What is cognitive load?
“When the brain has to deal with multiple elements of information, difficult material, and you have to manipulate or process those different elements, working memory can struggle. It imposes a heavy working load on working memory – that is cognitive load … Intrinsic cognitive load is the load complex material places on working memory. It is subjective, intrinsic and there’s not much you can do about it. Extraneous cognitive load is in the designed instruction and can be redesigned to reduce cognitive load.” —Donald Clark
Worked examples can lessen cognitive load, according research by John Sweller, which is reviewed by Donald Clark in the quote above. “A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem”, according to Psychology Wiki. Cognitive load management is one of the four beneficial skills that can be acquired through the practice of personal knowledge mastery (PKM). For example, off-loading some cognitive tasks to an external network or community of practice provides time to focus or reflect.
While PKM is designed to lessen the cognitive load, learning how to develop this disciplined approach to sensemaking can actually increase the cognitive load. I have made a few attempts at creating something like a worked example in the past two years.
Simplifying the Complexity
One of my most interesting projects was when a client gave me a statement of work that merely stated — ‘simplify the complexity’. That was it.
I had worked with this company on a year-long project to transform how workplace learning was supported — working smarter case study. About a year after this project was finished I was asked to help again. With the changes that had been made to workplace learning — Do-It-Yourself Learning, Just-in-Time Support, Performance Consulting — there was a question about what technologies were needed to support the new model. The head of IT asked the head of learning what suite of tools was needed to support learning in the workplace. It was a simple question but there was no template available to say what was needed and what was not. I did not have an answer but accepted the project, fairly confident that I, the client, and my network could figure it out.
I started by going through my outboards brains. I had a good library of social bookmarks on Diigo [I am shifting to Pinboard]. I also searched my blog for any clues on how to address the question. At the same time I watched my feeds on Twitter and Feedly for anything related to this challenge. I contacted a few people over several weeks and discussed our project. I also started playing around by visualizing different models.
I can attribute few things to the success of this project. My ‘outboard brains’, based on several years of curation gave me a rich set of resources to initially search. A few clues emerged from these. In addition, as I was now attuned to my quest, I was able to serendipitously find more clues that came through my social media feeds. Many conversations with my clients helped to better understand the situation and play with solutions.
The solution that was developed was a visual template with seven factors that were needed to support workplace learning. Any technology platform could be analyzed through this template to see what facets it supported. A complete suite of tools would have to cover all seven. This became a quick way for the learning specialists to relate to the IT specialists. In the end I was able to develop a simple lens to evaluate current and future tools against the learning and performance requirements of the company. Since this project I have been able to use the template in several other projects. It’s current version is shown below.
I did not have a solution at hand for this project but I felt that with my extended network I would be able to solve their problem. In the end the client was satisfied and I was paid more than what we had originally contracted for — a good day!
I presented this case in London a few years ago, which was recorded — video.
“Chance favours the connected mind.” — Steven B. Johnson
Another case where my PKM practice helped out was when I was asked to conduct research on “new trends in training in the context of the knowledge economy and the social web” for an online university. The budget was for 80 hours work for a graduate student. This was the equivalent of about one day of my consulting service fee, so it did not look very appealing. However, the project had been designed from the perspective that the researcher was relatively new to the field. I decided to take the project and in less than one day I was able to collate years of my own research on workplace learning through my ‘outboard brains’. I also included a couple of papers I had already written as a bonus deliverable. My client was able to use these as the main references for a new program they were developing. PKM in this case was a catalyst for enhanced serendipity!