Cognitive Learning Injustice

I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive and meta-cognitive learning. Cognition is the process with which we acquire knowledge and understanding. Metacognition is the process of self-regulating our learning processes and then adapting our behaviors accordingly. Cognition is important because we need information to survive. Metacognition is just as important because we must learn how to adapt to survive.

Cognitive information process (CIP) is a model of how gain knowledge. It starts with sensory memory, which takes in information through our eyes, nose, ears, touch, and taste. Sensory memory is short, just enough to feel or see it; just enough to react to it. Then it’s gone and becomes sensory memory. Working memory is the next stage, short-term storage and additional processing of the sensory memory. It lasts longer than sensory memory, but working memory is short and can hold limited amount of information at a time. Long term memory is information that is stored permanently in our bodies.

At each stage in CIP, there are ways in which we process the information. In sensory memory, we focus our attention on some things over others. Some things we do automatically and therefore require little attention. We also recognize patterns in things, which helps us process, understand, and remember.

Working memory processes include organizing information into small pieces, rehearsing, and encoding, which puts memory into more recognizable formats that will make them more memorable to us. All this processing eventually leads to embedding knowledge and skills into long-term memory.

Robert Gagne’s 9 Events of Learning is the practical application of CIP for creating instructional systems. Gain the learners attention (selectivity); identify the learning objectives; ask the learner to recall previous learning experiences (helps with pattern recognition, encoding); present the content (in bite size pieces and in context); provide guidance; ask the student to demonstrate what they’ve learned (practice, rehearse); provide feedback; assess performance; and reinforce, enhance, and transfer into long-term memory.

Today’s education system is implicitly overly-focused on cognitive information processing, particularly in colleges and universities. Acceptance into colleges is based largely on GPA and test scores. Students go to class, listen to a lecture, read a book, do homework, take tests, and are awarded a grade based on their cognitive knowledge. While creativity, critical thinking, expanded world view, communications, and community engagement are valued, and usually part of an institution’s general education goals, colleges and universities don’t do a good job teaching or assessing those skills. They do a poor job teaching students how to learn. The attitude is, by the time you get here, you either got it or you don’t. Those who don’t, drop out. Many who drop out, move on with crushing student debt and little to show for it.

I speak directly to the higher education community, not just the colleges and universities, but the publishing and other education companies that support schools, when I say this: The system is broken. Many students are being robbed by a culture that is a product of, and is now a significant investor in, a stand-and-deliver, book-based content system that is misaligned with the learning objectives, stated or not, of its students. We can spend all day long inventing new kinds of interactive ebooks, adaptive learning systems, and engaging multimedia, but if none of that stuff builds students meta-cognitive learning skills and abilities, then those new “innovative” learning product just continue to perpetuate an injustice.

The Bearface mission is to free students from this tyranny, particularly those students who suffer in a socio-economic environment that starves them intellectually, yet assesses them as if they were as well fed as the people who wrote the test.

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