Right steps on the ladder of learning

May 8, 1998

Two decades of 'high technology' have seldom produced better ways of learning. David Clark examines a matrix for successful use of computers in teaching

For 20 years now teachers have been trying their hand at using films, videos, computers, or any combination of these technologies to deliver teaching. The results have not lived up to expectation, at least from a cost-benefit point of view. There is a good theory to account for this, which also predicts where deployment of technological solutions may be successful.

Theories about education cannot be like "proper" theories, as education is not a science; nevertheless it is possible to categorise educational activities and make logical deductions from the patterns which emerge. Consider one such categorisation of the stages on the ladder from incomprehension to understanding:

Unconscious Incompetence

Conscious Incompetence

Conscious Competence

Unconscious Competence

I came across this taxonomy while lecturing in Australia: it has that wonderful New World directness that may seem a little harsh in the aftermath of Political Correctness, but do not let the style mislead you.

The starting-point is that the would-be learner is unaware that there is something worthwhile to be learned. Call this state Unconscious Incompetence. The first task of any teacher is to awaken in the learner the realisation that there is something to be understood. Call this step "Arousal".

The learner is now Consciously Incompetent; this is the state from which the serious task of learning can begin. Let us call the process which achieves this "Instruction". The result is to make the learner Consciously Competent. "Practice" can move the learners to the point where they can be said to be Unconsciously Competent, a state of proficiency that is maintained by familiarity and use.

The full beauty of this categorisation is revealed when the four states are arranged as a "learning matrix" in which all possible transitions from one state to another can be represented by elements of the matrix. If we take the transitions in three groups, some interesting insights emerge.

First, the "diagonal" elements. These represent activities which do not change the learner's state. In educational terms, the first three are wasted effort and the fourth - "Use" - maintains the desired outcome of the process.

Of the six elements in the upper triangle, only three represent feasible processes: the three stepwise elements already described as the learning ladder; the other three are "forbidden transitions", as there is no way to go from, say, conscious incompetence to unconscious competence in one jump. There are, however, no such restrictions on the way down! The six possible transitions all represent recognisable conditions seen in learners. Perhaps the most exciting insight to emerge from this taxonomy is that it highlights the different balance of roles and responsibilities between the teacher and the learner at each step of the ladder.

As, by definition, the learners have no initial share in the Arousal process, responsibility falls on the teacher for the transition from that stage, and the strategies deployed must be directed to realising in the learner the need to learn.

As the second stage, Instruction, progresses, the learner's share rises from zero to perhaps 50:50. This is the nitty-gritty stage where the conceptual framework of the task is established. In the step up to unconscious competence the major responsibility is now on the learner. This is "drill and practice" time, where the teacher takes a back seat, available to resolve problems rather than being engaged in instruction.

These three phases require different educational strategies for their efficient implementation and this gives a clue as to how any technological solutions to the tasks may be devised and assessed for their cost-effectiveness. This is also the secret of why many attempts have failed - the learner's state and the program's strategy were at odds with one another.

Computer-based techniques can be effective in helping learners with drill and practice. There are many examples from the curriculum, but the trouble is that in the context of the whole educational process this stage does not consume much money. This reflects the fact that most of the work is done by the learners themselves. This means that automating this part of the process is unlikely to be cost-effective as it will be unlikely to decrease the overall cost of delivering the course.

The tasks of arousing the interest and securing the compliance of the learners is also a possible target for technological solutions. The main feature of this stage is the diversity of initial outlook and competence of the cohort. Here, interactive techniques can be used to provide alternative presentations of the underlying information and knowledge to be imparted, and this is a good way of hooking the interest of a diverse group of learners. Unfortunately, this is again not a part of the course that costs a great deal, so that computerising it is also unlikely to save much.

At the heart of the learning ladder is Instruction and here the real prowess of the teacher is on show. As there is no way to describe the teaching process algorithmically, it follows that any computerisation is unlikely to be efficient in delivering full-blooded teaching. It is possible, nevertheless, that technology can be of use to both the teacher and the learner at this stage of the educational process: if ways can be found to help the learner to discover what is causing the impediment to learning, then the time taken by the teacher to resolve that learner's difficulty can be significantly reduced. As most of the money for a course should be spent on this stage, any savings here might well be significant. If more students can be accommodated at this stage, the unit cost of the whole course can be reduced.

As creating computer-based instruction (CBI) is expensive in comparison with the money available for a typical module or course it is essential to establish exactly which, if any, of the components of a module can be made more cost-effective by mechanisation. So far, this needs-analysis has rarely been carried out before introducing CBI into the curriculum. The Learning Matrix is a useful tool in this essential task.

David Clark is visiting professor of interactive media, University of Middlesex.

An interactive version of the Learning Matrix is available at: http://www.cea.mdx.ac.uk/cea/ Learning-Matrix.html

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