First Principles of Instruction, Part 2

This is a continuation of an article started here.

First principle number four: The Right Fit Principle, which posits that instruction is more likely to succeed if it correctly anticipates the prior knowledge and skill proficiency of its learners. If instruction is too basic, learners get bored. If it is too advanced, they get frustrated.

All courses are either electives or requirements. For electives, helpful course descriptions are critical. Learners need to have information to make good decisions. Of course, even professionals don’t always read carefully. I’ve seen frustrated instructors resort to all caps in their descriptions: “THIS IS NOT A BASIC COURSE.” Whatever it takes.

When a course is required, then it’s the designer’s job to ensure proper audience analysis is happening. Sometimes designers work with a target population enough to anticipate their skill level and misconceptions. If not, some research is in order.

If the target population is diverse in terms of their incoming level of skill and knowledge, acknowledge that in the design. Don’t just aim for the middle; create an instructional architecture that allows more advance learners to continue to advance while also accommodating the relative newbies. That’s not easy, but it’s better than boring half your audience and overwhelming the other half.

First principle number five: The Knowledge Is Power, but Only to a Point Principle

Is very common to see novice developers write objectives like, “participants will be able to deliver FAST feedback to their direct reports,” when it’s clear from their instruction that the best they can hope for is “participants will be able to describe the key principles of FAST feedback,” or similar. Sometimes this is semantics; the developer is aware that the course will only take learners so far and there are plans in place beyond this one class to support skill building. Sometimes, though, developers don’t recognize the difference between teaching knowledge and teaching skills.

The difference is significant, of course. Being able to talk about a skill in the abstract, and actually being able to do the skill, are two different things.

The key here is that course owners and developers should be as precise as possible about what level of skill learners will emerge from the classroom with, and they should communicate this to the stakeholders to let them know what their responsibilities are in terms of picking up where the training leaves off and delivering appropriate on-the-job training.


4 thoughts on “First Principles of Instruction, Part 2

  1. Ellen

    Not exactly a “reply,” but I’ve been listening to a book about Kahn Academy on my iPod, and I wonder what you think about their approach?

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      Hi, Ellen! Limited exposure, but I think he does a lot of things right. I like the tone and the look and feel. I read criticism occasionally that the tutorials are focused on procedures and sometimes don’t emphasize the conceptual, but I’m not sure how widespread that is. The thing I like most is that it provides a resource or at least a model to enable flipped classrooms, which is definitely a noble experiment (one my daughter is experiencing now in middle school). My biggest concern with his instructional model is that it is completely passive; they’d be more powerful with micro check your understanding questions with high quality feedback. What’s your view?

      1. Ellen McEvoy

        Hi Bob…  I’ve been going through some math on the Khan site. I started at the beginning, and I’m finding some blind spots, mostly (I like to think) because I went through school before “new math.” I like most of the interactions–they seem very intuitive and simple, like clicking on “bills” of various denominations to show graphically “$2346.03,” for example. Usually I can just tell at a glance what I need to do; if I can’t, there’s a button I can click to see what formats are allowable for answers. One of my PLATO gripes was often that we made interfaces too complicated and then had to spend a lot of resources explaining ourselves. I recall suggesting that we consider IKEA and Lego, since both manage to show what is needed without any words. (Well, OK, sometimes IKEA is tricky, but not too bad.)   I did run into some lessons last night on graphing lines, rise and run and slope, which I remember from the dim past and know I did well on then. The instruction was fairly helpful; I’m not sure how it would have been if I’d been totally new to the topic. It might have been better in that case, actually, since there wouldn’t be remnants of knowledge that needed to be wiped away. I liked the human touch, where he was “metacognizing” about the older interface: “We need to update this, that point is almost off the screen…we can do this better…”   Sometimes I find myself in what I’ll call “PLATO middle school mode,” like I saw at Battle Creek school years ago, where kids just kept taking tests over and over rather than tackling the tutorial to actually try and learn the concepts.   It will be interesting to see how it goes when I get farther from my comfort zone, into concepts I never did learn in the past.

      2. robertmulcahy Post author

        Based on your comment, I spent a few minutes over on the Khan Academy site–I’d only ever seen his stuff on YouTube so I didn’t realize that in context on his site there are lots of interactions with feedback. Good stuff. I feel privileged to live in a time when I get to see the dawn of high quality, free online educational tools. For-profit textbook companies will really have to transform themselves to survive in the long run.

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