A Gap to Bridge
How does one learn a new technical concept? A teacher or trainer can provide information about that new concept to a student or new employee; he or she can even show the student or employee how to practice or apply the concept. However, what happens in the student’s mind to help him or her learn the concept and its application? Learning involves many attributes and dynamics generally associated with cognitive psychology, education, semiotics, rhetoric, and neuro - biology. That is, the ways one presents instructional information and the student’s natural biological attributes associated with processing that information affect how the student learns. However, these are disparate fields of scholarship, and they pursue study of the question, “How does one learn a new technical concept?” differently. Neurobiologists Calvert, Spence, and Stein (2004) noted that, because the scholarship related to neuroscience is “spread across multiple disciplines, it has become increasingly fragmented in recent years” (p. xii). However, in a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly, Rivers (2011) encouraged a multi - disciplinary approach to research into cognitive science, recognizing the roles that biology and social environment as well as technology play in cognition. Alluding to the convergence of tools, environment, and brain in distributed cognition, he stated that, “those tools and that world are always part of the mind itself” (p. 415). With this book, I attempt to synthesize some scholarship in disparate fields to provide a bridge by which interdisciplinary study that may enhance the development of instructional materials may occur. I introduce a model by which to study the question, “How does one learn new technical concepts?” This model recognizes that learning involves social, biological, and rhetorical attributes that engage many senses. Consider these examples: It is a frequent experience-having to drive to a doctor’s office for the first time. You contact the doctor’s office, and the receptionist gives you directions to the office, usually identifying particular landmarks-a restaurant or shopping plaza near it and approximate distances from those items to the office building-“about 100 yards after that restaurant, you’ll cross an intersection. On the right
you’ll see a gas station; our building is right across the street from that”—perhaps even the color of the building-“it’s grey.” You get into your car on the big day of the appointment, and you pay close attention to these visual and spatial cues, looking carefully for the restaurant, seeing it, and understanding that you are very close to the building. You suddenly see a gas station and you look across the street; there it is-the grey building. Using the information-visual landmarks and spatial relationships-you succeeded in finding the building. Now you have only to navigate the building to find the doctor’s office! Another frequent experience is that of hearing the blare of sirens from an approaching emergency vehicle before you see it. Sometimes one may never actually see the vehicle-fire engine, ambulance, or police car-understanding when it passes the vicinity, though, from the changing sound of the blaring siren. Sometimes one sees the vehicle a few moments after hearing the sirens and moves their vehicle aside or watches it pass. In either case, one has learned what such a signal generally means and understands that there is an emergency somewhere and acts accordingly. Whether one sees it or not, an audio message is sent, and a listener reacts to it before seeing and may react again upon seeing it. I experienced some surprise when I heard and then saw a fire engine approach my house, though I understood partially the reason. The implication, though, raised further questions that prompted more multisensory experiences connected to an emergency. I relate the experience later in this chapter. In each of these cases, though, different senses were engaged to help one understand a situation. A number of dynamics related to one’s understanding of the world, cognition, and forms of representation played out so that person could understand and act accordingly. There is a multimodal rhetoric to these experi - ences. The field of “rhetoric” generally engages the question of how one may convey a message, either in writing or orally, to bring about a particular response from an audience. The field of multimodal rhetoric recognizes that one may convey their message using multiple forms of representation, thereby engaging multiple senses in an audience and creating meaning with combinations of these modes of representation. However, which combinations most effectively facili - tate learning depends on a number of social, biological, and cognitive attributes associated with the learner. The field of social semiotics, further, recognizes that meaning is a social construct, that is, one’s interpretation of various images and objects evolves through interactions with others. One has certain sensory information provided to them based on experiences and knowledge that likely involve social settings and interactions with others: You understand the message and you respond to the message according to its purpose. The cognitive experience is rhetorical and social. We learn about new concepts by being exposed to information about them and interacting with phenomena associated with the new concepts. This interaction may be through discussion or practical experience. One may provide information to us in a way that will help
us to understand a new concept; this is both a social phenomenon-interaction with another-and it is rhetorical-a message is provided to an audience (us) with the purpose of helping us understand something new. It takes some inter - action with the world around us to comprehend a situation and the meaning of the information provided. However, it is also biological. Cognitive science generally recognizes these attributes of cognition-social and biological attri - butes related to facilitating an understanding of our world. However, the discus - sion of these cognitive neuroscience dynamics is complicated by disciplinary discourses and exclusions. Each discipline approaches the topic from its own angle, recognizing that literature from that field is needed to support such scholarship. For example, rarely will the author of a scholarly article cite work from outside their own discipline or the discipline of the particular journal. This extends to scholarly books too. For example, in his highly regarded book Cognition in the Wild, Hutchins (1995) limited the discussion of cognition and social semiotics to cognitive psychology and distributed knowledge theory. Also, in How the Mind Works, another highly regarded work of cognitive neuroscience, Pinker (1997) integrated some discussion of neuroscience on cognitive processes, however, he focused on historical development of cognitive processes and psychological evolution. Finally, Gruber (2012) highlights discourse differences in how scholars treat the neuroscientific concept of mirror neurons, neurons that help an audience interpret and copy behavior they view. Such discourse exclusion limits the lens through which studies examine the phenomena. Further, approaches to empirical study affect the lens through which scholars view phenomena. Typically, empirical study of learning from social science perspectives involves presenting subjects with instructional materials, having them review those materials, and then assessing their performance on a test or other means of learning assessment to ascertain how much they learned from the instructional materials (see studies by Moreno & Mayer, 2000, for examples). Studies from physical science perspectives may ask subjects to review instruc - tional materials while the subject wears equipment that measures and facilitates observation of electrical or blood activity in the brain to ascertain which parts of the brain are involved in processing information (see studies reported in Calvert et al., 2004, for examples). While social scientists appear to be studying how well certain instructional materials facilitate learning-what works and what does not-physical scientists are examining the biological dynamics of cognition and how certain biological attributes may affect learning-why certain approaches work and others do not. The purpose of this book is to address some of these differences so that scholars in both fields can pursue interdisciplinary research that may enhance our understanding of cognitive psychology and neuroscience generally. Study that recognizes the value of considering what works as well as why it works is important toward facilitating a more comprehensive consideration of cognition.