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The 6-Minute Master’s in Cognitive Psychology from CZI’s Bror Saxberg

Hi all, Bror Saxberg here, the Vice President of Learning Science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. I look after how CZI can increase the amount of evidence-based decision-making going on in all aspects of education.  I work closely with Adam Carter, who heads up Research & Development for Summit Public Schools, on new approaches and evidence-gathering within the innovative Summit system — exciting work!

Last month, I spoke at the 2017 iNACOL Symposium following Diane Tavenner’s keynote. I gave a short overview of some of the learning science that should be in every educator’s toolkit. You might find it interesting as well.

(Watch Bror’s keynote in the video above)

How Minds Work — A Beginner’s Guide

The starting point of my talk was a simplified model of how minds work. Basically, you have two main senses, vision and hearing, that feed your mind about what is happening in the world. These two senses connect to a part of your mind that cognitive psychologists call “working memory” — it’s the part that handles the newest and most complicated problems; it’s also the part where your interior voice lives. Unfortunately, it’s pretty slow, pretty error-prone, easily flooded — not perfect!  However, it is the most flexible part of our minds.

Fortunately, working memory works in close collaboration with what can be thought of as “long-term memory.” This part of your mind has very different characteristics:  things can last a long time in here, and many things can happen at once, in parallel, very quickly. The kinds of processing and decision made by long-term memory are quite accurate (if trained to be accurate!), but it is also quite rigid.

Working memory has a very rapid connection to long-term memory — things that long-term memory recognizes or can process can be immediately fed back to working memory, so that long-term memory can take on some of the processing load. Very handy! However, the only way to get things into long-term memory is repeated practice and feedback through working memory — that’s why learners always need a lot of practice to become fluent at things.

The 4 Main Factors for Learner Motivation

I also talked about motivation issues. Given the practice needed, what gets in the way of learners starting, persisting, and putting in mental effort? We had a very good cognitive psychologist, Richard Clark, look through a wide range of sources, and he came up with a nice way to think about it.

There seem to be four major things that go wrong with motivation:

    • Value:  You don’t value what you’re learning or how you’re learning enough to put in effort.
    • Self-efficacy: You just don’t think you can master it.
    • Attribution: You blame something in your environment for preventing you from starting.
    • Negative emotions:  You are angry, depressed, scared, etc. — not good states to be in to start, persist, or put in mental effort.

What’s interesting about these four things is they are quite different, and need different treatments: if you’re a dancer in an algebra class and have no interest in algebra, then the treatment is to link up that analytical reasoning with something you care about, maybe running a dance foundation’s finances. However, another dancer in that same algebra class may just think, “I’m no good at math.” It does no good to talk about dance foundations — that’s not their reason for not starting, persisting, putting in mental effort! They need to be shown they really can do math — and then given enough practice and feedback for the pieces they’re missing to catch back up.

There’s more in the talk, so enjoy — having some evidence-based grounding on how learning works can help guide us all to better approaches to each different learner we have (and are)!

Bror Saxberg
About the author

Bror Saxberg is Vice President of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In his role, Saxberg is responsible for CZI’s thinking about how to apply learning science results at scale to real-world learning environments. Bror works closely with the Summit Public Schools team to guide learning science research and applications in Summit Schools and the Summit Learning Program. Saxberg most recently served as Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, Inc. Saxberg received an Honors BA in Mathematics and a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington, an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and an MD from Harvard Medical School.