Improving Teaching in the Archaeology Classroom

Cognitive Development Theory Applications and Active Learning Pedagogies

Originally published in The SAA Archaeological Record

Instruction at the college level is one of the major career paths for archaeologists. Today, all prospective archaeologists are trained in the classrooms, field schools, and laboratories within institutions of higher learning. Therefore, the responsibility to ensure that future archaeology pushes the boundaries of scientific inquiry, while respecting the humanity behind our study, lies with college instruction. Archaeological training in higher education has two major learning objectives: the development of complex critical thinking skills and the internalization of our discipline-specific knowledge. Archaeological theory, methodology, histories, and ethics are all examples of discipline-specific knowledge. Critical thinking can be understood as the development of cognitive ability to weigh information from disparate and contradictory sources in a rational, independent manner. The internalization of knowledge is predicted on this ability to distinguish between sources of knowledge, so cognitive complexity lies at the heart of archaeological instructional goals.

The development of cognitive complexity in students seems a daunting task. I argue that an understanding of student cognitive development can assist instructors of archaeology to choose pedagogical tools and tasks to maximize cognitive development. In order to do so, I first outline the academic understanding of cognitive complexity, primarily using the reflective judgment model of King and Kitchener (1994). I then demonstrate how this student development theory directly applies to teaching practice by emphasizing the essential role of cognitive dissonance. I argue that active learning practices and an engaged pedagogy help engross students in order to better achieve those goals of cognitive conflict and growth, and I focus on three pedagogical tools that are aligned with the implications of the reflective judgment model. All three are supplemented with examples from the SAA Curriculum Committee's free online teaching resources repository, containing tried and tested syllabi and classroom activities. In conclusion, I find that these practices are easy to embed into the archaeological classroom with forethought and reflection.

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