Cognitive psychology can be vital to understanding common difficulties that students face with learning biological concepts. A “cognitive construal” is what cognitive psychologists refer to as the specific sets of belief that we gain as children via the active seeking of a way to explain, understand, and predict the world around us. These informal, intuitive ways of thinking could be a set of assumptions, a kind of explanation, or a predisposition to a certain kind of thinking. Three such construals are particularly relevant to the challenges faced in biology classrooms: teleological thinking, essentialist thinking, and anthropocentric thinking.
Teleological thinking describes the tendency of students to reason “based on the assumption of a goal, purpose, or function.” A good example is the statement “birds have wings so they can fly.” This statement assumes that an anatomical structure developed with the goal in mind of flying, that the structure was caused by the goal of flight. Teleological thinking assumes that biological phenomena are caused by their ultimate functions; however, research suggests that the feathers and flapping behavior originated before flight (http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr0308.htm). Teleological thinking can explain a number of seemingly unrelated cognitive construals that biology students have.
Essentialist thinking is a cognitive construal that assumes that the identity of an entity is reliant on one or a few “essential” characteristics, and that a change in these essential characteristics will result in an entity of a different category. For example, many students assume that cells that have different characteristics and functions also have different DNA. In this example, the “essential” quality that defines one cell from another is appearance and function. This kind of thinking doesn’t consider the wide variability of characteristics that members of a single species may have, and is a common constraint on student learning in the biology classroom.
Anthropocentric thinking is the tendency to reason about biological phenomenon by analogy to humans, and it is often used when the student lacks a more specific biological knowledge of the organism. For example, the idea that plants “eat” sunlight or the nutrients in the soil attributes human means of obtaining nutrition to the plant. The plant assimilative system differs significantly from the human, and this kind of thinking interferes with the student’s ability to consider the widely variant functions of other species.
It is clear that certain frameworks of thinking largely affect the ability of students to understand biological concepts, yet the study of those frameworks is largely absent from the field of biology education. Cognitive psychology can help illuminate the common fallacies of logic that impede students and frustrate teachers, and a cooperation between the fields of cognitive psychology and biology can illuminate not only the obstacles that students face in learning biology but how to overcome them.
Coley, John D and Tanner, Kimberly D. Common Origins of Diverse Misconceptions: Cognitive Principles and the Development of Biology Thinking. Life Sciences Education. Vol 11. Fall 2012. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433289/]
Dr. Bruce Kirchoff