Basic Methods of Instruction
Module 5: Principle Using
; What is Principle Using?
; Why Is Principle Using Important?
; Principles for Learning Principles
; Principles for Teaching Principles
; Skill Builder
A principle is a relationship between two or more changes, like "water expands when it freezes". There are two major kinds of principles: process and causal.
• A process principle is a sequence of natural events.
Example: "A seed grows into a seedling, which grows into a mature plant, which develops a flower, which produces seeds, and the cycle continues." Contrasted with procedures: A sequence of natural events is not a sequence of actions performed by a person, which is a procedure rather than a principle. Kinds: A process principle may be linear (with a beginning and an end) or cyclical
(with no beginning or end).
• A causal principle is a cause-effect relationship between two or more changes.
Example: "An increase in the price of a good causes a decrease in the amount demanded and an increase in the amount supplied".
Contrasted with process principles: In process principles you can't say that one change causes the other.
Kinds: Causal principles usually have multiple causes and/or multiple effects.
First, we will discuss process principles. Then we will deal with causal principles.
Why are principles important?
A unique feature of principles is that, unlike concepts and procedures, they are discovered rather than invented. Principles are the only kind of content which represents "truth" in any significant way. Certainly, facts (which can only be learned on a memorization level) are either true or false, but they are trivial compared to principles—they are particulars rather than generalities. Also, a procedure can either produce the desired outputs (the goal) or not. But procedures don't provide us with an understanding of how things work, and procedures can often be changed and still produce the desired outputs. Furthermore, there are often several different procedures for accomplishing the same goal.
In contrast, principles provide us with an understanding of the world around us, among
us, and within us—an understanding of how things happen and why they happen the way they do. Therefore, principles are probably the most important kind of content for us to include in the majority of our instruction. Given the importance of principle using, it is essential that we know how to teach it well.
Principles 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 occur 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 be prepared to argue your case in class.
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"—apply 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.
These three forms of behavior are in addition to the one for process principles:
• Description. In a process principle, the kind of behavior which 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.
For each of these four kinds of behavior, we can identify a procedure (or "processing routine") which is used to apply a particular principle in that way. Hence, there are two distinct things which are learned: the principle itself and the procedure for applying it.
This is quite similar to concept classification, where prototype formation preceded generalization (algorithm formation).
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 varies 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.
• Light bends when it passes from one medium to another.
• When light rays pass into a denser medium, they bend toward the normal. • The greater the difference in optical density between two media, the more the light
rays will bend when they pass from one medium into the other.
• The amount that the light rays will bend when they pass from one medium into another is determined by: n = c/c, where n = the index of refraction, c= the speed of iri
light in the first medium, and c= the speed of light in the second medium. r
All of these principles are about the same changes, but some of them are much more general, while others are much more detailed.
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!
Principles for Teaching Principles
Since there are two phases of learning a process principle on the application level, let's start with a look at how to teach acquisition of the principle.
We have seen that prototype formation for a concept is quite similar, and it is taught by
one which is very common and highly presenting a prototypical example—
representative of as many examples of the concept as possible. The same should be useful for teaching acquisition of a process principle. But to help the learner understand what is happening in the example, it is helpful to present a simultaneous generality
which describes and usually even labels each phase in the sequence. Labeled illustrations, such as you may have seen for the water cycle, are particularly helpful for this.
But what should the prototypical example be like? To be an example of a sequence of events, it should be a dynamic demonstration, if possible. By dynamic, we mean that it
should entail motion, which of course requires a dynamic medium, like video or computer-based instruction, or observing the real thing. The demonstration should
show each event in the sequence, in the order in which it naturally occurs. To be prototypical, the example should be as typical and simple as possible. In the case of the
life cycle of a flowering plant, we would probably pick a common flower like a dandelion, rather than a maple tree (which is more complex because it requires far more than one season to produce its flower and seeds) or a corn plant (which is less familiar and its flower doesn't look much like a flower).
And what should the simultaneous generality be like? It should usually describe and
label each of the individual events or phases which make up the entire sequence, clearly indicating its beginning and end (or its continuity, if it is a cyclical process). And it
should usually describe the order of those events or phases. To avoid redundancy with
the demonstration, you may find it unnecessary to include the description of each event (phase) or the order of those events (phases). This would just leave you with providing a label and clear indication of the beginning and end of each event (phase) within the overall process.
The prototypical example and simultaneous generality should result in the learner's acquisition of an understanding of the principle. But your experience with these Modules should show you that you can feel quite confident that you understand something, and still encounter great difficulty in applying it. What instructional components should you use to facilitate the application process?
In the case of process principles, application entails using your understanding of the sequence of events to describe what has occurred, is occurring, or will occur in one specific instance. The major obstacle to learning is difficulty in generalizing, and it is dealt with by providing lots of divergent cases—instances which are as different as
possible from each other. These instances may be either expository (told to the learner) or inquisitory (asked of the learner).
The expository instances are examples (or demonstrations), similar to the prototypical
example, except that they no longer need to be common or simple. In fact, they should be uncommon (as different as possible from each other), and should gradually increase in complexity.
The inquisitory instances are practice items. They should always present new
(previously unencountered) cases and should require such behaviors as (a) presenting all the events (phases) and asking the learner to arrange them in the proper order, (b)
presenting one event (phase) and asking the learner to predict what will come next, or
(c) presenting one event and asking the learner to infer what came immediately before.