Monday, July 12, 2010

If What You Mean Is the Opposite of the Thing, then Yes...

This month's Learning Circuits Big Question is:


I think there is some further parsing that's needed in the question, but in my case the answer is a simple yes, but not in the way that's implied. The details are problematic.

In instructional design there are some established best practices when breaking up content into appropriate pieces, how to handle visual presentation, the quality of narrators, as well as other considerations. All of these and others are based on responses human audiences have given to instructional events and their design. While none of the above should be taken as "gospel", many of these best practices are generated from experience and research in evaluating learning programs and their effectiveness. To this end we have discovered at least some of how the brain works (or rather, behaves), and we as professionals incorporate these success-minded considerations as we design and develop solutions.

The best practices are, at least in some cases, not directly derived from direct application of learnings from research on the brain itself. In this sense many of us are not using knowledge of brain functioning but rather knowledge of human behavior. Clark Quinn expresses a somewhat similar point of view. After all, we got pretty far into the twentieth century without knowing a whole lot about how our brains learn, and our more primitive instructional strategies were fruitful in some significant way. This is of course not to excuse or endorse bad or traditional strategies, but simply to point out that we may not know enough yet to say we're applying the concept deeply. And that's my main point in answering this month's query.

Jason McDonald explains some of my sentiment as well. I put some heavy stock in Jason's point about the disconnect between what science has actually found, and what is communicated by journalists in periodicals. Not to paint too broadly here, but scientific results are consistently mis-represented/mis-communicated in the press. An assessment of the average person's understanding of evolutionary theory's basic thrust is enough to confirm that.

My question in response to the Big Q: Do we know enough about the brain to really say we are applying the fruits of brain-based research? At the risk of sounding like a denier of the evidentiary discoveries thus far, I do not think we know enough yet for the actual science of brain functioning to impact WLP work. I think what we have gained from pure practice and evaluation, and from other sciences such as human psychology, has been and may be enough for a while.

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