Learning Theories: Adaptive Control of Thought

by Steve WheelerAssociate Professor, Plymouth Institute of Education

Editor’s Note: TeachThought continues to grow in an effort to illuminate new possibilities for teaching and learning. In a continuing effort to bring you the most diverse and expert set of voices on progressive education, TeachThought will be publishing content from new voices to join Grant Wiggins, Terry Heick, Stewart Hase, staff writers, and other contributors to our content. The latest of these voices is Steve Wheeler, a pioneer in ‘web 2.0,’ and thus ‘learning 2.0.’

The focus of his contributions will be to summarize learning theories, and begin to understand what they might mean for your classroom. We’ll then curate all the theories in a single page for your long-term reference, because Steve is cool like that and so are we.

This is the first in a series of posts on important theories of learning and memory. Over the next few weeks I plan to work through the alphabet of psychologists to explain over 30 major theories that relate to teaching and learning. In each post I’m going to try to simplify some complex ideas and present the models and theories in brief, bite sized posts. Each will also have a brief section on how the theory might apply to everyday teaching and learning. Here’s the first: John Anderson’s ACT-R model of memory.

A considerable amount of research into learning has focused on human memory. A number of theories about how memory and recall function has been published, but one that stands out is a model derived from the work of Canadian psychologist John Robert Anderson. Adaptive Control of Thought – Rational – abbreviated to ACT-R (previously known as ACT*) – is a cognitive theory of learning that is concerned with the way memory is structured. The so called cognitive architecture of ACT-R is made up of three main components. These are represented in the model below (adapted from the earlier ACT* model)..

The Theory

The working memory (WM) is the conscious part of the memory. Previously referred to as Short Term Memory (or STM), working memory itself is thought to be constructed of several kinds of memory, including visual and auditory stores (See the work of Baddeley and Hitch and my earlier blog post memories are made of this for more on this idea). Working memory is the active buffer between the sensory register (the senses) and Long Term Memory (LTM).  In LTM there are at least two forms of memory storage, concerned with Declarative (what something is – facts) and Procedural (how to do something). According to Anderson, procedural memory consists of sequences of actions based on pattern matching that is similar to computing instructions such as if-then – if this happens, then do that. Declarative memory on the other hand, holds factual knowledge, and any relevant association and context.

How It Can Be Applied In Education

The ACT-R model of memory could be applied in education in a number of ways. Teachers should be aware that there are different kinds of memory, and that these associate with each other through the limited Working Memory. Overloading WM with too much information at once will not be conducive to good knowledge making (see my previous post Memory Full for more on this problem). At the same time, encouraging students to combine their knowledge with actions can have the effect of reinforcing learning in both procedural and declarative memory. A combination of thinking and doing can be a powerful mix of activity to deepen learning in just about any subject area.

NB: This is a simplified version of a complex theory. If you want to know more, you are advised to seek out the published literature in this field including, Anderson, J. R. (1990) The adaptive character of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

This post first appeared on Steve’s personal blog; Graphic by Steve Wheeler; Learning Theories: Adaptive Control of Thought

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Making memories by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.