Information Processing Theory

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of the information processing theory for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of the history, development, and implementation. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and Information Processing (IP).

Information processing (IP) is a theory focusing on the mental processes in language learning, and most often compares the human brain to that of a computer. The theory began in the 1950s-60s as psychology began to realize that there was a cognitive aspect to language learning that behaviorism did not address.

IP views language as a hierarchical set of skills where higher level components depend on acquisition of lower level components. This makes language a complex skill that must be practiced to attain higher levels. A way to think about this is to imagine a child developing into an NBA point guard. The child must develop the basic skills to obtain higher level skills

IP makes its connection of the mind and computer by stating that language learning requires brain processing to learn, similar to the processing that happens within a computer. The two types of processing are controlled processing (short term memory) and automated processing (long term memory). To understand this easier, it is better to understand controlled processing as 100MB USB and automated processing as a 999TB hard drive. All new information must pass through the USB before being added to the hard drive. So, when the student is learning new information or skills, it requires a lot of attention so only a certain portion can be retained on the 100MB disk. Then as the student practices the controlled information, it becomes more natural or automated, and does not require much mental processing to produce. At this time, the controlled processed material is put into a zip file and transferred to the automated hard drive where it is retained and used without much processing power. Once the learner has transferred this information, it opens up more space in the controlled processing USB to take in new information. This happens over and over again. (Note: Numbers here do not have real life meaning, but are used to demonstrate the concept.)

Also, IP says that learning is dynamic, so knowledge that is learned can be changed and altered when acquiring new information. This is called restructuring which helps for faster more coordinated response time. This allows for the student to increase in language learning and attain higher levels.

Terms according to IP

  • Input is any information (words, sounds, pictures, context, etc…) that is available for students to learn from.
  • Intake is the input that the individual notices and directs attention towards. For example, if the educator is explaining a culture difference this is input. If the student is listening, this input becomes intake; however, if the student has drowned out the teacher with thoughts of eating lunch, then the educator’s information is not recognized and is only input at this stage.
  • Output is the language the student produces.
  • Central Processing is where short term memory, long term memory, sensory memory. problem-solving, language, and many other functions are restructured.
  • Fossilization occurs when language has been fully automated at lower levels and cannot reach the higher levels.
  • U-shaped development is when students learn new information, then decrease in understanding, before returning back to knowing the information.

How to Use

  • Short to Long: Short term memory and long term memory are well documented. Allow students the opportunity to continuously be exposed to concepts and target language to help move the information from controlled processing (short term) to automated processing (long term). If the class does not meet for extended periods of time, say once a week, then reviewing material will allow the students to refresh information that may be slipping out short term memory.

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Final Thoughts

IP focused more on the brain as opposed to the structure of the language as some of the other language learning theories of the times. This shift was part of the cognition movement that said the processes in the brain provided keys to student learning. Although there are concepts such as controlled processing (short term memory), automated processing (long term memory), restructuring, and fossilization, it all points to students learning or ceasing to learn because of the amount of experience the student has with the language. The keys to this theory are to provide input that is engaging enough to become intake, and build lessons that allow for information to become controlled, restructured, and then automated. IP holds several strategies for educators to use while lesson planning. Some of these strategies are practical while some are ideological, it depends on the educator as to which to embrace, but thinking about the mental aspects as much as the structural aspects will enable students to do more. So make that happy connection between the structure and mind for the sake of learning.