The Effectiveness of Learning – deleting “instruction”

This post follows on from “The Effectiveness of Learning – Design by Respect” and discusses some basic issues associated with design not always given the attention they deserve.  It also challenges the language we use.

I’m presenting this –

  • from a formal/structured learning perspective;
  • not wishing to ‘tell” you how to suck eggs, or from a staid, “old school” view-point; but
  • because I believe there are times when we need to step back and reflect on the fundamentals of what we do, why we do it and if it’s relevant.

I like to make a distinction between Instructional Systems Design (ISD) and Instructional Design (ID) and then, that done, drop reference to “instructional”.  Here’s my rationale.

ISD was developed in the early 1940s in the interests of developing instructional material systematically to increase the speed of production and enhance quality.  There are a range of ISD models, most of which revolve around the basic Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation (ADDIE) components.  These are introduced in a systems manner and as such the output of Analysis is the input for Design, the output of Design is the input for Development, and so on with the outputs of Evaluation feeding back into all components on a cyclical basis.  Later enhancements included “rapid prototyping” in an effort to overcome the inherent restrictive nature of the model.

ID came about naturally and much earlier; centuries in fact.  Whenever someone thought about how they would go about instructing someone else (how make a stone axe), they executed a teaching strategy.  More specifically, and although not obvious, they had an objective; they had a “test” in mind to ensure the person could perform (make the stone axe) and they had strategy to impart their knowledge (perhaps starting with selection of the rock and practicing some basic techniques before shaping a high quality rock).

ID is where we essentially bolt down specific performance objectives, specific assessment items/approaches that relate directly to the outcomes inherent within the objectives, and specific teaching strategies (the Design phase of ADDIE).   The strategies,  (including the provision of feedback, remediation and enrichment) can be influenced by factors such as learner characteristics, content and learning environment together with the application of learning theories such as constructionism (Seymour Papert), or separately, constructivist theory (Jean Piaget).

Performance Objectives

Typically, performance objectives have a condition, a performance statement and a standard. Generally well developed objectives can be evaluated according to Kirkpatrick’s Level 3 (Application). For example, “Provided with a wooden hammer and a flint stone (condition), the learner will demonstrate making two axes between one sun-up and one sun-down (performance) to the sharpness and weight tolerances set by Cave Industries (standard)”.


Assessment (test) items can take many forms but the rule of thumb is to use a format that relates to the objective components, particularly the performance.  In the case of the stone axe there may have been a previous objective like “Select a flint (performance) with the right properties (standard) from a sample group of six stones (condition)”.  In this case there may be some matching questions that allow the learner to differentiate (select) between flints and non-flints followed by practice and finally an observed performance assessment carried out by the expert axe maker before the novice was made an official employee of Cave Industries.

Teaching Strategies

The teaching strategy may have included practice choosing flints from a large pool of stones, to a small group of stones that had very similar properties – this may have been an easy-to-hard strategy.  But, away from stone axes, the strategy may be teaching in chronological order, or step-by-step in a process or procedure, or presenting a concept and developing it further based on increasingly complex scenarios.

But what’s this term “instructional” (in ID and ISD). 

These days in the corporate world it’s hard to imagine when it would be appropriate for a teacher to carry out a (one-way) “lecture” to “instruct”.

Are we not trying to move from lecturing in a didactic style where the teacher is an expert with learner playing a passive role, to facilitating learning where learners are helped to develop their personal understanding of the content in their own context, consequently playing an active role in the learning process?   “Instruction” is very 1940s and 1950s and suggests the former. Instructional” is worse!

We have enough HR and L&D “speak” running about now and if we want to show we are an important part of an organisation why make it worse for ourselves by using such an authoritarian term.

For me the term “learning” says it all.  Surely the discipline and what we do is “Learning Design”.

Into the future though, as the merging of learning and work becomes more apparent than it is now, facilitated by increased levels of un-structured (informal) learning, we are likely to be in the business of collaborative work design.

Comments are very welcome.


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