On Monday, a hearty Twitter exchange emerged when Jane Bozarth quoted Roger Schank “Why do we assume that theories of things must be taught to practitioners of those things?” I stood up for theory, Cammy Bean and Dave Ferguson chimed in and next thing you know, we’re having a lively discussion in 140 characters. With all the names to include, Dave pointed out we had even less space!
One side was stoutly defending that what SMEs thought was important wasn’t necessarily what practitioners needed. The other side (that would be me) wanted to argue that it’s been demonstrated that having an underlying model is important in being able to deal with complex problems.
So, of course, the issue really was what we mean by theory. It’s easy (and correct) to bash conceptual knowledge frameworks that don’t have applicability to the problem at hand; Dave revived the great quote: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.” He also cited Van Merrienboer & Kirschner as saying that teaching theory to successful practitioners can be detrimental. (BTW, see Dave’s great series of posts ‘translating‘ their work.) On the other hand, having models has clearly been shown to be valuable in adapting to complexity and ambiguity. What’s a designer to do?
So, let me be clear. If there’s a rote procedure to be followed, there’s no need for a theory. In fact, there’s no need for training, since you ought to automate it! Our brains are good at pattern matching, bad at rote repetition, and it seems to me to be sad if not criminal to have people do rote stuff that could be done better by machine; save the interesting and challenging tasks for us!
It’s when tasks are complex, ill-structured, and/or ambiguous with lots of decisions, that we need theories. Or, rather, models. Which, I think, is part of the confusion (and I may be to blame! :).
I’m talking about an understanding of the underlying model that guides performance. Any approach to a problem has (or should) a rationale behind it about why that’s the reason you do it this way, not that way. It’s based upon some theory, but it should be resolved into a model that has just enough richness to help you decide when to do X and when to do Y. As I said many years ago (you’ll see that I was in an English-speaking country at the time):
I see mental models as dynamic. That is, they’re causal explanations of system behaviour. They are used to explain observed outcomes and to predict the effects of perturbations.
It’s the explanation and prediction capabilities that are important. The problem is, if the situation’s complex enough (and most are, whether it’s controlling a production line, or dealing with a customer, or…), you can’t train on all the situations that a learner might face. So then you need to provide guidance. Yes, we’ll use example and practice context to support transfer, but we should refer back to a model that guides our performance. And that’s useful and necessary.
Cammy noted that it’s extra work to develop that model, and I acknowledge that. I’ve said that good instructional design requires more work and knowledge on the part of the designer than we typically expect, which is why I don’t think you can do good ID without knowing some learning theory. (BTW, my Broken ID series addresses a lot of the above.)
So, let me be clear: in any reasonably complex domain (and you shouldn’t be training for simple issues: just give a job aid or automate or…), you should present the learner with a model that you reinforce in examples and practice. It should not be an abstract academic theory, but a practical guide to why things are done this way and what governs the adaptation to circumstances. As that model is acquired through examples and practice, you provide the basis for self-improving performance.
That’s my model for designing effective learning. What’s yours?
On a side note, what I recall as to the various tweets, and what Twitter shows from each person, doesn’t have a perfect correlation. While I acknowledge my memory failing more frequently (just age, not dementia or Alzheimer’s, I *think*), I’m pretty sure that Twitter dropped some of those messages from the record (the same time they acknowledged having trouble with dropping avatar images). Tweeter beware!