Book Review

D-Lib Magazine
September 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel

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". . . an action- and task-oriented approach to instruction and documentation that emphasizes the importance of realistic activities and experiences for effective learning and information seeking..."

By Andrew Dillon, Indiana University

Andrew Dillon is Associate Professor of Information Science and Core Faculty in Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel

John Carroll, ed.
416 pages. Illustrations, Index. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England:
The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1998, $45.

The present volume is best seen as an update and companion volume to Carroll's (1990) The Nurnberg Funnel. The present volume contains 15 chapters by 13 authors which extend Carroll's initial concept of Minimalism into considerations of its application in software documentation design and training on the practical side, and into the emergence of supporting structures for conceiving Minimalistic interventions on the theoretical side.

Minimalism is described in the text as an action- and task-based approach to instruction that emphasizes the importance of realistic activities and experiences for effective learning. To the uninitiated, the term (and accompanying definition) might raise some eyebrows -- is there anything new here that has not been described before in different words in a hundred books on education? Well, the answer is yes and no. It is clear that many of the basic tenets of Minimalism are derivative (e.g., the principle of using real tasks for instructional activities, or the heuristic of encouraging and supporting exploration and innovation in learners), but this is unavoidable. Our knowledge of human learning is remarkably limited given the funding and publication rates of education theorists and schools. What is special about the minimalist approach is that it applies its simplification process to itself. The theoretical underpinnings seem sound, based less on the traditional logical decomposition of tasks common to much twentieth-century learning theory, but on the search for core cognitive and behavioral dispositions in learners that can best be supported through interventions. Meaningful human learning once again becomes a mainstream psychological concern -- and about time too!

In a wonderful chapter on misconceptions of Minimalism, Carroll and van der Meij (a leading contributor to the volume) show that there is much more to the Minimalist school than the mere restating of clichés or the targeting of specific learning contexts outside of which Minimalism is limited. Coupled with enough references and examples of Minimalism at work in the accompanying chapters, the volume demands a close reading to gain a full understanding of why Minimalism might be more important than the typical constructivist approaches that are now so fashionable.

It is difficult to divorce this volume from the original 1990 book, and to this reviewer, both should be read to gain the fullest understanding. However, this edited collection stands on its own and will serve as the standard text for the foreseeable future. As a strong critic of much educational theory applied to computer design and use, I find the present volume a significant addition to the literature. It's not perfect, and I would have liked to see an outside critic have a chance to enter the debate directly through one or two chapters of their own and less emphasis placed on individual accounts of Minimalist approaches, but for now we should be grateful that this approach is articulated so clearly and grounded comparatively firmly in data.

Copyright © 1998 Andrew Dillon

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