I’m at the Online educa conference in Berlin and have just thoroughly enjoyed a powerful session delivered by Donald Clark (ex of Epic).

The session will no doubt trigger hundreds of entries to the blogasphere – several from me – but one message that I decided to start with which Clark eloquently delivered concerned the blind acceptance of the plethora of theories around cognitive and behavioural science. Clark quickly highlighted several very well-known people and their respective theories including Vygotsky (constructivism), Gagne (9 steps of instruction), Mazlow (motivation) and Kirkpatrick (learning assessment).

Given that Clark’s session was entitled “19th Century Practice; 21st Century Learning”, it will come as no surprise that he was strongly critical of the current day relevance of these people/theories or, as in the case of NLP and Learning Styles utterly rejected them as carbuncle. 

The problem, according to Clark, is that educators and training professionals blindly accept (my words) these theories many of which are without any sound basis and that by doing so we, as a community, are running the risk of applying learning approaches which are outdated or, most dangerously, were wholly inaccurate from the moment that they were published. 

He illustrated this with the very commonly referenced chart that indicates that “we remember 10% of what we are told, 80% of what we do” – the ‘statistic used to back up the ‘learning by doing’ mantra chanted by many, myself included, particularly in the games and simulation-based learning movement. It seems, according to Clark, that Chi, the author of the original research upon which it is supposed to have been based, completely rejected the notion that this simplistic graph had anything to do with her. BTW, this doesn’t in any way shake my own personal belief that ‘learning by doing’ is a strong learning strategy (where appropriate) but it seems now that if Clark is correct then we will need to revert back to the much older but highly poetic Confucius saying which carried the same message until some (hopefully) respected university seeks to bring some efficacy to this notion. 

A provocative presentation such as Clark’s leads to an awful lot of nervous laughter when delivered in a hall bursting at the seams with about 1,000 eLearning practitioners but leaves the serious games (and wider learning technologies) vendor community with a more worrying problem:

“Supposing Clark is right; when the vast majority of our customers subscribe to these theories….do we seek to question their judgement and techniques when at the end of the day we’d really quite like to earn a living?”

 Erm….can I plead the 5th amendment on that one? 

I have long had a copy of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives pinned to my wall and I know that this is a common tool for many others. Clark stated that Bloom himself rejected this model within two years of publishing it yet the (very strong) Chinese Whispers that pass across the learning and development world have singularly failed to include this ever so slightly important nugget of information.  

When I thought about it (Bloom’s Taxonomy) whilst grabbing a short cigarette break between sessions, it seemed suddenly obvious that there is no simplistic stepped graduation of cognitive complexity in real life.

So here is Corti’s Taxonomy of Stuff That Affects Educational Objectives………

The theory is thus: that there is not graduation that relates to the supposed relative complexity of the cognitive activity i.e. where being able to ‘recall’ is a shallow/easy task whereas to ‘evaluate’ is a much more taxing and deeper task which requires a much heavier ‘Human CPU processor load’.  Rather one’s ability to successfully complete any of the various cognitive activities very much depends on factors such as: 

  1. How recently I had last carried out a similar cognitive activity
  2. How often I carried out this type of cognitive activity
  3. How interested I am in the nature of the task that requires this cognitive activity.
  4. Whether I happen to enjoy that type of cognitive activity.
  5. My stress level.
  6. My current emotional state.
  7. Whether there is a time constraint.
  8. Whether I am in an environment that is conducive to thinking.
  9. How much sleep I got in the hotel last night.
  10. How much German beer I have consumed before going to bed last night.

In a nutshell I guess what I am trying to say is that it is a multitude of physiological and psychological factors that affect my ability, not some hierarchical ‘stepped’ model that has, at it’s underlying basis, an assumption that you need to be cleverer than most to be able to successfully carry out ‘higher level’ cognitive activities.

Seemingly complex cognitive activities such as evaluating the viability of a project plan can be undertaken in a second simply because intuition or ‘gut feel’ generates a conclusion without any determined effort. Similarly, a ‘simple’ task like trying to recall a simple fact such as, for example, my cat or child’s name, can often take a worrying amount of time. 

So there you have it: Corti’s Taxonomy of Stuff That Affects Educational Objectives®.

Please spread it around the interweb without questioning it and (tongue in cheek) hopefully it will become accepted practice within 27 weeks!