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I have my own theory on how people learn. I call it, “Trilogy of the Mind.” I do not believe that people learn only by thinking; I believe your emotions and natural instincts play a very important part in learning. Trilogy of the Mind is, therefore, a threefold approach to learning that incorporates the affective, cognitive and conative domains. The affective domain is “how you feel”, the cognitive domain is “how you think” and the conative domain is “how you naturally or instinctively do what you do.” You learn by using your whole mind—all of your consciousness—to absorb information and make it uniquely your own. Visuals create energy in the affective (how you feel) as well as in the cognitive (how you think) domains.

The affective domain is that area of the brain that governs feeling and emotion. Because it interacts with content and acts like a filter for learning, it is extremely important to learning in both adults and children. After all, how you feel affects everything.  Have you ever woken up in the morning and looked outside when it was grey and raining and said ”Yuk, what a terrible day!”  Then it turned out to be one.  Maybe you’ve been to a movie with a friend and thought, “Wow, this is boring!” and your friend thought the same movie was great.  Later over coffee you discussed the movie. Your friend could remember very detailed scenes; you could hardly remember the plot.

In educational circles we use an emotional continuum. On one side there is bored, apathetic, uninterested, disengaged. On the other side there is excited, enthusiastic, interested and engaged.  In the middle is a continuum of emotions including anger, revenge, curiosity, happiness, and so on.  Any movement on this scale is important. All thoughts are forms of energy that are influenced by your emotions. Have you ever looked at a television show or listened to a song and thought this is terrible or terrific and then seen the same thing when you were in a different mood and thought the opposite?

Most people understand that thinking and learning go together, and this takes us into the cognitive domain. The cognitive domain is what governs mind or intelligence and determines how you think. Cognitive science incorporates psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics, biology, anthropology and computer science. Understanding how the brain takes in and processes information, where and how it is stored and how it can be retrieved is of paramount importance in designing for learning. It makes no difference which technologies or approaches you use to create a learning experience—if you don’t design for the way people think, you are lowering the probability that they will “get it.” For this reason we are going to spend a considerable amount of time discussing cognitive processing and cognitive load.

The conative domain is the least well known and is often overlooked or ignored. The reason for this is that conation is your instinct, or firmware, and cannot easily be influenced or changed. Conation is your knack for doing things or how you naturally do the things you do.  It is separate from a person’s intelligence, personality type, or learning style.  Anyone who has children can tell you that they are not all exactly the same. They each come to the planet wired differently.

I had a Golden Retriever named Max. When he was a nine-month-old puppy, we moved into a rental home while we were building a house. Our rental home was a not far from a recreational gun club that held shoots for turkeys and meat on Sundays. Every time Max heard the gun shots, he would go upstairs to my children’s bedroom and get stuffed animals from off of their beds. He would drag the stuffed animals downstairs and put them in a pile. How did he know to do this? Max had never been to retriever school. He never took Retrieving 101. For a hundred years though, Max’s ancestors had been retrievers. It’s what they did. Something in Max instinctively knew what to do and how to do it. It just felt right. That is conation.

The three-capacity concept of mind is the foundation for an approach to learning and designing for learning that I call, “Trilogy of the Mind.” Trilogy of the Mind puts the affective domain first because if you can’t get past this emotional, feeling area of the brain, you are going to have a very difficult time getting to thinking.

Here are some words/terms that are associated with the three domains of your mind:

Affective: feelings, personality, ego, beauty, emotions, esthetics, caring, mood, motivation

Cognitive: knowing, skills, thinking, thought, epistemology, conscious, decisions, imagine, reason, solve problems

Conative: acting, performing, talent, willing, goodness, volition, ethics, doing, behaving