Posted tagged ‘cognitivism’

Clash of the titans

26 December 2011

I have really enjoyed following the recent argy bargy between Larry Sanger and Steve Wheeler. From a learning practitioner’s point of view, it raises issues of pedagogy, instructional design, and perhaps even epistemology.

Having said that, I think it all boils down to the novice-expert principle. As a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know. Thankfully, an expert (the teacher) can transmit the necessary knowledge to you quickly and efficiently. In eduspeak, you benefit from “scaffolding”.

Then, after you have acquired (yes – “acquired”) a foundational cognitive framework, I suggest a constructivist approach would be appropriate to expand and deepen your knowledge. In other words, now you know what you don’t know, you can do something about it.

My sector of practice is corporate rather than K-12, but I would assume that because the learners are children, their level of experience and prior knowledge is limited. Hence, having the basic concepts explained up front is a perfectly reasonable teaching strategy.

Teacher in front of K-12 class

I wonder, though, whether conversation (online or otherwise) would indeed be a useful technique after the basics have been bedded down? Perhaps the last third or so of the class could be devoted to discourse facilitated by the teacher? Or assigned to participation in a district-wide online discussion forum? (Moderated, of course, by teachers and class nerds.)

Or – more likely – I’m exposing my ignorance of the logistics of managing a classroom.

My point is that constructivism can complement, rather than substitute, instructivism. This is something that I have argued for previously.

My secondary point is that I am quite getting over the Twitterati’s tendency to devalue the role of the expert in education. Not only is the expert aware of the important facts, but they can also impart their meaning and context.

Googling ability does not a scholar make.

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Art vs (Information) Science

7 December 2010

A number of years ago, the company I worked for had the admirable idea of introducing a knowledge base, very similar to the one managed by Microsoft Support.

The idea was for the organisation to house its information in the one repository, thereby fulfilling the role of the “single source of truth”.
All staff – especially those with direct customer contact – could then mine the repository on a JIT basis to retrieve the information they needed when they needed it.

As an L&D professional, a light bulb switched on in my head…

I wonder if we can use this tool to support learning?

In particular, I was keen to add a navigational aid to the database: a simple tree structure that outlined its contents. By following the tree, an employee could explore the repository’s assets while gaining a sense of the relationships among them.

Unfortunately my wish was not granted. As a strict performance support tool, the knowledge base relied solely on a search box to facilitate immediate targeted access.

Fast forward to today and a former colleague of mine who still works in the company tells me that the tool is widely regarded as difficult to use. Despite its intention to be the single source of truth, employees tend to exhaust other possible sources of information before consulting it as a last resort.

Yuk.

The pitfall of search

I was reminded of this disappointing affair as I watched Dr Mitchell Whitelaw, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, present his excellent talk at TEDxCanberra.

Essentially, Dr Whitelaw advocates the “show everything” model of information discovery, instead of the presumptuous search model.

I love his use of Sidney Nolan’s classic painting Ned Kelly to illustrate his point…

Ned Kelly by Sidney Nolan

Think of the world that surrounds Ned – the ground, the clouds, the sky, everything – as the contents of a repository, whether it be a database, a corporate intranet, or the World Wide Web.

A search box presumes you know what you’re looking for. So if you’re looking for the tax rate applicable to superannuation contributions, for example, you might key in something like “contribution tax rate superannuation” then click “Search”.

That’s great for information retrieval. Google has made millions out of it.

However, it’s not very good for learning. Why? Because you don’t know what you don’t know, especially when you’re a novice in the domain. Referring back to the example above, you might not know what superannuation is, or what contributions are, or the fact they are taxed.

Take a closer look at Sidney Nolan’s painting. If you rely on searching only the key terms that you are aware of, it’s like focusing on what you can see through Ned’s helmet.

A world of information exists outside your field of vision, but because you don’t know it’s there, you’re unlikely to find it.

Show everything

Dr Whitelaw’s proposal to remedy this problem is to show all the contents of the repository in one hit.

Yes it sounds crazy, but before pre-judging, check out his commonsExplorer app which lets you browse the public photography collections of institutions around the world. It’s impressive!

commonsExplorer 1.0

If we stick with the painting metaphor then, the “show everything” visualisation replaces Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly with Susan Sherrah’s Kaleidoscope – Land and Sea

Kaleidoscope - Land and Sea by Susan Sherrah

Can you believe I saw this painting in a tourist brochure at the hotel after returning from TedxCanberra? Talk about serendipity!

From the sublime to the ridiculous

While the “show everything” approach to knowledge management revolutionises browsing, I’m not sure how effective it is for deep learning.

In fact I find it a little bit overwhelming. From not enough information under the search model, to too much information under the “show everything” model, the learner is lost between two extremes.

We need balance, and the cognitivist in me believes we can achieve it via scaffolding. Practically speaking, this means categories and tags.

To illustrate, let’s return to my knowledge base example…

IMHO, an L&D specialist should have consulted the various SMEs across the business to identify the super categories that represent the sum of the knowledge contained therein. These would manifest as icons on the homepage.

Upon clicking an icon, the learner is presented with a listing of the assets tagged with the corresponding hashtag. In addition, sub-categories can be explored further to refine the listing, and so on and so on.

This may remind you of the Yahoo! Directory. This is indeed the concept, but in a workplace environment it is managed much more tightly for the purposes of the staff in the organisation.

The road well travelled

It’s old fashioned these days, but I still believe in the value of an expert guiding a novice.

I maintain the expert has an obligation to contribute their expertise to the knowledge repository, and to tag it appropriately. The L&D specialist ensures this happens efficiently through support and governance.

The repository becomes an open environment for the learner to explore at their discretion, yet is structured enough to guide their learning and form a mental model of the domain.

Learning theory geeks like me call this combining constructivism with cognitivism, and I think it’s really powerful.

The best of all worlds

Does my proposal preclude a search box? No.

Does it preclude a “show everything” visualisation? No.

In fact, I suggest including both on the homepage along with the category icons.

If the learner needs to find something immediately, they can search for it; if they want to browse the content, they can play with the “show everything” visualisation; if they want to learn deeply, they can dive into the categories and sub-categories.

It’s all the same knowledge, but with smarter design, it serves everyone.
 

Theory-informed instructional design tips

9 February 2010

In my previous article, I proposed a Taxonomy of Learning Theories to organise a few of the myriad of theories into some semblance of order, and to assist instructional designers in using theory to inform their work.

In this article, I go one step further by listing specific, practical instructional design tips that are informed by those theories.

But beware… You will find empirical evidence reported in the academic literature that supports these tips, and no doubt you can find just as much evidence that refutes them. I don’t purport them to be Gospel, and I certainly consider them highly dependent on context.

Having said that, however, I do vouch for my tips in terms of my own experience in the workplace, where I’ve applied them in various combinations to real-world cases.

I hope you find my list useful too – not so much as a checklist to incorporate every theory into your work – but rather to ensure that you have at least considered what they have to offer.

If you have your own theory-informed design tips, I’d love you to share them with me!

Behaviourist design

Sad dog, courtesy of lampelina, stock.xchng.Behaviourist learning theories inform us that stimuli elicit responses, and that one stimulus can be associated with another.

This perspective adopts a “black box” approach to instructional design:

  • Link paired concepts. For example, rolling the mouse over Italy on a map can display “Rome”, while rolling the mouse over Spain can display “Madrid”. Strengthen the association with a short burst of Italian and Spanish music respectively.

  • Incorporate matching pairs into an interactive game that facilitates repetition.

  • Use consistent navigation, symbols and visual design.

  • Provide plenty of questions for practice.

  • Reward correct responses to questions with a visual/verbal reward (eg a big green tick and the message “Well done!”) and perhaps a brief sound (eg a pleasant bing).

  • Flag incorrect responses to questions with a visual/verbal message (eg a small red x and the modest message “Oops, that’s not right”) and perhaps a brief sound (eg a buzz).

  • Avoid exposing the correct answer upon an incorrect response. Instead, allow the learner to re-try (unless of course the assessment is summative).

  • Remember that rote learning is no substitute for deep understanding.

Cognitivist design

Network neurons 1, courtesy of gerard79, stock.xchng.Cognitivist learning theories inform us that hierarchically (or otherwise logically) arranged content aligns with the existing network of knowledge in the learner’s mind.

This perspective demands a structured approach to instructional design:

  • Structure your content logically.

  • Start with the learning outcome and work backwards to connect it to prior knowledge. Fill in the gap. If the gap is extensive, consider multiple smaller courses rather than one big one.

  • Use advance organizers to put the upcoming content into context and to pre-organise it. In other words, assist the learner to link the new knowledge to the relevant point in their existing cognitive structure, and to construct high-level cognitive branches within which to fill the detail.

  • Organise your content in increasing order of complexity. Provide an epitome of the domain initially, then elaborate.

  • Apply a minimalist design to reduce extraneous cognitive load.

  • Use plenty of white space.

  • Bold key terms.

  • Modularise some of the text (enclose it in a box) to make it easier to digest.

  • Wrap multiple paragraphs into a single interactive show/hide object.

  • Migrate extensive text into a downloadable document or onto a wiki.

  • Use an infographic to arrange key concepts in a framework.

  • Place the text in the infographic as close as possible to the corresponding point in the picture. Consider an audio overlay.

  • Avoid bright decorations and looped animations that compete with the substantive content for the learner’s attention.

  • Allow the learner to control multimedia and to press “Play” when they’re good and ready, to avoid inducing mild panic.

  • Use consistent navigation, symbols and visual design (as per behaviourism, but according to a different rationale).

  • Include activities that require sequencing and categorisation.

  • Employ real-world examples and scenarios.

  • Summarise the key concepts.

  • Include a formative assessment to enable the learner to test their knowledge, and to modify it or fill in gaps if necessary.

  • Ask higher order questions to confirm deep understanding.

  • Provide rich feedback.

  • Allow time for reflection.

  • Employ a mostly instructivist approach for novices. Reserve problem-based learning (PBL) for experts.

Constructivist design

Digger, courtesy of mzacha, stock.xchng.Constructivist learning theories inform us that the prior knowledge of each learner is different, and thus they have unique needs, goals and contexts.

This perspective demands a learner-centred approach to instructional design:

  • Explain up-front why the learner should bother. What specific problem will it solve?

  • Allow the learner to co-create the learning objectives.

  • Cut to the chase. Content should be relevant, meaningful and practical. Supportive (but unnecessary) content should be made available elsewhere.

  • Avoid forced navigation: instead, allow the learner to explore the content at their discretion. A default linear navigation, however, will assist novices.

  • Ensure the navigation menu is always accessible from anywhere in the course.

  • Would a wiki be a more effective (self-directed) mode of delivery?

  • Avoid using an end-point in the bulk of the course to mark completion: instead, use a summative assessment.

  • If your assessment is robust enough, those who understand the content will pass, while those who don’t will fail.

  • Ask a colleague to bluff their way through your assessment. If they pass, it’s obviously too weak.

  • Ensure the assessment is authentic.

  • Where possible, enable the learner to undertake the learning at their place of practice.

  • Use real photos rather than cartoons or illustrations.

  • Encourage discovery learning.

  • Provide your learners with a forum to ask questions and to learn from one another. The forum may be synchronous or asynchronous, or both.

  • Encourage continual communication among the learners and their colleagues in the wider workplace. Consider a regular “community of practice” meeting if the conversation does not naturally emerge.

Connectivist design

Connectivism, based on white character 1 by svilen001, stock.xchng.Connectivist learning theory informs us that the learner can’t possibly take in all knowledge, and it changes too quickly anyway.

This perspective demands a realistic approach to instructional design that doesn’t rely on memory:

  • Supplement your content with further learning resources, not only to assist the learner to broaden and deepen their knowledge, but also to keep it up to date.

  • Avoid merely listing hyperlinks: instead, provide explanations to help the learner recognise meaningful patterns among them.

  • Create a social bookmarking account.

  • Encourage social networking (both online and face-to-face).

  • Develop an ILE to centralise all the resources.

  • Encourage the learner to integrate the ILE into a broader PLE.

Do you have any instructional design tips to share?

Taxonomy of Learning Theories

12 January 2010

Academia is teeming with learning theories.

Some of them are old, some of them are new. Some are flash-in-the-pan, others stand the test of time and remain applicable to this very day. Some of them are controversial, while others have assumed the aura of conventional wisdom. Some of them are simple, while others are incomprehensible to mere mortals.

It can be quite a challenge for the modern learning professional to identify an appropriate learning theory, draw practical ideas from it, and apply it to their daily work.

Post it!

Where do you start?

Which theory do you choose?

What is its central premise?

How does it relate to other theories?

Taxonomy

To clear some of the obfuscation that surrounds learning theory, I have developed the following Taxonomy of Learning Theories.

Tracey's Taxonomy of Learning Theories

This taxonomy identifies key theories that apply to workplace learning, categorises them according to common properties, and illustrates the relationships among them.

I hope that this taxonomy, along with the corresponding notes below, will assist you in using learning theory to inform your instructional design decisions.

Close up of The ThinkerOverarching themes

Almost all learning theory is derived from one or more of the following psychological schools of thought:

• Behaviourism
• Cognitivism
• Constructivism
• Connectivism

These four psychologies form the overarching themes of my taxonomy.

Behaviourism 

Behaviourism is essentially the study of overt behaviour. Behaviourist learning theories focus on external responses elicited by stimuli. 

For example, classical conditioning maintains that a neutral stimulus can be associated with another stimulus that elicits a particular response. This concept was demonstrated in the early 1900s by Ivan Pavlov, who reported that after a period of conditioning, a dog will associate the sound of a beating metronome (neutral stimulus) with food, and respond to it in the same manner (salivate). 

Stivers 2-10-03 Pavlov's dogs

Operant conditioning maintains that behaviour is controlled by its consequences: behaviours that are rewarded are likely to be repeated, while behaviours that are punished are unlikely to be repeated. This concept was demonstrated by Edward Thorndike, who placed a cat in a “puzzle box”. The cat discovered that by pulling a ring, a side door fell open which allowed it to escape. So when Thorndike put the cat back in the box, it pulled the ring again. 

Social Learning Theory is another theory that has its roots in behaviourism. I somewhat amateurishly consider it operant conditioning by proxy, whereby the learner (especially a child) observes the rewarded actions of someone else, and thus behaves similarly. It’s important to note that Social Learning Theory now extends beyond the behaviourist domain to encompass cognition, particularly through the work of Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura. 

Cognitivism 

Since behaviourism focuses on external behaviour, it considers the mind a black box. In contrast, cognitivism peers inside the box to explain the inner structures and processes of learning.

Brain 001

Models of memory 

Numerous cognitivist learning theories derive from the Modal Model of Memory developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin since 1968. They proposed that human memory comprises three components: (1) Sensory memory, which perceives the information that is collected by our senses, such as visual information (eg a drawing) and auditory information (eg a bell toll); (2) Short-term memory, which processes the information that has been supplied by the sensory memory; and (3) Long-term memory, our more-or-less permanent knowledge storage area.

The original Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model

Atkinson & Shiffrin’s concept of short-term memory was superseded in 1974 by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch’s concept of working memory, which comprises the central executive and three slave systems: (1) The phonological loop, which processes verbal information; (2) The visuospatial sketchpad, which processes visual imagery and spatial information; and (3) an integrative component called the episodic buffer.

Schematic of Baddeley's Model

In 1956, George Miller reported that the “span of immediate memory” is limited to the magical number 7±2 items. From this, he deduced that the amount of information that could be processed at any one time could be increased by “chunking” it.

In the 1970s, John Anderson started to develop ACT-R, which maintains that long-term memory comprises declarative memory which is explicitly stored and retrieved (eg crashing your bike into a tree on your birthday when you were a child) and procedural memory which is unconsciously stored and retrieved (eg the motor skills required for riding a bike generally).

Schema theories 

Models of memory provide the foundation for subsequent cognitivist theories that (arguably) have more direct implications for instructional design. 

In 1977, Richard Anderson extended the work of earlier theorists such as Frederic Bartlett and Jean Piaget. His Schema Theory of Learning maintains that within long-term memory (or more specifically, declarative memory), knowledge is arranged in a hierarchical network of constructs called “schemas”. 

Neurons

Similarly, David Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory proposes that learning involves the linking of new information to relevant points in the learner’s existing cognitive structure. During the learning process, new information is subsumed under more general information in the hierarchical arrangement of the learner’s prior knowledge. 

Charles Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory complements Ausubel’s principle of ideational scaffolding. Reigeluth maintains that instruction should be organised in increasing order of complexity. In particular, the simplest (or epitomised) version of the domain should be provided initially, and elaborated upon subsequently. This approach develops a broad, meaningful context into which the learner can assimilate the narrow, detailed information. 

Cognitive load 

In 1988, John Sweller synthesised key principles of memory and schema under a new proposal called Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory maintains that the mental effort required for learning imposes a cognitive load on working memory. The total cognitive load consists of three components: (1) Intrinsic cognitive load, which is imposed by the intrinsic characteristics of the content that is to be learned; (2) Germane cognitive load, which refers to the mental effort required to organise the elements of the content into a schema, integrate it into long-term memory, and automate its processing; and (3) Extraneous cognitive load, which does not contribute to the learning process (eg the mental effort required to block out loud music). 

Studying for a Test 1

If the total cognitive load of the learning task exceeds the processing capacity of working memory, learning fails. This suggests that instruction should be designed with a view to reduce cognitive load and thereby avoid overload. 

Constructivism 

DiggerConstructivism has a rich history. Numerous theorists have contributed to its development over the last century (eg Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Ernst von Glaserfeld), and several brands are recognised in the domain (eg cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, radical constructivism). 

Regardless of the theorist or the brand, however, constructivism essentially maintains that people learn by constructing their own knowledge on the basis of their experiences. Constructivist learning theories recognise that everyone’s framework of prior knowledge is unique, thus they have their own needs, goals and contexts. 

Adaptation 

Baby with booksIn his study of child development, Jean Piaget posited that every learner has a mental representation of the world which he or she constructs through their experiences.

When a person experiences cognitive conflict (a discrepancy between their mental representation and what they are currently experiencing), they undergo a process of adaptation. If the new experience aligns with their mental representation, the learner assimilates it in the form of new knowledge into their existing schema. If, however, the new experience does not align with their mental representation, the learner must rearrange their existing schema to accommodate the new knowledge.

Clearly, adaptation is complementary to Schema Theory; however, the constructivist perspective emphasises the learner centredness of the activity. 

Situated Learning Theory 

A valuable means by which a learner can close the gaps in their existing schema, and broaden and deepen their knowledge, is to engage with other people, ask questions, debate ideas, and share experiences. 

BlacksmithSituated Learning Theory focuses on this social, practice-based approach to learning. The theory views learning in terms of participation in a community of practice, and considers knowledge to be highly dependent on its context. 

Andragogy

Andragogy focuses on adult learning, and it adopts a strong constructivist perspective.

Business manIt boils down to 5 assumptions about adult learners as articulated by Malcolm Knowles: (1) Adult learners are self directed; (2) Adults bring experience with them to the learning environment; (3) Adults are ready to learn to perform their role in society; (4) Adults are problem oriented, and they seek immediate application of their new knowledge; and (5) Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

I have stated previously that I believe Knowles’ 5 assumptions generally hold true – but not for all adults, and certainly not all of the time. An andragogical approach is appropriate for adults who are intellectually mature, self directed and intrinsically motivated, with time to learn and their heads in the right space.

Connectivism 

While cognitivism focuses on knowledge inside the mind, connectivism focuses on knowledge outside the mind. 

ConnectivismGeorge Siemens describes connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”. He maintains that in today’s world, there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway.

So forget about trying to know everything; instead, exploit technology to extend your knowledge beyond your own brain. Build a network of knowledge sources which you can access as the need arises. 

Recognising meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information, rather than storing it all in your head, re-defines what it means to “learn”.


E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1Referencing Note

If you would like to reference this article, you
may prefer to cite my book in which it appears:

E-Learning Provocateur: Volume 1

The power of pictures

21 June 2009

Pictures…

piggy bank, courtesy of RAWKU5, stock.xchng

Diagrams…

User acces permission : diagram, courtesy of activeside under Creative Commons, Flickr

Charts…

advanced pie 3, courtesy of svilen001, stock.xchng

They don’t just look pretty. They can also be a useful means of delivering extensive information to your audience in a concise format.

For example, how would you explain the GFC to your colleagues? Via a thousand words of text, or via one of these infographics:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

On the space of one page, these graphics do a good job of explaining the key concepts of a complex and convoluted situation.

Multimedia summaries

The power of pictures has been recognised in educational psychology for a long time.

For example, back in 1996, Richard Mayer and several of his colleagues from the University of California, Santa Barbara studied the effects of a multimedia summary (a sequence of annotated illustrations depicting the steps in a process) on learning how lightning is formed. [Ref]

Through a series of experiments, the researchers found that the students who read a multimedia summary on its own recalled the key explanative information and solved transfer problems as well as or better than the students who read the multimedia summary accompanied by a 600-word passage. Both groups of students performed as well as or better than the students who read the text passage on its own.

I consider these results important because, not only do they support the idea of pictures enhancing learning, but they also suggest that an infographic can achieve similar learning outcomes whether or not it is accompanied by a relatively large amount of text.

The researchers interpreted their results in terms of their “cognitive theory of multimedia learning”, which draws heavily from cognitive load theory. They proposed that lengthy verbal explanations may in fact distract the learner with unnecessary information, which adversely affects their cognitive processing and thus their learning.

In contrast, a concise infographic provides only the important information. This reduces the cognitive load, making it easier to process and to “learn”.

 Text ain’t half bad

Courtesy of raffit, stock.xchngI’ve professed my support of text in a previous blog article, so before we all abandon tedious words in favour of flashy infographics, I caution that text will always have its place – especially to explain the details.

For example, the multimedia summary studied by Mayer may have been sufficient for first-year science students, but probably not for meteorology majors. Those guys need the detail, and text is usually the most efficient way of providing it.

However, I still feel that pictures can be a useful pedagogical device for students who aspire to be experts. In particular, by using an infographic as an advance organizer or pre-reading, the instructional designer can promote a mental model of the domain.

This approach enables the student to devote their cognitive efforts to processing the initial conceptual framework, prior to following it up with more substance once a broad understanding of the main concepts is achieved.

My two cents’ worth

So, in summary, here is my reflection on the power of pictures:

• Pictures look pretty. Use them to increase engagement.

• A picture paints a thousand words. Use one to replace wads of text.

• An infographic is a concise means of delivering the key concepts to novice students.

• An infographic can provide experts-to-be with an initial conceptual framework, which can subsequently be “filled in” with further detail.

Putting it into practice

I decided to put my ideas into practice and create an infographic for my workplace.

So, using nothing more than Microsoft PowerPoint and some clipart, I created a customer-centric explanation of what we do:

Click to enlarge

I feel this picture would be a useful addition to our inductions, to explain to new recruits up-front the overall purpose of our company.

The graphic may also act as an introductory piece for our product training, placing it into context for the learner.

The graphic might even act as an attractive desk poster to reinforce the key messages on a day-to-day basis.

I’m sold, give me more!

For more smokin’ hot graphics about a whole range of topics more interesting than finance, visit 40 Useful and Creative Infographics.

If you can’t find any relevant pictures, create your own!