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tools and cognition

March 14, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

A colleague sent me by e-mail a "brain puzzle" -- this was the kind where you have to look at a picture and find a bunch of hidden objects. Supposedly, being able to find a lot of the objects is a demonstrative of superior cognitive ability.

Naturally, I couldn't find them all. So I picked out some key words from the puzzle, did a search on the Web, and found the answers in a few seconds :-). Now, here's a brain puzzle for Papyrus News readers. Answer this one question: Did I cheat? (Or did I just demonstrate superior cognition via another route? :-))

This relates back to the question posed by Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (a must-read book, by the way; it was out of print for several years, but a quick check of indicates it's finally been reprinted.) Take a blind man with a stick. Where does his sensory perception end? At the end of his hand? At the end of a stick? Half way down the stick?

In other words, as Activity Theorists (following in the Russian school of Vygotsky) have pointed out, the use of tools is very much an integral part (rather than a separate add-on) of all human activity, including cognitive activity.

One problem that a colleague at UC Irvine has been working on is that school assessment does not adequately take into account how people are able to make use of tools in their learning, thinking, and problem solving. Schools increasingly emphasize technology in the classroom, but they don't allow children to make use of technology in taking tests. This is perhaps changing a bit through use of calculators in certain tests, though again the question of "cheating" is raised. I suppose part of the task is to design assessments whereby technology can be helpful in the task but does not substitute for the underlying cognitive skill that is being tested. For example, if the brain puzzle mentioned at the top is truly designed to test how someone can distinguish items in a field (examining, for example, field dependence and field independence), than allowing them to search on the Web for the answers would be counterproductive. If the puzzle is designed to find out someone's ability to take advantage of resources to solve problems, then allowing them to use a range of tools is helpful.

Of course the bigger problem with school tests is they don't allow learners to make use of the most powerful tool available, the collective cognition of their fellow human beings. People tend to do well in life when they can work with other people to gather information, explore ideas, think through problems. Indeed, being able to learn from and with others is one of the most powerful indicators of what people refer to as intelligence. School tests, however, don't measure that--they just measure what one can do alone, with very few if any tools. There are of course reasons for all of this--it's much cheaper and more efficient to design and implement an individual multiple-choice test than a complex learning assessment that involves collaborative task work using a variety of tools and media. But how fully does that measure the full range of human cognition? And especially the types of thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration most needed in today's society?


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Last updated: March 14, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0