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Magic Number 7 and the limits of learning?

፯ ٧ ৭ 七 柒 ७ ៧ ๗ or seven by any other name.

We are awash in information. We drowning in our communication channels. We have access to everything so we can process nothing. All is lost.

I don’t believe that. I imagine most of you don’t either. What I do wonder is how memory and cognition play in to discernment, that ability to identify and extract information from the noise. Does it have an upper limit?

Let me take stock of my own channels. Twitter (x2), Facebook (x2), Blog (x2), Google Alerts, Flickr, LinkedIn, even email. A fair amount of incoming data and these are mostly textual streams (except Flickr). Many more to include for other multimedia.

Each of these channels have their own natural modes of etiquette and rhythms. We enter these worlds, participate, and adhere to these cultures by abiding by them (to a point; utility still trumps cultural norms-I use Twitter as an instant messenger quite a bit). Despite the uniqueness of each channel, the multitude of tones across channels often blends to noise.

I immediately think of George Miller and the magic number 7. Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“, published in 1956, espoused that general human memory is limited to remembering seven objects, plus or minus two. Miller himself was not sure if this was just coincidence or something to do with the regularity of the number seven in various constructs, but it does not matter.

George Miller, Magic Number Seven, and My Kitchen Table
My table and seven (+-2) objects for discussion. AKA, my camel and a few other things.

We catalog information bearing this number in mind; website designers tend to not have more than seven options at any given juncture in an interface. In the United States, telephone numbers were exactly seven digits long for this purpose (sans area code).

Miller made allowances for chunking, that is putting objects or numbers in particular orders or grouped together to aid with association which in turn led to greater recall. Three is a likely chunk and social security numbers in the United States are a further example of chunking (123-456-789). Even with chunking, the social security numbers are within the +-seven calculation that Miller put forth.

The only chunk I care to commit to memory. Chunk from The Goonies.

Is this upper level of seven applicable to learning? Are there upper limits to the layering of learning? Are we limited by our senses, or some combination of sensory perception? Are seven channels (give or take two) enough or too much?

I suspect that the answer to this will depend on reconstituting these channels into a larger construct (a group project using different multimedia to create a presentation or report, for example). However, does this filtering process, this general discernment, sit with the student or the teacher? Won’t the teacher inherently gravitate towards some and avoid others and subsequently pass that along in their instruction?

If memory is limited to seven objects (plus or minus two) then is the amount of input itself limited to this number? If everything after seven is regulated to noise, can complexity in learning be truly represented?

George Miller, Magic Number Seven, and My Kitchen Table
Alright you smart people, what's changed? My camel moves for no man. Only my wife.
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About Author

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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