Module 5: Principle Using
Basic Methods of Instruction
1.Kinds of Learning
for learning to use principles
How is a process principle learned? As with concepts and procedures, the statement of the principle could certainly be memorized. It is also possible to memorize one particular demonstration of the principle. Dave Merrill refers to these as "remember-a-generality" and "remember-an-instance", respectively. But what we really want is for the students to be able to apply the principle in new (previously unencountered) situations. This makes it skill application, or what Merrill calls "use-a-generality".
But how are process principles applied? Let's look at a case in point. The life cycle of a flowering plant is a process principle. A seed grows into a seedling, which in turn grows to become a mature plant, which then develops flowers, which produce seeds, which grow into seedlings, and the cycle continues. It is a process principle rather than a causal one because it is a sequence of changes in which one change does not cause the next, it just naturally precedes it.
So how can this principle be applied? Application entails generalizing the sequence of events to new cases. So we can look at a "new" plant and describe what phase or change is going to occur next (e.g., the flower will form seeds), or we can look at it and describe what phase or change occurred immediately prior to now, or we can look at all of the various phases or changes which occurred and arrange them in the proper sequence. Statements which are often used include "arrange the events in proper order", "predict what will happen next", and "infer what happened just prior to now". But all of these are essentially the same in that they entail describing a sequence of events as they apply in a new (previously unencountered) situation.
As with concept classification, there is some evidence that there are two phases to learning a principle at the application level. Similar to the notion of prototype formation, the learner needs to comprehend the principle. We refer to this as the acquisition phase. Then the learner needs to learn to generalize it to new situations, which is called the application phase. When generalization is involved, we know that there have to be variable characteristics across which we generalize. What are those likely to be for process principles? What would they be for the life cycle of a flowering plant? Is there such a thing as "equivalence classes" for principles? Think about these issues, and discuss them with a colleague.
As with concepts and procedures, not all principles require a lot of
generalization. Remember the "one-dollar bill" phenomenon for concepts
and the "recipe" phenomenon for procedures. Some principles have very little
variation among their instances. For example, the phases of the moon comprise
a process principle. Each week brings a new phase, yet each month's phases
vary little from the previous month's phases. As with concepts and procedures,
such principles are virtually remember-level tasks: if you've learned one
instance, you've learned them all. Again, there is a continuum ranging
from such principles on one extreme to very highly divergent principles
on the other extreme. This has important implications for your instruction.
How is a causal principle learned? Like a process principle, it can be learned at the "remember-a-generality" level or the "remember-an-instance" level, and either of those can be rote (memorization) or meaningful (understanding). But what we really want is for the students to be able to "use the generality"ˇapply the principle in new (previously unencountered) situations.
So how are causal principles applied? We saw that process principles are applied by describing the sequence of events in a new situation. But causal principles are much more complex. There are three very different forms of behavior by which causal principles can be applied. These three behaviors can most easily be understood by looking at the two changes which comprise a simple cause-effect principle: the cause and the effect. For example, in the law of supply and demand, an increase in price (the cause) results in a decrease in demand (the effect).
Prediction. One way to apply a causal principle is when a particular cause is given and the learner must predict what its particular effect will be. For example, the learner is told that the price of gasoline will soon increase due to a gasoline tax, and is asked what effect it is likely to have. "Implication" is another term which is commonly used.
Explanation. Another way a causal principle can be applied occurs when a particular effect is given, and the learner must explain what its particular cause was. For example, the learner is told that consumption of sugar in the U.S. decreased considerably in the early 1960s and is asked for a possible reason. "Inference" is another common term for this form of application.
Solution. A third way a causal principle can be applied is when a particular desired effect is given, and the person must select and implement the necessary particular causes to bring it about. It is similar to procedure using, except that the appropriate procedure is unknown and must be invented or derived by the person. For example, the learner is asked to figure out how to decrease the consumption of electricity (to reduce pollution and conserve fossil fuels). "Problem solving" is the common term for this form of application.
Description. In a process principle, the kind of behavior that represents application of the principle is to describe what occurs in what order in a particular situation. For example, a learner is shown a marigold in flower and is asked to predict what will happen next to it. Verbs that are often used include "arrange the events in proper order", "predict which event will come next", and "infer what event occurred just prior to now". But all of these are essentially the same in that they entail describing a sequence of events as they apply in a new (previously unencountered) situation. They are not prediction or explanation in the sense you have with causal principles.
In essence, then, there are two phases to learning a principle at the application level: acquisition and application. This has important implications for how to teach principles on an application level.
Take a moment to think back now. What are the four types of behavior
one could acquire in learning to apply a principle? Try to recall and define
each without looking back. And what are the two phases to learning a principle
at the application level?
The Complex Nature of Principles
There are some interesting features of both process and causal principles, an understanding of which can help us to teach them better. First, they may be anywhere on a continuum of certainty as to their validity, ranging from hypotheses through propositions, postulates and rules, to laws. When people talk about "fundamental concepts", they are often referring to principles, as in the "fundamental concepts of science".
Second, principles vary greatly in the consistency with which a given cause has a given effect. If a principle is highly consistent, it is called "deterministic", whereas if it only sometimes has that effect, it is called "probabilistic".
Principles also exist on a broad range of levels of complexity, which vary depending on whether they are correlational or causal, directional or nondirectional, and quantitative or qualitative. Another aspect of their complexity is their level of generality. Compare:
Another aspect of the complexity of principles is their level of inclusiveness. A principle like "Prejudice is caused by ignorance and intolerance toward others" is very inclusive, applying to very many situations; whereas the related principle, "People of one race or ethnic group become intolerant toward another because they feel their way is the only way or the only right way", applies in far fewer situations and is therefore much less inclusive.
Yet another aspect of the complexity of principles is that there are usually multiple causes for any given effect and multiple effects of any given cause. For example, an increase in price will cause an increase in the amount supplied as well as a decrease in amount demanded. There are often tens of factors that can "cause" a given event (result), and tens of effects that can result from any given event (cause).
Furthermore, causes and effects usually exist in chains, whereby a cause has a certain effect, which in turn is a cause of another effect, which in turn is a cause of another effect, and so forth.
Take a moment now to think about each of the ways principles can differ from each other: certainty, consistency, causality, directionality, magnitude, generality, inclusiveness, multiple causality, and chaining. Before you read on, state in your own words what each of these terms means, and think of an example of each. You will find it very helpful to understand them!
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This file was last updated on March 10, 1999 by Byungro Lim
Copyright 1999, Charles M. ReigeluthCredit