Perspective vs. Perspicacity: Our Assumptions, Our Design

The problem with taxonomical (and economical) educational models like Bloom’s Taxonomy is that, in their construction, they purport to offer a model for the way learning happens consistently; in other words, taxonomical approaches don’t leave much to the imagination, and in fact make the imagination unnecessary.

As Amy Collier has observed, that aiming to make learning efficient

has had the effect of 1) narrowing our views of what learning is, thus ignoring more humanistic, holistic, critical, and speculative approaches to learning; and 2) narrowing our views of what learning looks like and what counts as valid research on learning, thus ignoring more humanistic, holistic, critical, and speculative approaches.

Similarly, Gardner Campbell writes:

As we seek to perfect the language and institutionalization of a culture of “learning outcomes,” it seems we are necessarily moving toward a strictly behaviorist paradigm of learning, away from what Jerome Bruner refers to as the “cognitive turn” in learning theory and ever more deliberately toward a stimulus-response paradigm of learning. This behaviorist turn can be very sophisticated and refined. The behaviors specified, measured, and tracked can be cognitively demanding “smart human tricks.” There can even be qualitatively measured learning outcomes, though it appears these are less frequent than quantitative metrics, for reasons I think are obvious. Yet these are still behaviors, specified with a set of what I can only describe as jawohl! statements, all rewarding the bon eleves and marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder

When the computer becomes the teacher, it preempts any real potential for student agency, knowledge production, or creativity.

And yet, for many this approach is the way they were taught, the way they teach, and the way instructional design has always worked. Their experience tells them that this approach has success, that it results in learners who can demonstrate knowledge and mastery of content. While on the opposite end of the spectrum, teachers who follow a critical pedagogical approach—one that relies on learners’ experiences, participation, and agency—offer similar testimonials about their successes.

Zen and the Art of Instructional Design

“To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.”
~Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

For Critical Instructional Design to work, we have to find a way to re-approach what we know about teaching and learning, about learning theory, about the digital. In Zen terms, we have to find “beginner’s mind.” This may sound strange, but the truth is that Critical Instructional Design isn’t an iteration of the instructional design that came before. It’s new, while at the same time being old; it is familiar while at the same time disorienting.

Critical Instructional Design is kind of like a Zen koan.

The most critical stance we can take as educators is to assume we know nothing and become profoundly observational. If we want Critical Instructional Design to work, we can’t approach the learning management system, or the student, or the writing of our syllabus, or the idea of assessment while our brain is loaded up with old stories about those things. Instead, we have to essentially clear our cache, assuming nothing, and think through each step of design as it arises.

Instead of saying “I’ve always done it this way,” we say “How should I do this now?”

The reason we have to do this is that traditional instructional design seems to work; educational psychology and behaviorism seem to work. And because we have something that works, we assume nothing else does. Or, we don’t have the energy or desire to try.

But what happens when we begin to let go of our old ideas of instructional design and learning theory is that we feel the return of invention and imagination to the acts of learning and teaching. Freedom occurs, only to remind us that we’ve always been free.

Time to Reflect