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.

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