I had an interview with a PhD student today that got me to thinking about various instructional philosophies. Now, I must say that this is somewhat unusual for me, since I happen to think that all three philosophies mentioned in the title of this post (a) are weakly supported (at best) by what little we know about how people actually learn, (b) usually misapply what we do know in practice, and (c) generally net me little practical gain in my design for the effort.
That said, they are not entirely without their uses, and this particular PhD student got me thinking by asking an interesting question: When do you employ each of these philosophies in your instructional designs? What I like about the question is its pragmatism. It suggests that constructivism, cognitivism, and behaviorism are all perspectives that you try on to achieve specific goals rather than fundamentally correct or incorrect positions about how human beings learn.In the course of the conversation, I discovered that I do, in fact, have a coherent approach regarding when to use each of these philosophies (consciously or unconsciously) with my corporate clients, and it comes down to how I think the sponsors mentally model the cognitive domain of the course and the roles of the participants in relation to that particular knowledge domain, not so much because the “customer is always right” as because their mental model ends up driving their learning objectives and ROI measures in some pretty comprehensive ways.
For example, constrictivist techniques are mainly useful in collaborative courses where the content is cutting-edge and the participants are perceived to be high-value knowledge workers within the domain. Even though the sponsor usually doesn’t actually believe that meaning is socially constructed, there is enough doubt about what is “true” that the sponsor hopes the collected brainpower of the participants will flush out truth through open-ended dialogue. (In fact, many times these courses will double as strategic planning sessions.) The net effect is an instructional strategy that is broadly compatible with constructivism even if the underlying intuitions of the sponsors are fairly objectivist. Here are a few courses that might qualify for a kind of pseudo-constructivist treatment:
- A course on constructing synthetic securities taught by a Wharton professor to hedge fund managers
- A course on early interventions for stroke victims taught to senior emergency room physicians
- A course on leadership taught to senior managers
In contrast, cognitivist techniques are generally useful for bread-and-butter knowledge worker courses where the sponsor believes that there is a right way of doing things (or at least, a better way of doing things) but where figuring out best practices for a given situation can be complicated. The goal is to get the participants to apply well-defined best practices more effectively in a complicated work environment.
- A course on HIPAA regulations and their impact on writing medical charts taught to emergency room physicians
- A course on early interventions for stroke victims taught to emergency room admitting nurses
- A course on financial business analysis taught to middle managers
Behaviorist techniques are the bottom of the barrel, both in terms of types of tasks and in terms of the perceived status of the learners as knowledge workers. These are cases where imitation is sufficient and innovation is generally seen as a negative.
- A course in entering patient chart information into the computer for hospital desk personnel
- A course on how to use Outlook 2003 for anyone who wants to take it
- A course in phone ettiquette for customer service call center workers