COGNITIVE STRATEGIES FOR VIRTUAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
Bruno Carvalho Castro Souzabrunoc@solar.com.br
Regina F. F. de A. Bolzan, M.Eng.firstname.lastname@example.org
Janae G. Martins, M.Eng.
Alejandro M. Rodriguez, Dr.
Federal University of Santa Catarina; Post-Graduating Program in Production Engineering,
Technological Center – Campus – Trindade, P.O Box 476 – ZIP Code 88040-900 – Florianópolis, SC, Brazil.
University of Vale do Itajaí – Itajaí, SC, Brasil.
University of Brasília, UNEB – Brasília, Brasil.
Learning can be considered as a conjunction of a number of factors, both of internal and external origins. This paper offers a reconcilement of these factors in an interdependent unity, building a "total learning environment", adding up emotional, sensorial, motivational and intellectual aspects. It also approaches the use of this reconcilement in virtual learning environments, seeking for technological tools for a permanent and renewing quest of knowledge, in contrast with the behaviorist model of repetition of content and stimulus-response conditioning.
Key words: Virtual Learning, knowledge, Cognitive Strategies.
Historically, the educational process has always been linked to the social evolution of humanity itself (Gadotti, 1999). Therefore, to understand it in its plenitude, it would be necessary a detailed analysis of the cultural, social, economic, technological and political aspects, present in society. This is not the intention of this paper. Rather, the focus is on the interactions between the individual-pupil and the possible technological learning environments, analyzing the factors that influence the efficiency of such learning and suggesting alternatives to improve the effectiveness of the process. Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge some cognitive learning strategies, including some virtual environments and the interactions between apprentice and master.
Cognitive Learning Strategies
The history of the psychology of learning retraces, pertaining to the study in question, to the IV century a.C., specifically to the school of philosophy established by Plato to spread out the ideas of Socrates. In the book VII of "the Republic", Plato displays the myth of the cave, an alegory according to which the world that we know is nothing but a shade in a wall of the cave of reality projected by the pure ideas that are planted, since birth, in our soul. In other words, knowledge is always the projection of our innate ideas (Pozo, 1999). This doctrine resurged in the racionalist and idealistic thoughts of Descartes, Leibniz or Kant, being revisited by authors representing the current cognitivist movement, like Fodor and Chomsky. Aristotle, disciple of Plato, developed another doctrine: the tabula rasa, according to which the knowledge comes from the senses that endow the mind with pictures, interlinked according to three laws: proximity, similarity and contrast. Aristotle’s influence will be felt in the psychology of learning through its consequences in both the estruturalism and, mainly, in the behaviorism of Skinner. Regarding behaviorism, it is a form of response to subjectivism. For the behaviorists, the study of higher mental processes for the understanding of human behavior is unnecessary: one learns through conditioning and repetition (Pozo, 1999). The impulse given by diverse external factors to psychology, especially the technological evolution, the new theories of communication, linguistics and cybernetics, brought a new paradigm, represented by information processing, that enables the study of the mental processes denied by behaviorism. These new studies, supported in technological bases and searching an interdisciplinarity in such fields as philosophy, computer science, medicine and psychology itself, had generated the cognitive school. The relevance of these two doctrines to the learning process is significant. Historically, as well as in the present, there is a predominance of the behaviorist approach in educational methodologies used in schools of practically all levels. Theorists like Chi and Rees (1983), Gagné Glaser (1987), Mandler (1985), Shuell (1986), among others, support that there are reasons enough to believe in the possibility that the cognitive approach may be adopted as the model of learning in a near future. Actually, some experiments are already being carried out in such direction, but they are embryonic studies and do not really represent a clear movement towards the adoption of the cognitive psychology of learning (Pozo, 1999). Lakatos (1978) developed an application of the behaviorist theory of learning which attempts to conciliate the issues of conditioning and repetition as bases for scientific research as a learning factor (fig. 1).
Figure 1: behaviorism as a scientific research program. Source: Pozo (1999)
One of the main criticisms to behaviorism is its incapacity to produce original theoretical responses. As a consequence, new programs are being elaborated, whose basic difference consists of a release of the behaviorist conceptual core, eliminating, mainly, the rejection of cognitive processes and increasing information gathering (Pozo, 1999). The central concept of cognitive psychology, the basis of this new program, is broader than the concept of information processing itself. According to Rivière (1987), "the most general and ordinary things we can say of Cognitive Psychology refers to the explanation of behavior, mental entities, states, processes and definitions of mental nature, all which demand an unique level of speech". This means, therefore, that the actions of the individual are determined by his mental representations, according to some authors like Piaget and Vigotsky. Fig. 2, counter-pointing fig. 1, shows the strategy of scientific research according to cognitive psychology.
Figure 2: Information processing as a program of scientific inquiry. Source: Pozo (1999)
Thus, learning capacity would be determined by the way that the individual represents his knowledge, together with his memory capabilities and his causal cognitive processes. To acquire these representations, the human being uses his mechanisms of assimilation as channels, understood here "as a broad sense of an integration to the previous structures" (Piaget, 1967) and uses, therefore, his senses as a door towards the perception of the external world together with the mental processes of information handling. The greater or minor effectiveness of this assimilation depends on learning factors, varying from person to person, and constituting learning strategies. These strategies take in account emotional, motivational, sensorial, and intellectual factors (or, using a computer era terminology, logical-mathematical factors).
Goleman (1995), places the issue of emotional intelligence as a new type of ability, requiring a development of aptitudes natural to the "human heart". His theory appears in the context of a society with a rising increase of violence in practically all its forms (crime, suicides, drug abuse and other indicators of social distress); individualism, even as a consequence of social pressures, reaches an unprecedented exaggeration, causing, therefore, a growing competitiveness, mainly in the job market and academic fields. This conjunction of factors brings the isolation and deterioration of social relations, generating a slow disintegration of community life and the need for self-confidence.
Placing this scenario under a learning perspective, it is inferred that emotional education - or, in other words, emotional learning - urgently needs to be rethought. The human brain has mechanisms to deal with emotions, but such mechanisms come from a biological evolution that goes back to the origin of life itself (Pinker, 1998). Our mental apparatus is prepared to face "wild" situations, as the ones experienced in a forest, but it has little power to confront rush hour traffic. Under the educator's point of view, it is important to be in harmony with the student's emotions and work the totality of the emotional repertoire. "In our emotional repertoire, each emotion plays a specific function, as disclosed by its distinct biological signatures (...). Using the new technologies that allow the exploration of the brain and the body as a whole, the researchers are discovering physiological details that enable the verification of how different types of emotions prepare the body for different types of responses:
This emotional diversity shown by Goleman demonstrates that there are moments and situations that propitiate more effective learning. An educational methodology that would provoke a feeling of happiness, or, at the very least, respect moments of sadness or anger, would have better conditions to form new mental structures and to more efficiently relate all acquired knowledge.
Motivation brings inlaid the concept of impulse for action and the maintenance of such action. Schank (1995) states that learning is a natural process that happens in the form of a " waterfall": first, the apprentice creates a goal, then generates a question and, finally, answers the question. This process brings implicitly the importance of motivational factors in learning: when there is a desire to learn to ride a bicycle, for example, a goal was created. During the process of "riding a bicycle", the apprentice will fall, loose balance or feel foolish, and all this will make him question exactly, even if internally, what he is doing wrong - why can't he succeed in riding a bicycle? He will then look for answers to this questioning, and will learn.
However, Schank doesn't expose the initial motivational role: why would someone want to ride a bicycle? Also, following the same reasoning, why didn’t the apprentice give up when he fell for the first time? This motivation "to continue trying" is a consequence of the internal pressures generated by curiosity or challenge, both feelings of inadequacy. So, for the learning to occur entirely, a constant stimulation of the student's motivation is necessary.
To successfully keep the motivation, researchers develop new educational proposals, like self-orientation and personal effectiveness as educational goals (Barrel, 1995). This way, the students can make their own learning decisions, cultivating an existing desire in all human beings: independence (Goodlad, 1984). Another important motivational factor is the relevance of learning. Students learn more effectively when what they are being taught has direct relation with their reality, offering them a chance to become agents of their own lives (Freire, 1996). "When professors add new information to the previous knowledge of the student, they activate his interest and curiosity, and apply their teachings with a sense of intention" (Presseisen, 1995). It is not enough, therefore, to simply adopt the "natural waterfall" proposed by Schank. The teacher needs to show the student that it is good to get your feet wet, "to climb the waterfall".
Senses are open doors to information in the world. All our knowledge comes directly from the mechanisms that we possess to absorb reality and to represent it. As a biological phenomenon, a human being has systems of perception capable of stimulating the brain to interact with the outside world, to understand it or to modify it, as a way to guarantee the adaptation of the species. The quality of this perception varies from person to person, and from culture to culture. "To perceive is to know, through the senses, objects and situations (...) the act of perceiving can also be characterized by the limitation of information. It is perceived according to a perspective. The possibility of apprehending the totality of the object only occurs in the imagination, which constitutes, on the other hand, a form of organization of the conscience internally protected against error".
Under this definition, there are some hidden basic aspects of learning. One of them is the limitation on the amount and the quality of information that can be perceived. This can easily be understood when we study, for example, Classic History. No matter how hard we read about the subject, no book will be able to transmit the feelings, the odors, the colors accurately, the social tensions and politics that existed at the time. Another aspect poses the question of perspective: one perceives what one wishes to perceive. In practical learning, this means that it is of little value to insist on teaching a pupil whose basis of knowledge differs from the professor's, since his perspective of the subject is another - it would be like trying to talk with a Chinese person without knowing how to speak Chinese. In this case, according to the concept of perception by Penna, there is no real perception of the object of study, but an inadequate mental construction that shelters the mind against error. In other words, "no human being (...) can dominate presented elements under a way not manageable by the nervous system" (Greenspan, 1999).
For Piaget, all learning derives from mental relations of abstraction and balance. In other words, the human being is constantly seeking the improvement of his higher reasoning capabilities. Thus, using mechanisms of assimilation, adjusting and adaptation, people learn through their mistakes and victories, analyzing them through mental operations and grouping relations. This process is what Piaget calls balancing mechanism.
It can also be included in the intellectual factors, the operations, the relations, the groupings, the construction of schemes and the structuring, all according to Piaget. In fact, such mental manipulations derive from the representation of reality that each one has. For Piaget, intelligence is constructed in continuous form, through processes of mental abstraction resulting from the relations between the individual and the object. These relations happen, in a higher form, as abstract operations that perceive reality associating mental structures and creating projects of assimilation of reality. That is where the denomination of intellectual factors comes from: its effectiveness depends on the logical-mathematical mental coordination, influenced by all the other factors, such as perception, emotion and motivation.
The importance of intellectual factors is as essential to determine the quality of learning as all other factors. Some educators tend to place too much emphasis in the intellectual aspects, forgetting, however, that these same factors depend upon a series of external circumstances (Antunes, 1998; Gardner, 1995). In other words, it is important to think, but the world is not only made of thoughts.
Learning, therefore, depends on a conjunction of dual factors, involving physical (sensorial and intellectual) and sensational (motivational and emotional) aspects, with complex relations between themselves and the external environment:
Figure 3: The interaction of factors in learning spaces
Figure 3 considers the existence of two learning spaces: one that is internalized, where emotional and intellectual factors act more effectively; and a more general space, that allows more complex interactions between the individual and the environment, mediated by the motivational and sensorial factors. According to this reasoning, there is no learning without all the factors being involved, in greater or smaller degree, in the creation of knowledge (Greenspan, 1999).
The Virtual Environment
The optimization of such learning factors in an educational program with technological bases facilitates a better exploitation of the student’s cognitive capabilities. For this to occur, it would be necessary to build a virtual environment where the pupil was motivated to join; where he could show initiatives and feel good about it; where he would interact, through his senses, with the object of study; and where he would be allowed to guess the object’s rules, patterns of behavior, and its relations with his reality. Also it would be important to let him make mistakes, and to construct his own "base of knowledge" on the subject.
Schank suggests several learning environments that make use of various cognitive strategies striving to construct these ideal conditions for learning. His architecture uses features that: a) explore the perceptive realm; b) work with emotions, trying to motivate the student; c) let the student himself determine his own rhythm of learning; d) lead the pupil to thinking and to making up rules about the situations just experienced; e) bring the object of study closer to the pupil’s own reality through simulations; and f) guide the student into exploring diverse possibilities, so he may build different perspectives on what is being studied.
For an effective use of all the cognitive learning strategies, it is necessary to develop an environment that permits interactions between factors as described in fig. 3. Such environment needs to take in consideration not only the factors themselves, but also their interactions, and to allow emotional, sensorial feedback or both, giving motivational continuity to the learning process. It is important to remember that, as Piaget defends, change is the natural state of the human being - we are in constant balancing process, perceiving it as "a succession of the subject’s active compensations in response to exterior disturbances and to certain regulating factors, at the same time, of retroactive (ring systems or feedback) and anticipatory nature, constituting a permanent system of such compensations" (Piaget, 1966).
An environment of such nature can also be constructed in the Internet, using technologies of artificial intelligence and of broadband data communication. Today’s Internet’s interactive nature allows the environment to supply the student with real feedback, creating challenges, stimulating curiosity and offering perspective (motivational factors). It also enables the creation of complex problems pertinent or adjacent to the student’s object of study, leading him to use his logical-mathematical faculties and to establish relations between premises (intellectual factors). The possibilities of contacting other people, or intelligent tutors themselves - something a virtual environment necessarily would have - gives the pupil the option of relaxation, of focusing on other areas, exchanging experiences, and relief of any emotional tension inherent to the solution of particularly difficult problems (emotional factors). Finally, the ample scope of available multimedia features makes the exchange of information possible between the environment and the pupil using different senses, complementing and strengthening all important content, calling for the use of several mental abilities (sensorial factors). The creation of a complete environment is already possible with the tools currently available by simply forming a multidisciplinary team and having appropriate financial support for the project.
Cognitive learning strategies can be understood as a conjunction of factors that define a variety of interactive ways responsible for the amplitude of an individual’s knowledge. The knowledge of such factors (emotional, motivational, sensorial and intellectual) allows the educator to prepare all pedagogical content more efficiently and to offer his students, effectively, a much better learning process. These factors are also important in the creation of virtual environments. The experiences of Schank demonstrate the potential of a natural educational approach, but maintain the existence of these factors implicit. The realization of their existence could define a new methodology of work in the construction of such environments, focused not only on natural learning, but also in the interaction between emotional, sensorial, motivational and intellectual factors in the formation of a permanent learning cycle, where the individual would be continuously motivated, moved, challenged, and sensorially interpellated, in a learning space full of stimuli and feedback.
Research in this area could find support in the theories of LeDoux, Goleman and Greenspan, regarding the emotional and motivational factors; in the Gestalt theories and in the biological foundations of the senses, for a more profound approach on sensorial aspects; in the studies of the cognitivists, like Piaget, Pinker and Pozo, about the intellectual aspects; and in the works of scientists on artificial intelligence, like Dennet, Schank and Minsky, among many others.
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