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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Design: Behaviorism Has It’s Place

Stephen Downes in his response to my post titled Definitions: ABCD Objectives writes

It remains puzzling that so much of the instructional design community remains rooted in behaviorism - this more than 30 years after the theory was abandoned everywhere else

I am not sure behaviorism has been abandoned everywhere else. In fact, I think the best representation of the effectiveness of behaviorism is Las Vegas, if slots machines are not classic Stimulus-Response-Reward…then nothing is. And last time I checked, Las Vegas is doing really well.

I think advertising agencies are hoping for stimulus-response. You see the product, you make the purchase. They want to program you to behaviorally respond, and, at least with my kids, they are doing a good job.

A child touching a hot stove and subsequently learning that when someone says “Don’t touch its hot” she should not touch it or she will get hurt...stimulus response. Lots of learning requires a stimulus-response sequence. Hit the key to submit the order. Stimulus-Response.

But the question I think that should be addressed is, “should we create learning objectives based on measurable outcomes?” If we are talking about corporate training situations, the answer is yes.

In a corporate environment every other department is held accountable to measurable behaviors
  • Sales must sell so much product
  • Operations must produce so much product
  • The R&D department must have a certain percentage of their work ready for commercialization
  • accounting must close the books by the end of the month.
All measurable outcomes based on measurable behaviors.

I think it is a little irresponsible for the training department to say…oh, we are special, we can’t measure our outcomes but trust us…we are doing our job. I really don’t think that works and that is part of the problem with the perception of the level of professionalism in our field. We tell everyone that what we do is important and critical to the outcomes of the organization and then we turn around and say that we can’t measure what we are doing...that is not even rational.

For mission critical items, we cannot write an objective like:
The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will use a discovery method to explore possible options for stopping the meltdown.

We really need something like:
The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will follow a defined set of steps to stop the meltdown.

In many situations, you need a prescribed set of responses and, when training people, you need to make sure they follow that prescribed set of responses. Some things require measurable, behavioral outcomes.

Now, having said that. I don’t think for one minute that all learning has behavioral outcomes. Cognitivism and Constructivism are important schools of thoughts and are becoming increasingly important as we explore informal learning but we can’t turn our back completely on Behaviorism, we need a blended approach.

There can be value in not having a specific, measurable goal. I teach a class in which I form students into teams and give them a goal of “Creating a winning elearning proposal.” This is not a behavioral outcome, it is a collaborative effort of innovation, writing, presentation and many other skills. Even individually measuring each possible behavioral outcome might not provide the Gestalt that is needed to determine the overall “winner.”

My point is that there is a time and place for measurable behavior-based objectives. To ignore the power of measuring behavior as it relates to learning is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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