking. About 60% of grade 12 students are able to understand and manipulate two abstract concepts simultaneously. Higher order thinking skills rely on the ability to understand and manipulate abstract concepts.
The other problem is that, although the expression of early cognitive development naturally occurs, the final stage of cognitive development doesn’t express itself. The ability for abstract thinking develops in everyone who has typical brain development. However, the expression of complex abstract thinking must be fostered and taught. This means that higher education students not only don’t arrive with abstract cognitive enablers but in order for them to develop abstract cognitive enablers, they must be explicitly taught and their development fostered. This is no different from the concrete cognitive enablers. Learning to read is extremely difficult and in addition to teaching it early in primary school, reading must be fostered and encouraged for years before it is really mastered.
In other words, without the direct teaching and fostering of critical thinking, college and university students won’t learn to think critically.
So, what are these abstract cognitive enablers (besides critical thinking)? Here they are in order of ease of learning and their prevalence in society.
Abstract reason, logic, and rational thinking. Context-dependent critical thinking, complex inductive reasoning, and hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Generalized critical thinking, basic metacognition, and higher level creativity. Finally, there is higher metacognition, or the ability to understand and use all of the other abstract cognitive enablers in any context.
Concrete Reason and Rational Thinking
Concrete reason, logic, and rational thinking emerge early in life. You have to have these concrete cognitive enablers to get through life. Conversations, understanding our social order, and knowing our place in social hierarchies all depend on these concrete cognitive enablers. These are the cognitive enablers that are prevalent in our society and these are the thinking skills that form the basis for anyone who says, “Well, I can think, I think all the time.”
Current Cognitive Enabler Teaching
Abstract reason, logic, and rational thinking are the abstract cognitive enablers that are most commonly thought to be learned in a college or university setting. Better thinking skills than those possessed by the 85% of the people who come at the end of the quote attributed to Thomas Edison: Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think. I think that in today’s world with all university graduates around, the ten percent who think they think is much, much higher. Having been to university they are certain that they can think. They think better than those who refuse to think, but their abstract cognitive enablers are missing with only their concrete cognitive enablers enhanced. Even that is an exaggeration. Research reveals that only about 40% of the current graduates demonstrate an improvement in their reading, writing, and concrete problem solving after graduating from a college or university.
Context-dependent critical thinking is exactly what is on the label. Critical thinking is made up of a set of skills that make solving difficult problems possible. There are six cognitive skills that make up critical thinking: planning, cognitive flexibility, persistence, willingness to self-correct, directed and focussed attention, general attentiveness, and consensus-seeking. The context-dependent part comes in higher education specialization. As a degree program becomes more narrowly focused on a specific topic, critical thinking skills are often developed to deal with problems within that domain. The reason that these don’t become generalized critical thinking skills is that of the problem of the transference of context-dependent learning. This is a problem that has plagued education forever: what is learned in one situation does not transfer to a different situation without direction and hard work on the part of the learner.
In a very clever experiment, subjects learned wordlists in scuba gear at the bottom of a pool and then learned other word lists at tables beside the pool. When they were tested on the wordlists, at the bottom of the pool, they remembered the wordlist learned there but could not recall very many of the words learned at the poolside and the same the other way around. This is context-dependent learning and illustrates the problem of the non-transference of learning.
This problem of the non-transference of critical thinking skills is apparent in many highly educated people. People with higher postgraduate (Masters and Ph.D.s) and professional training very often show almost no ability to apply critical thinking skills outside their own areas of expertise.
Complex inductive reasoning and hypothetico-deductive reasoning are the two ends of higher-order reasoning. Inductive reasoning is more natural as it begins to emerge early in life. You accumulate experiences from which you draw generalized conclusions. You don’t have to be very old to figure out that several experiences with hot surfaces can be generalized into the concept of HOT. Higher order thinking allows a person to take seemingly unrelated concepts and generate generalized principles.
An example for both extremes of reasoning would be global climate change. Making a number of seemingly unrelated observations lead scientists to conclude that the climate is changing and postulate why it is happening. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is the ability to look at a general principle and hypothesize what this principle would mean when applied in different contexts. This is much harder than inductive reasoning and in the climate change model, scientists have to look at the principle of climate change and try to understand how these changes effect different areas of the world and what these changes will mean to those living there.
Generalized Critical Thinking
Generalized critical thinking is simply the ability to transfer the concrete, context dependent critical thinking skills to other contexts. Initially difficult to do, but once the first barriers to transference come down it slowly becomes easier to use critical thinking skills in more and more contexts until the skill becomes generalized.
Basic Metacognition is one of the most powerful cognitive enablers that there is and it is one of the most difficult to figure out. At its most basic, metacognition is a fundamental insight into our own cognition. The effects of understanding what is going on inside are far-reaching and incredible.
Looking at the list of the benefits of basic metacognition, it becomes apparent why educators have gone crazy over metacognition in recent years. The lack of knowledge about the basic science of the brain means that a lot of the efforts put into teaching metacognitive skills have been wasted. In one country it was mandated that children begin to learn metacognitive skills at age eight. Since metacognition is almost completely abstract the brains of eight-year-olds are virtually incapable of grasping and using true metacognition. They can imitate some of the skills, but the effects and the learning of what metacognition really is just don’t happen.
As an active researcher, I spent a few years studying metacognition and developed a test for measuring the most fundamental metacognitive skills – knowing what you know. Working in a highly selective university, I found that students coming into university who claimed that they had been taught metacognition actually performed at chance when it came to demonstrating the foundational aspect of knowing what you know. What the students could do is define what metacognition is. Many of the tests for metacognitive abilities rely on people being able to define the concept, which has nothing to do with developing the skills.
The following are some of the effects that well-developed metacognition can have on individuals:
- Academic success depends on thinking – if IQ is the engine, metacognition is the driver.
- Intellectual ability contributes for about half as much as metacognition to learning something.
- Cognitive flexibility requires you to know what cognitive options you have available.
- Deep reasoning involves real thinking about what you already know.
- Critical thinking and analysis are all about evaluating the new against what you already know about the subject.
- Logical thinking requires you to know how you think.
- Making rational decisions requires you to think about what you already know.
- Creativity – becoming aware of yourself enough to stop imitating others.
- Mindfulness – an awareness of the moment requires you to be aware of your own thought process.
- Increases in metacognition significantly reduce relapse in people who suffer from depression.
Metacognition is a skill worth developing and it is a skill worth teaching – at the right time in life.
High-level creativity is creativity that drives changes in our society. Because of the demands for conformity at every level of education, there is little or no room for the development of higher order creativity. Even in the performing arts and original literature where creativity is supposed to be cultivated and expressed, the creativity is very much stylistic and imitative.
Higher order creativity goes well beyond the narrowly understood creativity in the arts. Higher order creativity is the kind of creativity that allows someone to get a static electricity shock when he or she touches a metal objective and realize that he or she can build something to take that phenomenon, harness it, and turn it into a light bulb. For many of the people who study the area, the wholesale loss of higher order creativity is a real concern. Innovations, or the building on something that is already there, has become the order of the day. It has been pointed out that there has been virtually no world-changing ideas or inventions in the last 50 years. Of course, I was corrected on this one by a creativity expert who told me that the world has never seen as much creativity as is currently being expressed. His example was the fact that you can now get a smiley face in the foam that sits on top of your coffee in the morning. WOW!
Higher Level Metacognition
As if metacognition isn’t enough, there is a higher level of metacognition that is the crowning cognitive enabler. All of the cognitive enablers that I have highlighted above are learned within a specific context. The problem of transference is as prevalent in cognitive enablers as it is in basic learning. Being able to transfer things learned in a single context to another context is difficult.
Higher-level metacognition is when a person learns how to use all of their cognitive enablers within any context. Rare and difficult to achieve. This may be beyond any normal education but as the scientific research tells us how these skills are learned and how to overcome context-dependent learning, Socelor learning is designed to provide participants with higher-level metacognition.
The problems we currently face in our society are very real challenges. Graduates trained to find the right answer or researchers scrambling for publications and grants in order to achieve recognition and prestige will never solve these challenges.
The promise of the fourth industrial age will never be realized without a foundation built on abstract cognitive enablers. The future of learning and the future of work will require agile individuals who can not only move seamlessly between learning and work but will understand why. Not only understand but be an active participant in developing the framework within which these changes are taking place.
Real prosperity in the cyber-assisted world that is emerging will be realized by those with the ability to drive change and the willingness to adapt to whatever circumstances that arise.