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Help Wanted: Linguist Seeking Cognitive Components

As my instructional design colleagues already know, I moved straight from theoretical linguists to Web design, then on to instructional design. I don’t recommend this for everyone because I will be the first to admit I was weak on pedagogical theory. In fact, I had to “construct” my own meaning of “constructivism” and it was full of “cognitive dissonance” (I thought concepts contradicted each other). I’m still not sure I have it right, which is why I’m still a “linguist among constructivists.” Here’s why:

As a good theoretical linguist, I’ve always accepted the Constructivist premise that learning is “is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge.” [http://tip.psychology.org/bruner.html] or “must actively "build" knowledge and skills (e.g., Bruner, 1990) and that information exists within these built constructs” [http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/construct.html].

This mirrors the Chomskyan language acquisiiton model that assumes that children acquire language by listening to adults (not by overt instruction by the way, but by children processing the raw signal and concocting their own grammar).

So far so good, but the pesky linguist in me immediately asked exactly WHAT kind of structure is a learner constructing? Does it have parts? Do they come in more than one type depending on complexity level (following Bloom's taxonomy? or verbal vs. kinesthetic?)

After all, linguists divide the language component into components like phonology (sound), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (literal meaning) and pragmatics (actual meaning). There must be even MORE components for something like critical thinking or algebra.

Yet, most typical sources on constructivism do not really specify this at all (although I do see the reference to concept map and schema). The closest answer I’ve gotten on the constructivist road is it’s “very complex and counterintuitive”. [http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/construct.html]...I’m sure that’s true.

I finally realized after a while that most constructivists assume a “holistic” model in which defining the parts is not necessarily critical. Theoretically, if the child is in the correct learning environment, then the right structure will be built.

At this point, I will have to say that the insight that parts add up IS important. Learning does involve a complex interaction of perception, cultural biases, physical health, previous mental structures and motivation (connation). Mess any one of these up and the learner will more than likely have problems.

But in the end, I can’t abandon the idea of defining components of cognition and learning. After all, HOW do we define the optimal environment if we don’t understand all the components of the environment? Which strategies can we deply to maximize the functioning of each component in the learner? And if we assume learner differences, what are they exactly?

Some say the actual cognitive model might be “too complex” to work with at this time, but if the meterologists can sort through a complex mix of climatological data (carbon emissions, sun spots, humidity levels, season, wind flow, volcanic emissions) to make a weather forecast...I have faith that we can do the same. Meterologists keep refining their models, and so can we. I think it’s important to try.

P.S. What do I think is being constructed in a learner? My best guess is that the learner makes a change somewhere in long term memory and that it varies depending on the content. Choices include semantic memory (facts), procedural (how-tos) and autobiographical (single events). Of course, this also has to go through the perception channels to short term memory to some sort of internal processing. And I don’t necessarily understand how memory chunks are stored and organized.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 14, 2007 5:52 PM.

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