Man has been in perennial search of knowledge. He has been gifted with the tools to acquire it. Theorists have come up with a variety of ways to explain how a person comes to know things. One theory is the Information Processing Theory which identifies various components that work together to learn and store information in a person’s brain.
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McDevitt & Omrod (2004) identify the components of the information processing system as the central executive, the sensory register, the working memory and the long-term memory. The central executive, as the term implies is central in overseeing the flow of information throughout the system. It is like the main administrator which ensures that all systems are working well. It is in charge of planning, decision-making, self-regulation, and inhibition of unproductive thoughts and behaviors. The sensory register is the component of the memory which holds information gathered from the environment in raw form for a very brief period of time. The working memory is another component of the memory which enables people to dwell on the information and process it in a very short duration of time. It has a limited storage capacity. Finally, the long-term memory is still another component of the memory which holds the knowledge and skills gained by a person for a relatively long period of time. Unlike the working memory, the long term memory has unlimited storage capacity.
How do these components work together to process information? It all starts with a stimulus from the environment. The individual detects it physiologically with his senses. This is called sensation where as many senses are involved. For example, a man walks by a bakery and his sense of smell detects the aroma of freshly baked bread. The component of the sensory register is alerted and upon smelling, he cognitively interprets it as a smell coming from the bakery. This is perception. He looks around the bakery for the source of the smell. This smell has captured his attention enough to trigger the central executive to work on moving the flow of information in the brain. When he sees the bread on the shelf with the sign “Raisin bread”, his working memory processes the information and connects the smell with the sight of the bread along with the label. This happens very quickly that he is not even aware that the information has been processed in mere seconds. As he approaches the shelf, more information is gathered about the bread. He is processing the information in-depth, and this entails looking more closely at the appearance of the bread, asking how much it costs, maybe buying one and eating it. He now engages more of his senses (i.e. processing the taste of the bread). All the information he has gathered in that short span of time now goes to the long-term memory, which stores the accumulated knowledge and experience related to the raisin bread. Now he knows what raisin bread is, how it smells, how it looks, how it feels in his hand, how it tastes, where he can find it and how much it costs. All these information gathered in just a few minutes!
The example given above depicts how the information processing system commonly works. With children, many factors are involved in how they process information. Information processing theorists do not agree with Piagetian theories of children’s cognitive development going through various developmental stages. Instead, they believe that children develop their cognitive processes and abilities over time through trends in sensation and perception, attention, working memory, long-term memory, thinking and reasoning (McDevitt & Omrod , 2004).
Infants are controlled by their physiological responses. Their developing senses and perceptive abilities help them learn about their world and survive its challenges. It is known that infants make use of their oral sense to learn about things, that is why they keep putting objects in their mouths. They are reinforced to mouth things that give them sensory pleasure and avoid things that do not. As they grow older, their senses become more discriminating that they know which ones to use to gain more information about things. As their brains develop, so do their capacity and skill for focused attention. With age, their attention spans improve, making it less distractible. Sustaining attention depends on the child’s temperament, if the task is self-chosen and interesting to them, and the presence or absence of interference. As a child grows older, he gets to focus his attention more on things that he needs to in order to learn what he needs to know, and gets better at ruling out the things that may distract his focus.
As children develop cognitively, their working memory becomes more efficient in three ways. The first trend is that processing speed increases as children grow older. This means, when children learn things and master them, they spend much less time thinking about them in their working memories to give way to more new learning that would entail more processing time. Another trend is that they learn more effective cognitive processes. Being more comfortable in their previous knowledge of things, they may discover short-cuts in thinking of these and incorporate it into new learning. The more effective processes definitely cuts down the time it takes to process incorporated information. Still another trend is that the physical capacity of the working memory may increase with time. This may be due to the speed and efficiency of their cognitive processes as they mature rather than an increase in memory space (McDevitt & Omrod , 2004).
Long-term memory is the repository of things learned in the course of one’s life. Obviously, long-term memory increases as one gets older that is why it is characterized by its unlimited capacity. What they store in their long-term memory can become integrated as more and more learning is acquired which are related to whatever was already stored there. As more and more information is stored, then learning may be more effective to the child as there is more information to draw from in their long-term memories when new learning takes place.
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With regards to thinking and reasoning, as children grow, they become more capable of symbolic thought, relying less on concrete materials their senses help them learn from. In transitioning to expressing their symbolic thinking in words, children often express their ideas physically with gestures. Their logic also develops, making it easier for them to reason out when they encounter conflicting concepts.
Maximizing one’s information processing potentials entails critical as well as creative thinking skills. Oxman-Michelli (1991) regards creative thinking as thinking artistically and freely, being imaginative and spontaneous, original and intuitive while critical thinking is seen as logical, analytic and judgmental. As a creative thinker, one produces something new, an original creation or a novel take on an old issue. As a critical thinker, one evaluates the worth of the creative product according to explicit principles such as known aesthetic standards, rational criteria and other norms lived with at work (Oxman-Michelli, 1991). Both require engagement in higher-order thinking.
Cyril Burt (1883-1971) was one of the first leading figures in the research of human intelligence. He deduced that genetic inheritance plays a prominent role in the development of intellectual ability, a viewpoint which is similarly discussed in the book Learning Without Limits by Hart et al (2004). It is suggested that intelligence could be innate and unchangeable and, regardless of whatever a person is taught and whatever learning experiences they are exposed to, there will be limitations to what they can learn due to their pre-determined intellectual ability. These viewpoints suggest that, regardless of adult’s teaching abilities, they are “powerless to do anything to change inherent intellectual limits” (Hart et al, 2004, p.5)
However, I believe both heredity and environment influence information processing and intellectual development in general. This ‘nature vs. nurture’ controversy may be compromised in children’s cognitive development because what they have been born with may actually be enhanced by the quality of experiences they are provided by the adults around them. If a child, born to highly intelligent parents is left to learn on his own without proper stimulation from his parents and the environment, then he has less chances to optimize his inborn potentials than another child born of less intelligent parents but given all the intellectual stimulation he needs. There have been a lot of cases of parents with average or even low-intelligence who raise children who grow up to be geniuses because they were nurtured with the attention they needed, and supported in their interests. The parents wanted better things for them than they ever had in their own childhoods.
The study of intelligence has been given a new perspective with the birth of the Multiple Intelligence theory of Howard Gardner. Basically, Gardner (1983) claims that intelligence is not limited to the cognitive domain, as traditionally conceptualized. He views it in a much broader sense to include the individual’s affective, social and creative domains. The point that Gardner wants to put across is that people possess not one but many intelligences, with one or more dominant in each person. No two people have exactly the same intelligence profile. Some may be proficient in one thing and deficient in another. These intelligences are only as good as how individuals use them to their advantage.
Gardner found that the traditional theory that general intelligence is inherited from biological parents and that intelligence is not alterable discounts the existence of the creative, affective and interpersonal sides of a person which are essential to his survival. In including these, he found the concept of intelligence to be more complete, although not accurately measurable. It is only recently that tests on multiple intelligences have been conceptualized and used to cluster people together according to their abilities. These tests cannot be compared to the standardized intelligence tests in which each score measures a particular aspect of one’s intelligence, but only give the test-taker an idea of where his or her dominant intelligence lie. With this new information, there is more reason for children to be supported in the development of their inborn intelligences with the provision of a stimulating environment which is truly conducive to their learning.
Gardner, H.,(1983) Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences London: Heinemann
Hart, S. Dixon, A. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Open University Press.
McDevitt, T.M. & Ormrod, J.E. (2004) Child Development: Educating and Working with Children and Adolescents, Second Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.
Oxman-Michelli, W. (1991) “Critical Thinking as Creativity”, Institute for Critical Thinking, Resource Publication, Series 4 No. 5.