Theories and Practices

@ADDIE_ID is a Twitter pseudonym for someone who discusses “Analysis-Design-Development-Implementation-Evaluation” and the “Instructional Design” model, and is really most sincerely dead, as are many training-related theories. A recent Tweet on multiple intelligences started off a chain-reaction in my mind:

I responded that many learning theories-in-use have become the hocus-pocus of the training industry. Here is what a quick search on multiple intelligences (which has a tendency to be linked with learning styles) brought:

Howard Gardner: The Myth of Multiple Intelligence

Gardner’s multiple intelligences have therefore been utilised to justify the development of broader curriculum opportunities and increased differentiation in teaching. The theory has also been aligned with learning styles. This paper raises serious concerns regarding the empirical basis for the theory of multiple intelligences and suggests that it has confused the social basis of intellectual activity with a proposed set of biologically based characteristics.

Occam’s Donkey: Mind Myth 7

Intelligence as a concept is generally associated with the kind of thinking capacity that make for success as school. Gardner’s labeling the aptitudes he proposed as intelligences, naturally led teachers to erroneously assume that they were fungible (one could substitute for another) and should be taught to.

Multiple Intelligences: The Making of a Modern Myth

In the end, Gardner’s theory is simply not all that helpful. For scientists, the theory of the mind is almost certainly incorrect. For educators, the daring applications forwarded by others in Gardner’s name (and of which he apparently disapproves) are unlikely to help students. Gardner’s applications are relatively uncontroversial, although hard data on their effects are lacking. The fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind makes it likely that the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective. All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.

Another theory that informs practice in the field of education and training is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has major flaws, as I wrote in Better than Bloom’s [see comments for more references]. I’m sure that many others can be added, so feel free to comment or link.

I would like to see a serious discussion, online or in physical space, that gets at many of the theories we use and shows practitioners what they are based on, how they work and their validity in view of the current science and research. We should keep in mind that while, “All models are wrong, some are useful” ~ George E.P. Box. This discussion should not be a myth-busting exercise but more of a pragmatic approach on what works and why. For educators, trainers, developers, vendors, etc. – we owe it to our field.

Suggested tag for Delicious, Twitter, et al – lrntheory

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9 Responses to “Theories and Practices”

  1. Jane Bozarth

    Well now you’ve done it! Are those worms I see wiggling out of that can? Here are some more:

    Will Thalhimer has had a standing offer for several years now: $1000 for any real research showing that delivering instruction according to ‘learning styles’ has any value. No one has yet collected the reward: .

    I’d like to add to the items on your list the maddening belief that the Kirkpatrick 4-level approach to post-mortem evaluation of a training program is a “theory” at all. It is not a ‘theory’ or even a ‘model’. It is just a taxonomy.


  2. Robert Bacal

    Great stuff, and also Jane’s ref. to Will. It’s funny that there is such a gap between current learning theory and models and practitioners, both on the level of currency, and in understanding the roles of theory and models.

    You’ve probably noticed that the theories/models that become rampant and influential are those that are intuitively sensible on their face and end up written about in pop psych. books. e.g. MBTI, learning styles, multiple intelligences.

    The sad part is that practitioners are usually years behind the research, and get their information mostly from pop sources rather than from reading and understanding the research, the latter a task that probably would take a full time commitment anyway.

    And, the true researchers write for each other, not practitioners.

    It’s interesting. Multiple Intelligences have been around and debated for probably a century but few trainers knew anything about them prior to recently.

    BTW, there is an error in the first sentence of Occam’s Donkey (that you quoted). It should read “intelligence test SCORES…linked to school success”. The error is common, particularly among non-psychologists — confusing intelligence scores (which were originally designed to predict school success), and the concept of intelligence. Different.

  3. Clark Quinn

    The research (UK study, Hal Pashler’s recent US study) says learning style instruments are garbage, and there’s no evidence that teaching to ‘styles’ is of any use. While there are reasons to recognize learners are different, the current take-home is still to use the right medium for the message.

    So I lump most learning styles with other snake-oil like multi-generational differences, digital natives, multi-tasking, brain science, etc.

    There are roles for talking about each of them, but they’re so grossly misused that perhaps it’s better to dissuade people until the bad noise has gone away! I laud your efforts to straighten out the concepts, but I worry that the light won’t make it through the noise and smoke. Not quite sure how to hold such a deep conversation in a public forum, but welcome the effort.

  4. Howard

    My opinion – is that any theory or model should be understood within a wider context that includes comparisons and contrasts with other theories as well as the development history of the theory (where it came from and why). No model is big enough to encompass everything that is relevant.
    About Howard Gardiner; when discussions of intelligence were viewed as pretty much the same as what you measure with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children then Garderner’s theory of multiple intelligences were a welcomed expansion of what could constitute cognitive skills. By themselves, Gardiner’s ideas are very limited, but I would suggest they should be view as they relate to those of Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, and others; and how it relates to the historic progression of behavioralism, cognitivism, and constructionism.
    My take on learning styles is not to try to map instruction to a measured style, but just to understand that people think differently. Since everyone does not think in the same way; it is a good idea to present material in different ways and learning styles can clue you into some of those different ways.
    In terms of “learning theory” that currently interests me these days, it is the difference between “knowing” and “doing”. I’m seeing “doing” as a complex combination of knowledge, skill, context (including social contexts), attitude and how you and the others around you are oriented to action. Knowing is necessary but insufficient. My understanding theoretically draws from Vygotsky and Activity Theory, but I think we need to go beyond them, maybe by drawing on Connectivism.

  5. Gilbert (Formative Assessment Guy)

    White is white. When you try to explain why “white is white” you go nowhere. You invent words to explain words. And with time you end up with bad cases of the “Emperor’s Clothes”.

    Intelligence (the useful type) is an Attitude.

    Not hard to see that the results on IQ tests, for example, will greatly differ depending on how hard the person is trying.

    Gardner should have added “sexual intelligence” to his list of 8. Might have really impacted the educational system.

    As long as people think we won’t screw up. But once people start using labels such as “learning styles” or “Blooms taxonomy” there is a huge risk of letting words lead the way. “Connectivism” and “Construtivism” are also dangerous labels.

    Nice to see that you question the models. Models are usually just a bunch of words.

  6. Jane Bozarth

    Howard said, “Since everyone does not think in the same way; it is a good idea to present material in different ways and learning styles can clue you into some of those different ways.” Well, that’s kind of my point. There is no research to confirm that this is valid, or, rather, that it makes any difference to ‘learning’. It doesn’t mean it isn’t right, just that no study has proven it. That’s why Thalhimer’s $1000 reward stands.

  7. Gilbert Babin

    A well balanced learner would be hard to classify into a “Learning Style”.

    It is good for someone who is predominantly a visual learner to develop other ways of learning.

    The approach we see now encourages the development of the predominant learning style over others. I see this has giving up on the learner’s ability to gain new skills and strategies.

    It is but another form of the “Mismeasure of Man”.

  8. Anil Mammen

    MI as a theory could be plain wrong. But there seems to be a “useful” recommendation that educators can draw from it–that is to represent content (or activities) in multiple ways. For one, it forces you to think about representing the same concept in multiple ways (visual, hands-on, reflective, collaborative, etc.). By this I don’t mean every concept should be represented in the eight or nine “intelligences” defined by Gardner–just that each concept can be represented in at least three or four different ways. Repetition and reinforcement are considered key elements of learning–and multiple representation seem to be an effective way to do this. Hopefully, this leads to richer understanding (or varied context understanding) of the concept and deeper encoding.


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