DECONSTRUCTING THE PROCESS OF LEARNING AND INSTRUCTION: Educational models and what they teach us


Modified from a handout given to sport and technical instructor candidates

“There are just two things in life: but I forget what they are…”
John Hiatt, American poet, musician, b: August 20, 1952

It’s nobody’s intention to throw cold water in your face, but please resist the temptation to call yourself a professional educator on the strength of graduating from a scuba instructor class: technical, sport or otherwise.

In the space of a couple of weeks — the duration of the average sport instructor program — or a couple of days — the average length of programs upgrading existing teaching credentials — there is little opportunity to make it otherwise. Your instructor’s certification card is only a ticket to ride… an invitation to start the process of learning how people learn; and by dint of hard work, teaching yourself how to teach.

With luck, experience, quite considerable additional effort, and some bloodshed — which I hope is entirely metaphoric — the best you can hope for is that you’ll become an empathetic, well-informed, process-driven and safety conscious lay educator. And in the greater scheme of things, and the absence of a PhD in education, that’s not an insignificant achievement.

Our industry’s goals for you are surprisingly modest… follow the supplied guidelines, deliver the prescribed curriculum with enthusiasm and accuracy, and the chances are very good that you will fulfill them. However, I am sure you have higher ambitions and want to do better than average, so let’s see what we can do t0 help you in that regard.

Coloring inside the lines… sometimes
An instructor’s purpose is to guide students through a set curriculum towards effective learning. Always, always effective learning. That’s a winding path. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there are several paths leading to effective learning. Some are well beaten, pretty obvious and relatively safe. Others are more circuitous, overgrown with all sorts of interesting vegetation harboring countless temptations and distractions; but they also end up in the right spot.

And of course some paths look promising but go off on a complete tangent wasting everybody’s time and effort only to peter out someplace miles from the destination. The trick of course is to pick the pathway that best suits your students’ interests and your teaching style; and often that is not the most direct or well-worn route.

A decent map helps. A map helps everyone in the class avoid the tangents and points out which pathways lead in the right direction. With a map in hand, a motivated instructor can guide his charges around the obvious and accompany them along the more engaging route, and still arrive at effective learning changed but intact.

The map we hand you as a newly-minted instructor is rather like a page torn from Ptolemy’s Atlas with huge areas labeled Terra Incognita, and you are expect to fill in the blanks. The biggest help I can offer on that score, is to suggest you look over the shoulder of a professional educator — someone who understands the way learning works — and copy bits of their map. It’s not cheating if you mention your source.

The conditions of human learning: Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction
I cannot think of a better first shoulder to look over than that of American educational physiologist, Robert Gagné.

Gagné had a profound influence on a broad spectrum of American education including military, institutional and industrial training. His theory on instructional design and what’s now called Task Analysis was detailed in The Conditions of Learning, originally published in 1965 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. If you can find a copy, I recommend reading it cover to cover.
The theory detailed in The Conditions of Learning remains influential, and grew from Gagné‘s work as a training designer during WWII. His challenge then was to develop teaching materials that could be used by subject experts with little or no formal training as teachers. They needed to impart very specialized technical skills to thousands of raw Army Air Corps recruits in a ridiculously short time… about two years worth of on-the-job experience had to be crammed into about a month.

Based on his experience and research cracking that problem — and further developed until his death in 2002 — Gagné became convinced that in most training situations, effective and efficient learning takes place when the final task is first broken down into a set of component parts.

The analogies between the farm hands Gagne helped turn into aircraft mechanics in a month, and the challenges facing scuba instructors and instructor-trainers are simply too similar to be ignored.

Gagné identified the conditions necessary for effective learning based on the way mental events are triggered in adults by various stimuli — visual, audible, tactile etc. Gagné created a nine-step process that he called, the events of instruction. These events correlate to and address the conditions of learning.

The nine events of instruction are: Gain attention; Inform learners of objectives; Stimulate recall of prior learning; Present the content; Provide learning guidance; Elicit performance; Provide feedback; Assess performance; Enhance retention and transfer to the job.
With very little mental juggling and word substitution, that list should sound awfully familiar to anybody who’s sat through an Scuba Diving International™ Instructor Development Course. But let’s recap a little here and take the time to “enhance retention…”

Gain attention
Gagné tells us that in order for any learning to take place, an instructor’s first task is to capture the student’s attention. We can do this effectively in a number of ways and the more varied and creative those attention-getting actions are, the more attention they’ll attract.
One example could be the opening segment of a multimedia program that has wild animation accompanied by sound effects or music. This would wake up the senses with auditory and visual stimuli. But after a while, even that approach would become ho-hum and a change of tempo would be key.

Something to interleave with that type of approach is to ask a thought-provoking question or hit the audience with an out of the ordinary, lesser-known fact. Even better if its relationship with the topic about to be discussed is not immediately obvious but requires thrashing around in one of those leafy thickets of interesting vegetation beside the pathway to completely understand. Curiosity motivates students to learn. So does self-preservation and stressing the importance of a topic by marrying its importance to staying ‘safe’ is another good punctuation to a bunch of whiz-bang AV effects.

To anyone familiar with the physiology of sales, this is the benefit statement / value proposition. Effective learning can certainly begin by walking learners though a strong value proposition. And my experience as an instructor-trainer informs me that individuals with a sales background have a leg up on their instructor course classmates understanding how to gain a learner’s attention.

Although gaining attention is labeled the first task, it is also the most constantly called upon. Effective Learning will not take place if the learner’s attention is not coupled to the “lesson” from start to finish.

Inform learners of objectives
Tell them what you are going to tell them and explain what outcomes to expect! Does, “at the end of this presentation you’ll be able to…” sound at all familiar? It should because it’s an essential step integral to the success of an SDI™, TDI™ instructor training course. Early in each lesson students should be presented a list of learning objectives. This fires-up expectancy in their minds and helps motivate learners to buy into the lesson and complete it.

Perhaps more importantly, the list of lesson objectives forms the base scaffolding that assessment of performance and certification are built upon. Therefore it is essential that this instructional event be clearly presented and completely understood by everyone in the class. The phrasing of objectives, the way an instructor presents his or her expectations to the class, colors everything else that happens during the course. Instructor trainers evaluating the progress of instructor candidates, will heavily weight these actions in that evaluation.

Stimulate recall of prior learning
Associating new information with existing knowledge. This event can be triggered by the instructor, by the student or by some other source. The classic opening, “Have you ever experienced your ears popping or hurting when driving through the mountains or when flying?” is an example of this event in action. Establishing some comparison to past shared experience and lessons learned will facilitate the learning process for a new concept. It is easier for students to encode and store information in their long-term memory, when there are ties built between it and pervious personal experience and knowledge. The way this was hammered home to me was, “New concepts will not stick without old associations to hold them in place.” I thank long-time friend Bret Gilliam for that particular nugget.

Perhaps the most simple and straightforward way to stimulate recall is to ask students questions about previous experiences. Having them dig around in their memory and then build the associations with previous concepts themselves is the sort of rich-content experience that will have them thinking their instructor is a genius; when in fact their instructor sat back and watched… no more.

Present the content
Tell them what you told them you were going to tell them. This is where the meat, potatoes and crème brûlée of the new content is served to the student. The size of the portions and how they are arranged on the plate depends on the way the course work was designed. However, effective learning is best guaranteed when content is rationed out and organized meaningfully, and typically is explained and then demonstrated by the instructor or an assistant (divemaster for example).

To maximize appeal and broaden the impact and effectiveness of this event, a variety of presentation styles and media should be used. Text, graphics, audio narration, video, self-directed exploration, even chalk and talk all qualify. Also, with a well-designed course and rationally executed learning materials, the content message will be audience appropriate and presented in a logical progression. For example; a detailed discussion on Fick’s Laws of Diffusion and their influence on dual-gas phase decompression algorithms, with a group of newly-certified open water divers is likely to be a one-sided conversation. On the other hand; cut the topic down to its core essentials — several factors can drive bubble growth in a diver’s bloodstream — make it appropriate for beginning divers — ascent rates are important on all dives including those within the NDL — and effective learning may take place.

Provide “learning guidance”
An instructor’s role is to help students grasp the core essentials. Demonstrate, show examples, dispel myths, indicate erroneous examples, explain with diagrams, help with mnemonics and analogies. Ask questions. Different students respond to different stimuli in unique ways… and the same student may be motivated to learn by changing stimuli from one day to the next. An instructor’s challenge is to recognize these subtleties in the classroom, swimming pool, ocean or lake. The key traits for an instructor during this step are empathy and patience. The guidance offered during this event, will help learners encode information ready for storage in long-term memory.

Elicit performance (practice)
This is the event of instruction during which the student confirms for themselves that they have a correct understanding of what’s being taught. In the case of an in water skill such as clearing a mask of backward fining, they get to perform practice drills that test the new skill or demonstrate changed or new behavior. Repetition further increases the likelihood of retention and mastery of the subject/skill.

Provide feedback
Not to be confused with the following step, exercises within tutorials, presentations and dive-skills demonstrations demand the instructor discuss correct and incorrect solutions with students by providing specific and immediate feedback. If the performance is a physical skill demonstrated in-water, video is unbelievably helpful for doing this effectively. Additional guidance and answers provided by the instructor at this stage are called formative feedback.
Formative feedback is quiet special because it can and usually does come from several directions. During debriefing of skills dives, it’s not uncommon for other students to crack the nut for one of the class who is having trouble mastering a skill.

When I first began teaching technical diving programs, I had a hugely difficult time with a particular student who was unable to perform a compound but really quite simple skill the rest of his class mastered after just a few attempts. The skill was core to the course and it had to be mastered before we moved on. I demonstrated it to the student on dry land, in the water, and even had his two classmates run through it for him while I watched him watch them.
Back on the surface, it was one of his buddies that explained which part of the process he was missing. I did not see it.

A similar thing has happened to me in an academic setting. Trying to explain a “basic” maths process to a student who simply did not get it only to have their buddy use an analogy that placed the problem in terms they grasped immediately.

I think my point here is to encourage feedback from everyone involved in the class. Often, I sit back and listen while each member of a class does a step-by-step, blow-by-blow analysis. Direct the process; but don’t suffocate it.

Assess performance
Once instruction is finished and demonstrations are completed, students should be required to take a post-test, exam or final assessment. This assessment must be completed without the additional coaching, feedback, or hints from the instructor. Mastery of material or a pass certification is typically granted when the student attains a certain percentage of correct answers, or demonstrates a skill within the range of acceptable proficiency.

With a written test or exam, this assessment is relatively simple to accomplish but with underwater skills, subjectivity CAN become a muddling factor. Strive to be objective. With skills where no guidance has been provided, set the bar for a pass or fail based on 80 percent of your own performance. Never be afraid to fail a student who is unable to master a skill or retain and understand a concept. The fact is, not everyone can dive. Not everyone can cave dive, wreck dive, deep dive, do staged decompression dives! As instructors, we have a responsibility to get that message across.

Enhance retention and transfer to the job

Essentially, use it or lose it. In diving, there is a sort of built-in mechanism that aids students to apply skills learned from a training program “back on the job.” The environment and the divers themselves self-select, and instructors should make this clear to graduates. Often the imperative for enhanced retention and transfer of skills is survival. A bungled skill — let’s say valve shut down — or misremembered concept — nitrogen uptake for example — sooner of later will cause a serious problem, perhaps injury or death. The environment will test skills without pity and in the technical diving realm, where skills are more complex and numerous than in sport diving, skills need to be tested with detachment regularly. A diver who has learned effectively will realize their shortcomings and ask for help from other divers, will reread texts or research the answers… but most of all, practice.

Events of a Lesson
Applying Gagne’s nine-step model for instruction to a training program is the single best way I know to ensure effective learning. Above all else in education there is no substitute for sound instructional design. There is no substitute, even with the Niagara of information pouring out of our computer screen, for an instructor who can help students maximize the effectiveness of information processing.

Gagné believed that all lessons should include the key steps of motivating the student to learn; giving clear objectives; directing focus on pertinent information (this based on the instructor’s “read” of the materials and the student’s personal learning style); stimulating recall by tying new concepts to previously learned material; providing guidance with hints and illustrations that appeal to the student’s curiosity; enhancing retention by adding familiar examples; promoting the transfer of learning; allow the student to show off what they have learned and providing feedback.

Strive to be the best instructor you can. Use the guidance available from visionaries such as Gagne. Etc.

5 thoughts on “DECONSTRUCTING THE PROCESS OF LEARNING AND INSTRUCTION: Educational models and what they teach us

  1. Nice overview Steve. It’s refreshing to see an IT and HQ staff member admit that a scuba instructor course does not make you an expert in instructional design any more than an Open Water Diver course qualifies you to do deep trimix dives in near-freezing water. As you point out, a good starting point for new instructors is to borrow heavily from veteran instructors, and then modify their course presentations as they get more experience.

  2. Steve,
    Excellent topic and very well written. If you find it appropriate adding a paragraph on the need for instructors to work towards bettering their own skills and to be thoroughly honest in self evaluation. It could tie in well with seeking out instructors with more experience to fill out their curriculum.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Scuba instructors teach people life saving skills in a non-native environment, but high school math teachers have more education about how to teach than average scuba instructors. When non-professional instructors go through an instructor class, they need to be taught how to effectively teach the material. If they are allowed to simply go and learn by trial and mistakes, you risk lowering the value of the education the agency wants to provide.

    I think it is great that you are adding Gagne’s theory to your instructor classes. However, it isn’t complete in the learning theory realm. It doesn’t discuss learning motivation (not motivation theory like Maslov of Herzberg), the role of the student & instructor, learning by discovery, etc. If you were to add some aspects of constructivism theory to Gagne’s, one can start to develop a flexible curriculum that will enhance what an agency wants taught. Constructivism starts by simple learning, but leads to coaching and finally experience. I studied a lot of these theories when I became a college teacher in order to maximize student learning for the class I teach.

    I do love the article and thanks for posting it. Hopefully many people will learn from wise folks like yourself.

    Dive Safe,
    Duane
    Precision Diving

    • Excellent observation and additional information Duane. I’ve had some very helpful comments on this fragment both here and via email. Thanks for reading and thanks for your ongoing support.

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