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Instructional Design: The Propagation of Curriculum

In education the term instructional design refers to the ways in which a curriculum is delivered to an intended recipient. Typically instructional design is the domain of the school administrator and teacher since they are the medium for transmission of the curriculum. It is important to understand that the source of design for instruction is determined by the curriculum, or the concept of the prerequisite. In this sense, instructional design describes the ways in which information, skills and attitudes are communicated to students...

What is Instructional Design?

The concept of curriculum invites us to ask the question, "What content should be required?" The concept of instructional design invites us to ask, "How should that content be delivered?"

Instructional design assumes that a systematic method can be developed in order to transfer a requisite set of knowledge, skills and attitudes to a student. It is a technology that facilitates the delivery of content usually by a single person (i.e. - the teacher or instructor) to the many (i.e. - the students). The utility of the instructional design methodology is frequently judged by the way of standardized activities and tests.

It is also important to note that instructional design is not intended to question or challenge the validity of the curriculum it communicates. Instructional design is subservient to curriculum. This means that any creative effort in the field of instructional design will always be limited to and confined by the stated requirements of the curriculum. In other words, instructional design is a direct extension of curriculum and therefore is an agent of mass communication.

Wikipedia offers a useful summary on the history of instructional design. The opening paragraph suggests that the origins of instructional design lie within the military:

Much of the foundation of the field of instructional design was laid in World War Two, when the U.S. military faced the need to rapidly train large numbers of people to perform complex technical tasks, from field-stripping a carbine to navigating across the ocean to building a bomber.

The need for a process such as this in the military is obvious, but to extend this process into the education of several generations of people is at the very least questionable. In the above quote, there is no mention of education or training. This makes sense since the focus in the military is on training, not education. And, of course, training in the military is intimately linked to survival in times of intense and homicidal conflict.

In exploring the question of instructional design we can identify some key characteristics:

  • Instructional design is a servant of the curriculum;
  • Instructional design does not question the underlying structure or assumptions of the curriculum;
  • Instructional design is a technology that retrieves and propagates the underlying structure of the curriculum;
  • Instructional design is creative only in the sense of finding various ways to deliver the perquisites stated in the curriculum;
  • Instructional design as a systematic method originates in ideas about training but has been extended to include education, and even more mysteriously learning;
  • Instructional design methods and models, or the ways in which things are taught, are commonly developed in the absence of the intended recipients;
  • Instructional design is an agent of curriculum and therefore an agent of mass communication.

Instructional Design in Education: A Handmaid's Tale

The shape and form of instructional design in education reveals itself in the daily activities of schooling. It assumes the validity and necessity of timetables, content experts, programs of study, departmental bureaucracies, age segregation, classification schema, standardized testing, passing and failing, the fragmentation of time, attendance, and graduation. The effectiveness of instructional design lies in determining how well the curriculum is delivered to large masses of people.

The language surrounding instructional design can be quite descriptive. And often this description reveals a stark contrast to reality. For example, inquiry-based learning is a phrase that is commonly used to describe an instructional design methodology that promotes higher level thinking in students. The intended benefit of this variation on instructional design is to empower students to ask deep questions and equip them with the means to explore those questions independently and effectively. However, the underlying structure of education demands the delivery of specified sets of knowledge, skills and attitudes and reinforces that demand by the way of testing and evaluation. The contrast is a dramatic one. The intended benefits of something called inquiry-based learning are contained and confined by the concept of the prerequisite, or the curriculum. In the end, student achievement is still measured and rewarded in standardized ways. No meaningful innovation or creativity, and worse, no meaningful learning experiences are possible in this context. In this sense, instructional design is the handmaid of curriculum.

The teacher is the single most important figure in a student's educational experience. Instructional design and delivery represent a fundamental purpose for any teacher. This is their primary opportunity in education. At the same time, the teacher is just as confined by the curriculum as the student. Intelligent teachers experience multiple personality disorder. That is, teachers more than anyone else can see, understand, and interact with the authentic needs of the students they serve but are all too often derailed in their attempts to provide meaningful experiences. They walk that tightrope between what the curriculum demands of them and what they know is in the best interests of their students. Instructional design in this context is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

What Precisely Is Being Designed?

There is an assumption that instructional design leads to the design of beneficial learning experiences. This assumption is false. Instructional design and learning have little in common. Instructional design leads to the enforcement of education as scope and sequence. Scope refers to a predetermined range of knowledge, skills and attitudes to be transmitted to students. Sequence refers to a predetermined timeline for transmission. Determining both scope and sequence are fundamental activities of the instructional designer. How these elements are determined leads to the idea of an instructional design model.

Wikipedia: Instructional Design states that:

Perhaps the most common model used for creating instructional materials is the ADDIE Model. This acronym stands for the 5 phases contained in the model:
  • Analyze - analyze learner characteristics, task to be learned, etc.
  • Design - develop learning objectives, choose an instructional approach
  • Develop - create instructional or training materials
  • Implement - deliver or distribute the instructional materials
  • Evaluate - make sure the materials achieved the desired goals
    Most of the current instructional design models are spin-offs or variations of the ADDIE model.

While there are many variations on the theme of instructional design, the above definition captures the essential characteristics. It is obvious that the student is, as with curriculum, largely excluded from the design process. The student is the object of instructional design, not the source. In addition, the nature of design is one that is highly confined by the underlying requirements of the curriculum. This in turn limits and reduces creative opportunities for the instructional designer.

Instructional design doesn't design an educational experience as much as it shapes and conditions: a) the person responsible for designing and delivering it (i.e. - the teacher, school administrator, and subject consultant); and b) the people that it is applied to (i.e. - the students and parents). Everyone that has experienced education has also experienced what it is like to be the object of instructional design. At its core, this experience has nothing to do with the specific kinds of content or subject matter being delivered. It is the experience of the human being as scope and sequence. We quite literally become a scope and a sequence.

Instructional Technology

This is a term that is often confused. The basic question being asked is, "How can technology provide instruction?" Or more to the point, "How can technology become a direct extension of the curriculum through instructional design?"

The word "technology" is often used in reference to modern day hardware and software. This leads us to think about how computers can be used to provide instruction, or how computers can enhance or replace the function of a teacher. In education, this is a topic that is one of the most confused and misguided. It is only too obvious to say that computers cannot provide meaningful replacement for the teacher, nor can the presence of computers in education reduce the teacher-student ratio.

However, technology is the application of knowledge in order to achieve a desired result or intended goal. Both instructional design and curriculum are forms of technology in themselves and this is a point that is frequently ignored. If we refer back to the ADDIE model for mentioned above we can see the nature of the technology that drives instructional design. Computers may play a role on the implementation of instruction, but they in themselves are not a meaningful way to understand what technology is.

In Instructional Technology: The Psychology of a Psychology Course I provided an account of my son's experience in a university psychology course that replaced human interaction with video presentations. In other words, the course was literally television. It seems obvious that the Psychology Department has little understanding of the effects of its own design. The professor responded to my entry and stated, "But arenít we shortchanging out studentsí learning by providing them with video and undergraduate Tutors? I donít think so at all." We agree to disagree.

When it comes to our modern day tools, we have a strong tendency toward anthropomorphism - or the tendency to attribute human motivations, characteristics, or other attributes to non-human things. E-Learning is a primary example of this. Learning is a human phenomenon, yet we place the letter "e" in front of it in order to attempt to describe it as being digital. Many failed promises of computers in the classroom have originated in anthropomorphism, and this is a trend that seems likely to continue. For example, when we hear the word "network" our minds immediately begin referring to something digital.

Digital networks serve to provide connections, and education visionaries begin to decree a new age of global connectedness in human beings. A "new" vision for education is developed that originates in many degenerative diseases of the mind's eye. There is usually a failure to understand, in this example, the human dimension of building connections, or more to the point, relationships. Once a critical mass of support is reached via marketing and other forms of propaganda, money and resources become available and the new vision begins it's short and ineffectual life span until a new or improved version comes along. Instructional design processes morph in an attempt to accommodate new tools to support the vision. Our capacity for delusion is quite stunning. This is how e-Learning turns to something else called m-Learning. Twenty-four more letters to go before requiring the Greek alphabet.

Instructional Narcissism and Design

Instruction as design is an obsession with the notion of externalized expertise, or the human being as typological silo. While humanistic sounding words and phrases are often used to character the delivery of curriculum via instructional design, the underlying character of the educational process is distinctly inhumane. The underlying premise of instructional originates in the enforced need to deliver an imposed prerequisite via a imposed scope and sequence measured by standardized forms of evaluation. Feeding back the results of the evaluation in a manner that seeks to improve the status of the curriculum reinforces the self-directed arrogance of this process.

Of course, other approaches to instructional design can be developed, but for innovation to occur those processes would need to be free of the characteristics outlined in the opening section above. In addition, we might explore ideas like mentorship and apprenticeship through the lens of instructional design. We may also explore the various decisions made by individuals throughout the course of their lives in order to reveal possibilities for instructional design. The idea of providing instruction is not in itself the problem, but the underlying structure we embrace can be.

We can also further explore the possibility of the student as instructional designer. However, if we invite something called self-directed education into the discussion we would need to free it from the bonds imposed by traditional curriculum and instructional design. I avoided using the often used term "self-directed learning" since learning is by default self-directed. There is no other option for it.

These ideas and others are beyond lie outside the focus of this entry. There is a basic lesson for those that call themselves instructional designers. Recall the phrase, "To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." If instructional designers want to embrace even a modicum of something referred to as "creative," then they must throw the hammer away, otherwise they will simple weave more and more variations on the same theme.


  • 33 Principles of Educational Design
  • A HyperText History of Instructional Design
  • A Brief History Of Instructional Design

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Useful for mulling.

Creating a curriculum around a learner's needs may be comparable to preparing several courses of laborious French cuisine to feed the hungry. The needs can be basic and fickle. The needs are instrumental. They need, for example, to tell if a form from the government wants something of them but that form only lasts for a few days and the underlying skills are not wanted, only the result. How to keep someone in for the long haul connecting up the immediate needs with all the years of drudgery to do something, that will the skills, only takes seconds and justify that as a return on the labor.

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