Saturday, February 09, 2008

Instructional what?

The Big Question on the the Learning Circuits blog this month is "Instructional Design - If, When and How Much?"

Instructional Design shares its acronym (ID) with Intelligent Design and deserves to be equally controversial. Anything that works needs to have some principle of design -- whatever the source or agent -- and most would spontaneously agree that design which is intelligent is better than, say, random design.

But is it? Evolutionary theory is about creative adaptation rather than wilful creation for a single or simple-minded purpose and evolution works because by definition it permanently and constantly takes into account everything in the environment, not just some key factor someone thinks may be the most important*. It would be nice if in the Intelligent Design debate people recognized that "creative adaptation", as the easily recognizable active principle, could, philosophically speaking, admit a number of forces, known and unknown. From an empirical point of view that's actually what we appear to observe. But civilized humans seem to have acquired the habit of referring exclusively or preferentially to what they themselves know, or rather what they have previously theorized, and generally reduce the principle of creative adaptation to a cause or set of causes which they believe explain everything. Whether it’s God (implicitly meaning an anthropomorphic agent with a cosmic drawing-board) or the “selfish gene”, we have a curious taste for seeing the universe as a purpose-driven vehicle and putting a single driver in the car… possibly because we’re more influenced and admiring of our own mechanical inventions than the world around us and that we assume they are an appropriate model for understanding the natural world. How many of us refuse any form of belief in the common idea that the brain is a super-computer, a belief that persists even when we admit it’s only a metaphor?

All this is to say that we need to recognize that the most effective way to provoke learning is not so much to impose our “instructional intelligence” on the process as to ensure that there is enough spontaneous interaction in the complex learning environment – some of which we can create, but most of which is already there – for evolutionary process to develop with regard to EVERYTHING in the environment. The Instructional Design debate always seems to boil down to selecting the best formula for getting people to understand something we already know. Doesn’t that in itself indicate a certain form of perversity? It assumes that our knowledge is sufficient and suggests the belief that it is also complete or reasonably complete. And it assumes that there are replicable and equally effective methods for influencing that form of evolution we call learning.

My own instinct is to drop the word “instructional” and replace it by, say, “emerging awareness”, because learning is always a complex set of continuous interactions with the environment. So that would leave us with Emerging Awareness Design, which sounds rather New Age, even Ron L Hubbardish, and still contains the general idea of Mechanical Control conveyed by Design. So let’s get rid of Design and maybe call it “adaptive strategy”. So that would give us Emerging Awareness Adaptive Strategy, EAAS, which seems a bit cumbersome. To simplify I would suggest moving to a different metaphor and calling it a Learning Game Plan (LGP) since games are by definition a complex set of unpredictable interactions (in that sense Simulations are not really games, but representations of games precisely because they have been “designed” to look like games). ID, including Sims, could still exist alongside LGP, in a totally subordinate role, as a set of preventive and curative tactics within the overall game strategy. But those tactics should not be abstracted from any real environment (the actual game) and imposed as a set model to be applied whenever a specific type of problem or gap occurs. It’s the LGP that will judge and adapt an ID template to the reality of the game.

How can this be achieved? Two answers are possible:

· Through increasingly “intelligent agents” (however, those agents do not come into existence through interaction with the environment, but rather through our own “intelligent” reading of the environment, not quite the same thing).
· Through social interaction, which includes both conscious and unconscious, seen and unseen factors of the environment.

So even if we could build reliable intelligent agents (quite a step forward from e-learning courses), they must be subordinated to the social reality in which people actually learn and adapt. Call it the principle of subsidiarity: all learning artefacts are only potential tools in an adaptive Learning Game Plan.

Coaches in professional sports always start with a game plan but use the actual circumstances of play to evolve it rather than stupidly hoping that the outcome they had foreseen would automatically emerge. Any particular technique used in the course of the game can be seen simply as a tactic producing an event that will inevitably provoke a reaction in the environment (e.g. by the opposing team). Both the coach and the players are learning as they try to execute the game plan, which is itself evolving. They use environmentally adapted versions of techniques they have worked on in practice. And in some cases they discover a “mutation” that allows them to solve a problem posed by the environment in a new way.

Now that is a Design strategy and I would say an Intelligent Design Strategy. That is my “Instruction” for the day.


* The method of so much “evolutionary psychology” follows this pattern of imposing a brilliant and perfectly “logical” idea of causality on past stages of evolution. The exercise is fun but without knowing and calculating EVERY variable, our theories are about as reliable as a forecast of the weather for the third Tuesday of next month in Biloxi, Mississippi.

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