A large number of teachers and instructors these days teach by presenting the visually spectacular / entertaining content. A popular perception amongst parents, teachers and school leadership is that the root cause of poor performance is “lack of interest” and it can be overcome by using visually appealing content. These training aids/tools offer spectacular visualizations of concepts with animations to grab or rather seduce a student’s attention with technology.
Thinking minds are forced to ask the question whether this approach actually works. After all the present learners are not the first generation to get seduced by fancy technology.
Tall promises of a “revolution of sorts in education” are often made with every new technology. A very famous man from 1922 claimed said:
“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize educational system … it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks”.
That famous man was Thomas Edison and we know a hundred years later now that nothing of that sort has happened.
These optimistic visions of how technology will revolutionize learning lies on some basic assumptions about how learning happens. The basic assumption is that students fail to learn because they are bored. Therefore, if you can make things interesting then you can make them learn. The problem with this approach is that most people confuse arousal with cognitive engagement.
Supporters of the arousal theory believe that adding entertaining and interesting material stimulates emotional engagement which in turn improves learning outcomes. The keyword here is emotional engagement. Arousal theorists focus heavily on likeability of content. This explains why a huge number of products in the space focus on fancy animations and graphics because it fits the criteria of “likeability”.
While supporters of cognitive engagement theory believe that learning happens by helping students actively think about key concepts/topics from the syllabus. Keyword here is thinking. Proponents in cognitive engagement focus heavily on mistakes the students make and how to remedy them. They are thinking about the concepts are represented in the student’s head and how can we improve its representation. Products built keeping this in mind tend to offer some kind of diagnostics of what has and hasn’t been learned properly and how content design can help solve the problem.
Division of Energies – John Dewey
In 1913, John Dewey saw the problem with the popular notion of “making things interesting”. In his view, interest rested within an individual which can get attached to objects in the individual’s environment. This means that interest may shift from one object to another as an interesting object or a thing is interesting so long as it is important to the self at that point of time. Objects serve a purpose so long as they are attached to the core interest. Thus, Dewey contends that the act of making things interesting made no sense as you cannot make an object any more interesting than it already is. It will cause what he called a ‘division of energies’ into the mind of the learner. The learner that was supposed to focus on content is perhaps distracted by the colors and animations used to communicate the same.
In their influential book titled E-learning and the science of instruction, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, reference several studies that favor Dewey’s intuition of harmful effects of ‘division of energies’. They call it the Cognitive Load Theory. While, Ruth and Clark’s theory is much more refined with empirical evidence and practical advice for e-learning designers, the core intuition that Dewey argued for is the same. Experiments done by various cognitive scientists prove that learning outcomes suffer when cognitive load (division of energies) goes up.
Dewey also claimed that students will acquire an interest in the subject they otherwise found uninteresting if they get the opportunity to understand the subject matter. His quote –
I have it argued in all seriousness that a child kept after school to study has often acquired an interest in arithmetic or grammar which he didn’t have before as if this proved the efficacy of “discipline” versus interest. Of course, the reality is that the greater leisure, the opportunity for individual explanation afforded, served to bring the material into its proper relations in the child’s mind he “got a hold “of it.
What should you do as an educator or parent?
If you are a concerned parent, teacher or educationist you should keep in mind that what sounds intuitive may not always measure up with data. I am not saying that better visualizations or animations do not serve the purpose of better communication. But instead I feel that the graphics will be effective only as long as they are supporting the learning goal. The more important criteria to judge may be whether the content is making the student think and engage cognitively.
Day to day education should focus heavily on designing thought-provoking questions, then using them as a medium to improve learning outcomes, which improves students’ interest and motivation.