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Merrill uses the term ‘what-happens’ component skill to refer to the teaching of principles. I will use the term ‘teaching of principles’ component skill. He defines a principle as “an explanation of why things happen in the world” (Merrill, 1983). A principle describes a relation between concepts which can often be represented by if-then propositions or rules: If the conditions are true, then a consequence follows. The content for the acquisition of facts, part-whole relationships and conceptual knowledge component skills describes the environment, however, the content and activities for the teaching of principles component skill provides ways for learners to act on or modify their environment. Learners can be asked to predict a consequence from a set of conditions or to find faulted conditions for an unexpected consequence. This component skill is most appropriate when the content involves a process to be learned. For example, when a set of conditions leads to a specific consequence; when the conditions change, the consequence changes. A change in a condition or multiple conditions can be a naturally occurring event or can be an event caused by an action taken by the learner.

A teaching of principles component skill has four content elements:

  1. A specific situation to which a process applies (the problem)
  2. The name of the process
  3. A set of conditions that should lead to the consequence
  4. A consequence resulting from the conditions

A condition is a property of a situation that can hold different values. A consequence is a property of a situation that changes when there is a change in the conditions. A process is a change in a consequence as a result of changes in the conditions of a situation.

Demonstration for the teaching of principles

For teaching of principles component skills, Merrill advises that the demonstration should describe the conditions necessary for each event while simultaneously showing the consequence of the process. Learners should be shown the process in a real or simulated situation. Attention-focusing guidance should direct learners attention to the conditions and the consequence of each event in the process. Multimedia should follow Richard Mayer’s principles for designing pedagogically effective multimedia. If the process is complex, then the demonstration should show a progression of at least three increasingly complex scenarios.

Merrill’s view is that passive demonstrations of a process are less effective than having learners trigger the events by setting a parameter for a condition or executing an action that is a condition for the event to occur. Enabling learners to manipulate the conditions for an event and to see the consequences allows them to explore what happens for different values of the conditions. Effective guidance provides learners with an explanation of any unexpected consequence during their exploration of the process. Ideally, this explanation should identify and explain the conditions that resulted in this adverse consequence.

Demonstration of principles

Practice / Application for the teaching of principles

Learners should be asked to predict the consequence of a process given specific conditions of the device or system. They should be given the opportunity to diagnose an unexpected consequence in a specific situation. Coaching should be provided for instances early in the progression and then gradually withdrawn. Learners should receive intrinsic feedback by being able to confirm their prediction or diagnosis by triggering the process and observing the consequence of the execution. Ask learners to predict or diagnose a series of at least three increasingly complex problems. An alternative application activity is to present learners with a correct or flawed consequence for a specific un-encountered situation and ask them to identify the condition or conditions that were met or not met that resulted in the observed consequence.

Practice application of principles.

Effective strategies for the teaching of principles

Merrill suggests the following instructional strategies:

Demonstration

Enable learners to set different values for the conditions and to observe the effect on the consequence.

Application for the teaching of principles

  1. Given a set of un-encountered conditions, asks learners to predict the consequence by selecting hypotheses
  2. Given an expected consequence ask learners to identify condition or conditions that were met that resulted in the observed consequence
  3. Given an unexpected consequence and asked to identify the missing or flawed conditions responsible for the consequence

Teaching of principles example: Fluid pressure in physics

The simulation below is from the PhET project (the acronym originally came from Physics Education Technology, but it is now known as PhET as their interactive simulations evolved to cover a range of maths and science subjects). PhET also provides learning and teaching resources to be used alongside their simulations. This fluid pressure example is aimed at secondary/high school-aged learners.

It is worth noting that PhET’s pedagogic approach seems to be based primarily on enquiry/discovery learning whereas Merrill’s approach is generally based more on explicit/direct instruction. The PhET resources do not provide a demonstration, perhaps assuming that teachers will provide this as part of their teaching process. Merrill advises providing directions for interacting with the experiential environment and also starting with a demonstration to introduce learners to the principle.

Learning outcomes

  1. Investigate how pressure changes in air and water
  2. Discover how you can change the pressure
  3. Predict pressure in a variety of situations

Learner activities (extract only)

  1. Explore the simulation to find out how pressure changes in air and water
  2. Describe your findings and include specific data from your explorations to support your ideas
  3. Test your ideas by predicting what the air pressure would be two meters above sea level and two meters underwater

Teaching of principles example: Depth of field in photography

What if there isn’t an open-source simulation available which meets your learning outcomes and you don’t have the same resources as the PhET project? In First Principles of Instruction (2012), Merrill shared a lower fidelity, less interactive, template example which he developed as a prototype using PowerPoint and macros. He also provided a specific example which explained depth-of-field in photography. I have developed a similar example using H5P.

Learning outcomes

  1. Define the terms aperture and depth of field
  2. Identify photographs which use a low f stop
  3. Identify photographs which use a high f stop

Demonstration

Enable learners to set different f stop values (vary the condition) and to observe the effect on the consequence:

A post-demonstration summary can be used to help ensure that learners inferred the correct relationship among conditions and consequence:

Application / Practice

  • Given a set of un-encountered conditions, asks learners to predict the consequence by selecting hypotheses
  • Given an expected consequence ask learners to identify condition or conditions that were met that resulted in the observed consequence

More complex simulations would have more conditions, therefore learners could be given an unexpected consequence and asked to identify the missing or flawed conditions responsible for the consequence. For example, if learners are being taught about photographic exposure this involves several conditions (aperture setting, shutter speed and the ISO setting).

Next in this series: Problem centred learning

A summary of Merrill’s problem centred learning strategy where skills are taught in a simple-to-complex progression of real-world whole problems.

References

Mayer, R. (2016). Principles of Multimedia Learning. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from Center for Teaching and Learning | Learning House Inc. website: https://ctl.learninghouse.com/principles-of-multimedia-learning/

Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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