The last quarter century has seen a new interest in human cognition and its development across a variety of scientific disciplines. In "the mind's new science,"1 anthropologists study the cultural basis of cognition, sociologists study the social distribution of cognitive skills in various groups and institutional settings, psychologists aim to better understand individual cognitive ability, computer scientists work to create "artificial intelligence," and others, such as behavioral geneticists, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers have formed subspecialities that study various aspects of human cognition. Taken together, this multidisciplinary enquiry into the nature, workings, and development of the mind is referred to as contemporary cognitive science.
Given the vast number of publications across all these fields of study, it is not possible to present a comprehensive survey of cognitive science. Instead, a summary of major trends will be presented. 2-3 The references to this chapter offer inroads to the literature on cognitive science that the interested reader can pursue for a deeper understanding of this fascinating and socially important field of study.
THE NATURE OF COGNITION
Cognition has at least two main aspects. On the one hand, cognition refers to the mental processes that people use to acquire knowledge, and on the other hand, cognition refers to the knowledge that has been acquired using these mental processes.
Knowledge and cognition. One of the hallmark achievements of cognitive science is the confirmation of the dual nature of cognition: all human intellectual activities, such as thinking, communicating, problem solving, and learning require both processes and knowledge. This is important because it points out the near futility of attempting to improve cognitive ability simply by improving "processes" such as "reading," "writing," "critical thinking," and so forth without recognizing that high levels of ability in performing these processes requires high levels of knowledge on which the processes can operated It is precisely because content knowledge plays such a large role in cognition that all major tests of "intelligence" assess vocabulary knowledge (frequently in what is called the "verbal" component of intelligence 5 ).
Because of the importance of knowledge to cognition and its development, cognitive scientists have made the study of knowledge a central part of their work. The focus of their study generally reflects the focus of their scientific discipline. For instance, cognitive anthropologists have studied how housewives use their knowledge of mathematics in grocery shopping; how literate and illiterate children in Brazil develop knowledge of mathematics involved in selling gum on the streets; and how dairymen invent mental labor saving knowledge for performing mathematics involved in filling milk orders .6-7-8 These and other studies suggest that the contexts in which people work affect the type of knowledge they develop about mathematics and how well they are able to perform tasks that involve the use of mathematics. They also show that there may be less transfer of mathematical skill from academic settings to applied settings (and vice versa) than one might have thought.
Cognitive psychologists have studied information processing in reading and have found that what a person knows about what they are reading greatly influences their ability to comprehend and learn from texts. In one study, young adults in a remedial reading program required 11th grade "general reading" ability to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy if they lacked much knowledge relevant to what they were reading. On the other hand, those with high amounts of knowledge about what they were reading were able to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy with only 6th grade "general reading" ability.9