What does it mean to have learned something? What occurs within the individual as they are learning and what changes occur as a result of that learning? At some point in the teaching/learning cycle we need to ask this question and ponder our definition of learning and the consequences that follow from our conclusions.
One possible approach to answering this question is to explore the processes that occur within the brain as we learn and to track the movement from a concept presented to us in the environment through to the inclusion of this into our existing mental models and our knowledge banks. When we take this approach we are applying a ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’ approach to understanding learning. As an approach to understanding learning this model can be traced back to the late 1800s when Maudsley and James outlined models of memory with parts that fulfilled different jobs. With the advent of computers analogies were drawn with the processing models utilised by these inventions of the human mind and educators gained insights into how learning occurs.
Present models of human cognitive architecture typically begin at the point of our senses through which we gather information. At this point we rely heavily on systems that filter the multitude of data points we are receiving to ensure our systems are not overloaded. Systems and processes of attention allow us to ignore stimuli that is less relevant to our present situation than others. At this point models such as that developed by Silvan Tomkins in describing ‘Affect Theory’ are likely to be of interest. Tomkins identified nine ‘affects’ that trigger a response to external stimulus. According to the Tomkins Institute 'The affect system evolved so that this creature (an animal or a human) can experience what is important about its world. Nothing becomes conscious without affect, nothing is remembered without affect, and nothing is sought or avoided without affect. Affect is what motivates us; affect makes things urgent’. Debate continues over Tomkins instance on only nine affects but for most purposes the model functions as required. It is the ‘affect system’ that triggers the first step towards learning and is what triggers movement of information further through the architecture of our cognitive system.
In a ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’ model we are moving from information in a sensory buffer into working memory. Recent research by Alan Baddeley and Hitch has clarified our understanding of these systems within the brain. Their research shows us that we have no more than 0.5 seconds to notice a stimulus before it passes out of our Sensory Register and is lost. If it triggers an ‘affect’ it will move into working memory where we are able to begin to process it. If we take no further action it will leave working memory after approximately 15 seconds and this memory has a maximum capacity of around seven (plus or minus two) discrete chunks of information although the size of a chunk is highly variable.
Now that we have information within our working memory the possibility of learning exists but is assuredly not guaranteed. From here a complex set of interactions between working memory and long term memory needs to occur for learning to take place. At this point our cognitive architecture is working towards the construction of new schemas of knowledge through the binding of new information with old. This process allows us to modify existing schemas or to create new schemas based on new combinations of information that had previously not existed. A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. We construct schemas for all manner of objects and phenomena we encounter and it is these mental models that act as abbreviations within our mind allowing us to make sense of the variety of stimulus we encounter. It is our use of schemas that allow us to identify a tree from other items in the environment and it is this schema that allows us to identify trees we have not experienced previously. Learning is what occurs when a new set of stimuli forces us to create a new schema as those we already posses are found to be lacking. Thus we are likely to create a schema separate to that we use for trees when we first encounter a bush.
At this point we are close to achieving learning but the final step of moving this schema into long-term memory may not occur without the right conditions that occur only during REM sleep. Once a new schema has been formed within our long term memory we can say that the learning is permanent. Items stored in long term memory may not always be immediately accessible to us but they are stored permanently and without limits. Sweller (1988) is clear in detailing the requirements for learning ‘If nothing has been changed in long term memory then nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has changed in long term memory; or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in, or retrieved from, long term memory, is likely to be ineffective.
With this framework in mind the next step for the learner and the educator is to examine what this means for the way we learn and for how we should approach the process of teaching. Understanding this model has implications for how we present information, how we deal with multiple presentations of information, how we process information and how we assess learning. Lane Clark presented attendees of ICOT 2015 with five questions to be asked after an introduction to ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’ each linked to a stage in the process.
- How can we increase the likelihood that our learners ‘attend’?
- How can we increase the likelihood that they activate long term memory schema (code)?
- How can we increase the likelihood that they construct accurate and comprehensive schema
- How can we increase the likelihood that our learners assimilate new learning with old schema (encode)?
- How can we increase the likelihood that they tag their learning personally relevant and important?
Next week I will explore some possible answers to these questions as presented by Lane Clark and as explored in research by Richard Mayer on the use of multimedia resources and recent research into cognitive load theory.
This introduction to ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’ is intended for educators as a basic introduction only. If you wish to explore the mechanics of this further I suggest you begin by reading this article by Jules Collingwood who presents an ‘advanced’ paper on the topic.
A list of articles by Alan Baddeley is available online HERE
Lane Clark shares her tools for learning and thinking at LaneClark.ca