The basic understanding, or, fact-based theory

I came across an email in which I’d noted a contribution that Terry Seamon made to an online discussion about learning at work:

Ultimately, the answer to “Do you understand?” is “Yes, let me demonstrate.”

Sometimes–especially at large conferences–it can seem as though  many trainers and instructional designers lapse into a kind of cognitive ritual, reciting orthodox objectives, sometimes for every 15-minute segment of formal instruction. “At the end of this topic, the student will be able to advance to the next topic.”

I’m in favor of performance-based objectives, but mostly as a tool for design, not as a benediction recited over the heads of people who would much rather get something done. I firmly believe that what learners would rather hear is more along the lines of “This segment shows you how to calculate flood insurance rates for residential property.”

Or, if they’re dealing with softer skills, “Next, you’re going to practice planning and conducting a counseling session when an employee’s performance has become unsatisfactory.”

That’s 15 seconds, not ten minutes plus time to post the flipchart. It’s a virtual course? Then you have a much shorter audio/video lead-in.

Sometimes people benefit from knowing theory and concepts about a field, but as van Merriënboer and Kirschner say, you can’t practice theory. Theory is a kind of map, an effort at organization, like Samuel Champlain‘s maps of New France. Maps and theories get better as you put them to use, incorporating mindful experience into the previous effort at organization.

Champlain's 1612 map of New France (from Wikipedia)
Champlain’s 1612 map of New France (from Wikipedia)

There was a time in my career when I’d strenuously avoid using “understand” as an objective, and I still think that on the part of someone planning any kind of structured learning, it’s at best oversimplification and at worst a sign he should have gone into another line of work. I’m speaking of the developer, though, not the client; more often than not, the client’s using “understand” as shorthand for a fistful of skills (and, frequently, a bucketful of facts).

Seamon’s statement above offers a way out of the dilemma without having to rant about behavioral objectives. How can someone demonstrate that he understands the difference between a single-life annuity and a joint-and-survivor annuity? Maybe he describes key differences; maybe he identifies examples of each when presented with descriptions of various types of annuities. Maybe he role-plays a conversation and gets feedback on his answers from an expert. You choose among demonstrations like these depending on what someone needs to accomplish in the workplace, and both you and the learner are better off for the choice having been made.

3 thoughts on “The basic understanding, or, fact-based theory

  1. The main point of performance-based or behavioral objectives is about expectation and assessment. “Understand” is obviously something that happens, but it happens in the mind of the learner. The performance or behavior is how the learner demonstrates they understand. I think a lot of people complain about performance and behavioral objectives because they are mentally adding the performance part to their practice, but without ever explaining that part to the students in their objectives, leaving the student wondering the degree and nature of the understanding required.

    So, you’re right on target with the choices and that they are tied to the kind of real life performance the student needs to be able to accomplish in the workplace. I’m not sure though that this is much different from “ranting” about behavioral objectives (as opposed to behaviorist objectives, perhaps). :)

  2. Clint,

    It wasn’t much of a rant, at least by my recreational-rant standards. It was more a shrug of recognition at how stereotypical corporate learning can be — predictable, formulaic, and worst of all disengaged from the individual’s work.

    I suspect there’s a high correlation between organization dullness and the likelihood that you’ll see stock PowerPoint clip art.

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