Conversations about Learning

Conversations about Learning

Although this week’s discussion centers on the evaluation of cognition and behaviorism  viewed through the lens of an aged dialogue between three persons: Karl Kapp, Stephen Downes and Bill Kerr, I discovered that once I sourced out as many individual references as possible from Bill Kerr’s summarizing blog, “_isms as filter, not blinker” (Kerr, 2007), there was not really a “dialogue” in a traditional sense of give and take.  Karl Kapp made several informative blog posts regarding objectives, behaviorism, cognitivism, culminating in his post, “Out and About: Discussion on Educational Schools of Thought” (Kapp, 2007).  Although Kapp’s posts regarding Behaviorism addressed an implied question from one of Stephen Downes posted blogs, Kapp posted firmly from an academic stance. Downes post strategy seemed more like jabs at a sparring partner, designed to draw out any potential weaknesses, and then pouncing once a perceived opening was discovered.  Bill Kerr, quite frankly, with the possible exception of the final post, “_isms as filter, not blinker” (Kerr, 2007) seemed to be playing some type of defensive role, attempting to throw Downes off Kapp’s scent, so to speak.

Kapp actually began the exchange quite unintentionally by submitting an informative blog post “Definitions: ABCD Objectives” (Kapp, 2006) wherein objectives are dissected and constructed according to an ABCD model: audience, behavior, condition and degree.  Downes apparently taking umbrage, decried whether Kapp’s “ABCD Objectives are an appropriate “foundation for the design of learning materials” (Downes, 2006, p. 1) and apparently spoiling for a verbal altercation alleges, “it remains puzzling that so much of the instructional design community remains rooted in behaviorism – this more than 30 years after the theory was abandoned everywhere else” (Downes, 2006, p. 1).  Clearly, Downes has thrown down a gauntlet with such grandiose exaggerations.  At this point, Bill Kerr throws in a weak overgeneralization of his own, “actions which are followed by rewards are often repeated. Doesn’t that make us all behaviourists …?” (Downes, 2006, p. 1).  Kerr then proceeds to throw a red herring into the discussion by bringing in an evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett, to wit Kerr has some theoretical alignment (Kerr, 2007).

Admirably, Kapp takes a moderating stance in his blog “Behaviorism has its place,” providing examples he deemed representative of behaviorism in current practice (i.e., gambling and advertising), and addressing Downes implied question, “should we create learning objectives based on measurable outcomes?” (Kapp, 2006, p. 1).  Kapp alleged that “in many situations, you need a prescribed set of responses and, when training people, you need to make sure they follow the prescribed set of responses. Some things require measureable, behavioral outcomes” (Kapp, 2006, p. 1).  Kapp uses a nuclear reaction meltdown as an example of a situation where measurable behavior would be applicable.  However, Kapp clarifies that behaviorism is not the only learning theory with application, insisting that cognitivism and constructivism are also important, especially in situations of informal learning. In fact, Kapp argued for a “blended approach” (Kapp, 2006, p. 1).  Although Downes’ response is vibrant with disagreement, his argument is persuasive, providing concrete and rational reasoning regarding cognitivism, social learning and associative pairing, in respect to Kapp’s very examples. Further, Downes’ alleged, “we use humans in nuclear reactors (and elsewhere) just because we understand that ‘knowing’ involves a set of cognitive processes – like recognition, interference, association – between stimulus and response” (Downes, 2006, p. 1).  Kerr posts an antagonistic, almost irrelevant response to Downes, regarding chess, and usage of computers for critical mission tasks (to which he admitted having not researched) (Kerr, 2006).

Sadly, at this point, the archival record breaks down.  Although there is a record of Kapp’s blog post, “Definition: Cognitivism” faithfully outlining the cognitivist point of view and referencing “Albert Bandura’s social-cognitive theory, Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory and Lev Vygotsky’s sociohistorical theory” (Kapp, 2006), the original responses to this post from Downes and Kerr have been lost, forcing the remaining analysis to be from Bill Kerr’s summarizing blog post, “_isms as filter, not blinker” (Kerr, 2007).  Kerr provides a quote from Downes (which sounds like him) challenging not cognitivism as a learning theory, but rather the idea that the human mind operates like a computer.  I was able to locate a rather lengthy academic (unpublished) paper written by Downes regarding this viewpoint (Downes, 2006).  Oddly, at this point, Kerr flips sides and agrees with Downes regarding the human mind not being like a computer and he even provides substantively relevant information in support of his position, but also references Ericson’s recent research regarding deliberate practice (Kerr, 2007).  Following Kerr’s _ism’s post, Kapp posts his summarizing position in “Out and about: discussion on educational schools of thought” (Kapp, 2007), which aligns positively with Kerr in that they both agree that no one theory is enough to explain every facet of human learning at this point.

Truthfully, if these blogs and the course text were the only information I had to rely on, I would be agreeing with Downes a great deal more.  I do agree that there is enough conflicting empirical evidence recorded to keep each of the theories afloat. However, in light of my recent research into brain chemistry, ADHD and the possibility of internal chemical reactions within the brain to specific social stimuli, behaviorism is back on the table.



Downes, S. (2006). Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2006, December 19). Definitions: ABCD Objectives [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2006, December 21). Behaviorism has its place [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kapp, K. (2006, December 19). Definitions: ABCD objectives [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kapp, K. (2006, December 21). Behaviorism has its place [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kapp, K. (2006, December 28). Definition: cognitivism [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kapp, K. (2007, January 2). Out and about: discussion on educational schools of thought [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kerr, B. (2006, December 23). Re: design: behaviorism has its place [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Kerr, B. (2007, January 1). _isms as filter, not blinker [Web log message]. Retrieved from


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