March 27, 2008

Empowerment, Cognition and Learning

I read a very interesting editorial article in Science this month, written by Bruce Alberts [1]. The editorial raises attention to the science function to frame "scientific habits of mind" including skeptical attitudes and emphasis on logic and evidence. Some clear characteristics of such scientific habits of mind are honesty, creativity and openness to new ideas. It also calls for a new type of science education that aims to empower how students think and act, especially when are called to perform challenging problem-solving tasks.

Empowering students for learning is not a new idea. I would point to Bloom's taxonomical approach to learning [2]. Among other functions, Bloom's taxonomy addresses issues of quality of life [3], computer-based problem solving [4], or the empowerment of multiple intelligences [5]. The taxonomical approach to learning, dating back to the late 1950's was developed by Benjamin Bloom as a cognitive tool to boost the intellectual intelligence of the students. Over the years, methodological improvements in cognitive and educational psychology lead to a modified or revised Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive levels of learning that focuses on six sequential levels of understanding (from basic to higher levels): remembering (acquiring knowledge basis and retention), understanding (achieving a level of comprehension), applying (utilizing knowledge and comprehension to apply concepts), analyzing (focusing on analytical break-down of information), evaluating (finding the value of evidence and critical information) and creating (intellectually synthesizing and acquiring new knowledge).

When it comes to science learning, the Bloom's taxonomical approach provides a very critical understanding of scientific method as well, not only at the basic cognitive understanding of science method, but also for the processing, evaluating and synthesizing information capable of generating new ideas and thought processes at both the individual and the collective levels. Beyond learning-by-doing science, or hands-on science approaches, a number of scientific disciplines, especially the ones evolving around social sciences require the development of both analytic and cognitive skills. Social systems with all their complexity [6] cannot be directly manipulated in the same way that we perform physical science experimentation. Methodologies, theories and ideas have to be developed, tested and evolve through a heuristic or approximate level of assessment or understanding. Cognitive considerations vary from the individual cognitive level to the collective and decision making cognitive level with increasing complexity and uncertainty.

Both educational and social learning approaches can aim towards enhancing and empowering individuals for appreciating, understanding and accepting science and scientific method. Re-establishing societal confidence and trust to science requires important changes in attitudes and beliefs of individuals within the society. Today, more than ever, we need clear and concise rules that are able to distinguish science from non-science, sense from non-sense, reality from myth, facts from numerous "spins". I believe there are a lot in stake today. A look at the climate change spin and controversial debate, the so-called "creationism science" controversy or other science-religion ethics [7], showcases the need for re-establishing more rigid rules and understanding of science at the public domain.

The problems related to public understanding and accepting of science in our modern societies are certainly non-trivial and multi-dimensional. I believe, before all, they require a high level of commitment from scientists. They also require a firmer stance and attitude of science leadership toward achieving its goals. Finally, they seek new ideas and methods of addressing wider societal and learning needs that go beyond diffusion of scientific findings; they aim also to changing individual, collective and social beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.


1. Alberts, B., Considering Science Education. Science, 2008. 319(5870): p. 1589.

2. Anderson, L.W., Objectives, evaluation, and the improvement of education. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 2005. 31(2-3): p. 102-113.

3. Cohen, E.H., R.A. Clifton, and L.W. Roberts, The Cognitive Domain of the Quality of Life of University Students: A Re-Analyses of an Instrument. Social Indicators Research, 2001. 53(1): p. 63-77.

4. Mayer, R.E., A taxonomy for computer-based assessment of problem solving. Computers in Human Behavior, 2002. 18(6): p. 623-632.

5. Noble, T., Integrating the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy With Multiple Intelligences: A Planning Tool for Curriculum Differentiation. Teachers College Record, 2004. 106(1): p. 193-211.

6. Boyd, R., The Puzzle of Human Sociality. Science, 2006. 314(5805): p. 1555-1556.

7. Goldston, D., The Scientist Delusion. Nature, 2008. 452: p. 17.