Chinuch Energy!: 8 things to learn from the internet: Part I

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Do you remember when you learned how to use the internet? I don’t. Why not? If we can figure out the answer, we can create lessons that our students won’t remember having to learn as well.

We don’t remember how we learned to use the internet because companies designed websites so the process would be painless.   Here is a blog post that has screenshots with comparisons of old and current websites. Take a look at a list of the most popular websites in 1998. The old websites that were harder to use disappeared or were changed to what we know today.

In 1998, I took a Cognitive Psychology course with Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hersch Fried as part of a BA-MS Program for Azrieli, graduated Stern College for Women, and got my first real job at a cutting edge web design shop.

My first assignment was web programming.  As I programmed, I realized that  my Cognitive Psychology course was very relevant to the design of the website functionality.  I was quickly transferred to the Information Architecture department where I worked with executives to define how we would present information on their websites.

Soon, most websites started incorporating cognitive psychology principles into the design of their websites.  Web designers discovered that if users needed to work hard, they would leave. So web designers  used simple techniques to ensure that users could click on the right place without thinking.

So what does this have to do with teaching?  Corporations used educational theory as a backbone for web design. As educators, we can look at websites and figure out how to help our students learn.

Like web designers, all teachers  present information to users. We design smart board lessons, write on the board and hand out work sheets. We need to think about whether the way we present information is contributing to student learning or to their cognitive overload. We should use basic principles of design in our classroom so the working memory is available for processing and memory storage rather than being occupied wading through useless information.

There are two areas that we can learn from web design.


 1) What information we present (AudienceScopeCategories)
and then
 2) how we present it.
This is an extensive topic, so we will get our feet wet by discussing the first half this week.

What information to present

1. Know your audience

Information architects define the people  for whom they are designing a websites. I worked with one organization whose audience was defined as people undergoing life changes. Anything that was added to the site had to serve the needs of divorcees, college students or first time parents,

For teachers, we need to tailor our lessons to the people in front of us.

  • Is it really possible for curricular materials to meet the needs of both middle and high school students effectively?
  • Do 9th and 12th graders have the same needs when we address them in one assembly?
  • What are the skill levels in the class and how will I address the different needs of each of these levels.

Think about who will be sitting in your classroom tomorrow and how you will meet their needs.

2. Less is More

Sometimes it is better to leave things out.

Websites used to have a ton of links on the front page. Anything and everything a user could want was on the home page. Web designers soon found  that this led to less clicks rather than more. Users felt overwhelmed by the choices and left.

When we think about our classrooms and our lessons, do we feel compelled to throw in the kitchen sink? Do we give the students all the information at once, or do we give them a little bit at a time so as not to overwhelm them?

If you are trying to teach an entire sefer in Tanach in one semester, OR are still teaching the same perek after 2 months, you are probably violating this principle. This applies to visual overload as well. Look around your classroom. Are the walls covered with posters? Do each of the wall hangings add to the instruction going on in the class?

Include only that which advances your purposes for the people sitting in your classroom.

3. Categorize

Ever wonder why you can remember a 7 digit phone number, but have a hard time remembering  your credit card number when you are doing online shopping? People can only memorize 7-8 digits unless the numbers are chunked into meaningful units.

People naturally want to categorize information to help them learn it.  On websites, everything is categorized. These categories are the basis for the navigation on a website. Categorizing helps people instinctively guess where information will be.  Websites use proximity, color and size to indicate the categories without being explicit.

For teachers, categorizing information helps students remember it. If you are teaching five commentaries, find a way to categorize them  so students can remember them more easily. Help students organize their notebooks, and planners using categories so they know where to look for information.


Do you expect students to remember vocabulary and content? Make sure your students can easily differentiate between the different types of knowledge which you are presenting them. You can differentiate these two categories on the board using color or location so that students categorize them mentally and  in their notes.  Include headings and subheadings so information that can be chunked, is.
Example of categorizing content using color and space


To sum up:

We have discussed three ways that web designers determine the content of their sites: By defining their audience, limiting their material and categorizing what they want to present.


Ideas for this week:

Take a look around the web.
  • When you go to a website, can you spot the audience for which the site was designed?
  • Can you find websites that are  overly crowded and sites that have a  few main areas of focus that they are trying to promote? Conversely, can you find sites that are too limited and feel manipulative in the limited options they give you?
  • Finally, can you figure out how the information has been categorized on the website by looking at the navigation and main site elements?
Once you have done this, you will begin to look at your curricular materials and lessons with a new eye.  Try to apply these ideas to your teaching and think critically about whether your materials are meeting the test of audience, scope and categories.

Next week:

Once we decide what information to present, we need to figure out how to present it. Web designers have come up with many ideas how to make information more memorable and accessible using some intuitive and easily copied techniques.

Next time:   How Gestalt Psychology, Navigation, Visual and Auditory Learning, Visual Writing, and Personalization will change your classroom learning for the better.

See you on March 6!

cross posted to Chinuch Energy!     YU 2.0  and YUHS Chinuch Community