Paul Kirschner, grumpy optimist

kirschner link imageI’ve just read a short interview with Paul Kirschner in the Learning Scientists blog. Kirschner is an education researcher and co-author of Ten Steps to Complex Learning, a challenging but insightful book about which I wrote a series of posts some years ago.

A few parts of the interview that stood out for me:

If a learner doesn’t enjoy the learning experience, even if it’s effective and/or efficient, they won’t do it. The same is true for teaching: that is it must also be effective, efficient, and enjoyable for the teacher because if a teacher doesn’t enjoy the teaching process, even if it’s effective and/or efficient, they won’t do it.

Kirschner is talking about formal education, though I think this absolutely applies in the world of organizational learning and development as well. I strongly believe in the value of learning by doing, and of using realistic, rich practice problems — but in my experience if an organization hasn’t done those things often, people can resist such approaches because they don’t “look like” good training, or because they seem unnecessarily difficult, or because the learner is eager to get to the point (as he sees it) and wants to be told what to do and when to do it.

…Sweller’s cognitive load theory suggests that you should not present the exact same information in two modalities – for example, reading directly from a slide… And yet, many researchers who should know better will still do this. The best way to translate research is in your own teaching – why did you study it if you’re not going to use it?

Kirschner’s presenting Sweller’s redundancy principle here as an example. I’d extend the target group from researchers to practitioners: learning professionals should look for ways to put into practice the theories they espouse — or at the least to ask themselves why they practice what they practice.

From Sweller’s 1999 paper:

Many multimedia instructional presentations are still based on common sense rather than theory or extensive empirical research. Visual formats tend to be determined purely by aesthetic considerations while the use of sound and its interaction with vision seems not to be based on any discernible principles.

(Managing Split-attention and Redundancy in Multimedia Instruction — Kalyuga, Chandler, Sweller)

The interviewers asked Kirschner how to challenge misconceptions in education. On the one hand, he encourages those who train teachers to connect their research to something that teachers have experienced — in other words, to find a starting point based on where the teacher has been.

“Don’t ever say ‘because research shows X’ — this is a conversation killer.”

This is a marvelous point for a researcher to make, and one I need to put into practice more often. I’ve gradually learned not to argue with advocates of learning styles, in part they’re no more interested in freelance criticism of what they believe is effective than I typically am.

A sidebar in the post says that Kirschner describes himself as “an educational realist and grumpy old man.” That may be the case, but in the interview and in his writings, I note as well his search for evidence and his optimism that practitioners will adopt strategies and techniques based on that evidence–and will experience success when they do.

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