Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA needs some instructional designers!

Hi friends,

If you live in the USA, you've doubtless heard something of the furor concerning the new AIT/backscatter image scanners in some of our airports, and the contemporaneous development of "enhanced" patdowns--which many people have compared to groping or sexual assault. Outrage is high, lines are long, and it seems as though the Transportation Security Administration may finally have gone too far.
Image from Furry Girl/feminisnt.com
But the interesting thing comes from Department of Homeland Security's internal proceedings, as reported by the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of the complaints listed refer to training design: TSA made no plans to update its training, did not train TSOs (officers) to use the current equipment, did not provide TSOs with time to complete required trainings, and most importantly, developed training assessments in such a way that TSOs were able to merely sign a declaration affirming that they had completed the training and learned the materials (Ito, 2010).

That's right: their training methods apparently include no final assessment of learner capabilities, and rely solely on signed statements that the learners have understood it all. It also sounds like their recurrent training program consists of reading materials alone, without any sort of practical experience or assessment.

Perhaps an instructional design team could have helped them to avoid the current fiasco. (Yes, this is tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's also some truth to it. The way that agencies choose to support or ignore their training needs has lasting impact on their relationships with the public, and they need to pay attention.)


Ito, S. (2010, November 17). TSA has no time to train its screeners. Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/tsa-has-no-time-train-its-screeners .

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What makes teachers great? (survey data)

I spent a lot of time last month thinking about what it is that makes teachers great. My graduate schooling focuses on the value of instructional design--which is to say that we're primarily concerned with the curriculum rather than its delivery. The actual concept gets a lot fuzzier than that, but there it is.

I really believe in the power of teachers, though. Although it makes me crazy when teachers claim credit for their students' accomplishments (we need to avoid the savior complex, folks), I think that good teachers offer truly marvelous gifts to their students. I had a few teachers who fundamentally altered the way I saw my place in the world, and at least one who saved my life. For Mr. Bryan Thompson, my first-grade teacher, I offer this thanks: I would probably not be here today if it weren't you. Thank you.

In thinking about teachers like Mr. Thompson, I started wondering: what is it that students value in their teachers? Is it the same thing that school boards value? See, teaching is a funny thing. We rely on teachers to offer us all kinds of subject knowledge, but some of them seem to go further and share wisdom or hope or compassion or something more than the simple result of focused intelligence. Some of them change more than our brains. How do they do it?

I trace the path of my life through several branching points where a truly great teacher helped me find my own way. I wondered if other students shared this sense of having been "guided" by their teachers, not in the sense of "guidelines" that we have to follow, but of a "guide book" that shows us what's possible.

So I created this survey. I was surprised by how quickly the responses came in--it turns out that people love to talk about their favorite teachers! (I was also surprised to learn that SurveyMonkey starts charging you money after you receive a certain number of responses). The results surprised me.

Caveats, disclaimers, and it's-not-our-faults
The survey is not perfect. I did the best I could with it, but I have not yet taken research methods or statistics. I tried to reduce bias in the questions, but it's imperfect. I'm also not going to show you all the free-text responses directly, since people wrote some astonishingly personal things about themselves. So the analysis on that stuff is mine.

Also, if reading this analysis ruins your life (or makes you want to become a teacher), it's not my fault. Srsly.

Survey design
Method. The survey was conducted using SurveyMonkey, a free Internet-based tool that allows, well, free surveys. It provides rudimentary statistics (deeper ones are available for a fee) and allows the tracking of individual responses (i.e., it's possible to see each respondent's answers to all the questions, separately).

I tried to eliminate bias in the phrasing of questions, and also tried to make sure that choices were similar in scope and tone. I also set the survey to randomize the presentation order of most choices. Some questions allowed free-text "Other (please specify)" options. 

Confounding variables. I posted the survey address to my Facebook profile and asked my friends to fill it out and then share it with their friends. Initially, most respondents were first-order friends of mine. As time drew on, more and more responses came from nth-order friends (those with distant, unknown connections to me). The issue here is that I am not friends with a random distribution of people, nor are my friends. Some themes that run through my friends list: students at elite universities; musicians; actors; people who volunteer or work at crisis hotlines; backpacking aficionados; people who live in northern New York, Scotland, or Philadelphia. Make of this information what you will.

Survey data and analysis
In total, 111 people responded to the survey. SurveyMonkey will only let me see the results of the first 100 responses without paying a fee. Given the relatively small difference in responses, I am reluctant to pay--but I would be willing to buy in if people felt it was important, especially if they were willing to contribute to the cost. In any case, this analysis draws only on the first 100 responses (which means that all percentages are also raw counts).

Question 1 asked for simple demographic information. 66 people provided it; 34 chose to skip the question.

Question 2: Highest education level
2. What's your highest level of formal education?
  • Middle school (finished 8th grade): 0%
  • High school (finished 12th grade): 2%
  • Partial college/university: 12%
  • Associate's degree: 3%
  • Bachelor's degree: 24%
  • Partial graduate school: 8%
  • Master's degree: 30%
  • ABD doctoral studies: 5%
  • Doctoral degree: 10%
  • Post-doctoral studies: 1%
  • Other: 5%
Of the "Other" choices, one had an unusual doctoral degree, one had a pair of bachelor's degrees, one had partial medical school, one had partial college plus a professional degree, and one had a master's degree plus a lot of extra credits.

The interesting thing here is that our sample size is highly educated and, to my eye, unusually so. 57% of respondents have done some form of graduate education, which seems high for the general populace. There exists the possibility that this group of people holds especially passionate views about teachers, given its predilection for advanced education.

Question 3. Type of schools
3. Looking at your primary and secondary education (before college), what kind of schools did you attend? (check all that apply)
  • Public school (usually organized by geographic boundaries): 93%
  • Private school: 19%
  • Home schooling: 3%
  • Summer camps focused on a learning topic (music camp, sports camp, art camp, math camp, CTY, Scout camp, etc.): 25%
  • Other (please specify): 5%
Choices for "Other" included specialized forms of public schooling, foreign language schooling, Catholic school, and law-enforcement/military training.

The interesting thing here is that nearly everyone spent some time in public school. Since this is "check all", the totals add up to more than 100%. It would be interesting to see, in follow-up research, where the highest incidence of "really great teachers" occurs (in terms of school type) after normalizing the data for population size. I think a lot of us hold the belief that the best teachers are found in private schools, and that homeschooling isn't as focused on teachers. It would be interesting to see.

Question 4: Number of great teachers
4. Think back to the best teachers you've ever had. Think of the people who really changed your life in some way, or inspired you, or gave you the kick in the pants you really needed. They might be formal classroom teachers; they might be mentors; they might be employers; they might be neighbors. How many great teachers did you have BEFORE college?
  •  0: 1%
  • 1: 5%
  • 2: 18%
  • 3-5: 49%
  • 6-10: 18%
  • More than 10: 9%
This is a badly-designed question, because the intervals are different. My bad. Still, it's interesting that nearly everyone had at least one teacher they felt was "great", and that most (76%) had at least three great teachers. Note that the person who responded "0" went on to say that all her great teachers were in college.

I left this question deliberately open to interpretation because I wanted to isolate the variable (presented later) of what went into being a great teacher. This is just a count.

Question 5. What subjects great teachers teach
5. Thinking of those great teachers, what subjects did they teach? Alternatively, what was their field of expertise? Check as many as apply. If you had several great teachers, or your teachers had many specialties, check as many boxes as you like--but only think of the _really_ good teachers. 
  • Mathematics: 34%
  • Physical sciences (physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, etc.): 37%
  • Technology/shop class: 4%
  • Agriculture: 1%
  • Physical education/sports: 5%
  • Music (music performance, music history, etc.): 45%
  • Dance: 2%
  • Art (studio art, art history, etc.): 12%
  • Social studies/history/government: 44%
  • English: 57%
  • Economics: 3%
  • Foreign languages: 21%
  • Health: 2%
  • Elementary school (where you had the same teacher for every subject all year): 42%
  • Vocational skills: 2%
  • Religious studies: 4%
  • Extracurricular activities: 18%
  • Other (please specify): 15%
Choices for "Other" included college professors, home and careers (home economics) teachers, librarians, mentors, camp counselors, parents,  theatrical directors, journalism teachers, and martial arts instructors. I chose the options for this question by thinking of the different classes available in my pre-collegiate schools and then adding a few I knew other people had taken elsewhere.

Teachers everywhere, take heart! No matter what you teach, there is room for good teachers. Every category had at least one really great teacher in it, which was interesting given how few students take classes in, e.g., agriculture.  Remember, also, that these statistics are not normalized: I did not think to ask how many students took each class. So, for example, I can't tell whether English has a high percentage because English teachers are especially amazing or because everyone has to take English.

That said, I was surprised by the results here. I expected to see that "creative" disciplines like music and art would take the lion's share here, which probably reflects my own bias as an occasional music teacher. But the neat thing is that every field of study across a typical school had quite a few great teachers.

The top five: English (57%), music (45%), social studies/history/government (44%), elementary school (42%), and physical sciences (37%). Mathematics is just behind, with 34%.

To me, this says pretty clearly that, in the eyes of learners, great teaching is about the person, not the subject.

Question 6: What makes teachers effective
6. What was it about those teachers that made them so effective for you? Do you have a sense of why their messages really got through for you? Alternatively, what made the great teachers different from the mediocre ones? This question is optional, but I would love it if you would answer!

This was a free-text question, so I have no statistics to offer you. A few general themes emerged, though, and I'll present them with quotations from respondents.

"What made it exceptional was their love for what they were doing". "The positive energy they gave out and obvious sense of wanting students to succeed." "Teachers that found a way to challenge me." ". . . it was simply teachers that demanded my own thought and effort to the practice . . . in order to be successful." "She had faith in me." "She gave me confidence and the where-withall to ask why? I don't think I had a real 'Me' personality before her."

"They were creative, enthusiastic and passionate... And had a great sense of humor" ". . . took extra time with the kids that needed it. They sacrificed their time, to make sure that the kids knew the material before moving on with the rest of the work." "I think she tricked us into thinking that [subject] was easy." "No one ever felt stupid in her room." "They went out of their way to help me." "Because of his encouragement, I am a [professional] today."

"Teachers who enjoy teaching can make learning magical." "They were both curmudgeons. They didn't bend over backward to make the class 'enjoyable' for every single person, but if you invested time/attention you would get a lot out of their classes." "Great teachers challenge you to leave your comfort zone." "They responded to the unique in me." "My great teachers held us up to high standards, [and] gave praise only when it was due". "The great teachers saw that I was bored and preoccupied, rather than disrespectful or 'bad'." "They were also fearlessly quirky, and had great senses of humor." 

"They didn't just teach the subject content, they taught about life. They were able to put the content aside when necessary and teach life lessons - while they were passionate about their subject, they knew that there was life beyond it." "I could always tell the difference between a teacher who was there because it was their 'job' and a teacher that was there because they really loved to teach and cared if they made a difference."

If you're a teacher, you've probably spent some time wondering whether it really matters how hard you try, and wondering whether your students notice. They do. Really. The responses for this question were 20 pages long, and I wish I could share them all with you. Students notice, they care, and they remember for their entire lives. It matters.

I find it interesting that, although I didn't impose any structure on the responses, they fell into broad categories that pretty much mirrored my later questions. One general theme that wove through a lot of responses was the concept of treating students as whole people: learners who also have to live in the world, who are trying to puzzle it out, and who need sturdy guides. Respect is a pretty big theme in many responses, as is love. Love is a dangerous word in schools these days, but we seem to need it--and it seems like we withhold it at some peril. Note that I'm not advocating anything untoward here--I'm just saying that we seem hungry for the knowledge that our teachers care about us.

Question 7: Influence on profession
7. Was your choice of profession (or direction of study) directly influenced by one of those great teachers?
  • Yes, and I chose to do what they do: 33%
  • Yes, even though I chose to follow a different path: 32%
  • No, they didn't influence my decision: 19%
  • Other (please specify): 16%
Choices for "Other" included people who don't yet have professions, those who weren't certain,  a substantial number of people who chose their path based on college professors, and those who chose their path based on all their great teachers, not just one.

Depending on how you count the "Others", we see somewhere between 65% and 81% of respondents choosing their life directions based on a few great teachers. That's a pretty hefty impact. Follow-up studies might explore what people mean when they say that someone influenced their decision, and what that means in terms of actions.

Question 8: What matters most
8. This is a total cheap-shot question, and it's exactly the kind that we all hate survey designers for writing. Sorry. Assume for the sake of discussion that all teachers are adequately qualified to teach their subjects, meaning that they possess adequate subject expertise and sufficient teaching ability to convey that expertise in a classroom. Above and beyond that, which of these qualities is MOST important for a truly great teacher? (i.e. which of these best differentiates great teachers from adequate ones?)
  •  Mastery of the subject (as evidenced by knowledge): 3%
  • Mastery of the subject (as evidenced by advanced degrees): 0%
  • Visible excitement about/passion for the subject: 42%
  • Strong personal rapport with students: 27%
  • Ability to provide instruction that reaches most students: 13%
  • Other (please specify): 15%
Most people who chose "Other" used it to get around the question's "choose only one" requirement, and most of those selected both passion for the subject and personal rapport with students. Some went on to state that it doesn't work if teachers "try too hard" to seem passionate, while others focused on meeting each student's needs (which is basically 'instruction that reaches most students').

Wordiest. question. ever.  Seriously, I should have made the question shorter. But there it is.

I think it's fascinating that visible excitement about the subject trashes all other options, especially when we consider the variety of subjects taught (Question 5). Not only do we love the music teacher who's out gigging on the weekends, but we also love the chemistry teacher who's giggling in the corner as she makes baking soda volcanoes, the math teacher who runs a website on how to solve brain teasers, the history teacher who publishes analyses of thirteenth-century combat tactics, and the gym teacher who plays five sports and coaches six more. We love teachers who show us something of themselves, who make it obvious why they chose this profession.

And we love teachers who connect with us on a personal level. We don't seem to care as much about whether they're geniuses in their subjects, although several people expressed scorn for teachers who didn't seem to know their craft and, e.g., gave credit for history papers about fictitious battles between countries that don't exist. But subject area knowledge seems like a sufficiency condition, not a demand in itself.

This question forced people to rank their priorities, which was uncomfortable for many people. I got a number of nasty emails for making people choose. Whatever else it shows, it seems clear that we rank the "soft" skills (passion and personal connection) vastly higher than the "professional" ones, at least when it comes to separating the truly great teachers from the rest of the flock.

I'm fascinated by the results, and I would love to study this more. I expected that visible excitement would be important, but I had no idea it would be such a clear winner. I wonder how we measure it. How do you tell whether I care about my subject? Is it the same way someone else would figure it out? How did those teachers establish a good rapport with students? I teach crisis counseling and suicide intervention in my day job, which means that I spend a good part of my professional life teaching people how to establish rapport. Should I be offering to help teachers keep that skill polished?

Lots of teachers wonder whether their work really matters--it's so hard to know whether we're doing a good job, especially since our "products" tend to move around and defy categorization. For 100 Facebook users, it seems like teachers really did matter. Every one of us had a teacher who fundamentally changed some aspect of our lives for the better.

So what do the results mean we should do differently? You're free to make your own choices about that, but for me? I'm going to make sure I show my students why I care so much about teaching them. I'm going to tell them why I turned down more lucrative job opportunities so I could share what I know. And I'm going to keep making it a priority to know them on a personal level.

Did you learn something from this? Tell me! Leave a comment on the blog, or email me at hollis easter at g mail dot com. Have some ideas for the next thing to study? Let's hear 'em! I would love to see whether the same results hold true for a larger data set. If you're interested too, let's see if we can find funding to make it happen. It won't take a lot of money.

I think these results are pretty interesting, and I hope you do too! Pass the link on to a teacher you know, or post it to your Facebook page. Let's talk.

There was one really neat side effect of this project. A lot of respondents wrote in afterward and told me that the survey gave them the push they needed to go thank those teachers who meant so much to them. There's a challenge there for us all: to give thanks for the gifts others offered us. I'm going to work on doing it more; will you join me?

Finally, I triple-dog-dare someone to cite this research in an academic paper.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Surveying people: what makes teachers great?

Hi friends!

After a fantastic conversation with Jasmine and Meg in Burlington this weekend, I've got a question burning inside: what is it that makes teachers great?

We've all had them: teachers whose presence in our lives marked a turning point, an alchemical moment when we were transmuted into something different. Teachers without whom we would have ended up in very different places from where we are today.

I'd like to ask you some questions about yours, if you don't mind. I put together a brief survey (which you can find here) with a few questions about your experience with teachers. It shouldn't take you more than about five minutes. Will you help? Feel free to pass the link (or this page) to friends--I'd love to have a bigger data set.

Once I've gotten a bunch of responses, I will post some data analysis to this blog. I think it will be interesting to see.

Here's the link to the survey again. Thanks so much for your help!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) and HPT (Human Performance Technology) have broad similarities, but there are enough differences to merit a deeper look. The biggest difference, for me, is that ADDIE focuses explicitly on building training programs, while HPT aims to develop an appropriate solution, which might be "training, performance support tools, a new or re-engineered process, the redesign of a workspace, or a change in compensation or benefits" (ISPI, p. 3). HPT advocates a systems view of performance improvement, in which training is one potential tool.

Both models include evaluation, but ADDIE (as classically defined) places it at the end of the process whereas HPT welds it into the middle portions of the system as well. HPT also explicitly asks about retention of information by including a "Confirmative" evaluation of learners ("Continuing Competence"), organizational goals ("Continuing Effectiveness"), and value ("Return on Investment (ROI)").

To some degree, it seems like a red herring to compare ADDIE to anything on a fine-grained level since, as Morrison et al. (2007, p. 13) point out, ADDIE does not exist as a formal model and it has never been written down in an authoritative way. The beauty of ADDIE--its simplicity--is also its downfall here, since it tends to morph into whatever some author wants to call it. ADDIE takes a lot of flak because authors want straw men to argue against. At its heart, ADDIE offers a reminder to consider certain kinds of tasks when designing instruction, and its value as a "mental checklist" is high.

I think HPT is valuable for the same reason: it offers a systematic, visible way of thinking about performance deficiency and improvement. As Reigeluth says, it reminds us to ask important questions about the solutions we propose, and gives us tools for knowing whether the process is finished.

For my example of ADDIE versus HPT, I will take a real-world example that actually crossed my desk a few months ago. In my work at the hotline, I spoke with a woman who was very upset about her husband's habit of leaving the light on in the bathroom after he left the room. His habit was very firmly ingrained, and the woman found herself being significantly annoyed every time she saw the bathroom light left on. She asked me how she could teach him to turn the light off.

ADDIE might have me analyze the situation, determine that the husband did know how to use the light switch, and eventually design some sort of training that explained the deleterious effects of light-switch-left-on syndrome on their marriage and their shared bank account, and went on to teach light extinction skills. Had I done this, I suspect my evaluation would have shown a failure to change anything.

HPT addresses this as a performance problem. In analyzing the learners, I determined that the husband, though very good-hearted, was often absent-minded. The problem wasn't that he chose not to turn off the light--it was that he didn't notice the light at all. Is training the right solution? No! I suggested a workplace modification: that she install a motion-sensing light switch in the bathroom. Evaluation will show that the original performance problem--leaving the light on--was eradicated immediately and did not recur.

A few other thoughts that interested me:

Gram (2009, September 9) feels "Adherents and crankites alike view ADDIE as an 'instructional design' methodology when in fact it should be viewed more as a project management process for learning projects. Viewing Instructional Design as synonymous with ADDIE does both a disservice. There is loads of ID going on inside ADDIE but it is primarily in the Design phase of the process, and it can be much more creative than the original model prescribes." This meshes nicely with my own observations: most experts learn a model and then improvise using its tools, rather than slavishly following the model.

Bhattacharya (2006) argues that structural models like ADDIE and HPT are losing their relevance because they demand adherence to a relatively strict procedural model in an era where rapid development is the norm. He also argues that most actual developers follow something he calls a "seismograph" pathway through models like ADDIE, rather than the linear "waterfall" other authors sometimes describe. Although some of his points involve arguments with straw men, the central tenet is valuable: instructional design ought to stay in touch with its learners and employers throughout the process, not merely during Analysis and Evaluation.

Jarche (2006, November 7) points out that models like ADDIE and HPT are, by nature, better suited to _training_ tasks (those with specific end-point goals) than to _educational_ tasks (those that aim to increase general knowledge, skills, etc.) because these models demand specific measurements. He goes on to argue that models like ADDIE and HPT are still valid today, but that they need careful application. He writes, "too often we see training as a solution looking for a problem." At its heart, this favors HPT somewhat, since HPT explicitly includes non-training solutions. But the over-arching admonition is to analyze the situation, determine what kind of solution is needed, and _then_ choose a model for getting there.


Bhattacharya, A. (2006, November 8). Big question: ISD / ADDIE / HPT: still relevant? Retrieved May 12, 2010, from http://incsub.org/soulsoup/?p=739

Gram, T. (2009, September 9). ADDIE is dead! Long live ADDIE! Retrieved May 12, 2010, from http://gramconsulting.com/2009/09/addie-is-dead-long-live-addie/

International Society for Performance Improvement. (2009). What is human performance technology? Retrieved May 12, 2010, from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com/ec/courses/46324/CRS-CW-4119171/What_is_Human_Performance_Technology_%28HPT%29.pdf

Jarche, H. (2006, November 7). Whither ISD, ADDIE & HPT? Retrieved May 12, 2010, from http://www.jarche.com/2006/11/wither-isd-addie-hpt/

Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., & Kemp, J. E. (2007). Designing effective instruction (5th ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

AIRS 2010: Strength In Numbers

I'm teaching a workshop at this year's national Alliance of Information and Referral Systems conference. It's called Strength in Numbers: Bringing Effective Group Work to Training Programs, and it's a workshop I've done at several other conferences... inasmuch as any participatory workshop can be "done before"! I'm a different person now, with different experiences.

Among the things I plan to do around the periphery of the workshop:
- give them digital (online) media to use during the workshop, if they wish
- provide tools in concept-map format as well as traditional formats
- provide a reading list for people who want to learn more

Here's a working list of things I think might be relevant to their needs:

stuff about Robert Gagne
stuff about instructional design
stuff about ARCS motivation theory
the importance of elaboration for cognitive storage
stuff about constructivism
Armstrong or Gardner on multiple intelligence theory?
stuff about managing time in class
stuff about Socratic questioning
tools of the trade
stuff about Vygotsky/ZPD
stuff about Bloom's taxonomy

Malachowski, M. (2002). ADDIE based five-step method towards instructional design. Retrieved from http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~mmalacho/OnLine/ADDIE.html

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Hammer and the Hacksaw: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

My family has a love affair with tools. My father started teaching me to work with tools before I could walk, and my grandfather’s tool collection was legendary. As he put it, “I just like ‘em.” My relatives instilled the belief that a well-rounded person has many tools and knows their capabilities, and I carry that mindset forward into my study of learning theories. Over the past two months, I have tried to look at learning theories not as being “right or wrong”, but with an eye to “how is this useful?” and “what can this teach me?” The hammer and the hacksaw are both valuable tools, but one is clearly better for pounding nails and the other excels at cutting timbers. So, too, with learning theories: each is valuable for certain tasks, and we need the right tool for the job.

I was surprised to learn how divergent some of the theories are—I expected a Grand Unified Theory of human learning. In retrospect, that was an odd expectation to have. I was struck, repeatedly, by how slippery the concept of “learning” is. A behaviorist’s idea of learning looks rather different from a connectivist’s idea, but both claim to describe the same thing. I also learned to beware the seductive habit of assuming that everyone else learns the way I do—I now believe that the mark of a good instructional designer is that he tries to understand how everyone else learns too. This leads toward an eclectic view of learning: if a theory explains how anyone learns, we should pay attention to it.

This course has shown me the huge role technology and connectivity have played in my learning over the past twenty years. Although I am a cognitive constructivist at heart, my habits tend strongly toward connectivism. I spend much of my life researching things or sharing things on the Internet, and my life would be poorer without it. In pondering this, I have come to see the Internet (and its associated technologies) as a new constructivist environment: a rich context full of authentic tasks that have meaning for learners. Generational diversity plays into this, and I have spent much of this class thinking about what people of different ages expect about learning and educational technology.

In designing instruction, I tend to ask “why” a lot. Why do it this way? Why do the learners need to know this? Why is this class failing to teach what I want my learners to know? Learning theories help to give me answers to these questions, because they break down the nebulous “learning process” into more manageable chunks that I can diagnose and debug. I came into the class with some strong ideas about what constituted “good instruction”, and I still hold many of those views; the learning theories have helped me to understand why “good instruction” succeeds, and why “bad instruction” fails.

Theories provide a foundation for understanding how instruction works. Like most foundations, their structure is sometimes hard to see, but without them, the house falls down. We may not interact with the foundations every day, directly, but we rely on their support. Learning theories make me a better designer because they help me to know what I am trying to achieve and how to get there. The theories also offer strategies for fixing problems—these different approaches and lenses give me new tools to try when designing instruction.

Where is this going? Part of me now wants to study educational psychology at the doctoral level, because it fascinates me. More immediately, I plan to continue asking how the training programs I develop support learning, motivation, and transfer. In that sense, learning theories have already been valuable to me: I used motivation theory in developing a presentation last week, and I have been getting rave reviews about it. I used connectivism to explain why social services need to adapt to the habits of today’s users, and I used constructivism to develop an assessment tool that really works. It all comes down to having the right tool for the job.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dipping from many wells

I've spent the last two months studying learning theories at Walden University, and it's been a fascinating journey. The class forced me to get involved with blogs, and it made me jump head-first into the pool of Web participation. Talk about a lesson with wide-reaching effects!

Photo by Diego_3666

When I dipped my toe into studying learning theories, I classified myself as a cognitive constructivist, and I think my first instincts were good ones. Although aspects of behaviorism hold true for me (as they do for everyone), that theory doesn't explain the way I learn higher-order skills and knowledge. Cognitive theory, with its focus on connections between related concepts and emphasis on metaphor, is an obvious choice for me; it pairs well with constructivism, which explains the fact that I learn best in rich environments where I can see the problem, work at it from different angles, and draw on different resources to find solutions.

As I've learned about later theories like connectivism, social learning, and adult learning theory, the water has grown a bit muddier.

Connectivism--the focus on a network of resources, rather than one person's knowledge--has played a tremendous role in my intellectual development. I adopted technology early on, hit the Internet well before the Web had been invented, and never really looked back. The network of resources has been a feature of my learning since elementary school. I still spend hours each day immersed in the Internet, connecting with friends and colleagues, researching new ideas, communicating, and learning. I only recently learned about connectivist theory, but I've been doing what it describes for years.

I'm not sure where I stand with social learning theory. Some of my best experiences have been with other learners, but I tend to gravitate toward learning on my own. Perhaps this stems from years of being interested in things that bored my classmates, or maybe it grows from my native introversion. When I can find groups of people with similar interests, I learn a lot by discussing and debating with them, which is why the 'net is such a wonderful tool for me. I also learn through teaching.

Adult learning theory seems more like a collection of descriptions than a coherent theory, but it has a lot of merit. It points out that adults tend to be self-directed learners (I am!) and tend to prefer forms of instruction that explain why the learning is useful. We also draw heavily on our past experiences and pre-existing knowledge, and use technology to aid our learning.

I rely on technology for many things: I use a computer to stay in touch with friends and colleagues; I participate in forums, blogs, and email lists where I both learn and teach; I schedule my time with the aid of a BlackBerry; I make music on electronic instruments and record the analog instruments with a computer. Technology plays a big role in my learning because it makes it easy to find information and it also simplifies the task of preserving what I've learned and publishing new ideas. Discussion boards are very helpful to me, as are the few close friends who'll indulge me, because I often cement learning by summarizing it and explaining it to someone else. Internet connectivity facilitates this. I also find a simple word processor valuable in taking notes--I can type at around 100 words per minute, which is more than three times the average handwriting speed (31 wpm). Faster note-taking means less time away from the material I'm trying to drink in.

My learning theory preferences seem to relate to the letter 'C': the more 'C's, the better. So I am strongly constructivist and connectivist (both have two 'C's), still quite cognitivist and interested in social learning (one 'C' each), and not very behaviorist (no 'C's at all). Since every family needs a black sheep, mine is adult learning theory, which lacks a 'C' but still enjoys my warm regard.

You may have noticed the water theme running through my post. That's intentional: one of the things I learned from cognitivism is that attaching metaphors to things can make them easier to learn. I feel like my understanding of learning has flowed through each theory, sipping from each, drinking deeply from a few. In the end, I find it difficult to say which influences me the most--so much depends on context. I think they all serve useful purposes, and I intend to continue dipping from each well.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Geolocation in learning

I am intensely interested in the ways location affects learning and development, as I've written in the past. I think the rise of geolocation technologies will have profound and subtle effects on the way we teach. I'm using geolocation in two senses here: one being the (relatively broad) sense of using GPS and other technology to describe two-dimensional position in latitude and longitude, and the other being a more general term for electronically-mediated spatial awareness: a sense of "knowing where things are".

Some of the technology here doesn't exist yet—but that's the nature of technological prediction. I owe a debt to Educause's 2009 Horizon Report for getting me thinking about some of these issues in a new light.

NatureMapping (as referenced on Edutopia) is one sort of educational use, but there are others. I found relatively little information about geolocated learning on Edutopia; perhaps the field is so new that little has yet been written. With luck, I'll be able to contribute something one day.

Maps have always helped me learn. From the day I discovered them, they fascinated me. They help me understand topography and illuminate historical trends and wars, but I realize now that the map is one of my fundamental metaphors for interacting with the world. Here, then, are a few ideas about how new mapping tools—geolocation tools—could be used for instruction.


There are obvious opportunities for tracking and data collection. But what might that mean? Students in libraries could be automatically directed to the nearest open study carrel, and music students could be automatically sent to the nearest available practice room.

A mobile phone with a store map and Hamiltonian circuit calculator could read your shopping list from your email (or, e.g., RememberTheMilk.com) and help you find and follow the quickest route to getting all of your groceries; it could also help you determine where to park for optimal shopping speed. If we combined fine-grained geolocation with communications ability, we could have shopping carts scan RFID tags when you placed groceries into the cart. When you arrived at the checkout counter, your cart could just communicate its contents to the cashier, saving time for everyone.

Location as metaphor

There are other exciting possibilities, too: we could also use geolocation to provide metaphors for teaching other concepts, in a cognitive theory sense. We can use geolocation to unlock other ideas for our learners, giving them a scaffold to hold onto.

Imagine a whole class of high school students wearing location trackers. We run several iterations of an exercise where all of the high school students start in one location and race to another—the first n students receive a reward. The iterations:

  1. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to reach the classroom at the other end.
  2. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to run down the hallway, up the stairs, and into the classroom.
  3. We put the students in the same hallway as (2), but we allow them a choice: run down the first-floor hallway, then climb the stairs; or climb the stairs, then run down the second-floor hallway. Reward the first ones to arrive.

When we've finished, we come back into the classroom and upload all of the location tracks into a computer and superimpose them on a map of the building.

What are we teaching? We're teaching electrical concepts in physics class. We've given people kinesthetic experience with a few important physics concepts—which is important because kinesthetic intelligence is underused in most science classes—but there are some other parallels too:

Scenario (1) simulates flow of electricity in wires of different gauge. Students run with low resistance through the wide wire (hallway), but the resistance changes when they all try to cram through the narrow wire (doorway), and they slow down. I bet some of the students would jostle in the doorway, too, which illustrates the principle that added resistance leads to heat (or arguments). By giving a reward for the first ones to finish, we've gotten the students to behave kind of like electrons (or molecules in an ideal gas): they're all moving as fast as possible in whatever direction they're pointed.

(2) does the same thing, but it's a longer race, so some of the front-runners get tired and fall back; here we might still be talking about electricity, but we could be talking about the movement of sperm in biology class or the changing fortunes of political campaigns. In looking at the position traces over time, students might come to understand the group dynamics in flocks of geese, or the positional strategy of car racing. We could use the example to talk about chemical diffusion, too.

(3) runs back to electricity: increase the number of paths, and you decrease resistance. But the same concept has applications in plumbing, civil engineering, event planning (bathrooms), packing algorithms (math)... and you might then relate it back to educational theory and talk about how multiple-intelligence instruction offers multiple paths and makes it easier for more students to move more quickly through material.

In each case, the students will have a bunch of concrete memories to associate with the new concept, and they may start to hook together such disparate topics as electron flow, fluid dynamics, crowd behavior, and plumbing. By letting us show the individual movement within the crowd, geolocation offers a lot of interesting opportunities for "real world" simulation of complex topics.

The rise of geolocation technology also offers the opportunity to talk about trust and privacy issues in terms that are relevant to today's learners. Today's students are comfortable sharing their personal lives on sites like Facebook, and my students often laugh at me for talking about privacy concerns—but how would they feel about a smart bathroom stall that published the user's name to its data log? Geolocation is neat, but do you want your girlfriend and your mom to be able to look up where you were last night? What if your boss can tell that you were in the bar all afternoon even though you claim that you were at an important meeting? Are these things privacy concerns? What if police could use your cell phone to track how fast you were moving and send you speeding tickets automatically?

We could use geolocation to start a discussion about critical thinking and information sources, too: we frequently assume that location data is "true", somehow. What if the photographs of Rodney King being beaten in Los Angeles had included location tags showing that they happened in the Mayor's parking lot, or if someone published a Photoshopped picture of Tiger Woods and his mistress and geocoded it to be taken from her house?


Location underpins a great deal of our society, and geolocation devices offer a great opportunity to make that underpinning visible. They could be used in behaviorist contexts (imagine a weight-loss program that wouldn't let you leave the gym until you had spent five minutes on each machine), but the best uses are cognitive and constructivist contexts. Location can help us to develop rich metaphors that connect learners to the concepts in the world around them, and geolocation tools can also help learners to create knowledge and seek out things that interest them. When we include geolocation within the greater sphere of always-on communication devices, it becomes a real tool for connectivist theory, because it allows us to pull relevant knowledge from our networks whenever we need it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Connectivism in my life

This week, Walden's graduate course on learning theories asks us to consider Siemens's theory of connectivism, which broadly states that learning is affected by those we meet and work with as much as by our own experiences. We are asked to respond publicly to some discussion questions and, in so doing, refine our own thinking.

Therefore, O members of my learning network: please respond to my ideas here. Help me process and interact with what I know, and share your knowledge with me. Thanks!

How has your network changed the way you learn?

Thinking back on it, I've always relied on a network for learning. As a kid, I was always snagging books from the school library, and trips to bookstores were big days because many of my interests weren't represented by the local libraries. Quite early, I absorbed the lesson not to believe everything I read, and I came to view reading as a useful tool for figuring out the truth.

"Figuring out the truth": that's important. Back in school, it often seemed that my teachers thought complexity was undesirable. The textbook says that the Civil War was fought primarily because of disagreements about slavery, so it must be true. Therefore, we'll go with the idea that slavery was the motivation behind that whole period of American history, and we'll sweep industrialization, cultural differences, and divergent opinions about the nature of a federal government under the rug. School often showed me the world in a sanitized Burger King package with all the mud wiped off.

Maybe it was because I grew up as the child of a lawyer, but I never saw things as being that simple. I learned from my dad that even "the law" is often unclear--there are always new situations for which no specific law exists, so lawyers are trained to find a way through those thickets. As I see it, the truth of the world tends to emerge from the murky depths of conflicting information, and there is rarely any confirmation that we've gotten it right. The world exists, unsanitized and covered in mud, and that's how we have to deal with it.

In that context, networks are incredibly valuable because they point toward truth. Networks help us to find inconsistencies within arguments, and they show us ideas we might never have considered. The networks help us to think better, although they shouldn't be allowed to think for us. When lots of different parts of our network agree on something, it cues us to consider it. Where they disagree, that's a sign too. A wide network of learning sources is better than a narrow one for the same reason that academic papers are better-respected when they include substantial literature review than when they don't: breadth signals careful attention.

I first started using computer networks in the late 1980s, back when AOL, bulletin board systems, gopher, and MUDs were all the rage. Those networks exposed me to all kinds of ideas--and people--I wouldn't have otherwise encountered for years. The rise of the Web kicked it into higher gear by making it even easier to research ideas.

I would say that I owe a huge part of my intellectual development to the internet, both because of the data sources it exposes and because of the personal communications it facilitates.

Which digital tools best facilitate learning for you?

My two biggest digital tools are Google and Wikipedia. Both are wide-ranging, available 24/7, and free. When a new concept comes up, I'll often check to see if there's a Wikipedia article on it, read it, and then Google some related terms if I'm interested in learning more.

My strategies change depending on what I'm planning to do with the information, too. If I'm researching something for work or academia, I slant more toward the formal, authoritative resources--partly because of their greater accountability but also because I don't usually need broad overviews when I'm researching something for work or school. I do not consider Wikipedia authoritative, because anyone can modify it, but I do find it valuable for getting a quick overview of a topic.

I strongly dislike tools that require me to install additional software, since I've been a Linux user for years and many of them insist on Windows. I'm also very skeptical of sites that require me to register and log in--privacy issues and simple internet-laziness lead me to move on.

I bought a BlackBerry phone about a year ago, and it's been incredibly valuable to me--but not for the reasons people suggested. People told me it would replace my computer, would make it easy to browse the Web from everywhere, and so on. But in reality, Verizon's 3G network is very slow in northern New York (sometimes Google's homepage takes more than a minute to load), and I can type orders of magnitude faster on a computer keyboard than on the BlackBerry. But the BlackBerry really shines in two areas: controlling my schedule and clearing my mind.

I have my BlackBerry calendar connected up to my Google Calendar, which means that whenever I add appointments on my phone they sync up with Google--and vice versa. When it's time for an appointment, my phone buzzes at me. This is old technology, but it's very easy to use, and it has made my life a great deal simpler. My job life requires a great deal of flexibility--I'm never doing the same task two days in a row--which means that I rarely have any sense of routine. The BlackBerry keeps track of the immovable commitments in my life.

Which leads to the second virtue: clearing my mind. I no longer have to pay as much attention to my schedule, because a computer does it for me. As long as I'm diligent about putting new appointments in, everything works out. I was worried about server failures at first, but (knock on wood) they haven't been a problem. I can scan my email from my phone, which allows me to manage incoming data and responsibilities; I usually respond later, when I'm at my computer. I write down ideas and tasks in the To Do list, which frees me from remembering them.

My technology allows me to offload a lot of that memory stuff onto systems that are intentionally designed for it, which seems to leave the rest of my brain more available for actual thinking.

How do you gain new knowledge when you have questions?

I investigate, either through Internet-based research as I previously mentioned or by asking people I know. Often I take a number of different approaches, looking for patterns in the answers.

One major change in my investigation strategy comes thanks to the internet: I almost always do investigate questions that interest me, because the research tools are so easy. In the days of paper encyclopedias and physical libraries, there were many questions that I never bothered tracking down because I didn't have time. These days, I'll open up a browser window, do some initial searching, and save the window for later use.

In what ways does your personal learning network support or refute the central tenets of connectivism?

I'm taking my list of central tenets from George Siemens (2005), since his paper sparked the debate about connectivism. Before I begin, let me say this: it is hard to disagree with connectivism because its precepts are so broad and so difficult to test. Much of connectivist theory seems, well, obvious--in part because Siemens blurs the line between learning-as-process and learning-as-possession. Consider these different meanings of 'learning' and you'll get a sense of the difference: "We are learning about cognition" vs. "He has a lot of learning behind that folksy fa├žade".

Siemens argues that learning "can reside outside of ourselves", and his theories hold to the idea that learning ("defined as actionable knowledge") inheres in networks rather than individuals. I think I agree, but there's a logical end-point that connectivism doesn't explain: if my knowledge is stored in my networks, how do my networks store it? In their networks? Okay, then how do their networks store it? In the end, it's turtles all the way down. To me, this means that connectivism is incomplete as a learning theory--which is fine. We just need to keep track of those other theories too.

Here's a point-by-point analysis of Siemens's principles of connectivism:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions. Absolutely. This perfectly describes my habit of soliciting diverse information sources and then processing their outputs.

Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. Yes, although I'm not sure what defines "specialized", and "information sources" needs to be very general. I'm not sure how Siemens would, for example, explain how a deaf-blind person could learn to walk or speak. What nodes and information sources was Helen Keller connecting, given that she lacked the sensory inputs most of us rely on for information processing? But for me, this point works: I go looking for specialized sources when I want to learn something new.

Learning may reside in non-human appliances. Agreed, although the learning/knowledge line is blurry again. When I use Audacity to record audio files, this seems to indicate that I have "learned" all about Fast Fourier Transforms, sampling rates, bit depths, etc., and that seems a bit far-fetched. I am able to use the capabilities of those appliances, but I'm not sure it counts as learning.

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. My habit of using the internet is a good example of this. As long as I know how to use Google and Wikipedia, I can learn a lot about completely new topics. This does presuppose a certain amount of existing knowledge, though.

Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. Agreed. I do not learn from connections I don't use. However, I can learn in an episodic manner by re-connecting with stale parts of my network, and I then gain access to their new learning. So I agree that it's important to maintain connections, but I don't think I permanently lose "learning" if a connection drifts--only if I cannot re-establish contact when needed.

Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Absolutely. There's a new distinction between the ability to recall information and the ability to process it. One of the things my colleagues like about me is my ability to find connections between disparate ideas.

Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. I'm not sure how to argue this one. I love learning about archaic things, so I often learn--through my connections--about knowledge that is no longer accurate or up-to-date. I'm not sure how to refute or confirm this.

Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision. How can I argue against the idea that the world, and our interactions with it, changes? I am typing on a laptop computer connected wirelessly to an internet website--something my grandparents never imagined they would see. I agree that the way we interpret information depends on our context and beliefs about the world, and I do believe that we learn by making decisions and living with the results--that's behaviorism at work.

I think connectivism is an interesting idea, although I find some of its concepts "fuzzy" enough that I'm not quite sure what they mean. I find Siemens's ideas about information flow within organizations fascinating, and I plan to track down his references and see what they have to say. In that sense, I am learning from his personal learning network. Food for thought.


Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved 4 April 2010, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, Retrieved 4 April 2010, from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

My learning network (click to view full-size):

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Connectivist learning networks

This week's Learning Theories assignment involves connectivist theories of learning, and we've been asked to start compiling ideas about our learning networks--the idea being that most of us rely on networks (of people, computers, services, etc.) to provide much of the information we use, and to help us learn (or know) more than we already do.

Here's my start, with the focus being on electronic means of accessing networks. More to come as we go.

Click to see larger version.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

There's no emotion in text?

Crisis hotlines all around the world are working on ways to bring crisis counseling services to people whose preferred communication media involve text-based communication, rather than voice-based. There's a lot of really exciting work happening in the field (I was part of it, on the national level, until very recently), and it has a ton of potential.

People often try to shoot holes in the idea, though, saying things like "you can't talk about emotion in text", "texts aren't real communication", and "omg ur suicidil lol!!!". Typically, the level of hostility is linearly related to the speaker's age. They often focus on the unavailability of verbal and visual cues (tone of voice, pacing of speech, expression, redness of the face, body language, etc.) and use them to justify the belief that emotional communication, online, is impossible.

My new rebuttal: if verbal and visual cues are necessary for communicating emotion, how is it possible that deaf and blind people share their feelings? There's a deaf woman who works in my local grocery store, and I speak with her quite often. She knows how to read lips, and she's able to speak intelligibly even though she can't hear herself (the more I think about this, the more impressive it seems). She's quite capable of understanding and conveying emotion without tone of voice.

Similarly, our crisis hotline has had several blind volunteers--all were successful crisis hotline workers once we got them past the technical challenges of using our unfamiliar technology (phones, databases). It's worth pointing out that, as far as crisis hotline callers are concerned, ALL of us are blind. And yet we help them.

Saying that online environments cannot convey emotion clearly is the same argument as saying that emotion cannot be shared over the phone, by deaf people, or by the blind. It's just not true. The means of communication may be different, but people find a way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Behavior" and behaviorism, positive and negative

'Behavior', as it's often used, is not the same thing as behaviorism. They're different. As I try to understand learning theories, I often see people confusing two different ideas. This article is my attempt to help.

Behavior is a word that's much in vogue with parents and educators, and it's usually used in to describe undesirable activities (I could have said 'negative', but I didn't—we'll get to that later on). But behavior, like stress, is a concept that comes without any value judgments attached. Behavior just means the stuff a person does. You're exhibiting behavior right now, reading this, and I'm exhibiting different behavior while writing it. Everyone is exhibiting behavior all the time, whatever they're doing.

But these days, we've forgotten about the desirable and neutral aspects of behavior, and have largely restricted the term to mean undesirable stuff. A teacher doesn't summon Billy's parents "to discuss his behavior" when he aced a test or won the science fair—she summons them when he pulled Janie's hair. Similarly, we don't talk about "being stressed" when we just got a raise—we focus on the undesirable side of things, and we talk about "being stressed" when, e.g., little Billy pulled yet another girl's hair at school.

'Behavior' has been used so many times in this context that it seems we've forgotten about its more general term. As such, behavior is now largely synonymous with 'discipline' and 'obedience'. But we want to understand behaviorism as a learning theory, we need to get past that collision of meanings, or else proactive interference is going to ruin the new ideas.

What behaviorism isn't
Behaviorism, as a learning theory, isn't primarily concerned with the goal of compelling discipline—although we want Billy and Janie to get along, that isn't the real point here. Behaviorism holds to the central idea that people's actions—their behavior—are conditioned and influenced by the way the world responds to them. I'm drawing broadly here, and there are disagreements, but I think that's a fair general statement.

Referring to the Walden classroom discussion that prompted this post, behaviorists would agree that discipline problems (like Billy and Janie's) can often be solved through behaviorist methods. But they would also be quick to point out that discipline is only the tip of the iceberg.

Positive and negative

Remember how I said I was avoiding the word 'negative'? It's another one of those words that has so many meanings that it's easy to lose the appropriate one. We aren't talking about 'positive and negative' as synonyms for 'good and bad' here—we're talking about "presence and absence", "fullness and emptiness", or "yang and yin". Have a look at Edgar Rubin's vase over there in the margins. On the left side, what you probably see is a yellow vase represented by positive space—the presence of color, lines, and shading. But if you look around the yellow vase, into the negative space, you'll see something defined by absence: a pair of faces in profile. To make this negative image clearer, we've provided a version of the image with colors inverted.

For those of you who've seen the Da Vinci Code, you may recall a good explanation of positive and negative space in Leigh Teabing's description of Da Vinci's Last Supper, where he talked about a chalice appearing in the negative space.

So what does this have to do with learning theory?
Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment are the major tools of behaviorism. We use reinforcement when we're trying to get a behavior to stick around, and we use punishment when we're trying to get it to go away.

Positive techniques add something. In the case of 'positive reinforcement', we might tell students we're proud of them when they do what we want... or we might elect politicians who tell us just what we want to hear. We're adding (positive) something to increase behavior (praise for what they did).

'Positive punishment' is a little bit less intuitive—remember that we're adding (positive) something to inhibit behavior (punishment). So positive punishment might be what happens when your credit card company raises your rates after a late payment, or it might be the old example of students being made to stay after class to clap erasers for the chalkboards. Positive punishment gives you more of something that you didn't want in the first place.

Negative techniques take something away. In the case of 'negative punishment', where we're trying to remove (negative) something to inhibit behavior (punishment), we might take away Billy's cell phone because he pulled Janie's hair again.

'Negative reinforcement' is a little harder to see, because we're trying to remove (negative) something to increase behavior. Suppose that Billy normally has to pay $20 to the family for his cell phone each month. We might negatively reinforce desired behavior by saying that, in every month where he treats classmates nicely in class, he will only have to pay $5 for his cell phone. We removed something (the expense) in order to increase his desirable behavior (being nice to classmates).

So when you're thinking about behaviorism, try to let yourself drift away from the idea of behavior as something bad. Behavior is just the way that humans interact with their world. And similarly, when you're thinking about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, try not to think of positive and negative as "good and bad"... think of them as full and empty, present and absent, and yang and yin.


Standridge, M. (2001). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Behaviorism




Got questions? Think I've misunderstood something? Let's talk! Please comment—I check the comments frequently.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Problem-solving in adult learning

Since I work primarily with adults, I'm especially interested in the ways learning theory informs instructional practice in older learners. As I'm discovering, there are quite a few resources out there to help instructional designers work with adult learners.

The International Journal of Learning (IJL):
This journal's focus is very broad: "a forum for any person with an interest in, and concern for, education at any of its levels and in any of its forms, from early childhood, to schools, to higher education and lifelong learning — and in any of its sites, from home to school to university to workplace." Recent articles cover a variety of topics from the care and feeding of teachers through sexual identity to the implications of teaching in a multi-language environment.

I discovered IJL because of Robert Toynton's work on integrating various learning theories into a pedagogic approach he calls "jigsaw"-based instruction (Toynton, 2007). The idea is that groups of adult learners, working on "group-supported implicit learning through discovery", are often able to learn a great deal by mobilizing implicit (un-taught) knowledge that exists already within the group. He describes the jigsaw approach as having six main points: learning by doing, discovering, elaborating, collaborating, experiencing, and being supported (p. 61). He integrates these ideas within a constructivist framework designed to help learners share in discovering (and therefore owning) new knowledge. This approach seems particularly well suited to adults, who typically have vast amounts of implicit knowledge in the form of life experience. I particularly appreciate Toynton's guidelines for teachers: stay out of the way, let the students discuss and argue, and only intervene when you're fairly sure they won't reach the goal without your help. When you must intervene, do so as minimally as possible.

As Toynton points out, the jigsaw is "particularly useful, for learning and teaching with groups of varied levels of experience and prior knowledge" (p. 64). By placing learners in small groups in a shared problem-solving environment, the jigsaw method supports group trust while mitigating the effects of different knowledge levels. Students with a lot of task-specific knowledge are free to use it, where less-experienced students may feel comfortable learning by listening and watching. The jigsaw method describes some of the best teachers I've ever seen, and I look forward to reading Toynton's other works to see more specific examples.

Learning and Instruction:
Learning and Instruction also displays interest in learning, across "a diversity of learning and instructional settings", and places some emphasis on adult learning. Its mandate is to publish "the most advanced scientific research". It seems as though articles from the journal receive a lot of citations, which is good to see.

Rieber, Tzeng, and Tribble (2004) describe an experiment in teaching college students about basic Newtonian physics using a computer simulation that allows practical experimentation without requiring initial understanding of the physics involved—focusing on "experiences, rather than explanations" (p. 308). Within this framework, they evaluated the result of using single- and multi-medium instruction in the context of dual coding theory.

Rieber et al. designed their study to see whether it was possible to improve referential processing of information, to the point that students might learn principles of physics that they could successfully transfer to other problem domains. Their methods are interesting in part because they used a ball-and-impulse computer game to teach and assess the students' understanding of physics.

They suggest that, rather than using simulations as a post-instructional assessment, it may be more effective to integrate simulation into initial experience--and that brief instructional moments may significantly help to diminish cognitive load and improve learning. Something I found worth noting was this: "students with little prior knowledge in a domain do not necessarily make good decisions when it comes to their own learning" (p. 320). When the researchers removed the experimental constraints on access to instruction, most participants eschewed help--with detrimental results to their assessment scores. Within a constructivist framework, teachers need to pay close attention to the fact that learners sometimes need us to intervene and teach, because they will not otherwise seek help.

Maybe I'm just fascinated by the possibilities of using physics simulations to test learning theories because I used to be a computer scientist and a physics geek. But it seems very much germane to my studies in instructional design and technology, and I look forward to reading more of the research cited in Rieber et al.


Rieber, L., Tzeng, S-C., and Tribble, K. (2004). Discovery learning, representation, and explanation within a computer-based simulation: finding the right mix. Learning and Instruction, 14, 307-323. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Elsevier, doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2004.06.008 .

Toynton, R. (2007). Theorising 'jigsaws': investigating the transferable elements of a problem-solving approach to teaching and learning. International Journal of Learning, 14(5), 59-66. Retrieved on March 14, 2010, from Education Research Complete database.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Geographically-Situated Learning

Michelle Pacansky-Brock offers some fascinating ideas about how Google Earth can be used to teach art history ("Interactive Learning with Google Earth"). The basic premise is that Google's open software solutions for terrain mapping have allowed people to develop tremendous value for instruction -- as, for example, in an art studio class that flies across the Google Earth, zooms in on the Prado, and has high-quality digital images of famous paintings available to look at.

Another great example of how location-based sites can really improve learning comes from Andrew Lavigne's fantastic site about the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains, here in New York. That's a topic near and dear to my heart since I normally spend most of the year hiking or (rock/ice) climbing there. Andrew is a Winter 46er; I'm a bit more than halfway there, although I made almost no progress this year thanks to a bad knee injury. Anyway, Andrew has done a masterful job of combining trip reports, photographs, GPS traces, and geolocation to give hikers a truly valuable resource--and to give non-hikers a sense of what it's "really like" to climb these mountains. Check out his base map: click on any of the tags and you'll get a link to that mountain's page, which includes photos, trip reports, etc. It's great!

My friend Dale Hobson, webmaster for North Country Public Radio, got the geotagging bug recently. Now they're tagging news stories, to help readers get a sense of what "local" means up here in the big north. Check out their map.

The possibilities for rich instructional environments are obvious, and I think it's also possible to limit the information enough to provide some educational direction. If one of the tasks of instruction is to help learners discover a hunger for more information, I think situated learning has a lot of potential.

If I'd had access to this kind of information when I was working on a bagpipe music archive in Scotland, I might have used it to tie our recordings to the villages where the pipers lived. Scottish bagpipe music has a definite terroir just as wine does, and it would be really neat to make it easy to hear the regional differences, and to listen to the changes as you scrolled across a landscape. We could integrate sheet music that tracked with the recordings, to help with differentiated instruction for our students, and we could include photographs of the pipers, their homes, and the landscape.

Learning to play the glorious piobaireachd "Lament for the Children"? You should see where Padraig Mor MacCrimmon lived when he wrote it, and be able to learn about that remote cove on the Isle of Skye where he lived. Cognitively, the repeated F#s in the tune--normally cheerful notes in pipe music--take on a different sense when you know that Padraig wrote his tune after losing seven of his eight children to smallpox--carried by a Spanish vessel that sailed into that bay. You might even draw some melodic comparisons between his Lament and the Spanish traditional music of that time. The possibilities are rich. (Thanks to Bruce Gandy for the recording--Bruce is a fantastic piper from Nova Scotia).

Teaching children about the geopolitics of food, and the reason why there's a "going local" movement? You can talk about climates, transportation costs, spoilage rates, piracy, and the rest. But might it not be clearer to start with the image of your local grocery store on-screen, and zoom out to a map of the world, with clickable tags showing where the foods you ate came from? Draw lines to map out the trading pathways, and you start to see why China enjoyed Most Favored Nation status--the pathway is as thick as a slab of imported beef.

It's been said that all politics is local. So is everything else. So many interesting trends emerge when we start taking data out of the statistical realm and start mapping it onto the globe. When we can use the newer technologies to make that data accessible through a mapping model, we present learners with a fascinating view... of the world. Let's get on it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blogs worth reading

Although the term "instructional design" is unfamiliar to many people, you probably already know quite a few instructional designers. We stand at the confluence of educational psychology, practical pedagogy, educational technology, and a few other fields, and our focus is simple: whatever subject you want to teach, we want to help your students learn it. We want to make sure you give them whatever they need to absorb, understand, and retain the information, linking it deeply within their own understanding of the world.

Although there are instructional design books out there (an excellent one is George Piskurich's Rapid Instructional Design, in its second edition from Pfeiffer Press), you can also find a lot of information on the web, for free. Here are some good places to start:

Making Change, by Cathy Moore
Used without permission from cathy-moore.com
I've been reading Cathy's thoughts on instructional design almost from the first day I discovered the field, and she has guided a lot of my practical experiments at work. She has a strong pragmatic bent in her philosophy of design, and she feels that many of the traditional military-model instructional design principles (like ADDIE) are often used too rigidly. As such, I think her words will provide interesting fodder for debate when we discuss models of instructional design.

I love the way Cathy organizes her site. She's a technology-based instructional designer, and her site actually does what she talks about. She frequently posts slide shows, graphic explanations, and other tools that really increase my understanding of her topic. But she's also a philosopher and a careful thinker about why something is worth doing:
Too often, elearning is viewed as simply a way to deliver information . . . . But elearning’s strength is in its ability to challenge learners with realistic interactions that make them interpret and apply new information. ("Could animations hurt learning?", retrieved 7 March 2010).
I enjoy Cathy's writing immensely, and I always learn something new from her posts. They don't come often—the last was in November 2009—but when they do, they're worth the time.

Word of Mouth: the Articulate Blog, hosted by Gabe Anderson
Image from Articulate.com, used without permission
For those who don't know it, Articulate isn't merely an adjective for a well-spoken person; it's also a software package for the development of eLearning presentations and experiences. As such, the Articulate Blog sometimes comes across a bit heavily in the direction of Articulate's products, but they usually have some larger point to make—and when they do, it's worth hearing.

Articulate's bloggers tend to focus on different aspects of the technological expertise required to create strong visual eLearning materials. Since I am not trained as a graphic designer and have relatively little experience with tools like PowerPoint and Flash, I find this sort of advice very valuable.

Articulate tends to have a bias toward corporate training topics, which casts it in a different light from some of the instructional design blogs that focus on schools.

I also really like Articulate's Rapid eLearning Blog.

Instructional Design and Development Blog, by the IDD faculty of DePaul University

Used without permission from the DePaul University Department of Instructional Design and Development
I like reading IDD Blog because, although its voice represents several different writers with diverse backgrounds, it manages to present a consistently valuable, thought-provoking look at different topics that relate to instructional design. I work with a lot of college students, so their university setting is valuable to me. IDD Blog seems to have a good worthy variety of discussions, didactic materials, and simple ruminations, and I enjoy reading it.

For example, some recent posts involve such varied topics as how to handle situations where one person's lack of inability gets cast as a design problem ("Poor Usability or Just Poor Users? The Squeaky-Wheel Syndrome"), some basic tips on good PowerPoint design ("Oh, Good Old PowerPoint"), and some classroom techniques on how to get discussions moving ("Getting Students Talking in Synchronous Sessions, Part II"). None of these posts is encyclopedic, but they often have valuable insight that applies to other problem domains, and some—like the PowerPoint article linked above—are both direct and packed with information.

Why bother?
In their own ways, each of these blogs makes me think. They make me argue with myself, and they make me wrestle with new ideas. I believe that process makes me a better instructional designer, and I look forward to learning more about how these professionals do their work.

Why instruction matters

Hi friends!

I'm Hollis, and I believe that instruction matters. Although knowledge is important (and, I think, valuable in itself), the way we teach it makes a huge difference in how accessible it is to other people. I've also found, in my own life, that teaching others to understand or do something often helps cement that knowledge for me, showing me new facets I had missed before.

Many different topics touch on matters of instruction, and this blog will end up being somewhat eclectic. Although I began it for an assignment in my MS in Instructional Design and Technology degree program, I hope to continue using it once I finish the degree.

Instruction matters. A lot. Let's talk about it!