Sunday, September 4, 2011

Determinism - non-Determinism Spectrum in Learning

Today my colleague Rick Oller posed a dichotomy (perhaps a spectrum) with draconian on one side and organic on the other. We were discussing the application of theory to instructional design. He likes to talk about determinism and its opposite so I took that to be the meaning of his use of draconian (deterministic) and organic (non deterministic). As I grapple with understanding and teaching about learning theory I look for ways to tease out the distinctions and similarities of our big notions about learning. I decided to apply this spectrum as a lens to consider four big educational theories. I think the line between organic and draconian already exists within the theories with behaviorism and cognitivism on one side (draconian), constructivism and connectivism on the organic side. I won't draw the line in black, and as a techno virtualist my line runs the full gradient of gray.
Cognitivism is hyper draconian: instructor or content centered, rule oriented. At its basic level instructional design depends on cognitivism because the rules or design principles make the user experience pleasing and effective.
Behaviorism can be either very rigid or very organic. Strict behaviorism is content centered and very structured like a recipe. On the other extreme, all interaction is a complex dynamic system of stimulus response. Negotiation, pursuasion, manipulation and love are all the outcomes of organic behaviorism.
Constructivism sits in its own gray space between cognitivism and connectivism. It can be more or less instructor-, content- of learner- driven. It is always learner-driven by virtue of the underlying belief in subjective individually constructed reality.
Connectivism plays well with all the other theories-practices but is decidedly learner-driven. However in connectivism, I would argue that the "learner" may be a human, a group, a system or a machine. Connectivism is not rule oriented in a hierarchical sense, but "rules" or logics (not unlike and maybe including the laws of physics) apply in the dynamic and seemingly unpredictable direction learning and connecting takes.
I tell my students, and anyone who will listen, that the four theories are not mutually exclusive. They are all useful. They all explain some aspects of learning. And since there are different types of learning one theory or an other is more useful depending on content and goals. Skillful teachers incorporate strategies that are based on more than one of these theories. And each of us leans toward one or another of the theories because of our understanding of reality. If your world view includes objective reality I suspect you will favor practices based on cognitivism and classical behaviorism. If you believe that reality is a construction of each individual you are likely to favor constructivism or connectivism.

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