Monday, August 30, 2010

Dewey's Theory of Growth: Summary Points - Part Two

In the previous post I’ve attempted to sum up a great deal of Dewey’s core educational insights in presenting some of his major ideas while incorporating a few thoughts on implications for instructional design and actual classroom teaching. In Chapter Ten of Conflicting Paradigms of Adult Literacy Education, titled, “Toward a Mediating Pedagogy of Adult Literacy Education,” I summarize discussion of Dewey’s key assumptions about learning through eight points. In the effort to establish at least a few additional links between Dewey’s theory of growth and its implications for creating a viable classroom dynamic I’ve inserted a few points within each of these eight assumptions with the proviso that some of the fuller potential on implementing Dewey’s concepts would need much more work in the realm of practice than I can construct from his work at this point.

The more important point remains that Dewey’s philosophy of education and broader pragmatic philosophy has had a profound effect on 20th century education, including adult education especially in its formative, early years. Moreover, there is a great deal one can draw out for practical application for lifelong and experiential education from Dewey’s core ideas, especially from Democracy and Education and his short book written 20 years later, Experience and Education.

1. Learning is an intermediary process toward the resolution of a problem in the movement toward reconstruction in desirable ends-in-view established through the inquiry process.

a. Since the goal is not learning, which is a means to an end, but resolving some problem, identifying an appropriate problem or interest area to work on in a given educational context is essential in motivating students and engaging their most creative energies.
b. Adult education, with its strong focus on life application learning is an especially apt educational environment to institute such a framework.

2. Knowledge acquisition is a progressive affair of moving gradually from what is known to what is not known, with effective learning processes built throughout the means-ends continuum.

a. Dewey identifies a six stage learning cycle which he defines in the broadest of terms as “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 108).
b. Specific stages include
i. A preliminary stage in which there is some felt matter that does not appear right, but what exactly that is is not quite clear.
ii. The acknowledgement and articulation of a specific problem that needs to be addressed which sets the framework for the inquiry process or learning process.
iii. A provisional problem solution (a hypothesis) that requires testing through reflection and critical action, or experimentation.
iv. Reasoning, reflection, and where appropriate, collaborative inquiry with the result of sharpening a more refined problem resolution statement
v. Experimental testing and further reflection on the implications on some well thought out activity following up on the logic worked through.
vi. Coming to some reasoned judgment, what Dewey refers to as a “warranted assertion” which provides some stable settlement to the means-ends continuum at least for the case at hand (Chapters 6-7 in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry)
c. Each of these stages can be built into a learning activity, even though in practice it is unlikely and may not be necessary for all of these sequences to be formally worked through.

3. Each moment of a learning process in the move from means to ends has its own internal integrity, what Dewey describes as a qualitative whole that moves throughout the entire process of learning.

a. Each of the six stages of inquiry contain much potential in unleashing rich teaching opportunity in which problem identification and provisional solution are built in as a microcosmic element. Each stage of learning possesses a particular function in stimulating the learning continuum in the passage toward the desired goal at the appropriate moment and way in a given consecutive learning sequence.
b. The critical teaching task is being attuned to the particular stage of learning underway in any given context and incorporating materials and keeping the educational direction focused on the immediate learning problem at hand in the midst of its unfolding toward the longer range objective. This includes making course correctives when needed, but being judicial in doing so.

4. What is experienced throughout the learning process, a qualitative whole, is a blending of emotion, social experience, and cognition, mediated by a situation that is culturally constructed. Symbolization is at the core of this phenomenon.

a. Each learning episode is fully contextual in its own right, possesses its own intrinsic integrity, and needs to be worked through as such.
b. Each learning episode, however seemingly mundane, such as learning the sounds of syllables and words is an end as well as a means in which effective learning requires engagement of the whole person whether in individual or collaborative settings. Learning is stimulated through a multi-methodology, multi-engagement approach even in teaching phonics.
c. While each learning process contains its own intrinsic integrity it also needs to be viewed in its contributory role to the learning continuum lest it be perceived as an end in its own right and thereby jeopardize some of its critical focus. For example, the purpose of teaching through phonics is to contribute to fluent reading rather than a mastery of syllable sounds in isolation. Unless this end goal is factored in, there will be more of a tendency with both teachers and students to stay focused on the immediate objective at hand, turning that into an implicit goal, or dropping it when no longer seemingly viable.

5. It is the integrity of working through the process via an increasingly refined recursive cycle of hypothesis formation, data-analysis, observation, and experimentation stimulated by “guiding ideals” or “leading principles,” that leads to the ends-in view.

a. The recursive learning cycle based on Dewey’s mode of inquiry was highlighted above #2. Note the broad similarity with Kolb’s four-part cycle
b. Guiding ideals or leading principles are the immediate sources of directive propulsion that guide learning at each and every stage of an inquiry process. In this function they provide the underlying cohesiveness that leads to consecutiveness in the development of a well-integrated learning process (see #6).

6. Making reasoned inferences throughout all the stages of working through the “means-ends continuum,” is an essential factor in the work of hypothesis formation, data analysis, and in the determination of what it is that is observed and focused upon.

a. Dewey identifies such inferences as some merging of formal thought and intuition; an informed educated hunch that is the deepest taproot of active thinking embedded in a problem resolution inquiry process.
b. Such inferences are ingrained habits of learning that can be developed and refined at some level with all learners, often by focusing on less coverage of the material or curriculum with more depth (see #7).
c. Their development and deployment represents a pivotal, if not the most crucial aspect of the entire educative process, which in contemporary terms might be at least partially associated with metacognitive learning.

7. Instructional materials are tools that help to facilitate and focus learning. Their value is the extent to which they connect the subject matter with some question, issue, or problem with which the students are concerned that in some way advances learning as discerned, in the final analysis, by the students.

a. In Dewey’s terminology, instructional materials serve as “middlemen,” “a bridge for the mind in its passage from doubt to discovery” (D&E, Ch 13, p. 188).
b. Rather than an end in their own right, instructional materials play a functional role in leading to significant learning (“the learning that matters” in my terminology),
c. This middleman perspective is also shared by Dirkx & Prenger in which for them materials are selected only after a learning process has been initiated and goals laid out by the students themselves. The difference with Dewey is that he is less dogmatic in terms of being open to the possibility that materials could be selected in advance in which what truly matters is how they are actually utilized in a given inquiry process. Moreover, Dewey is more inclined to view materials through both symbolic and more literal representations of what is to be learned. He thereby adopts a more fluid view of how they can be appropriated in any given context. Thus, a program may have little choice in deciding whether or not to use a given workbook. Even is such a selection is administratively imposed, the creative classroom teacher can develop a broad array of ways of utilizing such materials in a manner that facilitates what students and teachers together define as significant learning. Such efficacy may require a great deal of skill and a learning climate that trial and error experimentation.

8. “A curriculum which acknowledges the social responsibilities of education must present situations where problems are relevant to the problems of living together, and where observation and information are calculated to develop social insight and interest.”

a. For Dewey, education is not merely a technical pedagogical process. It is one with life itself as signified in his concept of growth. On this view, the purpose of education is the capacity to engage in more education which, for the purpose of enhancing living experience, has a broad array of personal, interpersonal, social, and cultural manifestations
b. Dewey would have shared strong affinities with historian Bernard Bailyn’s definition of education as the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations” ( To this, Dewey would add the important transformational power of education as a pivotal reform engine of the entire society, which Dewey desired to see instituted in all of the public institutions of contemporary life.
c. The extent to which education could serve such a transformative social vision depended not only on the effectiveness of intra-classroom dynamics, but the very receptiveness of the nation’s public institutions, including the school itself, to embody and promote such a vision.
d. In this Dewey hitched his engine for the quest for the good school in dynamic transactional relationship with what he viewed as the good society. However great the distance between the reality and the vision, the progressive educational ideals have played a significant role in 20th century education, including the early history on adult education, especially on the work of Eduard Lindeman in the emphasis both o experiential and lifelong learning. That general and adult education alike have moved into other directions without totally losing their progressive edge is a social story also worthy of much focus, one we will not pursue here.

probing John Dewey's Theory of Education: Part One

Probing the Educational Implications of John Dewey’s Theory of Growth

I add John Dewey’s substantial work on education based on his pragmatic philosophy as a third resource to construct a learning theory and corresponding instructional design through the prism of his core concept of “growth.” In teasing out his subtle concept of growth, I draw on Dewey’s highly influential text, Democracy and Education (1916). For those who would like to incorporate Dewey’s ideas in their own work, an inexpensive print version can be accessed here The online version can be accessed here:

To open up this topic, I draw on some key statements by educational scholar, Jim Garrison, from his important book, Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching At the center of Dewey’s educational vision is a naturalistic philosophy in which inquiry is not an end-in-it-self, but a means toward establishing a more desirable state of things, whatever the specific context of the inquiry may be. Such a more desirable state of things in the light of some problem or experientially-driven perplexity requires a critical probing of the range of options within the realm of the possible. At the center of this is not only rational decision making based on a given set of choices, but also the illuminating impulse of “imagination [which] plays a crucial role in both rational cognitive and creative value appraisals” (Garrison, p. 127) of both the problem-focus and potential solutions. Hence, the title of Garrison’s book in which the most disciplined inquiry and the most sublime aesthetics converge in the realm of lived experience in a stimulating quest for some type of satisfactory resolution within a reconstruction of experience itself through a more desirable “ends-in-view,” which Dewey succinct fully defines “as that which, if acted upon will supply the existing need or lack and [thereby] resolve the existing conflict” or lacking gap (Quoted in Archambault (Ed.) John Dewey on Education, p. 90). As Garrison states it:

Deliberation allows us to see in the future of our best possibilities. It is part of moral perception to see beyond what is immediately present. The refusal to separate imagination and emotion from rational deliberation allowed Dewey to defy one of the most devious threats to critical thinking. If our critical thinking lacks imagination, emotion, and intuition, then we are only able to deliberate about preexisting alternatives. Value criticism would then be purely cognitive and dispassionately rational….To be free we need to imagine the possible beyond the actual, and to be moral we must distinguish those possibilities that ought to be (i.e., that are truly desirable) from those that ought not. Dewey understood that imagination could create new value alternatives for us to deliberate upon and perhaps to pursue. This is why Dewey’s complete theory of the education of eros is imaginatively creative as well as analytically critical (p.128).

This convergence between critical inquiry and the quest for an experientially grounded aesthetic fulfillment that gives shape to new potentialities in the very midst of the actual is essential in deploying the full range of available resources in dynamic problem resolution. That is, beyond setting a negative problem in a somewhat better light, which has much value in its own right, education, at its finest, holds the sublime potential in the setting forth of a new paradigmatic reconstruction that could not have been merely “logically” fathomed from the previously given. Thus, an adult learner goes beyond obtaining a better job, which, itself, may be viewed as an important positive value in its own right, and creates his or her new business with a resulting entrepreneurial reconstruction of the self that could not have been “realistically” envisioned from a merely rational extrapolation of the previously given options.

Based on this framework, Garrison lays out the pedagogical ideal in which “what we should always do morally is strive to perceive our students’ best possibilities.” An accurate assessment of what this may be for each student is obviously difficult, necessitating much discernment and empathetic experimentation, “requiring a good deal of imagination” and critical inquiry. Nonetheless, on Garrison’s view, “imagination [in the Deweyan vein of searching out for the better within every actuality] is the greatest instrument of the good.” Such teaching requires both critical and poetical sensibilities in “bestow[ing] value on our students by calling into existence their best possibilities” (p. 171). Such “reconstruction [in] transforming a situation from worse to better” is the essence of what Dewey means by growth. The process entails a progressively leading toward the more desirable (Dewey’s concept of “an ends-in-view). Throughout this reconstruction, each moment or event leads into an increasing “harmony” and unification” in which processes and desired outcomes are mutually enfolded and progressively worked through as the learning process unfolds (p. 198). An aesthetic sensibility is reflected in each moment as the sought for ends-in-view is embedded in each micro-cosmic element leading toward the desired fulfillment. This is intuited as much as it is consciously articulated in each creative “teaching moment” in which artistic sensibility and critical inquiry are constructively conjoined.

Pivotal Ideas in Democracy and Education

In light of this background I will focus on some of the key points in chapters 3-4 in Dewey’s Democracy and Education which provides the foundation for grasping the entire text. In Chapter Three, Dewey draws out the importance of direction, including the teacher’s facilitative role in “guiding the natural capacities” of students to progressively realize desired ends. By direction, Dewey means a continuous course of activity focusing on a coherent building toward a desired aim in which the teacher serves as a critical actor in bringing learning goals toward fulfillment in some student and teacher identified satisfactory result. In this respect, Dewey rejects either/or positions as to whether the curriculum can be planned in advanced, whether pre-designed learning goals can be drawn upon, whether instructional materials can be effectively brought in ahead of time or whether they need to be developed or identified as a result of the active engagement of the classroom setting.

He also rejects either/or positions on whether teachers should provide a leading role or follow the prompting of students. In this respect, the teacher gives of his or her background, talent, and knowledge, as much as takes from the background, talents, and knowledge of the students as the social dynamic of the classroom activity unfolds. The issue for Dewey is less who provides the direction, and on his interpretation, the teacher needs to play a substantial role in helping students realize their own innate capacities in moving from any current actual to a progressive realization of the better. In the process, Dewey advocates for a highly interactive learning dynamic; one focused on the set of problems at hand through the engagement of a learning community where each contributes according to his or her capacity, interest, and commitment to the learning project at hand.

The more fundamental matter is that substantial sources of direction are built into the educational process so that the learning that truly matters, which in any given setting may best be served by a more cognitivist or a more constructivist design emerges fully flourishing in the process. For Dewey this “means that the successive acts” of each learning experience “are brought into a continuous order” so that they successively build on each other in leading toward a satisfactory and coherent learning outcome. In this respect, the attention is not only on the aesthetic appeal of a given teaching moment, though this is critical. What is even more important is that each educational “activity…be centered at a given time in such a way as to prepare for what comes next (p. 25). For without such continuity, the energies unleashed in any momentary learning episode is likely to get dissipated rather than serving in a contributory way to a more enduring educational end. Direction is, for Dewey, a “joint activity” (p. 28) in which each participates in a collaborative educational enterprise in both giving and taking direction in a manner that best moves the quest for the ends-in-view through desirable learning forward.

In this respect, “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process (p. 38) in which the setting out of an intelligent direction is an essential function in arriving at the desired destination.
Dewey’s more sustained discussion of “growth” takes place in Chapter Three. To put it in the most straightforward manner, Dewey defines growth as the “cumulative movement of action toward a later result” (p. 41). This core concept is premised on the emphasis Dewey places on the plasticity of human nature which serves as the basis for human power or potentiality as an underlying force of both creative and destructive change; what Dewey defines more dynamically as reconstruction. The positive point is the potentiality and desirability of education serving as a creative force that unleashes “the ability to develop” (p. 42) in the very midst of progressively moving from a problematic situation toward a more desirable resolution.

This process of growth remains continuous as long as people have problems to solve and solutions, however provisional, to seek out. Stating the core concept more fully, Dewey refines his definition of growth in the following manner:
It is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means the power to modify actions on the basis of the result of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of [a constructive set of educational] habits is impossible (p. 44).

An adult learner returns to class after a less satisfactory job interview and through a class analysis carefully reviewed what worked well and what did not, what re-adjustments are needed for a more effective result, including a determination of whether the problem lies some needed mastery in the realm of interpersonal competency, in a technical skill area, or whether something else altogether may have been in play. With a plausible diagnostic serving as a guiding framework, the student, then, is in a better position to re-assesses his or her readiness for a given position and work on enhancing whatever skill sets require basic development or perhaps minor calibration.

Thus, “a possibility of continuing progress is opened up by the fact that in learning one act [in this case how to break down the negative and positive features of a given job interview], methods are developed [that can be] good for use in other situations.” In this case, the student has obtained a more nuanced understanding of his or her skill set in light of the range of the types of job for possible consideration as well as an enhanced set of presentation skills designed for a more effective presentation in a job interview. In the process this student “acquires a [better] habit of learning. He learns to learn” (p. 45) and achieves a certain level of growth in the process which can be transferred to other situations.

To be sure, additional steps are needed in drawing on such reassessment and re-tooling in preparing for other interviews and in ultimately landing a desired job, which could include a re-calibration of what that means. This effort also would also fall within the purview of a continuous learning inquiry process based on the subtle artistic and critical sensibilities unleashed in a working through the means-ends continuum in which some movement toward the desired goal would be ideally built into each teaching moment.

To sum up, the very purpose of education, according to Dewey, is to establish a learning environment which secures the full use of intelligence in the process of forming fruitful habits that can instill a mode of continuous inquiry in which greater learning in relationship to the issues of true significance is fostered. For optimal effectiveness, such a mode of learning needs to be institutionalized by a given school or educational agency and internalized among both teachers and students alike. In this respect, education at its best is a form of lifelong learning in which life itself is enhanced through continuous growing. In this respect, “the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end,” a process of “continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming” (p. 50).

This, in short, is what Dewey means by growth, a vision of learning that holds much potential significance in adult education settings. It is this that I recommend that you focus on in reading Ch 4, “Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline,” by concentrating on sections one and three, and Ch 5, “Education as Progressive,” skimming sections one and two for core ideas, while concentrating on section three.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cognitivist Learning Design

Exploring the Cognitive Perspective through the Intricate Model of M.D. Merrill’s Instructional Design

M.D. Merrill makes a sharp distinction between what he views as “extreme” and “moderate” constructivism and seeks to build bridges with the latter in establishing his own complex instructional design in fusing key elements of constructive design within a framework that remains grounded in core cognitive principles. What he rejects in particular is the broad-swathe cloth that some constructivists make in indiscriminatingly linking both behaviorism and cognitivism with objectivism in positing a radical polarity between the external world and internal representation in their various personal and collaborative manifestations. Clearly, Merrill operates from the premise that the content of instruction stems largely from the learning challenges of the external environment that students need to process through effective modes of instruction in order to gain mastery of the basic skills and competencies to function effectively in some real-world setting. As one works through his first principles of instruction one can discern the operation of a highly sophisticated informational processing metaphor in his model in which knowledge is extracted from the environment and brought into the long-term memory and retrieval systems of individual learners through a very precise and sequenced pedagogical process. In this respect, his interpretation learning shares close affinities with those of Tom Sticht as described in Chapters Four and Five in Functional Context Education

Merrill’s model is quite robust in its incorporation of constructivist learning theory. It is grounded in a “real-world,” problem-centered focus, which shares certain affinities with constructivism and the pragmatic theory of learning of John Dewey. Merrill refers to a principle as a basic methodological “relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice.” Merrill identifies his first principles as basic principles of learning. He notes that that they do not cover all learning modalities, but they are primary and have solid applicability in a broad array of learning/teaching contexts. A practice would be a specific instructional activity such as an example designed to illuminate a broader point within a given principle. A program consists of a set of prescribed practices. Examples include phonemic-based and whole language reading programs. Principles are design rather than learner oriented. They “can be implemented in any delivery system or [by] using any instructional architecture,” such as a classroom or online format. They are universal in scope in applying to learning processes across specific topics and contents. Effective learning depends on the extent to which the primary principles are well integrated into an instructional plan or program in ways relevant to the specific context of any given set of learning objectives.

As presented in “First Principles of Instruction,” the model consists of five sequenced stages of implementation. Whether or not Merrill also believes they can be applied recursively would be telling in helping to assess the extent to which he is willing to incorporate constructivist learning theory into his framework. So would on whether learning in certain settings is more effectively enhanced by focusing on one or two of the principles than attempting to work through them all. One might wonder as well whether, under certain circumstances, Merrill would agree that other principles should have more priority, given that on constructivist precepts, methodology itself is a function of the constructed process of learning and cannot be effectively pre-determined. My reading of Merrill leads me to believe that while he would accept this latter assumption in theory, he would remain suspicious of more “extreme” constructivist claims that pre-determined or pre-designed methods and materials cannot be established beforehand in which everything has to emerge “in process.” He does, however, embrace a more modest set of constructivist precepts in setting forth his own ID2 design. Merill draws out this convergence in, “Constructivism and Instructional Design,” discussed after presenting a chart overview of Merrill’s Five Principles.

Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction

1. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in real-world problems
whole task rather than only components of a task in which the [whole] task is representative of those the learner will encounter in the world following instruction.
• Merrill emphasis the importance of some worked out example of the type of whole task the students will learn to complete by the end of the course. He refers to this initial step in problem-based learning as the “show task.
• Whole task learning requires four operations (a) accurate identification of the problem; (b) appropriate skills needed to complete the tasks for effective problem solving; (c) effective mastery of the operations required to complete the tasks; (d) effective mastery of the necessary actions to complete the operations.
• For whole tasks requiring multiple problem-resolution simpler problems need to be worked through first. From that point, more complex problems can be introduced.

2. Learning is promoted when knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge
• Drawing out the relevance of previous experience to the problem at hand serves as an essential base-line in gaining new experience or knowledge through which students can enhance their mental maps. Progress is further attained to the extent that students internalize self-learning processes that they can draw on to activate problem-solving motivational strategies and appropriate skill-based competency.
• If class members lack requisite experience, then there is a need to construct a viable alternative that will serve as an apt simulation for processing the relevant experiential knowledge to engage in effective problem solving.
• Part of the activation stage may require more emphasis at the perceptual level in helping students to expand the range of their mental models in which there may or may not be a direct correlation with concrete skill enhancement.

3. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner
• Instructor-led demonstration of a problem-solving scenario provides an invaluable of social modeling critical for progressive student mastery at both the perceptual and concrete skill-based levels.
• Learning is promoted to the extent that the demonstration is fully consistent with the specific learning goal at hand. These include appropriate examples, demonstrations, visualizations, and modeling.
• Learning is enhanced through discerning scaffold-based guidance in working in the nexus between what students can do on their own and what they would be able to do with just the right support that is neither too much to damp down stimulation-based concentration, or too little in leaving students hanging without the support they need to move forward in their learning. Multiple, guided demonstrations of slightly different variation are valuable in bringing out critical comparisons and contrasts, which help students process something of the range and complexity of a given problem-solving scenario, such as viewing 3-4 effective approaches for preparing for and completing a successful job interview. Media, such as YouTube can be very effective here, but unless highly relevant will more likely be distracting.

4. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner
• Problem-based mastery requires students to apply newly gained knowledge or skills to solve relevant problems.
• This requires effective practice at various levels in working with the problem at hand. Such practice facilitates working with the problem from multiple perspectives which helps process learning into the long-range memory system needed for various storage, retention, retrieval, and rehearsal purposes.
• Such multiple presentation formats support the need for students to solve a sequence of problems, from composing an effective resume, to undertaking a solid job search (including identifying what one would like to do as well as could do in terms of current skills/knowledge base and current job market conditions), sharpening interviewing and follow-up skills, and exploring different career options.
• Effective coaching at just the right time and intensity is an important instructional task in which decreasing support at just the right time and level is also useful in order to best facilitate student internalization.
• Multiple opportunities for practice in the manipulation of different aspects of a problem in diverse contexts is also critical for effective application.

5. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learners world
• Integration is facilitated when learners apply new learning to some aspect of their everyday life.
• Integration is enhanced to the extent that learners are given a chance to demonstrate their new learning in various public formats, including class demonstrations.
• Integration is enhanced to the extent that learners creatively and critically reflect on, discuss, and defend, their new knowledge and skill in a manner they can discern as reasonably effective.
• Integration is enhanced when learners can create, invent, and explore new and personal ways to use their new knowledge and skill.

Merrill’s Constructivism and Instructional Design

The historical origins of instructional design theory stem from the work of Robert Gagne, which in his early period in the 1960s reflected strong behavioral assumptions. From that time on Gagne began to shift toward the cognitivist perspective (Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Instructional Design It is this early period that Merrill identifies as ID1, which “extreme” constructivists draw upon in indiscriminately linking both behaviorism and cognitivism with the objectivist perspective. Merrill by-passes the issue as to whether the cognitivist or constructivist perspective has greater validity as well as the related matter as to how diverse individuals actually internalize learning of various types and kinds. Rather, Merrill, along with Sticht, argues that there is much to be gained in exploring the ways in which ID2, which is based firmly in cognitivist learning theory, both converge and subtly diverge with “moderate” constructivism, a nexus where much fruitful practically-oriented instructional design theory development may emerge. This practical orientation plays out in Merrill in two ways. The first is in his formation of First Principles of Instruction, which he refers to as basic and indispensable, but not necessarily applicable in all learning contexts, where in certain circumstances, even a more radical constructivist instructional design may garner the best results. The second is that the concepts Merrill fleshes out in his ID2 tem from and are designed to enfold back into his First Principles. With these points in mind, let’s give consideration as to how Merrill in “Constructivism and Instructional Design,” makes this case.

Assumptions of ID2

Mental Models

ID2 precepts “start from the assumption that learning results in the organizing of memory into structures.” It is such structures which Merrill refers to as mental models. There is an element here of internal representation in terms of content, which reflects a constructivist sensibility. There is also an element of uniformity of structure on the argument that the various thinking processes exhibit a persisting regularity through which information is processed and exhibited that requires effective instructional methodologies for a satisfactory tapping into. Merrill’s comments on mental models veer toward the uniform properties of the thinking process while cautioning against rigidity or taking an overly prescriptive stance. Thus:

• “Organization [of information] during learning [into definable patterns or schemas] aids in later retrieval of information.”
• “Such “elaborations…aid in later retrieval of information,” which also
• “facilitates retrievals” in which a learners draws on a schematic representation

Categories of Knowledge

• There are different learning outcomes and different conditions are required to promote each of these different outcomes, though the Five Principles of Instruction remain primary and are most essential in mastering information that has been socially and culturally determined to be most significant.
• “A given learned performance [interpreting the underlying theme of a short story] results from a given organized and elaborated cognitive structure,” which Merrill refers to as a mental model. At an initial level a student develops the primary mental structures to interpret a given work of fiction. A second-level mental map emerges when the student internalizes underlying interpretative principles of literature and views oneself in the process as an emerging literary critic. While related, these distinctive mental models represent two different schematic self-representations in which the latter internalization would more likely represent a stronger affinity toward constructivism along the cognitivist-constructivist continuum, which would depend in part on principles of literary interpretation drawn upon.
• It follows then that “different learning outcomes will require different mental models” even as the Five Principles of Instruction apply across a broad range of diverse learning scenarios as both basic and primary modalities of universal instructional design.

Knowledge Representation

• Unlike the emphasis on internal representation as exhibited especially in work of the “extreme constructivists,” Merrill argues that knowledge can be represented in a knowledge base external to the learner such as the mathematical system, accepted bodies of historical and literary interpretation, architectural design, basic principles in obtaining and keeping a good job, 12 steps toward addiction recovery, a pre-developed syllabus, etc.
• However these various modalities of external knowledge or representation have emerged, one can analyze the organization of knowledge (or, if one prefers, the external representation of knowledge) embedded within them in order to help learners build some bridges between such external frames of reference and the formation and/or elaboration of their own mental models in order to attain a progressive mastery of such externally established knowledge frames and structures through creative and constructive internalizations of their own.


• A complex mental model enables the learner to engage in some complex human enterprise or integrated activity” such as teaching adults effective job attainment skills within a corrections educational setting. “ID2 should teach the elaborated [external] knowledge needed to facilitate the development of [effective and complex enough] mental models” to succeed in such a life-important learning enterprise so that there would be a direct correspondence to what they learned in the classroom with what they need to master in some real-world setting.

Knowledge Strategy Separation

• Instructional strategy is a strategy of specific knowledge content, otherwise knowledge transfer would be difficult, if not practically impossible to attain.
• Rather, the same set of strategies, say the Five Principles of Instruction and their related corollaries “can be used to teach different topics and even different subject matter.”
• Similarly, there are times when effective learning is most enhanced through both simplifications of complex authentic contexts and by isolating skills from a given context in order to sharpen their development through guided practice.

Strategy Categories

• “Different instructional strategies [or different mixes] are required to promote the acquisition of different kinds of learning outcomes.
• Such strategies, however, are not “domain specific,” applicable to only a type of learning. Rather, they contain a broad uniformity representative of effective instructional design (such as principles of phonemic instruction) which needs to be implemented with accuracy and skill in order for students to achieve maximum learning outcomes.
• It follows, then, that “using the appropriate instructional strategy [in the appropriate manner or range of applicability] will facilitate the student’s acquisition of that knowledge or skill, while using an inappropriate instructional strategy will decrement the student’s acquisition of that skill.”

Strategy Universality

• As stated, such “instructional strategies are somewhat universal; that is, to learn a particular type of knowledge or skill, a particular learner must engage in a set of instructional transactions similar to those required by any other learner.”
• Stated otherwise, effective strategy implementation is both an art and a science, and because the later is under-emphasized in constructivist learning design, argues Merrill, the science of effective instruction needs special attention at this time.

Much of the remainder of Merrill’s article, “Constructivism and Instructional Design” consists of a comparison/contrast between constructivism and ID2, which, other than to highlight a few key points, I will not re-cap in any depth. The article in its totality merits a close reading for those interested in pursuing Merrill’s ideas as well as those interested sifting through finely-nuanced comparisons between cognitivist and constructivist learning theories and corresponding instructional designs.

Summary Statements on Constructivism and Instructional Design

• Merrill rejects both a complete, blank state objectivist learning theory in which internal representations count for nothing, as well the assertion that the “cognitive structure [of individuals] is completely idiosyncratic, unique to each individual.”
• Similarly, mental models may be different in their content with each learner even as their underlying structure has a more uniform quality.
• Further, knowledge across subject matter “can be represented in knowledge frames of three types—entities [things], [learning] activities, and processes” of learning, each of which can be further categorized into properties, components, abstractions, and associations.
• In a given learning context, for example, finding and keeping a good job, it is important that a certain amount of knowledge; perhaps the CASAS employment competencies or the EFF Worker Role Map may be useful, if for nothing less than that of providing students with a critical standard or at least a pivotal baseline to evaluate their own performance on and progress toward mastering a particular set of facts.
• Merrill accepts the importance of “authentic knowledge,” which becomes fine-tuned through the intricate engagement of highly concrete classroom dynamics; in fact his instructional design construct is premised on the importance of instructional relevance. However, he rejects the assumption of some constructivists that a working external knowledge base or learning objectives cannot be pre-specified. That is, he rejects the core assumptions that underlie the “emergent curriculum” and argues that the quality and content such preliminary organization is often central to effective student learning, which then becomes worked through and even modified as a result of the undergoing of the learning process.
• Merrill also rejects the assumption that learning tasks can never be de-contextualized. He argues, rather, that well-incorporated “de-contextual activities and processes are often pivotal in terms of developing some of the fine-tuned micro-skills essential in accomplishing critical tasks and processes that make mastery of holistic learning designs more feasible. Such de-contextualization is an essential factor, moreover, in facilitating transfer knowledge from one context to another. We will study this argument in more depth in Weeks Eight and Nine where we will examine the relationship between metacognition and guided instruction.

Concluding Remarks on Merrill

I have spent a good deal of time on Merrill, in part because his work and much of the trajectory of the cognitivist argument has not been widely discussed in adult education settings. I also do so because I think his research in instructional design provides an abundance of resources the adult educator could appropriate with much value, whether or not accepting the entirety of the cognitivist presuppositions embedded in his work. I think, too, that there is much merit in further explorations of the ID2 -constructivist dialogue regardless as to whether one is more inclined toward the cognitivist or constructivist perspective. I remain uncertain on the extent to which there needs to be a coherent and consistent connection between one’s learning theory and instructional design. I agree with Merrill that there is much about these matters that remains uncertain. I also think a great deal of both our theory construction and practice is embedded both in our conscious and unconscious assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and that critical, collaborating probing of these various matters can illuminate a great deal, though far from everything of critical importance. My sense is that theory construction, however implicit or explicit, is embedded in all our work, in which, moreover, there is an innate human drive for and toward a consistent uniformity at some very deep level, however much such a quest conforms or not, to some facet of external reality of which individuals are both enmeshed and because of their creative capacity, partially shape. However valid this may be is beyond my capacity to determine.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Constructivist Learning Theory

Overview of Constructivist Learning Theory & Implications for Instructional Design

In the introduction to a book that merits much reflection, Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction (Ed.) Thomas M. Duffy & David H. Jonassen, the authors argue that both “objectivism” and constructivism accept the fact that there is a real world that in some way can be and is experienced.” However, from the constructivist perspective,

Meaning is imposed on the world by us, rather than existing in the world independently of us. [Consequently,] there are many ways to structure the world, and there are many meanings and perspectives for any event or concept. Thus there is not a correct meaning that we are striving for (p. 3)

As further developed in Bednar et al, in “Theory into Practice: How Do We Link,” argues similarly that since all we can come to know is how various human actors construct the world through “internal representation,” “conceptual growth,” in turn, “comes from the sharing of multiple perspectives and the simultaneous changing of our internal representations in response to those perspectives as well as through cumulative experiences.” Clearly, from this point of view, growth in learning is both possible and desirable through increasingly rich internal representations that provide enhanced efficacy in interacting with the culture and social environment from which and to whom the “individual” has been shaped.

The contrast is with the objectivist tradition, in which, in language of Bednar et al, “Objectivity is a goal we must constantly strive for.” As argued by Duffy & Jonassen,

"Objectivism holds that the world is completely and correctly structured in terms of entities, properties, and relations. [Personal] experience plays an insignificant role in the structuring of the world; meaning is something that exists in the world quite aside from experience. Hence, the goal of understanding [and therefore, education] is to come to know the entities, attributes, and relations that exist. The objectivist view acknowledges that people have different understandings based on different experiences….However, the impact of prior experience and human interpretation is seen as leading to partial understandings and biased understandings. The goal is to strive for the complete and correct understanding" [in which truth, however beyond the capacity for flawed and finite minds to fully attain, is a regulative ideal that should inform research, theory construction, and evidence based practice] (pp. 2-3)

As articulated by Duffy & Jonassen as well as by Bednar et al, the contrast couldn’t be sharper. As we saw in the previous lecture, there is a sort of great divide in learning theory in which constructivists link education to the pursuit of enhanced and meaning through an exploration of the rich chords of context including the dialectic between personal and collective perception in which self and social context are subtly interwoven rather than sharply separated as two distinctive entities. We saw as well that cognitivist learning theorists, like behaviorists posit an external world which has its own power and legitimacy that operates largely outside the parameters of individual perceptions. This is the case, cognitivists argue, even as they give greater credence to enhancing self-awareness through various information processing strategies that depend very much on personal perception. Moreover, as reflected Merrill’s essay, “Constructivism and Instructional Design,” some cognitivists, Sticht included, seek to build bridges with constructivist learning theory even as their predominant inclinations, in my view remain ultimately cognitivist in scope, an assessment of which I am not sure Merrill or Sticht would accept.

A few notations on Bednar et al.’s “Theory into Practice: How Do We Link?” (,
will help to sharpen the discussion of the critical assumptions that underscore constructivist learning theory, including its contrast with what the authors refer to as the Objectivist perspective. The critical need, according to the authors, is to view the prevailing eclectic approach in instructional design with considerable skepticism in which “concepts and strategies [of learning] are abstracted out of their theoretical framework” simply because they seem useful in a given context. The authors maintain that cognitivist learning theorists, who share an affinity for “objectivism” with behaviorists, are, in fact, drawing implicitly on a broad range of behaviorist and cognitivist resources which cumulatively reinforce the objectivist paradigm. On this they point out the emphasis on “behavioral learning theory, cybernetics, and information-processing theory.

Whether or not this represents an adequate view of cognitivism is a point of contention to be explored throughout this lecture and throughout our two week focus on learning theories. For example, the distinctions get a bit fuzzier when considering “systems thinking,” which also falls within the purview of the cognitivist mix. Yet, in its emphasis on working toward holistic solutions could veer toward a more constructivist sensibility. The following links provide a brief overview of systems thinking:

Management theorist Peter Senge’s widely read book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization is a good example of a text that is deeply grounded in a systems-thinking design that appeals to cognitivist and constructivist-oriented management consultants and practitioners. Despite this complexity, I would agree with the intent of Bednar et al’s argument that underlying presuppositions (whether cognitivist or constructivist) play a powerful role in shaping how any resource will be utilized, and therefore, the ultimate orientation of a particular educational direction. In pushing their argument, Bednar et. al contend that:

Instructional design and development must be based upon some theory of learning and/or cognition; effective design is possible only if the developer has developed reflexive awareness of the theoretical basis underlying the design (italics in original).

Whether or not this is the case, a good number of those working from what might be dubbed “the constructivist revolution” in learning theory, argue this is the case. For these advocates this represents a profound paradigm shift of the first order magnitude. Whether or not insight from various learning theories can be fused in giving shape to a coherent instructional design and corresponding classroom practice, merits close investigation in its own right; a topic I will revisit when I get to M.D. Merrill’s research. For the immediate purposes here of fleshing out the basic assumptions of constructivist learning theory, the following comparative chart extracted from “Theory into Practice,” may be of more value.

Objectivist/Constructivist Contrasts:
Note: Bednar et. al represent the objectivist perspective through cogntivist rather than behaviorist learning theory in which the two are somewhat conflated.

Objectivist Learning Theory

Analysis of Content

• A tendency to simplify, and regularize, or systematize the components to be learned.
• Content components identified and classified based on nature of the content and goals of the learners.
• Component analysis presupposes and pre-specifies perquisite learning.

Analysis of Learners

• The focus of instruction is meeting the needs of the average or general learner
• The learner has a learning deficiency of some type which requires pinpointed remediation
• Pre-test assessment provides an important diagnosis of student learning needs
• The purpose of instruction is to help students gain efficient mastery of the information presented through various mind storage and retrieval processes.

Specification of Objectives

• The focus of instruction is the specification of the intended outcome, such as accurately filling out a job application
• Learning objectives are broken down into specific tasks and then organized into broader synthetic units in which each component builds into and builds up into a unitary block of knowledge.
• Instruction is to be based on performance objectives which are internal to each field of study or body of content.

Constructivist Learning Theory

Analysis of Content

• The content cannot be pre-specified since the learner must construct a frame of reference for even determining what content is relevant.
• A provisional topic range may be specified Still, getting to the relevant contexts that give shape to what emerges as the content to be explored requires a reflective discovery process in its own right.
• Most important is fresh data, fresh insights, fresh content that only emerges in and through the learning process itself.
• Units of information cannot be isolated from the contexts in which they are embedded, and therefore, the boundaries of what may are relevant are more permeable than traditionally viewed.
• There may be a need to simplify content for a novice learner, which needs to remain grounded in authentic contexts.

Analysis of Learners

• The focus of instruction is to enhance student reflexivity rather than that of remembering.
• Accordingly, the focus is on knowledge construction, the stimulation of the imagination, probing inquiry, and the exploration of alternative perspectives.

Specification of Objectives

• The focus of instruction is to enhance student reflexivity rather than that of remembering.
• Accordingly, the focus is on knowledge construction, the stimulation of the imagination, probing inquiry, and the exploration of alternative perspectives.

Concluding Thoughts

The remainder of the article further fleshes out some of the key assumptions that underlie constructivist learning theory such as the following:

• Students are not asked simply to solve pre-fabricated and artificial problems and projects. Rather, the learning challenge is to work with them to discover problems and create projects designed to either resolve them or probe more deeply into them that capture a larger context in which any given set of problems may be deemed as relevant. Learning objectives emerge accordingly as part of the discovery process.
• It is critical, therefore, to maintain the complexity of any authentic learning environment and situate learning within that complexity as students engage their roles within its highly contextual framework.
• High level modeling, extensive opportunities for role play and practice, and stimulating collaborative learning environments are key features of a constructivist learning/teaching design.
• These features, in turn draw out the necessity of multiple perspectives in which a significant learning challenge is to grasp and evaluate the different points of view. The objective in such a learning environment is obviously not that of extrapolating the one best answer, but for an enhancement of internal representations through deep reflection and empathetic, though critical dialogue and engagement.
• Evaluation, in turn, is less mastery of basic facts or isolated information than an assessment of the quality of thinking that the learner has undergone through inquiry-based education. Critical features include problem solving capacity, reasoned thinking, including deep contextual probing, and capacity to defend a point of view within some type of real-world-based perspective. Portfolio assessment has served as an important tool in providing an organized structure for a constructivist evaluation even as it by necessity requires some simplification of the context in order to manage.

Bednar et al. leave us with a few salient questions to ponder, namely:

1. Is critical thinking the goal of all learning?
2. Do the contexts in which the learning is to be applied relate to the nature of the learning experience? Stated somewhat differently, is there a direct correlation between learning and context mastery of a given topic?
3. Are there contexts where it is appropriate to apply traditional instructional developmental models and others where it is not?
4. Is it useful to distinguish learning capacities of novice from more experienced learners?

The authors leave these questions open. Nonetheless, one might draw a plausible inference that the reality may not be as clear cut from a pure assessment of their theoretical interpretation of constructivist learning theory. If that is, in fact the case then where does that leave their core argument that all aspects of developing a learning environment need to be based on a coherent (and seemingly singular) philosophical premise? I’ll let their minimalist prescription stand as the final word: “Minimally, we must be aware of the epistemological underpinnings of our instructional design and we must be aware of the consequences of that epistemology on our goals for instruction, our design on instruction, and on the very process of design.” This, indeed, may be a good starting point for an ongoing exploration of the cogency and relevant applications of an array of learning theories as they apply or might apply to adult education.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Learning Theories: A Probing Introduction

Colleagues, the following is a lecture I have written for a course on adult education curiculum development to introduce three primary learning theories, behaviorsm, cognitivism, and constructivism. In this piece I have drawn on two web-based resources to flesh out the basics. I've embedded my own thoughts amidst what I would like to describee as my own reflective summary. Learning theory analysis is an important feature of this course, a topic that underlies much of our teaching, program development, and even core values in adult education.

This piece is designed as a fairly substantial introduction. More extended postings on learning theory may follow.


Learning Theories: Principles and Application


It is an underlying assumption of this course that at whatever degrees of implicit or explicit manifestation, some learning theory underlies instructional practices and core principles and thereby shapes both the intended and unintended curriculum in ways that may be easier or more difficult to perceive. For example, given its student-centered, the authors’ reluctance to impose structure, and process orientation of the emergent curriculum, it seems clear that A Guide for Implementing Instruction for Adults is largely premised on constructivist learning theory even as the authors are empathetic to the Competency Skill List of the ABLE Network (pp. 138-140) which they view as an alternative contextual approach from their own. Moreover, in their discussion of gradually implementing an Instructional Theme-Based (ITB) Approach within specific programs, the authors recognize the need for pragmatism in working from traditional programs (shaped by more behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories) to one fully structured on the ITB model, including its underlying constructivism in shaping an instructional program. I assigned Ch. 3 of the Dirkx & Prenger text principally for the purpose of keeping the reading of this text going on an even keel, though pointing out, above, the underlying learning theory grounding its pedagogical presuppositions. This may be worth keeping in mind as you work through the text; discerning what is valuable and what may be less so as you develop your own model curriculum framework, including your own preferred learning theory.

The Instructional Design Knowledge Base (IDKB) site provides a succinct overview of three primary learning theories that have pervaded educational theory through the course of the 20th century I find this to be a useful site to gain a basic overview, which can serve as a basis for our more extensive readings. Even though in this course we will be exploring post-behaviorist learning theories, reviewing our knowledge of behaviorism through this article, and in a more in-depth way in the following article, provides some baseline knowledge for gaining a deeper understanding contemporary learning theory. That’s one thing. The other matter I would like to briefly highlight is the reality that different writers have taken various interpretive slants in discerning differences in learning theory. This has been particularly the case on various definitions of behaviorism and cognitivism. Some writers have linked only the learning theory of behaviorism with the philosophy of objectivism (that there is an objective world outside perception that can serve as a standard for knowledge even as if only a regulative idea; an ideal that shapes research and practice in certain prescribed ways). Other learning theorists, including some working from constructivist premises, have linked behaviorism with cognitivism through the common philosophy of objectivism. As we work through these various learning theories we will attempt to get as clear as possible in delineating distinctions among them even as it is quite likely that total clarity will remain an ideal that continues to elude. With these caveats noted, let us give consideration to the Basic Principles and Goals of Instruction charts on the IDKB chart.

As you review the Objectivism/Behaviorist column as laid out in the web document you might notice that the attention is focused on observed behavior; behavior that is viewed as simply present in the external environment as evident by any objective observer. In this respect, there is a third-person distancing between the observer and the actors of any learning situation, objectivity which would apply in principle to the actors when they examine their behavior from an ideal, neutral position. The other primary position is that the stimuli (cues) both precede and are the basis for the response (behavior) in which there is a direct corresponding relationship. Based on this framework, the goal of “[i]nstruction is to elicit the desired response from the learner who is presented with a target stimulus.” Such behaviorism underlies certain phonemic-based adult literacy programs in which the stimulus is the presentation of the correct phoneme in which the student responds in an accurate manner in which learning takes place through successive practice of the same S-R pattern that includes room for variation within a given pattern of phonemic instruction. Strictly speaking, learning does not entail conscious cognition, but automatic patterning that becomes internalized though practice.

Cognitivism, sometimes referred to the computer-based metaphor informational processing, has been variously identified in both sharing affinities with both behaviorist and constructivist learning theories. Those who draw on cognitivism from a behaviorist perspective recognize the mind as an intervening variable in the S-R relationship (S-M-R). For example, expectations and values can and do intercede in creating space at the onset of a given stimulus in which the response is at least partly a product of deliberate thought and choice and is therefore, neither strictly determinate nor predictable, though often in a range of behavior which might be broadly viewed as representative. Those cognitivists like Sticht and Merrill note that there are many types of learning and accept a strong role for the learner’s thought construction as a significant variable in effecting learning. They do, however, posit a sharp distinction between mastery of some aspect of the external environment in which the learning tasks are pre-determined (a job skill), with the hard work of processing such learning through internal mental operations through individual effort stimulated by effective task-based teaching. Thus, from either of these perspectives, the “[l]earner is viewed as an active participant in the [more or less objective and pre-determinate] learning process.” The key work is knowledge and mastery of “the building blocks of knowledge” as determined by environmental influences through effective informational processing strategies which “occurs within the learner and which can be effected by the learner.

The goal of instruction from these assumptions is to ‘[c]ommunicate or transfer knowledge in the most efficient, effective manner (mind-independent [that] can be mapped onto learners.” This requires “the learner to use appropriate learning strategies” so that “information” can be “stored in memory in an organized, meaningful way.” Those maintaining a cognitive perspective emphasize the importance of task-mastery as a key focus of adult education. Mastering a sequence of technical work skills of a somewhat complex nature would be an example of such cognitive-based instruction, which might be incorporated into a more complex learning environment in which technical skill development is one important component.

Constructivism shares strong affinities with Malcolm Knowles’ emphasis on self-directed learner for whom meaning often emerges in and through the process of learning itself as well as Donald Kolb’s four-cycle model of experiential learning. Constructivism is also highly influential in feminist pedagogy as well as that of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. It has wide purchase in adult education forums, which is sometimes taken by proponents as self-evident and obviously superior to other ways of knowing. Constructivist learning theorists reject radical distinctions between environmental and individualistic ways of knowing, maintaining that the self in its own right is a socio-cultural construction. On this view, “[l]earners build personal interpretation[s] of the world based on experiences and interactions,” which, when deliberately reflected upon has the potential of opening up fresh perspectives and enhancing self-awareness. In this respect, too, “meaning is imposed by the individual [on a perpetually constructive reality] rather than existing in the world independently.” Based on these perspectives “[l]earning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge” in which the “focus” of instruction “is on the process not the product” of learning. To put it in related terms, learning is a meaning-making process of increasingly deepening reflective awareness in connecting relevant knowledge (as defined by the learner in the role he/she is engaged or seeks to be engaged in) “in the actual use of tools [and resources] in real world situations as deemed by learners and their significant others as significant.

From the constructivist frame, a great deal more than task mastery is up for consideration when considering the various implications of gaining relevant workplace knowledge as reflected, for example, in the EFF Worker Role Map at the levels both of the Broad Areas of Responsibility and the Key Activities relevant to a given worker. (See link for a brief overview of the RFF Worker Role Map. Within the responsibilities of even the most entry level service position, there is typically a call for a range of soft and harder skills in which one’s sense of personal and recognized competence may be discerned through a subtle interweaving of the range of skills, behaviors, and attitudes that combine. This often includes the capacity to effectively assess the climate of the organizational culture and that of placing oneself effectively within it. Viewed from this perspective, the workplace itself might be visualized as a constructed reality that emerges through various processes and people that intersect in vying for resources, visibility, and positive recognition. From this vantage-point constructivist acumen might viewed as the highest form of learning that adult education students could engage in with much potential profit.

Brenda Mergel’s paper titled Instructional Design & Learning Theory provides a more extensive overview of the three learning theories we are examining in terms of theory construction and definition, key concepts, and practical applications. A quick glance on her short description of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism on p. 2 (she did not number her pages) provides a clear delineation that can keep us grounded in the basics as we probe into the implications of these theories in more depth.


I will highlight only a few aspects of her discussion on behaviorism (pp. 3-6), noting the major psychologists whose work she summarized, all of whom emphasized observable behavior while “ignoring the possibility of any processes occurring in the mind (p. 5). All of the behaviorists also underscore the S-R relationship as working in a linear direction, drawing on a scientific metaphor of cause and effect. A related concept is that of reinforcement and the importance of conditioning through repeated practice in bringing about the desired behavior or extinguishing those of a negative sort. One of her primary distinctions that Mergel brings out is difference between classical and operant conditioning in which the former is based on the automaticity (or unconditioned) nature of the S-R relationship while the latter modification as developed by B.F. Skinner highlights the importance of voluntary behavior (or conditioned response) in propelling the S-R relationship. Skinner’s work has been instrumental in drawing out the importance of positive and negative reinforcement in shaping educational behavior. For a quick overview of the distinction, go here.

An additional point to consider is the reinforcement schedule (p. 6) and the increasing effectiveness of variable over fixed rates of reinforcement. Thus, instead of calling on students sequentially, a moirĂ© random approach is more likely to keep student attention concentrated throughout a class discussion. Note also on the top of p. 6 to the mention of “successive approximations” in learning, a concept which I find highly fruitful in working with students from a strength-based model, building on what they do know as a basis for what they could come to know better through guided practice. However much this concept may have emerged with behaviorism it has been embedded in the research on scaffolding, a learning/teaching strategy we will study through the following essay written by Lipscomb, Swanson, & West, I also briefly deal with the topic of successive approximation here

Mergel concludes her discussion of behaviorism in focusing on its implications for instructional design on pp. 12-15. She underscores its importance for the development of the highly influential Bloom’s Taxonomy in its sequencing of learning in successive stages of development (p. 12), in mastery learning (p. 13), in computer-assisted instruction (p. 15), and also in the behavioral objectives movement which underlies the entire emphasis on the behaviorist influence on 20th century education.


Mergel provides a brief, yet deep discussion of the basics of cognitivism on pp. 6-7 with a follow-up on cognitivism and instructional design on pp.16-17. The author notes the range in cognitive learning theory, from applications with a close affinity to behaviorism to those veering closer to the constructivist edge. The connection to the former is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Cognitive theorists recognize that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behavioristic concepts, cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information." (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187, in Mergel, p. 7).

There is also a strong connection between behaviorist and cogntitivist learning theorists in a mutual acceptance of the reality and significance of the external world in which the individual in one way or another takes in.

On the other hand, some of the key concepts of cognition theory (p. 7-8) such as schema and transference theory, along with the utilization of advanced organizers shift the focus more toward the importance of internal representation, which is an underlying component of constructivist learning theory. The work of Tom Sticht and M.D. Merrill are examples of cognitive theorists who seek to build bridges with constructivist learning theory while holding firm to an informational processing model of learning. On Merrill constructivist-based thinking, his 1991 essay, “Constructivism and Instructional Design" may be of interest Mergel discusses this diversity of application within cognitive learning theory on p. 16. For additional insight on cognitivist learning theory, the following link may be of value:


Mergel discusses basics of constructivism on pp. 8-9 and its implications for instructional design on pp. 17-19. The core shift is moving from mastery of the external environment to grounding instruction to the learner’s own construction of reality through forms of knowledge representation based on the centrality of “prior experiences, mental structures, and beliefs that are used to interpret objects and events” (p. 8). This emphasis on self construction does not imply that the external environment is not a strong motivational factor in shaping learning objectives. However, it does place the emphasis on learners as having an innate capacity for knowledge building based on their own emerging constructions of reality in which pre-determined learning tasks may or may not be relevant in any given learning context.

Mergel also points to “realistic vs. radical construction” (p. 8). In the former application “learners eventually construct mental structures that correspond or match external structures in the environment.” This would apply, for example to an internal mastery of “the basics” of truly selling oneself in a job interview or in some other “real-world” context. The EFF Role Maps and Content Standards would be examples of real-world application of constructivist learning theory in a similar manner to Robert Kegan in his book, In Over Their Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life as reviewed here

The four points that Mergel extracts from Merrill’s essay provides a useful framework for grasping some of the core fundamentals of constructivism, namely, that:

• knowledge is constructed form experience
• learning is a personal interpretation of the world
• learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience
• conceptual growth comes from the negotiation of meaning, the sharing of multiple perspectives and the changing of our internal representations through collaborative learning
• learning should be situated in realistic settings; testing should be integrated with task and not a separate activity (p. 8-9)

The parallels between constructivist learning/teaching application and the recommendations offered by Dirkx & Prenger are striking. Key features include:

• Provide multiple representations of reality – avoid oversimplification of instruction by representing [in the classroom] the natural complexities of the world
• Present authentic tasks -contextualize [even if there is need for some simplification]
• Provide real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than predetermined instructional sequences
• Foster reflective practice
• Enable context- and context-dependent knowledge construction
• Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition (p. 18)

These key points underlie the more extended statements that Mergel draws out from : Jonassen & McAlleese’s article, “Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist-Design Model,” which doesn’t currently appear to be available on-line. The summary statement on the differences between constructivist and objectivist (behaviorism and cognitivism) based design structures “is that objective design has a predetermined outcome and intervenes in the learning process to map a pre-determined concept of reality into the learner’s mind, while constructivism maintains that because learning objectives are not always predictable, instruction should foster, not control learning” (p. 18). Next week we’ll examine constructivist assumptions in more depth, which will include comparison with Merrill’s discussion on the relationship between Constructivism and Instructional Design, the latter which he refers to as ID.2 This short interview with David Jonassen may also be of interest

After providing a very brief assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the learning theories discussed, Mergel offers a more extended discussion on assessing the important question as to whether there is a single best learning theory for instructional design that would apply across the board. In this the author identifies three basic positions. The first is the eclectic approach, which is characteristic of both Merrill in Sticht, in borrowing freely from a diversity of theories in meeting the various goals of different types of learning. Consider Merrill’s First Principles of Learning:
The demonstration principle: Learning is promoted when learners observe a demonstration
The application principle: Learning is promoted when learners apply the new knowledge
The activation principle: Learning is promoted when learners activate prior knowledge or experience
The integration principle: Learning is promoted when learners integrate their new knowledge into their everyday world
The task-centered principle: Learning is promoted when learners engage in a task-centered instructional strategy

These seem to reflect a cognitive impetus in the sequencing as listed in the importance he places on informed practice through sharp task delineation. Still, Merill incorporates a variety of constructivist strategies even as he gives them a cognitive spin. One might easily identify behaviorist stimulus-response principles also embedded in his work. Sticht also draws freely from informational processing theory, situated cognition, social constructivism as well as behaviorism from which his early work on cognition seems to have been an extension from. The question remains that however much borrowing a learning design specialist may draw from various perspectives on whether there is a singular, underlying perspective giving shape to the eclectic mix.

Closely related is the argument that design elements from different learning theories are needed at different stages and different levels of learning. This is maintained both by Jonassen and Riegeluth in the call for more structured learning activities in learning new activities or among more novice learners, while learning activities can be more open-ended once a sufficient mastery level has been attained or with higher level learners. The brief link referencing Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory may be of interest

The third position, maintained by Bednar et al., advocating from the perspective of radical constructivism, argues the points that theory, whether consciously articulated or not, is inescapable and that cogent learning requires internal coherency from theoretical premises, to core principles, best practices and assessment. Their basic point is that “abstracting concepts and strategies from the theoretical position that spawned them strips them of their meaning” (quoted in Mergel, p. 19). That, itself is a contestable issue that warrants further investigation.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Linking Dewey’s Logic to His Concept of Growth: A Personal Encounter

Linking Dewey’s Logic to His Concept of Growth: A Personal Encounter
With some slight modifications this essay originally appeared in Professing Education. December, 2004 Vol 3. No.2, 6-9.

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1960 cited in Miller, 1985) observes, rather than progressing “from theory to theory,” science might be better “visualized as progressing from problems to problems (original italics)—to problems of ever increasing depth” (p. 179). This position is similar to that of Dewey (1929/1958), who argues that problems burst forth from long-seated habitudes into consciousness, which then evoke a quest for resolution. Thus, for Dewey, “the starting point is” what is experienced as “the actually problematic” (original italics) (p. 67) in any given situation. Inquiry, more broadly, learning, is the primary method Dewey draws upon in the systematic effort of working from problems identified to “warranted resolutions” in any given situation. The recursive stages of inquiry progress via what Dewey refers to as a “means-ends” continuum in successive phases of hypothesis formation, data analysis, and experimentation in the leading toward the desired solution of the problem at hand.

For Dewey as with Popper, it is not typically theory that first stimulates a serious investigation. It is, rather, some perplexity that arouses doubt in an existing pattern of living or thought that then requires an investigation. The process includes provisional hypothesis (and eventual theory) formation along with the collection of and analysis of data in the careful working through of the various stages of an investigative process. Dewey (1938/1991) articulates this procedure most programmatically in his key chapter, “The Pattern of Inquiry” in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (pp. 105-122). The object of such investigation is not the acquisition of knowledge, which for Dewey is a means. It is, rather, the resolution of the problem, to which knowledge contributes into the formation of a unified reconstruction. New challenges and problems emerge, but the result of a successful inquiry process is a proximate “close” to the earlier quandary. As Dewey expresses it in a classic statement:

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole (original italics) (p. 108).

Dewey’s logic closely parallels his concept of growth as the enhancement of experience through critical thought and deliberate action through the operation of the means-ends continuum in the movement toward a satisfactory learning occurrence.

It is as a well-read field practitioner that I “discovered” Dewey’s concept of growth in the early 1990s through an indirect route of reading Richard J. Bernstein’s (1983) neo-pragmatic text Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Reflecting on my study of republican political ideology as a Ph.D. student in the field of U.S. history, I experienced a sense of connection, particularly with Bernstein’s discussion of Gadamarian hermeneutics. I derived from that the prospect that this fruitful concept could serve as a vehicle through which to reconstruct a historical tradition, namely, the U.S. political culture on its founding republican, democratic and constitutional grounds. Through the impetus of Bernstein, I moved directly into the primary resources of the intellectual tradition and moral and political value center of the American pragmatic tradition through an engagement of Dewey’s philosophy. Taking his concept of growth as an operating springboard, I concentrated on those aspects of his vast work that appealed to me or that I could readily understand, with the prospect that this would serve as a scaffold upon which I could deepen my understanding of Dewey’s philosophy and its possible applications to adult literacy education. The process that I described in that preceding sentence is itself an explanation of what Dewey means by growth, in short, progressive learning through continuity of development and engagement.

I experienced this systematic working through of Dewey’s writing based on my own growing center of interest and knowledge. That is, my experience shifted from that of relative novice to emergent specialist as a result of a deliberate process of taking this effort on. This was stimulated by what Dewey (1934/1989) refers to as “an impulsion” of motivational energy that the task offered the prospect of a sense of direction and coherence that I sought to attain. In terms of Dewey’s logic, that was a tentative hypothesis that pushed the experiment forward which would require considerable experimentation, analysis and refinement to prove its mettle in my living experience as an adult literacy educator. This gradual shift from novice to specialist emerged as a felt accomplishment in the expansion of my understanding as I began to reflect upon and shape my practice based on what I came to understand and experience. As I worked through this framework in my practice as an adult literacy practitioner and in my more formal academic thinking about the subject, my understanding of the nuances of Deweyan philosophy grew.

The insight that that single word “growth” unleashed has taken on symbolic proportions which, at times, moves toward the iconic. This is guarded against by a sense of skepticism that a metaphor can serve as an adequate representation of reality, while acknowledging as well the inescapability of such perceptual processing. The additional factor is an awareness of the profusion of problems that face the field of adult literacy education in the working toward any proximate resolution that proposes a coherent source of direction. Nonetheless, as a heuristic, however metaphorical, I have found Dewey’s concept of growth a fruitful one. In my early construction of this concept, it evoked an imaginative resolution to the problem that I encountered in thinking about adult literacy education through the dominant paradigms of, respectively, functional and critical literacy, neither of which seemed to have gotten to the core of what I observed on site. There needed to be some mediating ground between these poles, I sensed. Yet, the resolution remained vague until I happened on Dewey’s axial concept of growth that opened up the prospect of working out the problem of a viable definition of literacy that had perplexed me.

Initially, this concept served less as a formal intellectual framework than as a creative explanation of what I concretely experienced as a program manager of an adult literacy program in Hartford, Connecticut. It was not that I discovered Dewey’s writing, but that his concept of growth that I adapted from his work seemed to have fit my situation. It was through this internalization of this core idea that I then sought to organize my activities in program, instructional, and curriculum development. As I continued to work with this concept, I increasingly sought to explore the various theoretical underpinnings that underlay Dewey’s notion of growth even while persisting with what might be viewed as only a partially successful effort of developing a viable praxis through it in the literacy program I operated (Demetrion, 2000). I began to characterize this Deweyan space, based on the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, as a “middle ground” that was congruent with a distinctively American politics and pedagogy. The working through and the testing of this core idea, has consumed much of my practice and academic writing for the past decade.

Progress might have served as a less evocative term in the capturing of much of what I sought in the imagery unleashed in my mind by the term growth. This particular term, however, has the benefit of a specific philosophy of education articulated by Dewey (1916/1944, 1938/1963) and elaborated upon by contemporary Deweyan educational scholars (Garrison, 1997, 1998). It is this concept of growth that underpins Dewey’s (1938/1963) quest for an “intellectual organization that can be worked out on the ground of experience” (p. 85) that I find so potentially fruitful for the field of adult literacy education even if only as an imaginative construct with heuristic power to effect change. Dewey defines growth in a variety of ways. The following, an apt summary of the entire concept, provides a useful introduction:

[G]rowth depends upon the presence of a difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence…[I]t is part of the educators responsibility to see equally to two things: First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacities of students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and the new ideas become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented. The process is a continuous cycle (p. 79).

Dewey’s concept of growth permeates his key book, Democracy and Education (1916/1944). It is invariably linked with the optimistic imagery of the vision of American democracy that he held, notwithstanding skepticism toward any easy hope. As Dewey (1917) expressed it (cited in Hickman and Alexander, 1998 Vol. 1): “Faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of its realization is our salvation” (p. 69). It is this faith that Dewey tied to an American vision of a progressive culture and society in which the growth of individuals is the expression itself of the nation’s foremost ideals in an increasingly humane and democratic political culture.

As Dewey (1928 cited in Hickman and Alexander, 1998 Vol. 1) elsewhere put it about the “New World” civilization, at the heart of the American experiment is “[t]he liberation of individual potentialities” through “the evocation of personal and voluntary associated energies.” That is, the nurturing of “individuals and their potentialities” (p. 322) depends upon communities that both foster and depend upon what Dewey (1927/1954) elsewhere describes as the Great Community. This is an elusive ideal, but one grounded in the peculiarity of the American imagination, which holds the promise of unleashing potentialities of a better society and culture through progressively realized selves. This, in a nutshell, is what Dewey means by growth, in which for him education would serve as a primary pathway, for its unfolding. I have richly drawn on this concept in a decades’ worth of work in the field of adult literacy education, which underlies many of the essays in this collection.


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Demetrion, G. (2001). "Motivation and the adult new reader: Student profiles in a Deweyan vein." Adult Basic Education, Volume 11, Number 2, 80-108.
Demetrion, G. (2002). "Exploring the middle ground: Literacy as growth." Adult Basic Education, Volume 12, Number 1.
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