The inspiration for this post comes from Temitope Ogunsakin and his comment on this post where he asks “What would you say is your Instructional Design philosophy?”. This post is by way of answering his question.
The objective of this philosophy is to make the learning experience as easy and enjoyable as possible for the learner. This has two outcomes. Firstly, it maximises the effective of the learning experience for the learner. It also fulfills part of the social contract between educator and learner, that of mutual respect.
This philosophy uses a number of guidelines as a way of meeting that objective. Discerning readers will notice that I have avoided using the word “rules”, as rules tend to be prescriptive and thereby interfere with reaching the objective.
This philosophy makes a number of assumptions about the learner. At the risk of perhaps stating the obvious, it may be worthwhile making those assumptions explicit, and it provides readers with an opportunity to challenge those assumptions.
All Learning is Built on Previous Knowledge
While the claim “All learning is built on previous knowledge” may seem bold, and it sidesteps the question of how babies start acquiring knowledge, I would argue that it is a useful starting point for discussing later learning. By way of example, the teaching of grammar relies on learners being able to recognise sentences, which in turn relies of the recognition of words. In a similar fashion, the ability to use money relies on (among other things) the ability to recognise and understand the meaning of digits.
Different Learners Learn at Different Speeds
It is perhaps a common mantra that different learners learn at different speeds, so it is worthwhile checking a few sources to see how widespread this view is. A quick search on Google found this from the Board of Studies Teaching & Educational Standards NSW, this from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, and this from the New England Complex Systems Institute, all of which support this view.
Adults and Children Learn Differently
Adults bring a number of skills and personal attributes into the learning situation that can be harnessed to good effect. These include, but are not limited to, life experiences across a wide range of subjects, independent research skills, and a thorough grasp of what they want to achieve from their learning.
All Learning Requires the Sharing of an Idea
With the claim “All learning requires the sharing of an idea” I can see readers saying “But what about psycho-motor learning? And affective learning?”. While subjects such as pure mathematics and philosophy are entirely cognitive, and the claim is unlikely to be challenged in those arenas, I would also argue that “the idea comes first” in both other areas. In the case of psycho-motor skills, the idea is often shared by way of demonstration, and followed by learner practice Examples include how to use a hammer, how to drive a car, and how to use a paint brush. With affective learning, the idea is often first shared by asking a question: “How would you feel if …?”, followed by a discussion. Agreeing the ground rules with a new cohort is another example.
I have designed and used task-analysed teaching material from nearly 20 years, and I have found it to be one of the most effective tools in my educational toolkit. I have found that the ideal length of a learning task is between five and 15 steps.
- Audience identification: Unless I have a very good idea about what the learners already know, and what it is that they wish to learn, I have nothing to work with: I have no foundations upon which to present new ideas, and I have no direction as to which ideas I should choose. By way of example, I delivered learning in Microsoft project a group of older people who were experienced project planners using manual techniques and who wanted to learn how to use Project instead.
- Matching the learning material to the learners’ existing knowledge base: Using the same scenario as above, I learned that my audience were in the business of installing water distribution infrastructure, so examples, exercises and questions about pipe laying, construction of pumping houses and supply of electrical power were obvious choices.
- Bite sized chunks of learning: My comment on the ideal size of task-analysed activities translates well into other learning activities when it comes to planning the amount of material to be shared between signposts. Even in an extended whole group discussion, the learners themselves can raise such signposts, and the learning goes on to new ideas.
- Structure: I regard structure as crucial. This is a direct consequence of the idea that learners build their new understanding on the foundation of previous knowledge.
- Humour: Humour can be used tool, though not all learners seem to recognise it at the time. One cohort only came to understand the significance of a Mr Thread as the CEO of the Brazil Nut and Bolt Company in their coursework once they had finished their exams. Other humour can be injected ad lib while speaking.
- Personal relevance: Without personal relevance, the learning material is likely to be less effective. The mathematics of the motor car was so interesting to one youth-at-risk that it turned his life around and he became a productive member of society.
- Relevant technologies: The idea of of using technology as a ploy to engage students strikes me as at best silly. Having said that, I will make heavy use of technology where it is relevant. With the Microsoft Project course, it was appropriate to make the following design decisions:
- All the learning materials, apart from Microsoft Project itself, were entirely web-based. There were no paper handouts.
- All learners had individual computers, each with a copy of Microsoft Project already loaded.
- All learners were invited to bring one of their current projects along with them using whatever technology suited them.
- All learners were expected to work with both Microsoft Project and the web-based learning materials open on their computer at the same time.
- All learners were expected to leave the course with a fully functional copy of one of their projects in Microsoft project.
For the record, the course was extremely successful.
- Immediate feedback: Some subjects, such a computer programming, Excel and Microsoft Project, have immediate feedback as an inherent quality of the product being learned. Immediate feedback is now normally built into web pages where this is relevant. When I write such pages, I build in such feedback at the design stage.
A Final Comment
I would never present all of the above as a single serving to anybody who was learning about instructional design. Having said that, it would not surprise me if experienced instructional designers read it in less than a minute, and then wanted to add their own ideas to the material presented here.