Thursday, June 08, 2006

Brains, learning and e-learning

This may turn out to be the best lecture I've never attended. I had to leave before Dr Itiel E. Dror gave his talk, at the e-learning forum, but we had a chat in the break and he left me his excellent paper.

Old science and new-age sociology
He agreed that learning theory, for most educationalists and training professionals, was stuck in tail end, behaviourist theory that goes back 50 years or more. These are largely 'fossil' theories that have been hanging around because the professions rarely bother to relate practice back to current research. These fossils include the over-prescriptive, faddish and non-empirical theories of:

Honey and Mumford

Vygotsky; learning's Lysenko
Even more worrying has been the sudden entry of non-empirical sociology, which claims that all learning is a social construct. This manifests itself in the truly awful Vygotsky cult (oft quoted, seldom read) with his pseudo-Marxist, unscientific theories, loved by instructors as it puts them at the centre of the learning universe. He is learning’s Lysenko (they were born within two years of each other). It's as if we are stuck with a combination of old, discredited science and bogus new-age sociology.

Experimental psychology has many of the answers
It is a myth that there's no stable, scientific learning theory. We need only turn to the many pieces of solid evidence from experimental psychology to see how the three core processes in learning can be improved: #


It is clear that cognitive overload is the greatest consequence of not understanding how knowledge and skills are acquired. The failure to understand how we prioritise and select information, and a lack of detailed knowledge on chunking, top-down processing and modularity, lead to demeaning, over-demanding or dull learning experiences. Expectation, motivation and engagement all have optimal techniques, which can be used to increase the efficiency of learning. Cognitive overload is at best a waste of resources, at worst a destructive force in learning. Yet far too much training ignores the fact that less is more.

We need to understand how to remember in order to retrieve, and so we need to understand how the different memory stores/structures/systems work. This is an area rich in solid research, from Ebbinghaus onwards. Working Memory is different from Long-Term Memory. It is vital we understand how these work, along with the two different types of LTM; semantic and episodic memory. Then there's incidental versus intentional learning, inferential reconstruction and context sensitive retrieval. These are pretty solid pieces of science that can be used to inform the design of learning experiences. Yet how many teachers and trainers know what these terms mean? If we were engineers we'd know the basic laws of physics, yet in the learning game we can sail on, oblivious to how memory actually works.

Appropriate representations can be recalled but we must be aware of their limited scope. This is a trade-off between efficiency and flexibility. This 'transfer' problem is fascinating. How do we recall learnt knowledge and skills and apply them efficiently? The whole area of practice and work-related activity swings into action. Practice makes perfect, yet in education this is reduced to cramming, and in training, with its fixation on single, episode 'fixed duration courses’, ignoring actual reinforcement and application on the job, is largely ignored.

Itiel has a sensible and measured run though of some basic ideas around how we acquire, store, recall and apply knowledge and skills. His appeal for the practical application of experimental psychology to learning is badly needed.


Clive Shepherd said...

Two points: (1) can I have a copy of the paper? and (2) would you not be doing a real service to the training community if you were to translate what we have gleaned from experimental psychology into practical guidelines? As long as we use terms like 'inferential reconstruction', all we achieve is a frenzy of mutual intellectual masturbation.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. It really strikes a chord - although I have been thinking about it in a face-to-face context. I have been developing some face-to-face instructor training. Before starting I was shown a previous course which was the usual VAR(K), Kolb, Honey & Mumford stuff. A quick look at Learning Styles on Wikipedia led me to the Coffield literature survey and the 2005 Demos report:

“…. the research evidence for these [learning] styles is highly variable, and for many the scientific evidence base is very slender indeed, since the measures are of doubtful reliability and validity.”

Having done a smattering of psychology in the past I vaguely remembered that there was some much more sold stuff around and so I have tried to develop the course around a few simple rules of cognitive psychology. It seems to work.

It would be a great to develop a short effective reading list. I have mainly been using my old course notes - but I also found Alan Baddeley - Essentials of Human Memory very useful. Any better suggestions?

Also - like Clive - I would love to see the paper if it is available.

Donald Clark said...

In reply to Clive, on 'inferential reconstruction' I was simply reporting the scientific term, as used in Itiel's talk and the literature.

As you know I have tried hard over many years in articles such as 'Psychology and e-learning' and 'Media mix and e-learning'to push the debate towards the serious science. I have literally given hundreds of talks in which I've attempted to pull people away from learning styles, NLP, Gagne, Kirkpatrick etc. The problem has been the refusal to accept what the scioence says, so we get all of this faddish theory and language, that masquerades as science(e.g. NLP and learning styles).

The problem, I suspect, lies in the 'train the trainer' organisations such as the CIPD and others who still push all of this dated theory to an audience who seem to accept it without thinking.

Secondly, thanks Mark, I also used a Baddley book 'Human mmeory - theory and practice, as my basic text.

I was also pleased to see that you used Wikipedia as a starting point. I really recommend using Wikipedia, which has good, basic definitions for all of the main mechanisms in memory theory, with cross links and good references. The article on 'memory' is an excellent starting point.