Cognitive vs. Behavioral Supports for Jeremy Wiggins and All Students

Imagine an ordinary Wednesday sixth grade math class. Our freckled and spunky Jeremy Wiggins cannot visualize the patterns inside the figure for which he is suppose to calculate the area. He is fuzzy about what area actually means even though yesterday he demonstrated a grasp of the concept. What he knew yesterday hasn’t stuck with him. But Jeremy is the fastest multiplier and divider in the class, making his current confusion implausible.

Jeremy stares at the figure for an admirable 5 minutes. He cannot, for the life of him, figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, Mr. Clancy’s riding mower passes by just as Ms. Bell looks his way. Jeremy has run to the window to see if Mr. Clancy has on his Cleveland Browns tie. He does.

But Jeremy is now busted. “Jeremy, you have your second red mark of the day for not paying attention to your work. One more and you will miss recess tomorrow. Two more and I’ll have to call you parents.”

“Sorry, Ms. Bell. It won’t happen again.”

Jeremy, humiliated, looks at his paper. He feels like crying but there is no way he will. He feels dumb enough already. He pulls the hood of his Cleveland Browns sweatshirt around his face to hide the red cheeks that always glow through his freckles when he’s embarrassed.

Thirty agonizing minutes later of staring at his paper, Ms. Bell notices Jeremy has done nothing. She loses her temper and gives him another red mark.

Jeremy is super smart. However, his paper trail states he doesn’t work up to his potential. He daydreams, procrastinates, has trouble paying attention, and makes poor “behavioral choices.”

Jeremy’s intelligence seems to be working against him because it prevents teachers from analyzing areas in which he may be conceptually deficient. He is so smart they make assumptions that his behaviors are a result of his poor management of himself or poor behavior choices instead of conceptual deficits.

Conceptual confusion is a bear because students who are confused due to conceptual deficits often don’t know how to formulate appropriate questions to get the help they need. Otherwise they wouldn’t be confused.

Conceptual confusion will never, ever, not even a little be remedied by forcing behavioral adaptations on students. For example, forcing a student to pay attention until he ‘gets’ how to work out a problem is like forcing a fish to pay attention to a pair of tennis shoes to figure out how to put them on. Neither resilience, persistence, grit, motivation, or better attentional behaviors are going to put the correct concepts into the brains of the child or the fish.

It just so happens geometry and spatial sense are Ms. Bell’s forte. She has only been teaching three years and has no idea, in a concrete way, how much a struggle visualizing spatial relationships can be for some individuals because it has always come so naturally to her, even as a youngster.

To be fair, we are all extremely bound by our own personal cognitive landscapes. We cannot know what we do not know…until we can. And neither Ms. Bell or any of us can know what other people don’t know and how they don’t know it…until we can.

I use the term cognitive landscape to refer to the unique way in which each human brain integrates senses, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions in such a way to constantly formulate predictions for what to do next.

Until I was 50 years old, the degree to which the cognitive landscape of other people’s brains could be different than my own was something I had only a vague sense of. It didn’t help that all my psychology courses taught me explicitly and concretely how to fixate on behavioral differences and adaptations in the classroom. My psychology courses identified cognitive differences but spoke of them as if they should be obvious and easily dealt with.

My goal is for us to flip this pattern we have inherited from psychology. I believe we should fixate on the many complex and varied steps that go into cognition rather than behavior because behaviors are simply the tools of cognition. They don’t do anything in and of themselves except for allowing the brain to do what it predicts it needs to do each moment in time. Modifying behaviors is like screaming at an oven not to get hot after the oven has been turned on. It makes no logical sense. Furthermore, behaviors are highly personal, personalized, and private. Children and adults alike become threatened and agitated when their behaviors are commented upon are modified.

David Ng’s brilliant, award winning Drawing Area App is a perfect example for how to illustrate the difference between offering cognitive versus behavioral adaptations. Here is David’s essay with the details.

David Ng’s app can allow Jeremy to concretely visualize how to divide up a figure into smaller shapes in order to calculate the area. Imagine if Ms. Bell had shown Jeremy the Drawing Area App instead of giving him punitive red marks.

In special education, I constantly develop cognitive and physical adaptations and supports to help students accomplish learning goals. The thing is, when you figure out all kinds of adaptations to help someone in a wheelchair who can only move one finger, or someone with limited mobility who has stronger visual than verbal skills, you start to realize just how infinitely many ways you can provide cognitive adaptations. You also start to realize, as educators, we should be constantly seeking out cognitive supports and modifications for our students, not behavioral modifications.

Thanks to my years of observations in the classroom and the research of Jeff Hawkins, I started to analyze my students for how they are able to manage information and make predictions instead of how they are able to make behavior choices. The result being, instead of forcing my students to conform behaviorally to be able to receive information in the ways I am comfortable delivering it, I started conforming my information delivery to match the ways in which my students were able to receive and make sense of it.

Writing the above paragraph makes the process seem obvious. But it took me a long time to know how to consistently modify my information delivery to match the cognitive abilities of each student because I can’t know about all the different ways my students process information when those ways of processing do not exist in my brain. Like everyone else, I have a devil of a time knowing what other people don’t know and how they don’t know it, until somehow, miraculously, I do.

This is where psychology is sorely lacking. It’s theories are predicated on all humans having relatively similar cognitive landscapes and that all humans should be making relatively similar behavioral choices. Educators are now told to use the term ‘expected behaviors’ in order to get the predetermined behaviors we want from our students. There is just no way a child with extreme cognitive differences will engage in the same ‘expected’ behaviors as his peers. Behaviors are always in alignment with one’s cognition. Engaging in expected behaviors requires a cognitive component psychologists are simply not factoring into the mix. In fact, psychologists promote the idea that behavioral differences reflect cognitive disorder instead of cognitive difference.

The way I see it, psychologists have been under-simplifying cognitive processes and over-simplifying behavioral processes.

But in all fairness to psychologists, it is just as hard for them understand cognitive differences as it is anyone else because we are all incredibly bound in by our own, personal, cognitive landscapes. Psychologists, by nature of the work they choose and are able to do are very verbal, social, and super verbally expressive about their feelings. Psychologists have made assumptions about all brains based upon the nature of their own personal brains. And they have literally identified people who are not very verbal, not very social, and not super expressive about their feelings as having personality disorders.

Psychologists have not yet collectively expanded their cognitive landscapes to understand, in a concrete manner, how profoundly differently each human brain experiences information, stores it as memory, or associates it when handling new information. Processing speed, memory capacity, and working memory efficiency are only a few of the many aspects of cognition that integrate uniquely within each brain.

As I mentioned previously, my cognitive landscape was expanded tremendously from having worked with students with special needs. However, the degree to which a cognitive landscape could be so utterly and completely different from my own became crystal clear to me after an electrifying aha moment. I observed a student of mine problem solve in real time. My student broke three school rules to solve his problem, but I realized in the aha moment that he was making sense of the information at hand in the only ways he was capable of. I literally saw a flash of lightning when I made the connection between him making sense of information versus him being a deliberately defiant rule breaker, as was his reputation among his various teachers.

For the first time ever I realized this student literally did not understand the rules he was allegedly acting in defiance of in this case. I realized in the aha moment you cannot break a rule unless you have a clear cognitive understanding of that rule, can pull it up appropriately in your working memory, make generalizations about it in multiple contexts, and figure out how to appropriately apply it. This boy had a poor working memory, he did not generalize well, and he often had trouble making accurate associations. The poor kid was always in trouble because what looked like behavioral defiance was simply cognitive difference. For the first time I thought concretely about the fact that following rules requires cognitive, not behavioral competence.

Using psychological theories this boy’s educators and therapists could only reach one conclusion, that conclusion being his behaviors pointed to him having a personality disorder. He was indeed diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. Suddenly, inside of that aha moment, I could not stomach how punitive and persecutory our fixation on behaviors are to the developing brains and bodies of our students.

With the memory-prediction framework of the brain from neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins, we can analyze and support students like mine and like Jeremy in terms of how they handle information and we can leave their behaviors alone. We can support all students for how they are able to predict what to do next. Instead of dehumanizing them by calling them behaviorally disordered we can treat them with the same amount of dignity deserved by all students by supporting their unique thinking styles.

This is why David Ng’s Drawing Area App is so exciting to me. It will be a game changer for many students because cognitive diversity, I believe, is a much bigger factor than any of us have yet been able to wrap our heads around. As teachers, it will always be a challenge to meet the cognitive needs of someone else’s brain. But the first step is to try.