Learning, Complexity, and Simplicity

Only in the Instructional Technology Department could two people who sit all day within ten feet of each other have an extended conversation about work via their blogs. Brett pushes back on my Gagne, Games, and Learning post with another of his own, lest we forget, learning is complex. It’s good stuff.

Brett begins by saying that I am basically describing schema theory:

Let me first relate to what David thinks of the action-feedback loop that underlies all learning. This is what I first learned as basic schema theory, the way we interact with our environment is through a mechanism of perceiving our world, adjusting to what information we get, modifying what we know, then making an appropriate action. This is in slightly different order in what David mentions them, but basically its the same idea.

Brett acknowledges that he has things in a slightly different order, but characterizes his description as basically the same idea. While in many instances order does not matter, occasionally order makes a great deal of difference. Take the classic word order example: dog bites man / man bites dog. Order can make a big difference.

I think the order difference between “simulus-response” and “probe-gather data” is all the difference in the world. It is the difference between passively adapting to the world as you find it, and actively remaking the world to suit one’s own purposes. The undeniable reality is, of course, that as humans we work in both modalities. But perhaps the most important question we can ask is – which is the true nature of our learning experience? Are we really giant receptor mechanisms who occasionally co-opt this “response” mechanism to our own ends? Or are we really agents with goals and purposes who occasionally co-opt this “experimental” mechanism to meet circumstances beyond our control? I contend we are the latter. (The irony is not lost on me, of course, that I say that *in response* to Brett’s post.)

Brett goes on to say that as far as the mechanism is concerned, my description of learning sounds like most traditional cognitive theory. Absolutely. And most behavioral theory. I am unaware of a “learning theory” that does not view at least some of our learning as done through interacting – passing some form of abstract messages back and forth between ourselves and the environment.

(Digression: Possible exceptions to this pattern would be learning that comes through meditating or pondering, the burst-of-insight kind of learning. There are a number of ways this type of learning could also be charaterized as following the probe-gather data mechanism, including internal dialogue in which messages are passed back and forth within the learner, or inspiration in which messages are passed back and forth between the learner and the Infinite. But I really do digress.)

Brett continues:

To me, the complexity of learning lies in numerous other factors [other than message design], such as the social context in which it is experienced, the way the information is experienced (was it through passivity? Activity? Reflection? Application?), and the artifacts that share, contribute, and distribute what is “understood” (just to name a few). To me, an explanation of the action-feedback loop, on the most basic level, helps inform how we interact with our immediate environment, but does very little to inform how we as human beings gain complex understandings of our world and of each other.

I think, and I believe Brett will agree, that an overly simplistic and naive view of message design has been killing our field for the past several years. It is as if film students were taught that writing effective dialogue were all that mattered (BTW, have you seen Serenity yet?). Film makers understand that in addition to dialogue there must be plots, sets, scenery, costumes, music, lighting, character development, and a host of other contributing factors in order to really stir, move, or otherwise communicate with their audience. I agree completely with Brett that social context, the mode of experience, the nature of the artifacts, and a host of other factors are critical. We ignore these at our peril.

At a high level ADDIE may describe what is going on in instructional design, just as at a high level breathing, circulation, and (occasional) neural function may characterize what is going on in my life. But both of these accurate characterizations are somewhat dissatisfying in their lack of detail. As if all of Tolkein’s great writing could be summarized as “there was this bad guy, and he made an evil ring, but a good guy unmade it.”

To stand on a soapbox I have almost broken with use, effective instructional design is a radically interdisciplinary undertaking. “Message design” is Brett’s term, not mine, but to work with it I would say that a more sophisticated understanding of message design would include considerations like the sociocultural context in which the messages are being sent / received, the mode of their communication, and the artifacts in which they may be reified.

Coming back to my original statement of the learning mechanism, a question: Why is it that games account for more sales than movies? Because games are movies plus. The best games have characters, plots, scenery, music, lighting, and – critically – the opportunity for a person to express their own goals and purposes as part of the experience. Participation in movies is passive, participation in games is active. Games allow the learner to participate in that fundamentally experimental exercise of “probe-gather data,” whereas movies put us in “stimulus-reponse” mode, which is great if you’re at a scary movie with a really cute date, but otherwise kind of blah.

Moving on. Brett next says:

The example of trial-error learning within Sims environment is simply misplaced: the Sims games are not created for learning, and the learning that takes place during activity has proven to be of secondary importance if people are learning at all.

Here I’ll disagree somewhat. Sim City, the game I described previously, may not have been created explicitly to support learning about civic infrastructure, taxes, zoning, and parks. Understanding the individual purpose and function of each of the areas of infrastructure, finance, power, education, zoning, employment, and transportaion individually is a rather straightforward endeavor. In fact, one might take a class at school, read books, write essays, and take tests showing that they understand each of these individual components. However. The complexity inherent in the task of managing a city is not in managing the individual components – they are extremely simple. The complexity is in managing the interactions of those components, and the patterns of collective behavior that emerge from those interactions of the simple components of the system. At this stage, yes, “learning is complex.”

And let us pause to thank our respective Diety of choice that no instructional designers were involved in the specification or creation of Sim City. Just imagine how “play” would be affected by the introduction of Mager’s objectives into the game. Yes, the learning is definitely secondary. Should we devalue it because it is secondary? Do we look down on the amazing learning of history and culture one gains by becoming proficient in games like Civilization III? Who would you rather have for the Mayor of your town – someone with a degree in management or someone who has mastered Sim City?

We might rightly argue that all meaningful learning always is secondary – it is not learning for the sake of learning, or for the sake of a grade, it is learning in the service of accomplishing some goal which helps an agent meet some purpose of their own.

Finally, Brett says:

I think the perspective we should take lies far beyond a description of messages sent back and forth from learner to instructional artifact. We should have loftier goals.

Yes. We must absolutely concern ourselves with things beyond (in addition to) the messages themselves. I don’t know that we need loftier goals, but we certainly need a more massively-interdisciplinary approach.

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  • See, there’s this heater between our offices that lets communication pass through the vents, so I hear his Barry Manilo and he hears my Supersuckers, but the conversation normally never gets this far, which is why we must blog. Gotta blog, people. Dr. Wiley reflects on many things here, including why “learning” playing Sims 4 may be valuable, but show me a game that you argue has valuable “secondary” learning in it for implementing in schools, and I’ll show you an entire curriculum of Space Invaders and a group of graduates that can’t tie their own shoes. David, show me the learning.

    Read more? -> http://sheltonbrett.blogspot.com/2005/10/learning-complexity-and-simplicity-ii.html

  • Tom

    OK – I’ll stop lurking long enough to say, “You are both right!” (No, I am not running for any kind of political office — not until I master Sim-City, anyway.) It seems we are dealing with the semantics of scope. David is focusing more on the design of the message and Brett is zooming out to include the environment in which the mesage is designed (i.e. games). I think you both agree that good message design must account for more than the message itself.