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It’s the Principle of the Thing:

Predicting, Explaining, and Applying the Rules

Part of a Series: Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

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Principles. Rules that help us to predict, explain, or control things. Principles can be natural laws or rules that people define.

Why Learning Principles Matters

We love to explain, predict, and control things. Principles help us to do that. Principles are relational rules. They describe the relationship between two or more concepts. Note the “if this, then that” quality of principles:

Natural Laws

If we have this much water vapor in these conditions, then we get rain.

If you eat more calories than you burn, then you will gain weight.

If you drive fast, slam on the brakes, and turn the wheel hard, then your car will skid.

Rules People Create

If you follow the directions for your assignments, then your grade will be higher.

If you pay your bills on time, then you avoid late fees.

With principles, we eliminate some of the trial and error of life. Principles are also building blocks for problem-solving—which is simply the ability to recognize and apply a variety of principles to get a particular result. We use them all the time.

How to Teach a Principle

Suggest a Related Puzzle. For example, “How do we know when it’s going to rain?” Or, “Does it always rain when there are clouds in the sky?” You might also show some photos of weather conditions: a sunny sky, a sky with a few clouds, a darkly overcast sky.

State the Principle. You may want to post or otherwise provide the principle in written form where the learners may refer to it. It can also be a great idea to have the learners state the principle in their own words.
Note: When we remember a principle, that’s declarative knowledge. When we teach a principle, we want our learners to use it to predict, explain, or control something. 

Teach the Concepts, if Necessary. For example, if you teach young students to predict rain, then chances are they are familiar with rain. They’ll be able to tell the difference between sunny, rainy, and snowy days. They’ll be able to recognize a cloud in the sky. But they may not know the term water vapor. If not, you’ll have to teach them this concept.

Clarify When to Use the Principle. Show examples of situations when your learners should use the principle. Make sure they can recognize when to use it. If they can generate their own examples, even better.

Provide Examples. Explain, illustrate, or demonstrate what happens when the principle is applied. For example:

Create condensation using steam and a big, upside-down bowl.

Demonstrate erosion using water and sand in a waterproof box.

Use video or a series of photos to illustrate if-then relationships.

Tell stories to illustrate interpersonal principles.

Explain Why. Principles are easier to remember if you explain why they work (for natural laws) or why they were created (for rules created by people).

Provide Practice. Learners should practice applying the principle. Give them a variety of direct experiences, case studies, or problems that allow them to predict, explain, or control what happens. For example, students could:

Predict what will happen to a plant that is watered, but receives no sunlight.

Explain what should happen in a simple case study where an employee breaks a particular rule.

Apply the correct first-person singular pronoun in the sentence, “He gave the present to both Sally and _____.

Of course, provide feedback so they’ll know if they’re on the right track.

Provide Examples to Evaluate. Give learners some examples where a principle has been applied, and have them determine whether it was applied correctly. They should also be able to tell you why or why not.

Give a Test. If memorizing the principle is useful, ask them to state it (possibly in their own words). Have them pick or describe situations where they should apply the principle. Have them use it to predict, explain, or control relevant exercises. Finally, ask them to evaluate cases where the principle has already been applied.

Communicate Results and Discuss Future Uses. How did they do on the test? And how will they use this principle at home, in school, at work, or in the context of other principles that they’ve learned?

We use principles all the time. We use them to decide where to put commas, semi-colons, and periods. We use them to choose verbs for objectives. We use them to decide how early to rise in the morning, when to eat, and when to do the laundry. We also use them to decide whether to call a friend at 7:00 on a Sunday morning (or not).

Principles define the relationships between two or more concepts. We use principles whenever we’re solving a problem (or taking advantage of an opportunity). We also use them for problem solving, which is the next major content type.

Other Posts in This Series

Post | Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

Post | Learning to Spout Stuff—Necessary, But Seldom Sufficient

Post | It’s a Concept—Got It?

Post | Easy Does It—Step-By-Step

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