Deliberate Practice

A colleague pointed me to a intense critique of master’s programs in Instructional Design, and it raised several issues for me. So, I thought it’d be worth discussing.  The issue is that the program didn’t provide any practice in designing courses from go to whoa, it was all about theory. In the comments, many people talk about how the programs they went did include projects, but this raises issues around the role of programs as well as what practice means.

Is a master’s supposed to be about skill-building?  Is it job training?  In the original academic model, I’d argue that an advanced degree would be to augment your experience with some theory.  E.g. if you were an accountant, or an engineer, or even a designer, with experience under your belt, you’d go for a master’s to serve as reflection in developing the concepts you perform under.  You might (and should) apply them, but that’s not the focus.

David Merrill has made the case that there should be bachelor’s programs in ID, and I think this makes sense.  And maybe that’s where you’d actually get the hands-on experience designing courses.  Of course, the reality is that many master’s (and even bachelor’s degrees) have become vocational training. Which raises the second issue.

Then the question becomes: how much practice?  Indeed, if I need to develop a practical skill, I need to perform the skills.  And too much of education and training, just doesn’t do it.  The author talked about deliberate practice: where you focus on one element with a coach there to critique your performance.  It could be faked problems, or a real apprenticeship, but it’s a tight coupling between designed action and guided reflection (what instruction needs to be).

Look at performance where it matters: flight, warfare, medicine. You’re gradually scaffolded from simple practice to complex. Heck, if I want to learn fire-fighting, rather than a classroom and then one go at a burning building, I’d rather have a simple building, then gradually ramp up the complexity (victims, second stories, inflammables, …).  All with some instructor yelling at me when I screwed up!  Yes, there’d be content, with animations about how fire spreads, and some facts about smoke inhalation and the like, but the focus would be on performing.

And this holds true for job skills whether it’s vocational training or university (which is increasingly being expected to prepare people for jobs).  Accounting?  Analyze statements for biz problems, make recommendations for reallocation, etc. Quite a bit, that drives you to the content.

My take-home: if you have real practice, you need reflection. If you don’t, you need real practice first. Focused practice. Intense practice.  Scaling-up practice!  We need to get our ratios right.   If you’re needing skills, then make sure you’ve got good practice up front.

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