Why Can’t We Define “Instructional Design”

Every now and again, our instructional designer community has a discussion about how we define ourselves to world at large who haven’t had any courses in INSYS yet. There are a lot of reasons suggested including that we’re a relatively new field and that our duties are variable. I think those are both factors, but I also wonder if it’s because most people can’t imagine what we do.

When you get down to it, our title IS what we do – we design instruction (or learning enviornments)…but in a systematic manner. For most of our collective history, the “design of instruction” has been intuitive and followed a set of cultural norms. One norm is apprenticeship (popular in many crafts) in which a student learns skills and builds towards mastery of an art form. Another norm is to have an instructor/guru/wiseperson lecture or tell a story. We now call this “sage on the stage”, but I maintain that it can be effective in certain situations. Other models include case studies (business school), discussion (law school) and others.

There have been many traditions, but, until recently, very little empirical research on what works, and if it did work, WHY it worked. Teaching was not really considered a science, and still isn’t outside the College of Education. How else do you explain the fact that prestigious universities charging very high tuition require little to no formal pedagogical training in its faculty? Even in something like crafting (embroidery, cooking, embroidery…), there is very little thought on what would work best – most instructors imitate methods they were taught in or grasp intuitively at strategies which may or may not work. Teaching is really considered more an art than a science.

It’s easy to blame non-professionals for their lack of awareness on ignorance, but I do think there’s more. Maybe the real problem is that we as humans are so used to learning (or trying to learn) that we don’t understand how complicated the process is. That is, we don’t realize that instruction should be designed, until an instructional designer points it out. Most of us (especially those of us in a university setting) take learning for granted, like walking or digestion. It just happens (or doesn’t…in which case we feel totally stupid). Conversely, a student may know that instruction is poor, but may not be able to articulate WHY it’s poor.

I think the problem is similar to my other field – linguistics. Most people do not realize how complex language is…because it’s something most of us do without thinking. The only way to realize it’s complexity is either to take a linguistics class or…try to program software that uses real language input (I think you programmers can relate).

The idea that you should consider designing instruction systematically may really be counterintuitive…kind of like the idea that walking is controlled falling or that laughter is a “species-specific cry” as one anthropology book described it. I think instructional design requires a certain amount of anthropological/zoological thinking about what humans do when they’re not thinking about it. Personally, I find this aspect of instructional design very appealing…but it can be weird and counter-intuitive to the general public.

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2 Responses to Why Can’t We Define “Instructional Design”


    Thanks for the comment. I don’t know if explaining one is harder but it’s different because I am approaching each field from a different angle (I have had more formal study in linguistics).
    Ironically, I was contemplating a blog post discussing how I have had to give up my jargon when discussing linguistics for the general audience. It’s harder than it looks.

  2. MATTHEW N MEYER says:

    Hey Elizabeth- I really like the reference to the issue with linguistics. It seems we have to constantly learn how to explain our profession based upon the audience we have before us. I imagine it’s even tougher when discussing linguistics!

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