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.

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