Ill-structured process, clear outcome

Structure (lack of it) is a common concern I encounter when talking about connectivism. A recent discussion on a listserv highlighted the concern: for some, the notion of an exploratory process is against the concept of acquiring specific skills. Their argument rests on the assumption that people learn because we expose them to a clear, structured, static process…i.e. sit in this chair, I’ll lecture for one hour (or click through these tutorials on your computer). Structure is equated with intended outcomes.

Learners learn different things even if they are exposed to the same content. We learn different things from the same event because we bring our emotions, previous experiences, current mental states, beliefs, and assumptions to bear on new information. These elements filter incoming information. When five people read the same book, all of them walk away with a different understanding of what happened, what’s important, and how they were impacted emotionally. Common understanding is only achieved through dialogue as each reader shares her/his thoughts/reflections (each perspective is a piece of the whole) (that’s something to consider for learning design). A book is a highly structured content presentation object. Everyone experiences it in the same process, yet each individual has a unique experience. It would appear that structured exposure to content is not a prerequisite for learning specific skills (or concepts).

At the end of most of our learning activities (higher education or corporate) we expect that we will have gained something that made the experience worthwhile. We want a new skill, a new perspective, or greater understanding. Most of us, partly due to long term conditioning in regular education environments, are not comfortable with processes that allow for “free-roaming”. We want to know what to do, read, think about, and produce. Lecture, create (assignment, product), assess – these are viewed as cornerstones of learning skills.

I wonder if we couldn’t extend that value of learning slightly if we didn’t equate it so strongly with structure. I think we can achieve intended outcomes, even if the learning isn’t structured or sequenced in a particular manner. While I lack a particular research example, I have life experiences that support the value of chaotic learning approaches…that still produced specific skills. Learning how to play basketball (or any sport), use a computer, play a video game, drive a car, build relationships, think critically…these are all skills that I acquired in ill-structured ways.

Clear learning outcomes (i.e. driving a car) are essentially goals that individuals can achieve in what ever manner is most in keeping with a) how they learn, b) what they already know, c) the immediacy of use, d) motivation, e) success as a learner (confidence), and f) the “state of life” (stress, relationships…and all that other personal stuff that influences learning). In a similar manner, we solve most of our work problems in an ill-structured way – we often only have a goal (i.e. “business presence in India”), and we then take numerous approaches (trial and error, expert guidance) in attempting to achieve the goal.

Skills are not only created in highly structured, sequential learning approaches. Certain types of skills are uniquely suited to formal learning…but for many, that luxury ends after graduation. Most skills are learned through experiences – work or personal. Periodically, the formal opportunity may present itself (when implementing a new accounting system, for example), but generally, the skills needed are acquired in an ill-structured way. Surprisingly, the more clear the goal, the less we need to structure the learning. Learners will do that on their own as the move to goal completion…and I would posit that the results and processes used will often be much more innovative than what is created around the instructional design table. Again, it gets back to designing ecologies versus designing learning.

One Response to “Ill-structured process, clear outcome”

  1. Louise Starkey says:

    This is interesting. When setting goals, it is important to ensure that they do not limit the potential knowledge building outcomes. In school situations, a broad goal could help to avoid this problem. EG. goal could be to make a documentary on what it means to be a New Zealander (or Canadian…). rather than a goal that details the format, content etc that the documentary must include. This type of learning puts more emphasis on students influencing what they do, how they do it and the teacher facilitating/ mentoring and motivating.