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Human architecture of the brain and cognitive load theory - so what?

Another person who I have watched (on video) is Lane Clark, (and talked about her work for e.g. What is real learning?) so I am really looking forward to her session.

Interesting that Lane had music playing, toys on the tables, and print-outs on the tables. Really relaxed people, and conversations sprung up. Lane is also setting up Dropbox areas for each of her sessions.

Lane started by dramatising "Hooray for Difendoofer Day!" by Dr Seuss, before moving into cognitive load theory, and explained that it is about getting a feeling and a flavour for the research - along with how it may impact your practice. And then ask the question, this is the theory - so what?

What does the research say about learning? (Human cognitive architecture - HCA; Cognitive load theory - CLT). If something isn't tagged as important it does not get put in the long term memory. Lane also asked what does it mean to learn? "If nothing has changed in the longer term memory then nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not of cannot specify what has been changed in the long term memory" will not be effective.

Key guides:

  • limit your words (nothing is recorded in the long term memory in sentences)
  • record in colour
  • use images / symbols
  • initial contributions

Using this approach takes time - and the most important thing for processing is time.

HCA "deals with the cognitive structure of the brain and the relationship between working memory and long term memory". And "Most modern treatments of HCA use the Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) working memory - long term memory model as their base". The audience were then encouraged to record their own definition using their own words and graphics. Even thinking about the exercise, helped me start to conceptualise visually what HCA means.

All conscious processing occurs in the working memory, and you can process 3 to 4 pieces of (new, yet to be learned) information can be processed at one time (Cowan, 2001); we have 30 second retention without rehearsal (Peterson, 1959); and we have a limited short term memory especially if it is new, yet to be learned, information. In comparison, the LTM stores schema (representations; has a limitless capacity; and if the working memory can draw on schema sorted in LTM, then limitations of WM processing are reduced  You can store huge amounts of information in the LTM in a way that allows you to quickly recognise the characteristics of a situation, and then, often, unconsciously you are internally guided by your response".

For learning, novel information must be processed in the working memory; schemas must be constructed and tagged meaningfully, and then stored in LTM during REM sleep. If instruction overloads the learner's working memory capacity (cognitive load) then learning is inhibited.

Lane moved on to cognitive load theory (CLT), which is concerned with the "cognitive load placed on your working memory processing and how this can be reduced so that cognitive resources can be devoted to learning" i.e the ultimate goal of well-designed learning activities is reducing cognitive load. When we plan learning for students, as educators we already have the schema. If you don't have the schema it is way more fuzzy. Sometimes the issue is that the pre-requisite schema is not in place, or the schema is not explicit or is incomplete so the learners are not constructing schema. Also, many students are not 'tagging' the schema because they are not seeing the relevance, so it only remains in the working memory - where is can be kept alive for quite an extended period of time...or until the focus changes. Hence of the 'phenomenon' of "but they knew it", and even passed the test at the time.

Sleep is incredibly important for learning, because the brain processes from short-term to long-term memory during REM sleep (if it's 3-4 pieces of information, that is is part of a constructed schema, and if it is tagged meaningfully).

Cognitive processing is affected by the complexity of the information (intrinsic cognitive load). This is associated with the inherent intellectual complexity of the materials  The issue with very complex material is that the elements have to be related so to understand, all of the elements have to be processed simultaneously. Interestingly we have no control over the intrinsic cognitive load. The problem is that when we artificially break up the complexity to help students learn this can compromise the integrity of the material and therefore compromises schema construction and learning. Students are often engaged and experiencing what you understand to be the schema, but they have not extracted and made their own meaning from it Learning designers have no control over this.. Extraneous cognitive load involves having too much 'extra' stuff to process and there is not enough cognitive capacity to process schema that matters. It is associated with the way information is presented. The instructional approaches used by the teacher require learners to use working memory resources as activities that do not contribute to schema development (such as searching for information  writing when writing outcomes are irrelevant to the learning, trying to record and listen simultaneously  and trying to write when writing is not fluent). This is know as ineffective cognitive load. Learning designers have complete control over this. You do want to have germane cognitive load though. This is known as effective cognitive load. When intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load leave working memory resources, learners may invest 'extra effort' in schema construction if they see relevance. Relevance contributes to cognitive investment i.e. the more relevant it seems, the more likely students are to be motivated to create schema.

Next question is - so we know this - so what?

Extraneous cognitive load is associated with the way material is presented. So instructional approaches require learners to use working memory resources on activities that do not contribute to the desired schema - such as:

  • Writing when writing outcomes do not matter or when the learner is not fluent in their writing
  • searching for information
  • trying to record and listen at the same time (audio recording is your friend - no matter the age of the learner)

Designers of instruction have complete control over the way in which material is presented.

Inquiry learning - Lane has completely shifted in her focus. She 'owns' much of the organisation around inquiry learning for 4 days out of 5 to reduce extraneous cognitive load for her students, and then on the 5th day she has 'clinics' around the skills required to be effective inquiry learners. The topic doesn't matter (students have the choice of topic); rather the focus is the learning skills.

You want to increase germane cognitive learning. When learners are not overloaded extraneously or intrinsically  they have the capacity to invest in their learning. They may invest extra cognitive resources in schema construction, if, they see the relevance. Lane said that may educators may point to the curriculum and ask how they are going to make the learning relevant for all their learners.

So you know what? How can you use what you know to make a difference in your life or the lives of others? How can we decrease cognitive load?

One of the highlights of this session for me were the conversations. Lane gave us plenty of opportunities to unpack and 'own' aspects of what we were hearing and reading - and we could write, speak, draw, or type - or a combination. Had some neat conversations with Marion who was sitting beside me (thanks, Marion). Lots to go away and think about - loved it.


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Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on November 23, 2013 at 15:25

CRAZED for time & rushing, but want to attempt to respond "briefly" to most impt. of your questions (complex topic so brief is not really possible - I'll do my best):

However, it occurs to me that for some learners with ADD having multiple choices (redundancy) may be a nightmare - would I be right on this assumption? And if yes, how could multiple pathways be offered (thereby helping to individualise learning), without the whole learning experience becoming a mass of distractions? Or am I barking up an incorrect tree here?


It certainly CAN (and will) be a nightmare when and if the choices pull focus actively (ie., blinking, moving, accented with busy colors, sounds, etc. or instructor points to one modality example, then changes what she points out for next thing, then back or different, etc -- and randomly -- simply because "everybody knows ADDers need variety to stay engaged").


Too much "figuring out" the how and where to intake vs. the WHAT they expect us to learn here.  In the moment, info falls through the cracks and never makes it through the memory process effectively.  You can't review EVERYTHING or the "homework" never ends.

If choices sit "quietly" (with "white space" so it's not all spaghetti on a plate), then the learner can CHOOSE best place to focus - once they understand how they learn best.

ASSUMING, of course that nobody who doesn't really GET it attempts to "help" - because we are beyond tired of having people "upset" with us all the time and will try to accommodate, even in areas where we have plenty of experience that we can't.  (God forbid we should be perceived at "difficult" or "resistant to help") It happens ALL the time, btw - even with me - and it took me 30 years and a few memorized retorts to learn how to defend myself (then I ruminate over not being "nice.")

Also key is consistent modality placement  - ie, don't put items one location within the frame for a minute and another the next -- so if we need additional modalities to underscore what we've picked up through our primaries, it only takes a quick glance.

EXAMPLE: Think about how difficult is is to find your way when road signals seem to be placed randomly -- sometimes overhead, sometimes at right BEFORE the street, sometimes at left AFTER - etc. -- not effective (or safe!) to spend attention searching.  You miss too much otherwise (and people start honking if you slow down!!)

IMHO, the *best* way to foster life-long learning is to teach the neurodiverse the basics of how brains function, and guide them to self-application -- i.e., how THEY function. (Would be SO helpful if all educators were taught this as well - and if you ALL had at least one well-versed Teaching Asst. in every single class!!) ::sigh::

MOST folks need a bit of coaching to help them learn which elements to pay attention to and which to ignore for best focus and info intake (unique -- person-specific, even for neuro-"typicals" btw - and most people can't really figure it out effectively without help - the pull to black and white thinking is s-t-r-o-n-g)

Modality needs frequently change by TYPE of learning task, btw. 

i.e., I use one set of modalities (and strategies) to learn physical tasks (like choreography, or maybe something like how to put in a zipper or a blind hem), another for reading WORDS in "easy" formats, still another when text is small, too close together (or that horrid white or yellow on dark backgrounds which I wish would be universally OUTLAWED!!), still another when I'm forced to decipher graphics without captions, etc. 

My case may be extreme, but it's really how we ALL process -- it's just that MOST of the world is not forced to figure it out consciously.

After 20+ years of paying attention to how people link and learn, I FIRMLY believe that practically all learning struggles are a products of modalities mismatches that skew expectations -- once the "this is too hard" and/or failure expectation occurs enough times, it gets set in concrete!

Make sense?  (will have to return to handle else)



Comment by Hazel Owen on November 13, 2013 at 17:10

Hi again, Madelyn. This was a video I was also looking for but couldn't find for the comment below: 14 Principles of Multimedia Learning. The video provides clear explanations, illustrated by examples, of Mayer's principles of multimedia learning. But methinks it may be a case of 'this is the right way to do it', all over again? :-) However, if taken in a broader, guiding sense, with other strategies / approaches considered and incorporated, it can be a positive starting point...

Comment by Hazel Owen on November 9, 2013 at 9:02

Madelyn - you are the best! Thank you so much for taking the time to respond in depth...with some super provocations :-)

I'll respond to some of your points below....

  • It may not be necessary for "learners" to repeat the lesson for LTP if it gets in easily the first time.  We're ALL time-crunched, right?  Even kids.

Absolutely agree with you. I feel that with learning there should be multiple opportunities to dip into the same thing, but 1) it has to be a choice, and 2) preferably, while it's the same concept, vocabulary etc, there should be alternative ways to engage (i.e. applied in a context, kinaesthetic, audio, visual, cognitive - written / word format etc) - again left to the learner to choose which suits them best. However, it occurs to me that for some learners with ADD having multiple choices (redundancy) may be a nightmare - would I be right on this assumption? And if yes, how could multiple pathways be offered (thereby helping to individualise learning), without the whole learning experience becoming a mass of distractions? Or am I barking up an incorrect tree here?

  • This video makes the same mistake that I see as problematic overall for the neurodiverse population - it skates right over the reality of "all kinds of minds" as it attempts to quantify how some imaginary composite "learner" intakes information best.

I guess with all learning design there is a need to strive for something that will be relevant for a neurodiverse population, with enough 'signposts' to guide learners along the pathway of learning that best suits there preference(s). Theories such as Mayer's (1991) cognitive theory of multimedia learning (I've popped an overview in below for folks who are unfamiliar with Mayer's theory) can be helpful in informing design - e.g. humans can't read and listen at the same time if the words they are reading and the words they are listening to are words on a PowerPoint presentation at a conference...well don't get me started ;-p!!)

  • I can only shake my head sadly when I see a video by one of those so-called memory experts touting THEIR way as THE way, attempting to demonstrate how easily a list of groceries can be recalled if you attach it to pictures in a [bizarre!] story.

The issue with something, such as Mayer's cognitive theory of multimedia learning, is that folks (as you say) will sometimes build a 'way of doing something that must not be diverged from'. Frequently, this is taught in courses, packaged up (e.g. Kirkpatrick's Four-Level Training Evaluation Model), and sold (e.g. The ADDIE model used here by Addie solutions). At this point whatever the approach is often becomes ossified, even in the face of emerging findings from other areas such as neuroscience. 

As such, I shy away from using one model, and rather use models as a starting point for conversation and exploration - something to be built on, perhaps, but not to be followed slavishly (although that wouldn't stand me in good stead in most exams!! :-p). This process, I feel, means that there is flexibility in the learning design process that means a wide range of learner needs can be considered...and hopefully met. It helps avoid developing something that, if you are neurotypical might (but not necessarily) suit your needs, and everyone're on your own! 

However, I know from experience, it is tough to go to a client in business, and, instead of pulling out my model, process and associated diagrams, I start to talk about multiple pathways, flexibility, and choice for employees. Likewise, it is tricky to teach a course under such premises - how to you 'measure' if your students have 'got it'? (partly tongue in cheek with this last one ;-p)

  • SO - this is my stand for the day ::grin:: - there IS no "best" way people learn.

Absolutely - this is the long and the short of it (and, while it's another 'approach' - you may be interested in Universal Design for Learning). There is no one size fits all approach to learning; some things work for some people. There are models and approaches to discuss, with the learners themselves as well as with other designers and theorists, but not to 'follow to the letter'. 

I think you say it perfectly: "Don't let education fail to recognize the reality of neurodiversity". I'd add, education for learners of all ages....

Brief overview of Mayer's (1991) cognitive theory of multimedia learning

"With specific reference to multimedia for education, Mayer's (1991) cognitive theory of multimedia learning is underpinned by three main assumptions - dual channel, limited capacity and active processing (see image below). The dual channel assumption is based around the notion that the human brain possesses separate channels for processing sight inputs and sound inputs. The information in the two channels is processed independently but simultaneously in the working memory, from where it is then integrated into existing information networks in the long term memory. However, the limited capacity assumption identifies that each channel can only process a limited quantity (between five to seven 'chunks') of information at once; a phenomenon known as cognitive load theory. This limitation results in the brain having to allocate processing resources, often in response to affective factors such as interest. Finally, the active processing assumption refers to the active engagement in cognitive processing required to build organised, systematic mental representations of inputs. As such, the human brain is constantly occupied with the selection, organisation, and amalgamation of input with existing 'knowledge', thus resulting in the formation of a personalised mental model in the individual's working memory (Mayer, 2009)" (Owen, & Martin, 2010).

Owen, H., & Martin, H. (2010). Multimedia enhancement of opportunities and outcomes for learners e.... DEANZ 2010 - Quality Connections - Boundless Possibilities: Through Open, Flexible and Distance Learning.

Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on November 3, 2013 at 14:42

Very cute - and loved the music.

Now for the rest of my feedback (and please remember it is just that - feedback - although I hold my opinions strongly, they ARE, after all, simply my opinions)

I found the computerized voices a bit tough to process - the cadence was off just enough that it pulled focus from WHAT they were saying.  It may not be necessary for "learners" to repeat the lesson for LTP if it gets in easily the first time.  We're ALL time-crunched, right?  Even kids.

AND . . .  I don't agree with everything else [I think] they said -- at least, I know it is not how *I* learn best.  I really disagree with the caution against "redundancy." 

This video makes the same mistake that I see as problematic overall for the neurodiverse population - it skates right over the reality of "all kinds of minds" as it attempts to quantify how some imaginary composite "learner" intakes information best.

What about those who don't fit easily into that box?  That maligned "redundancy" gives those learners a shot at intaking the information that the majority-others are believed to intake another way. (not so sure about THAT either - but that's a blog post, not a comment ::smile::)

I am a WORD person, for example (highly cognitive).  Sometimes I even dream in words. I definitely THINK in words. Pictographs don't "compute" easily for me - and I do NOT think in pictures (an Aspie trait, most often).  I *can* visualize, but it is non-native. 

I can only shake my head sadly when I see a video by one of those so-called memory experts touting THEIR way as THE way, attempting to demonstrate how easily a list of groceries can be recalled if you attach it to pictures in a [bizarre!] story.

Then they come up with something dumb like a cow in a cauldron with butter dripping down his face from the heat, cracking eggs on my head as chickens in a salad garden throw tomatoes). That's supposed to be easier?

PAPER TOWELS - that's what my long-term memory tells me is needed -- as I check my list in words: stew beef, chicken, eggs, butter, tomatoes, salad greens & salad veggies, etc.

Another example: If I see a roadsign with WORDs it takes little more than a nanosecond to process and my eyes snap right back to the road. 

If the sign is a symbol (no words) -- even the common ones like the "deer crossing" pictogram common on many US roads -- not only does it take my eyes off the road for longer than the 1 second recommended as safe, I can still be trying to figure it out if what I thought it meant was what the darned thing was trying to tell me for MILES after it's too late to do anything with the information. 

Not to mention that the entire time I'm beating back agitation that words are going the way of the dodo -- would it be too much to ask for the WORDS to be added to those damned pictograms? Stop signs, for example, say STOP right in the middle of that red sign (here in the US anyway).

I actually missed the [multiple choice] question on a drivers written test once, asking what SHAPE the darned sign was.  Who cares?  I still couldn't tell you if it is a hexagon, an octagon - whatever - because my mind doesn't process those shapes into long-term memory.  (and ya' gotta' know I've seen a stop sign thousands of times in my Boomer lifetime.)

It's red, it has angles - so it's not round (but its more round than square), and it says STOP right in the center.  That's ALL I process about it.  And THAT's just a common traffic sign.

Visual cues in graphic form (like icons, a road-map, those totally confounding "universal" symbols,  etc.) aren't really helpful to me - my long-term memory doesn't want to store them. 

  • I like directions in words (and the only way I can actually use a map is to do the translation, i.e., "turn right onto Hamilton St.")
  • I can never recall what many the icons on my computer mean (and I spend HOURS every single day working on my computer)  If I have the choice, I pick words not symbols, even though they take more space on the screen.
  • And I can still amuse myself for longer than makes sense trying to translate an old NYC subway icon that nobody else seems to know for sure what it means either - even though it was posted in every single subway car.  DON'T we get - but don't WHAT?!  (Show people the bottom of your shoe?  Stand on one foot?  Try to look like a crane?) Who's nutsy idea was it to omit the words?

In addition, the audial modality is my weakest (true for many ADDers, btw.). 

So, for me (and those like me), seeing the words up top (the big no-no uh-oh redundancy) is key to my being able to process what I'm hearing.

SO - this is my stand for the day ::grin:: - there IS no "best" way people learn.

  • People learn best according to their best processing style.
  • Some are visual, some are audial, some are tactile or kinesthetic, some are cognitive (words - i.e., concepts), ETC. 
  • And most of us learn best when more than one modality is engaged.

I'm afraid that if I had to go to school today I'd flunk out - because I'd have to "recombine" way too much outside my native style to be able to process for rapid storage and LTP, forced to interpret symbols as I listen to narration, with no printed words to help me find my way. 

Please God, don't let them do this to some of the most creative thinkers on the planet.  Don't let education fail to recognize the reality of neurodiversity.

Back to work - enough ranting for one break.



Comment by Hazel Owen on October 22, 2013 at 20:41

You're the best, Madelyn. Popped across to your post, and just spent 45 minutes exploring Rewiring The Brain With Michael Merzenich...and this reminded me of a podcast I had listened to recently (while planting trees, as you do) from Ginger Campbell's 'stable', entitled Brain Ageing Research with Dr. Pamela Greenwood.

One of the things that jumped out from the podcast is that "brain ageing and cognitive ageing are not the same thing; the typical brain changes that are associated with normal brain ageing (such as shrinkage) are not reliable predictors of cognitive decline" (source). And the other (exciting) thing was that "Not only does brain plasticity offer new hope for people who suffer strokes and other brain injuries, it also suggests that life style choices influence cognitive function at all ages" (source) - there's hope for us all!!

Loved the enthusiasm of the both Pamela and Ginger in this episode. Great stuff (and thanks again for the initial recommendation...I've loved listening to Ginger's podcasts).

Great to see you 'back' from your sabbatical.... :-p

Hazel xx


Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on October 21, 2013 at 0:12

Doing some overdue blog housekeeping - just added another link to this post to TYPES of Attentional Deficits - 3 main subsets (really, I AM working my way back as fast as I can -- I need a sabbatical to recover from  sabbatical catch-up ::grin::)



Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
- ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder -
(blogs: ADDandSoMuchMore, ADDerWorld & ethosconsultancynz - dot com)
"It takes a village to educate a world!"

Comment by Hazel Owen on February 14, 2013 at 17:06

If you found this article interesting, you might also like to watch this video, which features a discussion of some of the same concepts when applied to multimedia, and also has some great examples of what that 'looks like' in practice.

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