Cognitive subroutines and learning

I was reading Emotional Design by Don Norman the other day, and he was contemplating ways in which we could leverage emotional machines to improve the learning process. This got me kick-started again on thinking about applications of the cognitive subroutines theory that I’ve been playing with. As a side note, I think I’m finally emerging from the dearth of ideas I was suffering for a week or so. Apologies for the banality of posts during that time.

So the question of the day is: How do we leverage cognitive subroutines for the sake of learning? What does this theory tell us about how to teach people something new?

I covered this a little bit in the footnotes of that first post. To teach somebody a new physical action, it requires breaking it down into easily digestable chunks. Each chunk is practiced individually until it’s ingrained in the subconscious and can be performed autonomously. In other words, we build and train a cognitive subroutine that can then be activated with a single conscious command like “hit the ball” instead of having to call each of the individual steps like “take three steps, bring the arms back, jump, bring the right arm back cocked, snap the arm forward while rotating the body, and follow through”. Watching toddlers figure out how to walk is also in this category. At first, they have to use all of their concentration to figure out how to take a step, but within a short period of time, they just think “I wanna go that way” and run off.

For physical activities the analogy to cognitive subroutines is pretty straightforward, and was what I was thinking of when I first came up with this idea. How does it map to other, less concrete activities? Let’s take the example of math. We start out in math learning very simple building blocks, like addition and subtraction. We move from there to algebra where we build in an abstraction barrier. As we learn more advanced techniques from calculus to differential equations, we add more and more tools to our toolbox, each of which builds on the one before. Trying to teach somebody differential equations without them understanding calculus cold would be a waste of time. So in a relatively linear example like math, the analogy to cognitive subroutines is also straightforward.

What about a field like history? Here it becomes more difficult. It’s unclear what the building blocks are, how the different subfields of history interrelate, and what techniques are necessary at each level. Here we start to get a better picture of where the cognitive subroutines analogy may start to fail. It applies when there are techniques to be learned, preferably in a layered way where each technique depends on learning the one below it, much in the way that subroutines are built up and layered. Trying to fit more broad-based disciplines such as history into that framework is going to be a stretch.

Perhaps history might be a better example of the context-dependent cognitive subroutines, where we have a few standard techniques/theories that get activated by the right set of inputs. So we have our pet theory of socioeconomic development and see ways to apply it to a variety of different situations (I’m totally making this up, of course, since I’m realizing that I don’t actually know what a historian does). Actually, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, I’m doing it right now; I came up with a theory (cognitive subroutines), and am now trying to apply this theory everywhere to see how it fits. By trying it in a bunch of places, I’m getting a better sense of what the proper input conditions for the theory are, and can see how to refine it further.

So for history, the important thing to teach may not be individual theories, but the meta-theory of coming up with good theories in the first place. In other words, critical thinking skills. As mentioned in my new directions post, I think such skills are broadly applicable, from politics to history to evaluating advertising. With such meta-skills, there would be an infrastructure in place for building up appropriate cognitive subroutines, and for understanding the limitations of the cognitive subroutines we already have.

One last thought on the subject of cognitive subroutines and how they apply to learning. What does the theory have to say about memorization-based subjects? From medical school to history taught poorly, there are many subjects which are memorization-based. I don’t think there’s really anything to be gained here. Memorization, like cognitive subroutines, is all about repetition, but I don’t think that the cognitive subroutine theory gives us any new insight into how we can improve somebody’s memorization skills.

I also tend to think that memorization will become less and less useful moving forward, as I noted in my information carnivore post. Why memorize when you can Google? However, developing the cognitive filtering subroutines necessary to handle the flood of information available is going to be tricky. That was the point of that information carnivore metaphor, but it’s interesting that it comes back up again in this context.

Anyway. There’s some fertile ground here for thought, again trying to think of ways in which this theory can be less descriptive, and more prescriptive. I’ll have to spend some time trying to flesh things out.