In teaching and learning terms that is.
Asking somebody to do something or giving instructions to be followed is an everyday thing but when we teach there is another dimension, we are directing learning. If there are two paths to the same objective does it matter, through our teaching, which one we direct our students to use?
We know that there is often a sequence to learning, an order in which we learn things and on which we base future learning. I find that we can learn things out of sequence, but it severely hampers our understanding later when called on to apply our knowledge or undertake a problem-solving activity. We also know that it takes an effort to learn something and the major part of that ‘learning’ involves cognitive activity: we must think in order to learn!
How hard can learning be?
The effort of learning is proportional to what we already know, what we understand and what we can use to learn what we don’t yet know or understand. Make sense?
A teacher who can make each of these steps proportionally ‘easier’ for a learner is often regarded as a ‘good teacher’. Making things “easier” of course involves many things such as providing encouragement, a good learning relationship, an accurate assessment of what is already known and understood as well as choosing the appropriate learning path.
What part does memory play in learning?
Let’s get back to the thinking aspect and let me give you a simple example of how the right path can make something easier by considering what we need to hold in our memory as we carry out a task.
Finding something: the instructions.
- The item you are looking for is in the large inside pocket of the blue bag in the third room on the left of the corridor.
- On the left side of the corridor look for the third room. In that room look for the blue bag and inside the blue bag open the large inside pocket where you will find the item you are looking for.
I’ll start by asking you if there is any difference between instruction a) and b) since they both direct you to the object in the pocket of the bag.
You will notice the sequence of information is different. Sequence “a” starts at the end, at finding the object and “b” starts at the beginning, of looking for the object. Which do you think load your memory the most or are both the same? In order to remember or follow the sequence would you involve imagery at all, would you try to visualise the sequence and see in your minds eye (the pocket, the bag, the room and the corridor)? If you were given only sequence “a” do you think you may reverse it to make it easier to follow?
Thinking about how our brains work – working memory and cognitive load theory
I am of course hinting at two theories of how our brain works and how they may influence our learning. The first is “working memory” (different to short term memory as it involves some ability to process information and was coined by Miller, Galanter and Pribram and first used in the 1960’s[i]) simply put a type of memory that has limited capacity. It is from this memory that we may transfer information to our long term memory, the type of information, knowledge or understanding that is involved in learning. We may get told an address and recall it minutes later but the next day we will probably have totally forgotten it.
The second theory is “cognitive load theory” (credited to John Sewell of the University of New South Wales in 1988[ii]) and is directly proportional to how much effort we need to make to learn something irrespective of our ability. We can ‘load’ the learner with unnecessary demands by confusing them, making things overly complicated or by making the learning environment ‘hostile’ or ‘toxic’.
Addingto the challenge – the issue of time
Now let’s add a new dimension and see how it would impact our ability to find the object, that of having only a few seconds to find it after which a severe penalty will be imposed.
Consider our example again and instruction a) and b). For me path “b” offers the least effort in terms of working memory, I do not need to re arrange the sequence and can easily visualise the path to the object. No time will be lost in ‘reverse engineering’ the instructions and I believe I would be calmer or more confident of success even with a time penalty being applied.
As for cognitive load, well I think path “b” again would make things easier since there is a logical sequence in the order of direction helping me process information, but the time penalty certainly adds to the load. Once again though to me the complicated nature of instruction “a” would add to the cognitive load.
As teachers and given these two theories where are we in creating our teaching paths?
I would suggest that it is certainly worth exploring these
two theories prior to planning our lessons, building learning relationships and
creating learning environments especially when we consider the claims of each
in terms of learning.