Jerry Zandstra (JZ): Our topic is cognitive science, corporate learning, and where artificial intelligence might play a role. You’ve been thinking about learning and cognition for a couple of decades. Artificial intelligence is new, at least in the sense that it is only recently widely available. So where should we start our conversation?
Miriam Taylor (MT): Let’s begin with some definitions. Cognitive science or cognition theory is really about how human beings think. Our minds are incredibly complex. We are able to consume information like many forms of life, but we are also able to deeply consider that information. We can consider it from multiple angles. We are able to remember facts and experiences, which shapes how we behave. A big part of cognitive science is how we organize the information we take in and connect new information to what we already know.
JZ: So knowing something about how the human brain works informs how learning professionals go about their work.
MT: Maybe an appropriate analogy is engineering. Engineers don’t begin their careers with design. They have to understand the more essential operational facts of chemistry, metallurgy, and physics. Once they have a firm grasp of the nature of what they are working with, they will be better able to design equipment that does what they intend it to do. Cognitive science is like that. It helps us think about both the opportunities and limitations of human learning.
JZ: How does cognitive science fit with “learning science?”
MT: There are about 6-7 different official learning sciences, depending on what source you look at. So cognitive science is really a subset of the larger category of learning science. Learning certainly occurs at the level of cognition but there are many other factors to consider as well. We are not soulless software programs. Cognition is important but it takes place in the context of other factors. Think about how our social setting can impact our ability to learn. For instance, learning in isolation is very different from learning as a group in a highly social setting. Sociology has to be part of the conversation especially in our era of ever increasing work from home scenarios. Psychology is part of the conversation because the state of our mind and emotions will alter what we learn. People under high levels of stress learn differently than those in a more relaxed setting. We can create wonderfully creative learning experiences but if a learner’s social setting or emotional state are not conducive to learning, we should not expect great results.
JZ: There are a lot of factors to consider when we expect people to learn.
MT: For sure. We can build the right learning content and deliver it to people who are psychologically and sociologically ready to learn, but linguistics can trip us up. Translation and localization have to be considered. Are learners’ language and cultural settings being considered? I think there was a time when we thought this mostly applied to multinational companies. Thankfully, we have become more aware that in a single nation, there are multiple cultures and languages that need to be part of the conversation.
JZ: What does cognitive science tell us about best practices for designing learning?
MT: There is a bit of “Goldilocks” at play here. What we are attempting to teach has to be in the right zone like the porridge in the story. Too hot and it will overwhelm the learner. Too cold and it will not challenge learners, and likely be uninteresting to them. Finding that “just right” zone of the amount of information learners can process and retain is essential for effective learning. I want to emphasize again that cognition, or our ability to process information, is not an island. We also need to consider the social setting, linguistic challenges, and the psychological state of the learners.
JZ: What does cognitive science teach us about the limitations of learning?
MT: This is a good question. Let me begin by saying the human brain is amazing in its ability to process and store information. A few fun facts. Our brains can store the equivalent of about 2.5 million gigabytes. Our brains are constantly processing information and the amount of information we are asked to process increases every year. I read once that a person living 500 years ago would consume about 75 gigabytes of information in their lifetime. Today, we process that amount of information in a single day because of the amount of content that comes to us.
JZ: Let me think about that for a minute. We process in a day what was processed in a lifetime for a person living 500 years ago?
MT: Yes. But there are some important implications to these numbers. A huge part of our cognition is our brains deciding what is important and what is not important simply because of the amount of information that presents itself to us on a daily basis. If we expect learning to stick, we need to consider the motivations of the learner and whether or not the information we are presenting will be considered important or unimportant.
JZ: That makes sense. In a world of so much noise, we have to think about how to get our learners’ attention.
MT: True, but we also have to recognize that for all the remarkable ability of the brain to process information, there is such a thing as cognitive overload. We are simply overloading the minds of learners with too much information. Think about how people learn at work. They have tasks to complete. They have emails and voicemails and text messages. They have social situations to consider. They report to someone and may have people reporting to them. These factors and many others are competing for attention. They all want space in cognition. If we do not give them the proper time or space to learn, learning likely won’t be effective.
JZ: You mentioned the potential for overloading the minds of learners. Can you say more about that? How do we know when we are in that Goldilocks zone of not too much and not too little?
MT: It is not a set amount. Spend ten minutes watching the news channel of your choice and look at all the information being presented to the audience. People are talking, and sometimes arguing. There are words on the bottom of the screen that may be presenting information that is unrelated to the topic the news people are discussing, like breaking news. Some stations add even more information on the left side or right side of the screen. The brain is an incredible machine and can process an amazing amount of information—but it can also be overloaded. So learning professionals need to understand the context of their learners, and this can best be discovered by learning about their lives at work. Ask to meet with managers and learners so that you can uncover the context of learning. Do some testing with small groups of learners to determine their process and retention capacity in the midst of their jobs. Find out what distractions might be keeping them from learning and see if you can figure out a way to lessen or remove them.
JZ: It seems like we cannot talk about learning anymore without addressing the role of AI and so I have to ask… Given everything you’ve just said, does artificial intelligence change our understanding of cognitive science? Or maybe a better way of asking is, what will be the impact of AI on cognitive science and our ability to process information and learn?
MT: The honest answer is that we don’t really know yet. We all have suspicions and theories but we don’t have enough data to say much definitively yet.
JZ: OK. I’ll take that as your disclaimer. What I’d like to understand is your working theory at the moment knowing it is likely to change as more research is done.
MT: Fair enough. There are at least two parts to this. The first is that AI will likely be very helpful to us in understanding how the human brain works. In other words, it will help us test theories about human cognition so that we better understand what is going on in our own minds. The brain is complex and AI will be highly effective in helping us understand its complexity.
JZ: That makes sense. We should anticipate some amazing discoveries about brain function. What is the second part?
MT: The second part could be that AI greatly increases the amount of information coming at us. I mentioned how much information we are required to process compared to people 500 years ago. How much information will we be able to process after 25 years of exposure to AI? That remains to be seen. But it could also be that AI will help us sort essential information from non-essential information in a more systematic way. I suspect one of the great benefits of AI will be the customization of learning, truly down to the individual level. In other words, learning experience design will include reacting to individual learners, what they already know, and how much they are able to process in the learning experience. I have a mixture of concern and excitement about what AI will mean for the learning profession.
JZ: One last question. Does a global audience change how we apply cognitive science?
MT: On the one hand, a global audience does not change the application of cognitive science. Human minds across all cultures and nations have the same amazing capabilities and notable limitations for how much information can be processed and retained. But, as we have discussed, cognitive science has to be considered in the context of cultural differences and linguistic diversity. It would be a mistake to ignore their impact on our learners’ ability to engage in learning experiences that will enhance their skills and strengthen their organization. Translation and localization are becoming even more important in our increasingly globalized and diversified workforce.
JZ: As always Miriam, I feel better about this information just having the opportunity to engage you in a conversation. Thank you for your thoughts today and I look forward to our next discussion.