Cognitive Load Theory – Is it just a Load?

by Gary Woodill on August 5, 2010

Note: This item has been cross-posted to Workplace Learning Today (Aug. 6, 2010), where I also blog.

Recently, well known author Jane Bozarth wrote an article on “Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design” in Learning Solutions Magazine. Essentially, the argument in this theory is that “there is only so much new information the brain can process at one time.” This is called Cognitive Load Theory, and it is central to the work of such prominent researchers as Richard Mayer and Ruth Clark. One of the main pieces of evidence for the theory is a 1956 article by George Miller who “suggested that the largest number of discrete pieces of information the brain could manage was seven, plus or minus 2.”

Stephen Downes, in OLDaily, points to Jane’s article, but makes this critical comment: “I think cognitive load theory misrepresents how we acquire and store information. It supposes that information is atomic and symbolic, like a string of numbers.”

I have to agree with Stephen on this point.

In fact, the idea of a limited capacity of the brain to memorize a list of items goes way back to Hermann Ebbinghaus, a philosophy instructor at the University of Berlin in the 1880s. How he came up with this idea is documented in Frank Smith’s 1998 critique of learning theory, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, published by Teacher’s College Press. I quote at some length:

How could anyone make comparisons on any aspect of learning when people are so different, especially in the two things that make learning possible for anyone (according to the classic point of view) – interest and past experience? In the revealing language of science, interest and past experiences “contaminate” experiments and “invalidate” results. People who have a great interest in the topic or activity, and who have had a greater experience of it, are bound to learn more. And they ruin experiments. What experiments need is a method of control… so that the learning task is fundamentally the same for everyone.

…This was Ebbinghaus’s world-changing revelation: if you want to study how people learn without the involvement of interest and past experience — study how they learned nonsense. By definition, no one is interested in anything that makes no sense to them, and by definition, nothing in past experience can help anyone learned nonsense.

Ebbinghaus invented the nonsense syllable, a staple of psychological research ever since. He also described “the learning curve” which is that the ability to memorize nonsense syllables drops off around 10 items, and “the forgetting curve”, which is the memory of most of the nonsense syllables quickly drops off within a few hours.

As Kurt Danziger (one of my professors at York University in the late 1960s) points out in his book Naming the Mind: how psychology found its language (Sage, 1997), Ebbinghaus “defined memory in terms of the work of memorizing and not in terms of the experience of remembering. In this context ‘learning’ was used as a synonym for memorizing, and experimental investigations were designed to answer questions about the relative efficiency of different techniques of learning.” In other words, before Ebbinghaus, the word learning had several meanings in psychological, biological, and philosophical writings, but after, at least in North American psychological literature, learning became synomous with memorizing.

Rereading George Miller’s original article shows that he was talking about a limited kind of task – the ability to discriminate among different audio tones (also a nonsense task). Around 7 different tones, people start to make lots more mistakes. But he also suggests many ways of overcoming this seeming limit on working memory.

It seems that by adding more dimensions and requiring crude, binary, yes-no judgments on each attribute we can extend the span of absolute judgment from seven to at least 150. Judging from our everyday behavior, the limit is probably in the thousands, if indeed there is a limit. In my opinion, we cannot go on compounding dimensions indefinitely. I suspect that there is also a span of perceptual dimensionality and that this span is somewhere in the neighborhood of ten, but I must add at once that there is no objective evidence to support this suspicion.

This hardly seems to be hard nosed science, but it is often cited as “research” for “evidence-based learning”. We need to examine our concepts carefully and critically, and move away from research into nonsense as the basis of our instructional designs. (GW)

Nuts and Bolts: Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design | Learning Solutions Magazine | Jane Bozarth | 3 August 2010


Education vs Training: Using Twitter as a Research Tool

by Gary Woodill on February 5, 2009

I’ve increased my activity level on Twitter over the past month, and I am beginning to see its potential beyond documenting the trivial. As a test, I asked my “followers” to tell me the differerence between “education” and “training”. I received about 40 responses, many of them unique. After you read them, please add your thoughts by adding a comment.

MtnLaurel @gwoodill education=how to think. Training=how to do.

glassbeed @gwoodill education is wider in scope. Ed= global understanding and helping a compassionate citizenry to emerge. Training = job skills.

amcunningham @gwoodill the nature of the assessment? if competency based it is training. successful education is harder to assess.

AsraiLight @gwoodill To me, an education is instruction in how things have been done in the past, so you can be creative with solutions in the future.

AsraiLight @gwoodill Training is a set of expectations and proven processes to meet them. Depending on the training, deviation isn’t always encouraged.

hjarche @gwoodill Here are some of my posts on training vs education: http://is.gd/eSHv, http://is.gd/eSHy,  http://is.gd/eSHC  

AlwaysBreaking @gwoodill training focuses on specific tangible outcomes, often overt behaviors or skills. Ed is more about “knowing” and the “whys”

AlexDawson @gwoodill I still equate ‘training’ with skills development – more instructive, more directive. Education is such a broader expression.

KoreenOlbrish @gwoodill education=knowledge-focused without a stated “goal,” training=knowledge/skill-focused with the goal of doing *something* better

lindacq @gwoodill IMHO (& with my few english) training imply a process to go from A to A’ in any skill education include a more complex mix

lindacq @gwoodill (coma before education :-) ) a mix which include values and a moral, etich and social conception inside, implies the wish to become

lindacq @gwoodill better… also from the ethic perspective. Training is about skills, Education is this BUT is more, is about better people

jwillensky @gwoodill In <140? Outcomes: education– gaining knowledge; training– performing actions.

lindacq @gwoodill BUT this is a Fast-thought (Bourdier’s way) this could be a nice discussion

JaneBozarth @gwoodill training/education: Old adage: “Do you want your 14 year old daughter to attend a sex EDUCATION class, or a sex TRAINING class?”

iOPT @gwoodill This is in business terms: Training: learning related to the present job. Education: learning for a different but identified job.

iOPT @gwoodill This goes with the other two terms. Development: learning for growth of the individual but not related to a specific or future job

mathplourde @gwoodill Re. Educ vs. Training. I see education as a personal process, where an individual increases his intellectual capital.

mathplourde @gwoodill … and training as something to polish a current skill, something presented to a trainee, that comes from a higher power.

jamesbt @gwoodill Re: education & training – In Jhpiego’s world, education happens before (pre-service), training happens during (in-service).

hoever @gwoodill: spontaneous answer: training is the process of bringing a person to proficiency by practice;

hoever @gwoodill … education is a further step aiming at a reflective application of knowledge or competencies

skukolja @gwoodill Training = acquisition and development of skills Education = acquisition of knowledge, attitudes & skills

LindyLou08 @gwoodill In my mind education involves critical thinking and training equates immediate practical application. Just me though.

oline73 @gwoodill training is for a specific, proximate target- education is for broader, more distant targets. How’s that?

eduinnovation @gwoodill asks, “What is the difference between education and training?” Good question.

demetri @gwoodill Training changes one’s habits. Education changes one’s mind. I think it’s @AngelaMaiers who coined the term “habitude”

gdeeds @gwoodill education vs. training: Hmm.., perhaps ed is extended

StonyRiver @gwoodill – Education is politically motivated – training is industry motivated -now Knowledge, Epistemology and Wisdom are Truly different!

joro6430 @gwoodill – educated people understand the limits of their practices and can abandon them; not so easy for the well trained.

girtbysea @gwoodill training=skills, education=thinking

jnxyz @gwoodill training=skills, short-term focus. education=long-term, big-picture

sojbanks @gwoodill Great question, I think education is learning to think, training is learning to do a task.

borborigmus @gwoodill Training = developing skills; education = developing the mind ?

grahamwhisen @gwoodill First thought: training is for animals and children.

FrznGuru @gwoodill Education is ALL experiences in which people learn. Many are unplanned, incidental, and informal.

FrznGuru @gwoodill Training is instructional experiences that are focused on individuals acquiring very specific skills that they will normally

FrznGuru @gwoodill apply almost immediately. All training is included in education.

pat_leonard @gwoodill I think “education” is preparation and “training” is application

leohavemann @gwoodill I would say although there is a blurring of the line, whereas the focus of training is gaining skills, education unlocks potential

techherding @gwoodill Training is what you do to puppies

Darcy1968 @gwoodill education is a river; training a boat

EmmaHamer @gwoodill Here’s another: education teaches how to ask the right questions; training teaches how to give the right answers

bbetts @gwoodill I’d suggest that training is the “tools” and education is the application of said tools. Education allows for better use of the tools

FrznGuru @gwoodill http://bit.ly/Jj0k Pic frm book ‘Instructional Design’ by Smith & Ragan (2005) illustrates difference btwn education & training

4KM Training about how?; education includes why? and what if? and where do I fit?

4KM Training suited to environments with linear cause & effect; education suited to complex environments.

Please add more thoughts on this topic below.


Multiple Metaphors for Learning

by Gary Woodill on June 10, 2008

A recent article by Jacob Vakkayil in the academic journal Learning Inquiry (Vol. 2, 2008, pp. 13-27) is a good review of the various metaphors that surround the concept of learning. Each metaphor gives us some insight, and taken together they show what a complex concept learning really is. No one metaphor is “correct”, but each represents a different understanding. This makes subscribing to only one or a limited set of these metaphors a dangerous practice. As Lakoff and Johnson outlined in their book Metaphors We Live By, much of our understanding and communications are founded on base metaphors that are combined to achieve complex abstract concepts. Each metaphor has implications as to how we view knowledge and the processes of teaching.

Jacob Vakkayil is oriented towards organizational learning in this article, so his examples are particularly relevant to people in corporate training. The eight metaphors that he lists (with my comments) are:

  • Learning as transfer – implications: knowledge is portable stuff that can be passed around and the learner is a container
  • Learning as corrective change – implications: observable behaviors can be changed and the instructor needs to have objectives in terms of the desired end behaviors from the learner
  • Learning as computing – implications: the mind is a computer that processes large quantities of data and the learning is a process of reprogramming mental structures, scripts and algorithms
  • Learning as building connections – implications: the human brain is like a neural network where learning is the strengthening or weakening of pathways of neurons
  • Learning as self-organization – implications: humans are self-organizing adaptive systems that continuously produces its own components and organization in the context of being embodied, and embedded in a culture and history. Learning is the emergence of new knowledge based on all these contextual factors
  • Learning as propogation – implications: cultural ideas (“memes”) are transmitted through humans who act as hosts and transmitters of these ideas. Humans are robots under the evolutionary influence of both genes and memes.
  • Learning as coordination – implications: knowledge is distributed and doesn’t reside within any individual. It is partially held by each learner, and is found in collective artifacts made through collaboration
  • Learning as participation – implications: learning is also distributed, but is found in the social interaction among individual learners. Learning is always associated with a community, and happens through joint action

Each metaphor offers unique perspectives and, at the same time, limits understanding in various ways. Disagreements within the learning industry and its critics may be a result of each group talking past each other while using different metaphors. Change can happens through the introduction of “disrputive” metaphors that challenges old thinking and bridges the gap between conflicting metaphors.

This article is very useful for clarifying some of the dominant metaphors for learning in use today. An online copy of the article can be found here.


Conference Presentation: Technologies of Collaboration

June 11, 2007

Last week I presented twice to the American Society for Training and Development conference in Atlanta. About 300 people came to the two sessions, and I had a lot of positive feedback. Here are the slides from my presentation. I took a rough poll by show of hands on several questions and was somewhat surprised [...]

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What is Your Dangerous Idea?

April 12, 2007

A brief review of: Brockman, John (2007) What is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable. New York: Harper. I just finished reading What Is Your Dangerous Idea? – a book of 108 short essays edited by John Brockman, founder of the Edge Foundation. The dangerous ideas in the book range from the [...]

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The Importance of Learning Slowly

April 10, 2007

A review of: Spitzer, Manfred (1999) The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical [...]

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