More farmers for the fields: More computing ed experiments!

November 18, 2009 at 3:28 pm 2 comments

I’ve been thinking for several days about Doug Holton’s blog post about the critiques of cognitive load theory.  The critiques are well taken.  I find the “intrinsic, extraneous, and germane” kinds of cognitive load confusing and not particularly useful.  Cognitive load is clearly a hard thing to measure.  Doug’s critique that it’s “unfalsifiable” is important.  It’s an important goal to figure out how to measure these factors and to develop good experimental evidence.

However, the critique doesn’t change my mind about the need to explore reducing cognitive load in computing education.  There are lots of ideas in education that are problematic and hard-to-measure. Yesterday, in my educational technology class, we read papers by Alan Collins.  I challenged the class to wonder, “How would you test cognitive apprenticeship?”  What evidence do we have that cognitive apprenticeship is a good method? Is it falsifiable? Measurable?

I built my dissertation work around cognitive apprenticeship and constructionism, and I still think that these are promising educational ideas.  The available evidence convinces me that these are ideas worth exploring, even if we still have problems measuring these things or developing clinical trials that demonstrate  the value of these ideas.   The reality is that we need many more experiments.  I look around and see very few computing  education efforts exploring education ideas like worked examples, cognitive load theory, and the modality effect. TeachScheme does a good job with respect to issues of cognitive load (e.g., in their directions to students on how to analyze data and then how to write code for processing that data, thus allowing students to focus on one aspect of learning at a time), but that’s just one experiment.  Where are others?

In Alan Kay’s foreword to the “White” Squeak book, he wrote:

In fact, Squeak is primed to be the engine of its own replacement…We not only give permission for you to do this, we urge you to try! Why? Because our field is still a long way from a reasonable state, and we cannot allow bad defacto standards (mostly controlled by vendors) to hold back progress.

Alan is right — we need people trying to do better than other projects, building on others’ works, trying good ideas with different languages and different approaches. We need a lot more experiments.  We need more farmers tilling the fields.

Are we doing so very well at computing education that we should just replicate the same practices everywhere?  It’s a problem that so many classes look nearly the same, that a small number of textbooks cover the vast majority of courses, and that we have so few languages used in intro courses.  We should be trying out all the good ideas that we can.  Yes, cognitive load theory is problematic, but the evidence is strong enough that I think we ought to try that, too.  Let’s get more good ideas out there.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Raymond Lister  |  November 24, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I couldn’t agree more “We need more farmers tilling the fields”. I also agree that the CSEd community needs to be trying all sorts of different things, even when those different things come from antagonistic epistemologies. (Or at least the epistemologies give the appearance of being antagonistic, given our current superficial understanding of education).

    Software design frequently involves tradeoffs. I think pedagogical design is partly a process of trading off between these superficially antagonistic epistemologies.

  • 2. Raymond Lister  |  November 24, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    With regard to the falsifiability of Cognitive Load Theory, and other educational theories, I like to think about something I call the “Anna Karenina Effect”. Tolstoy’s book opens (in some translations) with the sentence “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

    If you take a champion of a particular pedagogical approach — any pedagogical approach — into a classroom that is working well, the champion will happily point out the ways in which that class matches their pedagogical approach. In that sense, every happy classroom is happy in the same way, as they exhibit properties of all widely accepted pedagogical theories. However, each of those pedagogical theories fails in its own way — there are many different types of unhappy classrooms.

    A failure mode of Cognitive Load Theory is where the reduction of load on the short term memory leads to students who cannot see the connection between the problem type that have learnt to solve and closely related problems – long term memory was traded off excessively to support short term memory. Unguided learning tends to fail the other way – what would have been a great, generalizable learning experience (i.e. great for long term memory)failed because it overloaded the short term memory.

    You can think of germane cognitive load in two ways: (1) as a concept that makes Cognitive Load Theory “complete” but unfalsifiable, or (2) as an acknowledgement that other educational theories come into play when extraneous cognitive load has been successively dealth with.


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