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Constructivism and instructional design

Stephen W. Draper

Contents (click to jump to a section)


This consists of some messages to ITFORUM

in Sept. 1997 around the topic of constructivism. (Link to list of ITFORUM participants.)

My first piece to itforum

I'd like to begin by saying thank you to Dave Merrill, first for finding an appropriate tone of reply to my posting, perhaps better chosen than mine had been; and secondly for the pointer to his piece (manifesto?) "Reclaiming instructional design".

These communicate two points about raising the constructivist debate here: firstly, a rejection of abstract philosophical arguments in this context, and secondly a claim to be doing science.

I like the rejection, particularly as applied to constructivism, because the part of that which I find most acceptable is its idea that education and training should seek to connect new material to a learner's existing knowledge and experience. Abstract and/or philosophical arguments don't work for Dave, and above all do not address our own personal existing experience of learning and instruction: so of course even if we are constructivists we shouldn't be using them here, as constructivism itself would predict that they will be ineffective.

So what in my own experience made me raise the issue? Several things:

  1. Firstly, in fact, in reading Dave's chapter on the web I found the sentence "An example of a constraint is that you cannot disconnect the air hose until the compressor is off." I wondered: was that a misprint for "should not"? My guess, based on my (very limited) experiences of messing with equipment like that is that there is nothing to stop you disconnecting a high pressure line, but if you do there will be a blast of air, the end of the line will whip around and try to hit you in the face, then the compressor supplying the air may start overworking, and so on. The fragment of instruction given in the chapter doesn't seem to connect to that. The general point is, it made me wonder if the instruction was written for those who have never touched any equipment with high pressure air, or on the contrary assumed all the learners had had such experience and so it could take short cuts on these issues and it was just a misprint of "cannot" for "should not" with the learner filling in the reasons. (Of course it may be that the simulation enforces "cannot", but the issue remains about connecting with experience, and indeed raises a new one of whether the learner should expect such constraints to be enforced in the world or to be learned as an essential self-discipline.)
    In other words, right here in the example chosen the question of how material must be designed differently for students with different prior knowledge and experience seemed very relevant, but not apparently accommodated in any way.

  2. I think this is in fact a general point. In a project I was part of some years ago, we were designing material for teaching Newton's laws. A large body of educational literature plus interview work we did ourselves showed that a major issue was learners' prior experiences of things, which always suggests that, contrary to Newton's laws, continued force is required to maintain continued motion. The solution I proposed and the project adopted was to tackle the teaching of friction at the same time as the teaching of Newton's laws, otherwise learners' past and continuing everyday experience would contradict what we wished them to learn. This is different from most instructional treatments which teach these topics quite separately, because to a physicist they are separate instructional goals.

  3. I think this importance of attending to what particular learners already think, and also to what they do not already know, is important in every case. Not only in the case cited where we wished to teach concepts, but also in the design of web pages for conveying quite simple information. Here one problem is whether the intended recipients understand the words and phrases used in the way the author does. In fact it has been shown that that is also an important source of trouble in teaching e.g. in chemistry tutorials, where words like "volatile" are understood quite differently by tutors and many students. No amount of analysing instructional goals to death will help: analysing the learners' starting state is what is required. This does not just apply to words, but also to graphics. Recently we (that is, a student of mine, Nina Webster) interviewed visitors to open day here about how easy it was for them to find the buildings on campus. They had all been issued with maps. However one arriving student said she had never really used a map before: thus exposing as false another instructional assumption that I for one had shared with the open day organisers.

  4. If I am arguing in favour of constructivism, I like to use the analogy of travel, and argue that you can't design instruction by considering only the destination (the state you would like learners to end up in), but must equally consider the starting point. An attempt to design instructions for how to travel to London that ignored whether that particular learner was starting from New York, Sydney, or Watford (a suburb on the northern outskirts of London) would fail ludicrously.

  5. Actually most instruction designed using Gagne's approach, or (I understand) the methods of Dave Merrill, doesn't fail that badly but as Ian Hart so rightly says does quite well just as many other ways of designing instruction do, so the travel metaphor may be suspect. Another metaphor that occurs to me is that of bridge building. Prefabricated bridges that are designed without any knowledge of where they will be used can work quite well, leaving the issues of adaptation to local conditions to the erectors: by analogy to the issue of design vs. delivery of instruction that someone here raised. Nevertheless most bridges are designed in response to the specific site and for good reason. I take this to be an argument in favour of addressing learners' prior knowledge, as I believe constructivism requires but "instructional design" does not.


  6. I hope that satisfies Dave's rejection of philosophical argument, though perhaps my use of metaphor is suspect. I now want to address his appeal to science. My view of science is that it is essentially an appeal to experience external to one's self that pushes back at you and so may confirm or contradict one's ideas. The first point is that an explicit appeal to "science" is itself an appeal to authority rather than to evidence, and so suspect and indeed almost self-contradictory. Furthermore in this context it raises the question of why if science is good for instructors it isn't good for learners: why don't we expect them to connect what they are told to their own experience? If we do, then we are adopting a constructivist approach, and must be ready to deal with some learners who have (for example) had experience of disconnecting a live air line, and others who have not and will therefore respond differently to the same instruction.

  7. Which brings me to the next point. The main finding in studies of instruction (both "scientific" and in my own experience: and perhaps yours too?) is that of variability (as Lester said, I think). The same instruction has varied effects on different learners. That for me is THE big finding. That means if instruction is a science, it is certainly not an exact science. And I believe a major source of that variation is the different prior experience and conceptions of different learners: and that, in my view, is the key point of constructivism. (However it has to be said that it is not the only source of learner variability: time of day, nutritional state, and above all interest in learning this material are at least as important: so constructivism can only be one of the theories we need.) So it seems to me that goal oriented approaches to instruction are in fact, contrary to Dave's claim, NOT scientific insofar as they ignore major scientific findings.

  8. The essential problem with "instructional design" of the Gagne school is that it is strictly top down. It takes instructional objectives and subdivides them in a top down fashion, ending up with a set of small items, for each of which a separate instructional action is taken. This is like the design methods that used to be taught in computer science, but are now largely discredited even there. There are two separate important reasons for the failure of top down design from functional requirements.

The first is the importance of human users. Most computer applications nowadays revolve around human users. We do not have a predictive theory of how humans will behave. Consequently when you build a piece of software for humans, you have to observe whether or not the interaction works well, and when you have seen the problems, you need to modify the design. This is an iterative, protoyping, design method. Instruction is for humans, and the same principles apply: we must expect any design to need improving in the light of experience. To advocate a design method without such iteration is in fact anti-scientific: it is to refuse to allow any place for testing against reality.

The second reason is to do with the interaction of parts of the problem. A top down design method only works in domains where each part of the problem can be solved independently, and the solution to one part has no effect on the solution to another part. In computer science this is an important ideal, because making parts (subroutines, objects, whatever) independent makes both for resuable code and for tractable testing of components. But even there it is in fact problematic. (Thus Knuth has argued for design, not top down, but in order of difficulty, so that the most problematic part is tackled first in order to discover any knock-on implications for other parts.) Other areas of design do not even have this as an ideal, but are closer to recognising that the heart of design is dealing with interacting constraints. Instruction should recognise this too. Items of knowledge are not independent of each other. Even if an instructor convinces himself they are independent, this does not make it any more likely that they are independent in the mind of the learner, as my example of friction and Newton's laws illustrates. It just means the instructor is designing for himself, not for the learner. Similarly the question for instruction on milk valves is what connections each learner is likely to make, and which of them will be helpful, which confusing.

Not only are knowledge items not independent of each other, each instructional action or item may have multiple effects (relate to several items), and conversely Laurillard's model lists 12 activities that bear on each single knowledge item. The relationships here are many to many, and no top down design procedure can cope.

More points that don't fit in

There are 2 different types of connections for learners: with experience, and with other/past ideas and knowledge.

Constructivism: construct new knowledge by attachment to prior foundations.

This is always possible, no matter how detached the instruction. The learner can always attach it to prior knowledge of the words, or at least (for new jargon) the syllables. But such attachment is extremely shallow: a very narrow base. As psychology would predict, learners then show poor retention compared to linking it to a richer network of prior items.

Phil Agre: we want independent subparts to problems because this is such a cognitively advantageous thing. Hence the desire for knowledge lumps and artifacts that show this independence.

Ian Hart

[Ian Hart, to Itforum, 26 Sept 1997] It seems to me that one of the instructional weaknesses in the application of Dave's methodology is the assumption that there is only one correct answer: after all, that's what his programs teach and the criterion for success is that the student can recall and repeat it. And a parallel hole in the constructivist argument is that all answers are correct, depending on your prior experience and knowledge base. The ID3 approach is very much top-down while the "pure" (100% straw?) constructivist approach is totally bottom-up.

The fact is that I'd rather learn to drive from Dave Merrill than from an instructor who urged me to apply my previous experiences of walking, swimming and bike riding to discover how this mode of transport works.

It seems to me that a sensible middle road is to be found in Ference Marton's phenomenography and its development into Diana Laurillard's "conversational" model of teaching, where it is the responsibility of the teacher first to present the matrerial to be taught, then to understand the learner's world view (which may be totally cock-eyed and interfere with learning) and adapt the teaching method through the use of a conversational framework. Not a new idea - Socrates did it. Laurillard indicates ways in which mediated instruction can aim towards this ideal. I'm sure Dave knows it well.

(part of) Walt Wager's response

WW replies — Not exactly, Gagne asserts that the the intellectual skills constitute a hierarchy, the other domains do not. The process of curriculum mapping (Gagne, Briggs and Wager, 1992), can be used to visualize how knowledge and skills from other domains interrelate. Once a curriculum map is drawn (and there may be many different expressions of how the objectives relate) the process of synthesis begins. Objectives are grouped according to not only rules for prerequisite skills, but also by facilitating relationships, employing the concept of spaced practice and transfer of prior knowledge. It is here where meaningful learning activities and projects are considered. These may be piece projects (such as constructing a customer database as a component of a sales system), but they are meaningful and employ the objectives that have been grouped as related.

Dave Merrill's response in his wrapup

I do believe that students "construct" their knowledge from experience. I do believe that "doing" is far more effective than "telling". But I also believe that some of this experience can be in the form of computer-based learning environments. I also believe that appropriate learner guidance will make this learning by doing far more effective than "sink or swim" exploration. And finally I believe that to be truly effective this learning activity must be goal driven and that these goals can be predetermined by the designer of the system in consideration of learners, the instructional institution, etc.

1. Brett Bixler indicated that "Others in this discussion have alluded to ITT and its probable inability to teach higher order thinking skills." I have a little trouble with what we mean by "higher order thinking skills". One interpretation seems to be that we don't know what will be learned. Another seems to be it involves "inference". In my mechanistic way I believe that higher order skills are knowable and teachable. For me there is a hierarchy of such skills including but not limited to the following: concept classification (inference about an object or situation as to whether or not it belongs to a class), prediction (inference about whether a given consequence will follow from a set of conditions). The areas of ambiguity seem to be to be "discovery" or finding new relationships between conditions and consequences or "invention" creating new artifacts which accomplish a given goal. However, once a relationship has been discovered or even in the hypothesis stage representing this relationship in terms of knowledge objects makes the hypothesis or proposition clear so it is possible to determine when the a discovery has been made. In a like manner specifying the operation of an invention in terms of conditions and consequences makes its specification less ambiguous and thus easier to determine when the invention has accomplished the desired goal. I suspect that this formulation makes some of you uncomfortable.

2. Steve Draper's observation concerning "_ cannot disconnect_" versus "_ should not disconnect _" is very well taken. We have versions of the system that operate just as he suggests. If you disconnect the hose when the air pressure is up you suffer the consequences.

It bothers me that the rhetoric of constructivism seems to depend on straw man arguments. Why do those advocating this position insist on telling me what I believe? Let me address one or two of these concerns.

Steve Draper argues for considering the learner. I couldn't agree more. Then he includes the straw man which is not the case. "I take this to be an argument in favor of addressing learners' prior knowledge, as I believe constructivism requires but `instructional design' does not." Steve, every ISD model with which I am familiar has a step to analyze learners, to determine what they know. Gagne hierarchy analysis is an attempt to determine at what point a learner should enter the body of knowledge and skill to be taught and is based on "prerequisite knowledge" as its fundamental principle.

The same theme is stated in the following: "_ why if science is good for instructors it isn't good for learners:_". Steve the science of instruction takes the following format: If you want a learner to acquire a certain outcome then you must engage certain conditions of learning. This is a statement about learners. It does not ignore learners.

Another statement: "_ the same instruction has varied effects on different learners." Steve seems to feel that somehow we instructional designers are ignoring this fact. I wish I had time to pursue this argument in more depth but for now my argument is as follows:

At a deep level, the learning mechanisms of all human beings is basically the same regardless of race, culture, or even time in which the learner lived (at least within recorded history).

At a surface level, the specific knowledge and skill that a given learner has acquired differs greatly.

For me a science of instruction addresses the deep level. What interactions are necessary to engage the learners basic learning mechanisms? If these interactions are not present there will be a decrement in learning. Our work over the past 30 years has been attempt to identify some of the prescriptions that address these deep learning mechanisms. Subscribing to a constructivist or any other philosophy does not change these underlying mechanisms. If the instruction, whether discovery environments or lectures does not include the interactions required by a particular learning mechanism, then the learner will not acquire the desired knowledge or skill.

Now, what about the surface level. It seems to be that content analysis, learner analysis, subject matter analysis, tack analysis, and a number of other techniques are attempts to determine what the learner knows, where the instruction should begin, what prerequisites are necessary. To believe that instructional design is not concerned with these issues is to demonstrate that you do not understand instructional design. Once the curriculum (list and sequence of content items) has been determined, then it is critical that the appropriate instructional strategies (transactions to use our term) are engaged to enable the learner to acquire the knowledge or skill represented by a given content item. Representing these fundamental transactions and the strategies that cause the student to engage these fundamental transactions is the intent of Instructional Transaction Theory.

I appreciate Walt Wager's comments on Gagne analysis. No one knows it better. The other straw man that demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of instructional design is that it is strictly top down analysis. Further, that analysis is somehow bad and causes us to miss important learning outcomes. I suggest that lack of appropriate analysis is the problem. If we don't know what we want to teach, if we leave it up to the learner to structure their own learning, is we engage in "ill structured" environments the probably is very, very high that the necessary information is missing from the environment making it impossible for the learner to acquire the desired knowledge or skill. Further, it is very probable that the links between the required knowledge objects are unspecified and incomplete further hindering the engagement of a required instructional transaction to engage the learner's fundamental learning mechanisms. Allowing students to structure their own learning in "ill structured" environments is not a great virtue but abdication of our responsibility as teachers and instructors. Students do not know nor understand their own learning mechanisms. Most environments are not structured to promote appropriate interactions which will efficiently and effectively engage the learners fundamental learning mechanisms. Instruction is the science and technology of determining how to "design" effective learning environments. Instructional Transaction Theory is such an attempt.

Finally, we are only scratching the surface. We know very little. But I refuse to abandon the quest for such a science and technology.

My response (20 Oct 1997)

Somewhat late, I would like to say thank you to the people who commented on my remarks on constructivism, and particularly to Dave Merrill, whose long remarks in his wrapup were very useful to me.

For anyone interested, I am putting my collected notes on this part of the discussion at:

I think I have 3 points to put about what I was on about. a) Several people said that Instructional designers do investigate what their learners know as part of their design. It sounded however as if that was still within a framework of thinking of knowledge as consisting of independent strictly cumulative items (or objects!). Often this is fine, and it takes care of skipping redundancy and ensuring the learner has pre-requisite knowledge. But it doesn't take account of identifying prior (mis)conceptions that will actively interfere with instruction; nor with identifying what it is the learner already knows that should get connected with the new material (e.g. in what circumstances they have met air hoses before).

b) When I said "top down design" I meant, not whether students could be taught in more than one order (though that is an interesting issue), but whether the designer could afford to do the design top down because nothing they did in one part of the design could affect another part. This is widely sought after in computer science, and often seems to apply in instruction; but not always. In my example, I claimed that teaching friction and teaching Newton's laws strongly interacted, so any method that set goals for these independently and then designed instruction for each separately would get into trouble.
I am not against setting explicit goals systematically, and indeed refining them down into small pieces. But I am interested in whether existing design methods then draw the false though apparently sensible inference that the pieces can then be addressed independently. A good test is whether any piece of instruction relates to more than one objective: in reality I sometimes learn more than one thing from a single learning event. But it is hard to design systematically for this.

c) Explicit methods. There were numerous comments of the kind "of course instructional designers do ...". I believe them. Design methods in all fields are paper procedures executed by skilled humans. That means a huge amount is NOT explicit in the method: if it were, computers not humans would be doing the design. I assume instructional design is like that, along with all software engineering methods. But it is of considerable theoretical interest, and perhaps eventual practical interest, to identify more and more of what "of course" has to be done that is not actually mentioned in the method itself.
Someone mentioned behaviorism. That, in this context, strikes a big chord for me. I once heard a talk on behavioral therapy; what was striking, was that the speaker was describing what was both clearly successful, and in many ways intuitively plausible as an approach, but justifying it by a theory that seemed clearly rubbish. Any theory that helps is good insofar as it supports or advances successful practice; but it is interesting to try to strive for better theories too. A very promising place to look is in the gaps between explicit theory and what is actually done by good practitioners. That was what I was trying to probe.


Merrill,D. "Instructional Transaction Theory (ITT)".

Merrill,D. et al. "Reclaiming instructional design".

(Gagne, Briggs and Wager, 1992)