Learning theory, like politics, is full of _isms: constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism and now a new one, connectivism. What should we do about these _isms? Are they a useful guide to what to think and do?
In October I wrote this on the home page of the learning evolves wiki:
Learning theories might help deliver radical curriculum reform. I think that’s why we have all those -isms (constructivism, behaviourism, connectivism, etc.) and that although -isms can be dangerous we still have them and they might be necessary. Because how else could we have a big change without a theory to justify it and help us think about it? Should we stick to -isms or should we be more pragmatic and just cherry pick different useful ideas out of the various theories? I’m not entirely sure but I am more inclined to think that we need big change. That might mean the -isms are necessary. You might develop a new unit of work under the influence of constructionism, for instance. The learning theory is indispensible to the curriculum reform effort.What I have noticed is that these _isms do not stand still. They evolve, they listen to criticism and move on. I've also noticed that learning theorists, who have a different favourite _ism to mine, might still come up with significant findings in their empirical studies that I find hard to reject or ignore. So, although it is possible to make perfectly valid criticisms of Skinner's behaviourism or the theoretical foundation of cognitivism that is not the end of the story.
That premable helps explain my responses to some recent blogs by Stephen Downes which has become a dialogue between him and Karl Kapp about learning theories. In reponse to this post by Karl Kapp, Stephen began with a blanket rejection of behaviourism:
... it remains puzzling that so much of the instructional design community remains rooted in behaviorism - this more than 30 years after the theory was abandoned everywhere elseI wrote this in disagreement on Stephen's blog:
- Definitions: ABCD Objectives
Philosopher Daniel Dennett has extended the core correct concept of behaviourism (generate and test) into the inner environment. It's not correct to say that the "theory was abandoned everywhere else". Actions which are followed by rewards are often repeated. Doesn't that make us all behaviourists, despite many excellent critiques of Skinner?From my perspective see more detail about Dennett's argument: Dennett's Creatures
Daniel Dennett. Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away. Chapter 5 of his book, Brainstorms
Karl Kapp replied and Stephen continued with his critique:
Kapp writes, "For mission critical items, we cannot write an objective like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will use a discovery method to explore possible options for stopping the meltdown... We really need something like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will follow a defined set of steps to stop the meltdown." But this is not true, and the proof is this: if it were true, then the human performance could be replaced by a machine. If you are working simply on stimulus-response, then you are working on programmable behaviour. But we use humans in nuclear reactors (and elsewhere) just because we understand that 'knowing' involves a set of cognitive processes - like recognition, inference, association - between stimulus and response. The difficulty is, of course, convincing politicians, customers, and (apparently) instructional designers of thisI responded again on Stephen's blog:
- Design: Behaviourism has its place
stimulus: behaviourismChanging topic, Karl Kapp then posted about cognitivism and Stephen's response was:
stephen downes response: dehumanising
Now that the best chess player in the world is a machine should we stop playing chess or reconceptualise it as an undesirable human activity?
I haven't researched it but think it very likely that in nuclear power plants activities previously carried out by humans are now carried out by machines. It has happened everywhere else. Machines now do a variety of maths type behaviours better than humans (algebra, chess, etc.). If machines evolve further and start displaying visceral emotions then how should we deal with that? An alternative to dehumanising humans would be to humanise machines. At that point behaviourism might make a come back.
I have always depicted cognitivism as a response to behaviourism and also as a philosophy of learning and of mind to which I stand essentially opposed (and no, that does not make me a behaviourist). "The idea is that the learner is a complex information-processing system and to understand how learning occurs, one must understand how information processing occurs within the human brain... in the cognivitist's view learning occurs internally and through the social interactions with others." Now how could I disagree with that? It is with the central concept: 'information processing'. The mind is not like a computer, at least, not like most any computer we've build, and depicting the mind as analagous to (and governed by the rules governing) symbol system processors is to misrepresent it in a fundamental way. In my viewAgain I have left a comment on Stephen's blog, as follows:
- Definition: Cognitivism
I agree with you that the architecture of the mind is very different from that of a computer (including connectionist machines.)My Conclusion: _isms are important but use them as a filter, not as a blinker
Nevertheless, at the level of empirical studies some who fit under that broad umbrella do useful work IMO, eg. Ericsson on the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance
ie. Ericsson is emphasising deliberate practice I suppose because that does fit an information processing model whereas someone with a constructivist perspective, for example, is looking intently at some other aspect of learning (eg. rich, exploratory learning environment but with some implied or overt guidelines)
It seems to me that each _ism is offering something useful without any of them being complete or stand alone in their own right