Artifact 3: Personal Theory of Practice

Having completed two courses by keeping rigidly to the provided syllabus, I thought I could risk straying just a little from orthodoxy and quote Zen maxims to make one assignment more entertaining.

Learning Theory

Why Selected

With MDDE 603 I came to terms with the myriad of learning theories, and which were of value to me.


Assignment 2B, MDDE 603 Foundations of Instructional Design: Systems Analysis and Learning Theory,

"This paper presents a personal Theory of Practice for my online teaching to postgraduate students, in vocationally orientated courses ... Three learning principles, inspired by Zen maxims of the Martial Arts, are presented: Economy of effort, Realism, and Switching smoothly between techniques. Theory and research literature, are presented to justify these.

Three Learning Principles
  1. Economy of effort for maximum results

    'One of the greatest adjustments the novice athlete must make in competition is to overcome the natural tendency to try too hard - to hurry, strain, press and try to blast the whole fight at once.' (Lee, 1975, p. 57)

Martial arts emphasize maximum results from minimum effort. Similarly, learning is a means to an end and so should be done efficiently: using just enough resources to get the job done. However, most theories of education ignore the cost of an activity. There tends to be an inappropriate emphasis on trying in education, rather than succeeding. ..."

From: Personal Theory of Practice, 2 November 2014


4. Communication & Interpersonal Skills

4.1.         Write clearly and in a style appropriate to purpose (e.g. assignments, essays, published documents, and theses)

4.2.         Construct coherent arguments and articulate ideas clearly to a range of audiences, formally and informally, through a variety of techniques and media

4.3.         Justify and defend your ideas orally and in writing in meetings, forums, seminars, exams and other contexts

4.4.         Support the learning of others when involved in teaching, mentoring, moderating, collaboration or demonstration activities

4.5.         Participate and contribute effectively in collaborative group activities

4.7.         Work cooperatively with diverse groups and individuals both within the university and/or in the workplace

4.8.         Organize, and convey your ideas effectively through a range of communication skills and work collaboratively and in teams.


The assignment asked for three learning principles, but which three? At first, I thought this referred to: Behaviourism, Cognitive Theories, and Constructivism. But a reading of these and other theories, what struck me was that they all have something useful to say (even Behaviourism) and the many papers on why one is better than another seems pointless, especially in the absence of well-designed experiments to test them. So I decided what is needed is the equivalent of a Zen approach to education.

The interest in Zen came from reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" (Pirsig, 1974), some decades ago. When considering a theory of teaching, this book came to mind.  Pirsig worked in the computer industry, as well as a teacher, which is what I do. He argued that a university was not a physical structure, but a relationship between educators and students, which is an approach fitting with DE.

Searching the research literature I did not find anything useful to make the connection specifically to Pirsig.  However, Khoo & Senna-Fernandes (2014) sought to apply techniques from Zen, as interpreted by the martial arts, to plastic surgery and the step from that to teaching was a small one. From the martial arts I then chose Jeet Kune Do (振藩截拳道), with its straightforward and direct techniques: 1. economy of effort for maximum results, 2. realism in training and 3. switching smoothly between techniques.

The Jeet Kune Do precepts were then related to mainstream education literature, for example, economy of effort:

"Mayer (1999) suggests highlighting the most important information for the leaner using simple techniques (such as bold italics), provide a summary and eliminate irrelevant information. They suggest using the SIO (Select, Organize, Integrate) principles for textbooks and lectures as well as multimedia materials. The techniques of Cognitive Information Processing can be used to provide meaningful structure to the material, with a default sequence (even if the students are encouraged to find their own path). Huang and Andrade (2014, p. 300) suggest methods to manage the cognitive load placed on the student by being able to present only the information the student needs on a mobile device."

From: Personal Theory of Practice, 2 November 2014

As a mature student with some experience of teaching, retrofitting theory to my existing practice was a difficult task. In this assignment, I had to look at what I do in practice in teaching and then what theories might support and improve this (praxis). In doing this, I was able to demonstrate written communication skills. This was an assignment and I wrote for that style (4.1). In this I attempted to construct an argument at a level suitable for an MEd graduate and communicate using the Zen example (4.2).

However, with this, I made the mistake of straying too far from the orthodoxy of educational theory, by suggesting to apply Zen precepts. This did not appear to be well accepted by my instructor (judging by the mark for the assignment), and I decided to rely on more mainstream educational theory sources of inspiration in future course work.

This experience of my exploring a person interest and not being rewarded for the effort resulted in a more risk-averse approach to course and assignment topic selection. As a student, I did have the freedom and time to explore education, which I did not have in my everyday work. However, that freedom had boundaries, and I needed to keep in mind the objective to complete the MEd program and to graduate. As an example, one of my fellow students recommended the course "Gender Issues in Distance Education" (MDDE 651), but I instead chose the more conventional and less risky alternative of "International Issues in Open and Distance Learning" (MDDE 614).

Group Work

Foundations of Instructional Design required group work. The personal theory assignment was bracketed by two group activities: beforehand was a debate on the value of constructivism in learning and afterward a team analysis of an education system. Conducting a "debate" on-line was a novel experience, with the need to adapt the conventions of a formal face-to-face discussion, to the limitations of the technology. This allowed me to demonstrate the interpersonal skill of defending in writing (4.3).

It was good to get to speak to other students, via Skype. While working in a group is difficult to manage, with the participants spread across the globe in different time zones, group work helps overcome the isolation of being a distance education student (4.7). This allowed me to support the learning of my fellow team members (4.4). One of the more interesting aspects was using Skype for voice communication (4.5), while the group collectively edited the one document using Google Docs. A way of working which evolved was to edit asynchronously, communicating using comments in the Google Docs about options and then having a synchronous session with Skype to finalize the proposed changes. The synchronous sessions became a little chaotic at times, with the rapid-fire discussion of what to do, and then the text shimmering on screen as three people edited sections simultaneously (4.8).

This course was one of a handful of times in the program I was able to speak to another student. One of the aspects of e-learning I had not expected was the crushing sense of isolation. In three years of study, I only met two people associated with Athabasca University face to face: two of my professors who happened to be speaking at conferences I attended. However, on the rare synchronous chats, I was able to talk to students in remote parts of Canada, as well other parts of the world. The sense of isolation seemed to be stronger, than with my previous on-line studies at Australian institutions. This may be a mild form of cultural isolation, which would be very much more pronounced for some from a different cultural background (as an Australian, I have much in common with Canadians).

Meditation, by Tärning, CC-BY 3.0 2014