Do We Need Instructional Theories?

Do We Need Instructional Theories?

I’ve been reflecting upon learning theories, and it just came to me that ID itself is based upon sound theories. (We don’t usually think of “doing ID” as “doing science.”) Pretty obvious, I know. But in my defence, it’s been a long time since I thought of ID as a field of endeavour.

About the origins of the field, I dug up this: “Instructional design began as a systematic approach to designing instruction; specifically training, for the military in World War II. It is based on the premise that the learning activities should not occur accidentally, but … developed in accordance with an established, orderly process that includes measurable outcomes for the students (Seels & Glasgow, 1990).” (Source)

And then this statement: “What actually happens when an organism learns is not an easy question.” (From B F Skinner, the main proponent of “learning as behaviour”). It seems quite ridiculous to us today to think of learners as “organisms” (even though we all are, of course!) But Skinner’s theories and similar ones are where ID has its roots. (Look here for a hundred and more models and theories.)

My question: What good is theory in ID? I'll put it this way. When an interior designer says the cabinet should be here and the sofas should be at a raised level, he/she doesn’t seem to be using “interior design theory.” Much like when an ID person says “we need a large infographic here,” he/she is not thinking in terms of constructivism or behaviourism or something else. But when a dietician says you should get more carbs and less protein, he/she is applying a theory...?

Maybe it’s about more technical and less technical fields. Maybe it’s about what’s a science and what’s an art. Perhaps ID is more an art than a science…

“ID as a science” seems to be about structure, system, standards. “Learning activities should not occur accidentally, but developed in accordance with an established, orderly process…” But when you say “ID as an art,” instructional designers are being, quite simply, teachers.OK, so I’m a teacher, and I use theory to structure my lessons. But how can I use so many theories? When the field of ID started off, it was pretty much the behaviourist model. But from then to now, with all the paradigms that have come up… and IDers don’t say “I use paradigm X.” They don’t blend all the theories in their head to come up with a procedure, either.

My answer here is, instructional theories cannot – and are not – “used.” They help the IDer think, re-think, evaluate, re-evaluate. When we look at Behaviourism, say, we remember that structure and consistency is important. (“Have I maintained uniformity in this course?”) Cognitive Flexibility Theory tells us about the importance of context. (“Can I put the point across in more ways and use more examples?”) The abundance of paradigms is actually a good thing – each one shows us a different way of getting the learning across!