Some Limits to Learning

Children are not taught, they learn. How well and how much they will learn depends upon the skills that they master, long before they are aware that they are learning. Whether or not they have the chance to master those skills depends upon their caretakers.

Even the best of us is limited in what we can learn and what we can conceive. Such limitations applied to Albert Einstein and they apply to you, and your dangerous child. But all of us can learn ways to push against our limits, if we wish. Most people never come close.

The video above, “Cognitive Limits,” is a useful introduction to the cognitive science of human learning and memory.

Concepts of “Attention and Memory” are key to understanding how a relatively inexperienced and ignorant human infant can develop into a skilled walking and talking toddler who is into everything he can reach, learning and remembering as he goes.

Everyone is limited in what he can hold in his short-term working memory — some more limited than others. Likewise, each person is limited as to how many active thinking processes he can maintain simultaneously — how many dynamic activities he can keep track of.

Brief intro. to Cognitive Load Theory:

In essence, cognitive load theory proposes that since working memory is limited, learners may be bombarded by information and, if the complexity of their instructional materials is not properly managed, this will result in a cognitive overload. This cognitive overload impairs schema acquisition, later resulting in a lower performance (Sweller, 1988). Cognitive load theory had a theoretical precedence in the educational and psychological literature, well before Sweller’s 1988 article (e.g. Beatty, 1977; Marsh, 1978). Even Baddeley and Hitch (1974) considered “concurrent memory load” but Sweller’s cognitive load theory was among the first to consider working memory, as it related to learning and the design of instruction…

…Schema acquisition is the ultimate goal of cognitive load theory. Anderson’s ACT framework proposes initial schema acquisition occurs by the development of schema-based production rules, but these production rules may be developed by one of two methods (Anderson, Fincham, & Douglass, 1997), either by developing these rules during practice or by studying examples. The second method (studying examples) is the most cognitively efficient method of instruction (Sweller & Chandler, 1985; Cooper and Sweller, 1987; Paas and van Merriënboer, 1993). This realization became one of the central tenets of cognitive load theory.

Once learners have acquired a schema, those patterns of behavior (schemas) may be practiced to promote skill automation (Anderson, 1982; Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller, 2003; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977; Sweller, 1993) but expertise occurs much later in the process, and is when a learner automates complex cognitive skills (Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977), usually via problem solving. _Cognitive Load Theory

Reference examples for the deeply interested who have a research bent:

Cognitive Bottleneck in Multitasking (PDF)

Dynamic Competition and the Cognitive Bottleneck (PDF)

Advanced educators not only try to introduce useful “schemas” to the learner — they also try to choose conceptual schemas that will be useful in multiple contexts:

But many educational theorists take this concept too far in an attempt to force students to think in the same way and along the same lines as the educational theorist. That is a large part of what is wrong with early education — an attempt to regiment not only what is known, but how a student comes to know it.

Remember: The teacher does not teach. Instead, the learner learns. If the learner’s mind is not primed and ready to learn the concept for the day, it will not matter how well the teacher has prepared his lesson.

The learning mind must be “empowered” from the earliest age, and continuously reinforced — until it is the child himself who is doing the reinforcing. This self-reinforcement occurs at different ages for different children — even under the most ideal conditions. Young Mozart, for example, probably required much less external reinforcement after a certain age to achieve a given level of mastery than did young Salieri.

So far, we have danced around one of the central issues: how to help the child to learn difficult concepts which do not come naturally to most children. Here, again, each child is unique. Strong early foundations of language, music, dance, and art will help in developing the underlying cognitive structures. Choosing the proper time — for that child — to introduce more difficult concepts is important.

We must all learn to walk before we learn to run a marathon up a mountain. Mastery occurs in a step-wise fashion. The goal is a self-taught, self-disciplined child of broad competency and knowledge. With competence comes confidence. With confidence comes a healthy and rational self-esteem. The learning of new skills and the solving of new problems never stops.

Adapted from an earlier posting on Al Fin, and Al Fin The Next Level

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