Instructivism is dead. Gone are the days of an authoritarian teacher transmitting pre-defined information to passive students.
In the 1990s, constructivism heralded a new dawn in instructional design, turbo-charged by the rise of Web 2.0. Students morphed into participants, empowered to seek new knowledge and understanding for themselves, in the context of their own unique, individual experiences.
In turn, teachers enthusiastically transformed themselves into facilitators, guiding and coaching the participants to inquire, explore, discover and even generate new learnings.
Fast forward to today and connectivism is all the rage. In this digital era, we recognise that there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway. So forget about trying to “know” everything; instead, build your network of knowledge sources, and access them whenever you need them.
The popular sequence of events that I have recounted is often represented pictorially as a gradient, accompanied by that ubiquitous table comparing various aspects of the three pedagogies.
But is this gradient a fair representation?
Certainly it’s accurate in terms of chronology: the concept of constructivism was conceived after instructivism, and connectivism was conceived after that.
However, I think the diagram misleadingly suggests an evolution of instructional design. In other words, constructivism was so intellectually and pedagogically superior to instructivism that it replaced it, and connectivism is so intellectually and pedagogically superior to constructivism that it, it turn, has replaced that.
Sure, the gradient reflects a wonderful growth of ideas, but I think it’s a trap to conclude that the latter pedagogies supersede the former.
The real world
My view is informed by observation.
Yes, workplace learning has thankfully become more constructivist and even connectivist over time, but we all know that instructivism is still alive and well.
For example, face-to-face classes with monologous trainers and one-to-one coaching sessions remain popular modes of delivery. Even in the e‑learning space, online courses are typically linear, virtual classes frequently replicate their bricks-and-mortar antecedents, while podcasts, of course, are quintessentially instructivist.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Why is this so? Why, in the midst of ever-advancing learning theory and progressive instructional design, does such rampant instructivism persist? Why haven’t constructivism and connectivism blown it out of the water?
The answer, I believe, is because instructivism remains relevant.
The three amigos
Allow me to elaborate my argument in the context of the financial services industry.
When a new employee is recruited into the organisation, there are certain things they just need to know. For example, it might be imperative for the employee to understand how the superannuation system works, or a particular taxation regime, or the regulations that govern a particular investment option.
Not only does a sound understanding of the fundamental concepts have an obvious bearing on the employee’s ability to do their job properly, but leaving such learning to chance could have serious risk management and compliance ramifications.
This is where an instructivist approach proves useful. Whether in a classroom setting, via an online course or otherwise, the resident subject matter expert (SME) within the organisation typically provides the learner with a programmed sequence of knowledge, carefully scaffolding their learning and – to adopt a cognitivist view – construct a basic framework of knowledge in the learner’s mind.
As a novice in the domain, the learner is unlikely to know what it is they need to know. The SME transmits this necessary information quickly and efficiently.
Next, a constructivist approach empowers the learner to expand and deepen their knowledge at their discretion. For example:
- Discussion forums (synchronous or asynchronous) allow the learner to ask questions, clarify concepts and share experiences.
- Wikis act as non-linear knowledge banks to be mined as necessary.
- Search engines allow the learner to follow their own trails of inquiry.
No longer a novice, the learner has the tools to drive further learning in the context of their existing knowledge.
As the learner acquires expertise, we must recognise that in this digital age, no one person can ever be expected to know it all. At this point, a connectivist approach empowers the learner to extend their knowledge by proxy.
In a previous article, I provided the following examples of potential information sources that the learner could incorporate into their personal learning network:
- Social bookmarks
- News feeds, podcasts, blogs, wikis and discussion forums
- Social and professional networks such as Facebook and Twitter
- Industry conferences and other external events
In today’s environment, I see an expert as one who couples a rich foundation of knowledge with the capability to connect to new knowledge at a moment’s notice.
A new representation
In the workplace, it’s clear that instructivism, constructivism and connectivism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The astute e-learning practitioner will apply principles of all three, as circumstances change and their respective relevancies rise and fall. As I have suggested, this may align to the learner’s transition from novice to expert in a particular domain.
From a practical perspective then, is the popular “evolution” of instructional design from instructivism through constructivism to connectivism a furphy? All three pedagogies build on one another to provide a rounded theoretical toolset for the modern professional to exploit.
Therefore, I propose to replace the traditional left-to-right gradient with a new representation:
This diagram acknowledges the chronology of instructional design theory, with the earliest pedagogy occupying the centre circle, and the later pedagogies occupying the outer rings. Yet it does not suggest that one pedagogy supersedes the other; instead, they complement one another.
It’s important to point out that in any organisation, different employees will be at different stages of learning across multiple domains. The instructional designer will need to balance all three pedagogical approaches to support everyone.
For example, while an online course may be purposefully instructivist to support novice learners, it’s important that a learner-centered approach be adopted to serve others who may also use the course (or parts thereof).
In short, if someone asks me “Instructivism, constructivism or connectivism?”, I say “All three, where relevant”.