I must confess. I am a “House” addict. It is not often that my life makes allowances for entertainment; however, in this one respect, I take no prisoners. “House” is my “crack.” For those who are unfamiliar with the show: House “is a series in which the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients” (Jacobs et al., 2010, p. 1). Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie is “devoid of bedside manner and dealing with his own constant physical pain, uses a cane that punctuates his acerbic, brutally honest demeanor. His behavior often borders on antisocial, but House is a brilliant diagnostician whose unconventional thinking and flawless instincts afford him a great deal of respect. An infectious disease specialist, he thrives on the challenge of solving medical puzzles in order to save lives” (Jacobs et al., 2010, p. 1).
How can this possibly be related to “Conversations about Learners?”
Perhaps, it is the constructivist in me that has found an analogy between the most recent episode of House, “A Pox in the House” and the blog posts volleyed between Karl Kapp, Stephen Downes and Bill Kerr.
Essentially, through the various postings of these three men, the learning theories of behaviorism and cognitivism are discussed and critiqued. Kapp provides examples of real-time behaviorism only to have his examples reinterpreted by Downes. Kapp states: “I think the best representation of the effectiveness of behaviorism is Las Vegas, if slots machines are not classic Stimulus-Response-Reward…then nothing is.” Downes responds, “Well, then, nothing is. It takes a great deal of work to convince people to invest money in what is known to be a losing proposition. That is why Vegas hired Randy Newman and Celine Dion, hosts professional boxing matches, hosts slick television series like CSI, and even popularized a slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” If Vegas relied simply on stimulus-response, it would be broke by now” (Downes, 2006, p. 1).
Kapp writes, “For mission critical items, we cannot write an objective like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will use a discovery method to explore possible options for stopping the meltdown… We really need something like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will follow a defined set of steps to stop the meltdown.” But this is not true, and the proof is this: if it were true, then the human performance could be replaced by a machine. If you are working simply on stimulus-response, then you are working on programmable behaviour. But we use humans in nuclear reactors (and elsewhere) just because we understand that ‘knowing’ involves a set of cognitive processes – like recognition, inference, association – between stimulus and response” (Downes, 2006, p. 1).
This is where that nifty analogy pops up. Week after week the audience is privy to a simulation of a mission critical situation, life and death. I personally cannot think of anything more mission critical. Alas, it is a television show and the medical mystery is typically solved within the last two minutes of the episode; however, up until that point, if one were truly paying attention, one would see learning theories on display, enacted by this diagnostic team on a quest to save yet another life. In this week’s episode, “A Pox on the House” a young girl is admitted to the hospital displaying signs of small pox, a disease eradicated over 200 years previous. The diagnosticians are skeptical that it could be small pox, but move forward. A new symptom appears and one of the diagnosticians calls the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to come in. (Hint: CDC represents Behaviorism). House and his staff are banned from the isolation rooms for 18 hours until the CDC can be sure it is not small pox. In the meantime, House and his staff continue working through differentials, discussing, collaborating, arguing, defending, “activating” thoughts, and gathering data. The step-father becomes ill. House insists it is not small pox and enters the isolation chamber. Unfortunately the man dies from again, what appears is small pox. Now, House is stuck in the isolation chamber because of the likelihood of contracting small pox. The CDC hold firm. There can be no deviations. Stimulus-response. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. Fortunately, the diagnostic staff are apparently cognitive and constructivistic in nature. They get more data. They differentiate some more. They determine [spoiler alert] it is not small pox, but a treatable variant with similar symptomology. The CDC are still holding firm, until House proves it is the variation of the disease with the discovery of a marking remnant unique to the variant disease. The world is saved, again. The CDC were doing what they were trained to do: stimulus-response. Take no chances. House and his team are from a different perspective. They utilize the clues, context, deliberate, collaborate and construct their own meanings, and in the end, they almost always save the person. From this perspective, I would have to agree that society needs both. We need the bull dog protectors, but we also need the insightful eccentric free thinkers as well.
In the final blogs of both Kerr and Kapp, there seems to be a unifying of the minds regarding the idea that there is no one perfect learning theory. In fact, there is research both affirming and contradicting the various learning theories, evidenced through the course readings (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009). Seriously, if they were scientific laws they would be called such, but these are learning theories. There is evidence both for and against. Until that changes significantly, we are pretty much stuck with cherry picking the right theory for the right instructional strategy of the moment. House certainly did not ignore behavioristic methods of testing for common bacteria or viruses just because he did not believe it could be them. He had them tested because there is always a possibility. That is what makes life truly unique.
Downes, S. (2006, December 21). Behaviorism has its place [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://karlkapp.blogspot.com/2006/12/design-behaviorism-has-its-place.html
Jacobs, K., Shore, D., Attanasio, P., Singer, B., Friend, R., Lerner, G., … Laurie, H. (Executive Producer). (2010). House [Television series]. Beverly Hills/Century City, California: Heal and Toe Films, Shore Z Productions and Bad Hat Harry Productions in association with Universal Media Studios.
Ormond, J. E., Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate Custom Edition). New York: Pearson.