Why Not Think Inside The Box?

Between July 2010 and now, there have been many opinions and posts about brain research and ID, so I thought I'd take a first-hand look at what research I could lay my mouse on.

Here’s the background: The ASTD Learning Circuits Blog once began a discussion that asked whether “how the brain learns” had impacted anyone’s e-learning design. Many responses and opinions came down to discussing: Is research in neuroscience (plus cognitive psychology and other areas) useful—or just theory? Is “brain-based learning” another buzzword? There were some that said Yes, some Nos, and of “It’s complex.”

There’s pop science involved, so I’ve got to heed Paul Angileri: “Not to paint too broadly here, but scientific results are consistently misrepresented/miscommunicated in the press.”

The devil is in the details, so let’s go into one of them: The idea of cognitive load and its role in instructional design.

The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology (2005, 21(3), 303-322) mentions that our working memory can get overloaded. In particular, it classifies cognitive load into three types—and mentions the bearing on instructional design: “Cognitive load may be affected by the intrinsic nature of the material (intrinsic cognitive load), the manner in which the material is presented (extraneous cognitive load), or the effort needed for the construction of schemata (germane cognitive load).”

About the second and the third types: “Extraneous cognitive load is unnecessary ... If the (material) is poorly designed, the extraneous cognitive load is high ... Unused working memory capacity should be used by optimising the germane cognitive load, by stimulating the learner to process the learning material more deeply.”

But don’t all competent instructors/teachers/instructional designers know this?

I’m looking at some of the other published research on the same theme, and what I can see is... There are recommendations, they make sense, they seem sound, and they’re already practised.

So far it looks one-sided; dismissing the topic as science for its own sake would be presumptuous. The most balanced conclusion I’ve seen is from Clive Shepherd: “Neuroscience ... in many cases ... has only confirmed existing good practice. What this new focus on objective and relatively unbiased research has done is to (1) help us to recognise the pop psychology for what it is and (2) to create a bridge between the opposing forces in learning and development. That is progress enough.”