Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) & Constructivist Learning Environments (CLE)

Constructing Knowledge:flickr:5961397224


Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is an information processing theory used to explain the limits of working memory based on current knowledge of human cognitive architecture. Cognitive architecture refers to the concept of our minds having structures such as working memory, long term memory, and schemas. How a computer processes information is a common analogy used to describe CLT's concept of the human mind: the brain is a processor of inputs coming in from the outside environment.

Constructivism is really a theory of knowing rather than a teaching theory. A purely constructivist view would state there is no objective reality and that all knowledge is constructed subjectively. This could place us on some difficult philosophical grounds (law of non-contradiction,truth is relative, etc..), but for our purposes it may be easier to compare CLT with a constructivist learning environment (CLE).

Constructivist Learning Environments (CLE) are characterized as hands-on learning environments that strive to imitate real-life contexts. A CLE has a social learning component as well. In a CLE, learners construct knowledge,solve novel problems, and test the truth or accuracy of their conclusions through social negotiation, otherwise known as collaboration. Constructivist Learning Environments stress the flexibility of the learner's mind and its ability to actively construct meaning.

Important Concepts of CLT

"If nothing has been altered in long-term memory nothing has been learned."

1. Magic Number 7: Working Memory can only handle 7 disconnected items at once.
2. Overload occurs when Working Memory has to process too much too fast.
3. Long Term Memory is virtually unlimited and assists Working Memory. However, if information learned was recently acquired, the ability to transfer prior knowledge to new situations is somewhat inflexible.
4. Schemas are memory structures written in Long Term Memory by Working Memory.
5. Working Memory is overloaded when its ability to build a schema is compromised.
6. If Working Memory has capacity left over, it can access information from long term memory in powerful ways.
7. Automation (doing something without conscious thought) results from well developed Schemas due to Working Memory's interaction with Long Term Memory. Well developed schemas come with repeated effort and effective practice.

Important Concepts of CLE

"If nothing can be transferred to real-life contexts nothing has been learned."

1. Active & Adaptive Learners: giving students hands-on activities will help them construct knowledge and adapt prior experience to novel situations in the future.
2. Authenticity: the way to keep students engaged is to create high-relevance and the best way to do that is involve them in realistic situations. Students want to apply what they are learning to other contexts they care about-contexts that reflect real life. Adult learners need to know WIIFM.
3. Collaboration: working with others actively builds knowledge and provides built-in engagement. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge. Through collaboration, those gaps of knowledge can be closed.
4. Successive Refinement: throwing learners into complex real-life situations will help them adapt to cognitively demanding situations in the future. Every experience helps refine prior knowledge and future performance.
5. Transfer!: Learning applied to real life is the ultimate goal of instruction. CLE's make this happen.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Theory Strengths Weaknesses
CLT Recognizes novice's needs for cognitive supports in the form of advanced organizers, concept mapping, isolating and simplifying complex tasks. Transfer is more difficult to accomplish if instruction is too artificial. If information is presented in a way that doesn't relate to actual performance then transfer of learning will be more difficult.
CLE Recognizes high learner's need for relevance and authentic experiences. Transfer of knowledge to real-life situations is a useful benchmark to gauge success. Collaboration is a built-in engagement tool. Without proper instructional supports learners might not achieve intended instructional goals. Authentic situations can be too complex for novices-cognitive overload effect.

There is at least one important commonality between CLT and constructivist-based learning. Both camps have advocates that suggest the learner needs moderate challenge. Students need to work on problems that are the right level of difficulty (Willingham, 2009). Social constructivists like Vygotsky also suggest an optimum level of complexity in the concept of the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).

A Blend of Both? Guided Discovery as an Option

Types of Guided Support (Scaffolding)

-(Jong, 2005)

Directive Support Steer the learner in a specific direction. Provide advice, hints, direct guidance. [Clear Entry Points]
Non-Directive Support Give the learner a chance to revise or correct their work, but with little or no direct guidance. [Struggle or trial-and-error processes may have a place, but be aware that novices often don't have the meta-cognitive skills to realize they are headed in a wrong direction and might not reach intended concepts without guidance.]
Interpretative Support Activate prior knowledge (make connections, establish relevancy), map concepts visually, build mental models, provide feedback.
Experimental Support Suggest possible problem solving strategies, help students interpret problems, propose multiple perspectives, provide feedback during the process and after the process.
Reflective Support Require reflection journals to help students gain meta-cognitive and self-regulation skills. Reflect back on the discovery process

"Average is Over"

Listen to author Thomas Friedman as he describes how America's workforce needs to keep up with a higher global curve. Minnesota MPR Show: Thomas Friedman: how America lost its way. (Listen to the last 10 minutes) Do you think he is recommending Constructivist instructional methods as the answer?

If you have time, I would really recommend watching "Digital Media-New Learners of the 21st Century (PBS VIDEO)." You will see current examples of constructivist learning environments with Just-In-Time (JIT) scaffolding. Like Friedman, the show emphasizes the need to prepare the next generation to be flexible thinkers, to be able to navigate our century's "buzz of confusion". While you are watching, ask yourself if the ideas in this show reflect a sensitivity to the structural and cognitive needs of the learner.

Have you read, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell? In the chapter, The Stickiness Factor, he suggests a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. Gladwell's book, Outliers, would also be a good place to read about the CLT concept of automaticity and the 10,000 hour rule.

Want to be blown away? Take a look at the Bard Prison Intiative.


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-Written by Mike S.