Information Processing --

Man Overboard!

Dr. Walter Wager
Florida State University

The title for this paper came to me as I read the recent Dills and Romiszowski book, Instructional Design Paradigms (very good by the way), and observed the absence or near absence of attention to the information processing model. Maybe this is a reaction to the dreaded "linearity" or "mechanical" nature of the model as characterized by its critics, or maybe it is simply an oversight, but it was enough to get my attention, as I see a direction in Instructional Systems which makes me wonder what people are smoking these days.

First, let me frame my position with regard to a few of my beliefs about learning. I believe that:

A review of Gagné's propositions:

(1) That different types of learning benefit from different types of learning experiences.

(2) That the organization of skills differs from information.

(3) That learning is a process.

(4) That an information processing model can be used as a framework for studying and guiding interventions that can facilitate learning.

What I will attempt to do is to make a case for why each of these propositions are important considerations for instructional systems theory, and to review some of the current criticisms of "traditional" theory and practice in light of these propositions.

Different types of learning:

One criticism of "traditional" instructional design is the emphasis on lower level skills. This is often attributed to the reductionist (deconstructive) nature of behaviorist models to break complex skills into simpler component skills, and then to teach the component skills first (as opposed to addressing the complex skills first). The behaviorists talked of "shaping" behavior and "reinforcing "successive approximations" to a goal. One criticism is that the traditional model spends too much time teaching these lower-level skills out of context and not enough time with the higher-level skills. School reformists have taken this position into their criticism of public school curriculum, as if the behaviorists really influenced its development.

First, I would suggest that looking at what schools do, and blaming the curriculum on instructional systems design (behaviorist or otherwise) is ludicrous. Very little curriculum or instruction in public schools was ever designed around a systems model. It was designed by content experts. The content model tends to focus on information learning and rule learning, and drives most of what public school teachers do. Second, the lack of success of the schools in teaching problem solving skills is the emphasis we place on testing knowledge. Perhaps this because of the difficulty in measuring problem solving skills (or the ease of measuring knowledge).

Gagné believes, (1) Problem solving is a generative activity leading to new learning, and (2) Building problem solving skills requires practice in solving problems. However, in order to solve the problems the students are going to have to acquire (learn) some prerequisite rules and concepts. Gagné asserts that problem solving leads to learning "higher-order" rules, and cognitive strategies, including strategies for self-validation of learning. Sounds to me very much like what Bransford, et. al., are saying. I suggest reading the chapter on problem solving in Conditions of Learning, to see how Gagné addresses this topic. There is already a fair amount of research and information on what kinds of interventions do and do not facilitate problem solving, and many of the findings provide guidance for designing learning environments to facilitate problem-based learning.

In the constructivist literature there seems to be an intrinsic concern for the development of positive student attitudes toward learning. I think attitudes (dispositions) are mostly learned unconsciously, but they are heavily influenced by the environment. In this sense, the design of environments that encourage exploration, problem solving, learning for it own sake (as well as for meeting immediate needs), etc., are important not only for cognitive but also for attitudes. It is important to consider how and where information processing fits into curriculum on values and "socially correct" behaviors. Like it or not the schools have a social responsibility, and they are not very effective in accomplishing it.

Skills differ from information:

What do teachers test? What do they value? It seems to me that a mismatch here sends the wrong message to students. Teachers would say they value critical thinking skills and problem solving (the application of knowledge), while what they tend to test is primarily information, except maybe in math, where they primarily test rule-using. One rationalization is that if the students don't possess the information then they can't apply it. While this may be true to some extent, the problem lies with the fact that the students don't spend enough time practicing the application of knowledge in multiple contexts, or in the context of problem-solving. The problem here might be with what we ask teachers to do (or their expectations of what it is they should do), and the models they have for doing it. I'll over generalize again, and say that teachers teach as they have been taught (or as they expect they should teach). Real educational change and innovation takes a lot of support and guidance. Just giving teachers access to Jasper episodes won't do it. I think teacher education classes have to model the behaviors we want to see in the classroom, that is not just study about techniques, but experience them in learning the university content.

Learning involves the processing of information:

We are information processing organisms, and we constantly take in data, assess it, use what we need and dismiss the rest. However, that doesn't mean we aren't learning. In line with information processing models, learning occurs when new knowledge is integrated into long-term memory along with retrieval cues, and that may happen either consciously or unconsciously. Formal learning, that is when we intentionally set about to learn something, is a conscious effort at acquiring and integrating knowledge into long-term memory. Unconscious learning simply occurs as a result of experience. While we might be aware of the possibility of learning unconsciously, generally as designers we are looking to create environments that will facilitate learning certain types of skills or behaviors. If we consider what mental structures we might bring to bear on this process, and the nature of the environment-mental interaction, it seems that we will design more effective aids for integration and retrieval.

Information processing models can serve as conceptual guides for the development of better theory and practice:

Information processing models attempt to depict the stages of processing and the influences of different mental structures and existing knowledge on the processes of perception, selective attention, encoding, storage and decoding. While these models are gross oversimplifications of very complex mental processes, they still can provide frameworks for thinking about learning processes, and guidance for structuring environments for learning. For example, establishing expectations for what is to be learned, providing retrieval cues for relevant information, organizing and chunking, elaboration with examples and non-examples, are all strategies that aim at facilitating one or more of the processes suggested by information processing models. New research on brain functions, and especially new research on how emotions and cognition interact, suggest that emotional elements might play a much greater role in unconscious learning than we would expect (see for instance, Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain). However, it isn't too far a leap to think about what John Keller has been suggesting with the ARCS model of design, to see that the emotional elements of experiences designed for conscious learning experiences also play a significant role in selective attention, encoding and retrieval.

What does all this have to do with current directions in instructional systems theory?

My original premise is that information paradigms seem to have been forgotten in the current literature on constructivist paradigms. Again I will go out on a limb to speculate possible reasons. Maybe it is because information processing paradigms are associated more with the "old school" of instructional design associated with the linear behaviorists. There were a great number of principles from behaviorism that were taught as guidelines for instructional design, but I don't I think that current models grounded in information processing theory look like these earlier models at all. The new social-humanistic movement seems to associate objectives with behaviorism, and as such dismiss them as wrong-headed. Movements toward learner-centered environments are okay as long as they are kept in perspective. If learners were all self-motivated, and self-directed toward meeting goals of society, I would applaud getting out of their way. But even in professional schools, such as our college of education, I don't see a burning desire among our undergraduates (or many graduate students for that matter) to dig into learning activities to know everything they can possibly learn about how to be good teachers or outrageous designers. More often the attitude expressed is what is the minimum I have to do to make a "grade" in this course. Maybe this is a fault with the present school system, but I would guess that human nature has a lot to do with it.

Maybe focus on information processing models has declined because of a movement away from experimental research and more toward qualitative research. Perhaps researchers feel it doesn't make a good foundational model for qualitative research. A qualitative research study might be framed as, "observe students in collaborative learning situations with well-structured and ill-structured tasks to describe the metacognitive activities that take place." However, I maintain that would take very little imagination to see where information processing might fit into a schema for investigating this question.

In conclusion, current literature, and instructional design paradigms seem to be moving away from the foundation established by information processing paradigms. I suggest that the new paradigms (anchored instruction, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, cognitive flexibility theory, authentic activities, for example), are fully compatible with the notion of information processing, and that it might be helpful to analyze these paradigms with regard to how they elaborate on or expand our understanding of how we make sense of our environment, store information, and apply this knowledge toward the rather short-range goal of personal development. It is ironic to me that the constructivists have embraced information technologies (the very technologies that gave rise to information processing and the rise of cognitive science) to such a great extent that they are influencing the theoretical foundations of instructional systems design.

Dr. Walter Wager
Professor of Instructional Systems
Department of Educational Research
Florida State University
307 Stone Building
Tallahassee, FL 32306-3030

Phone: 904/644-8789
Fax: 904/644-8776

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