The Intersection of Educational Theory and the Practice of Instructional Design

Paul Desmarais

Boise State University


In examining the relationship between educational theory and instructional design it is necessary to think of the two disciplines as a feedback loop in which one affects the other continuously, each influencing the other for the good of the system and the good of the students. Theory and practice must affect one another. Good theory makes good practice, and good practice makes for good theory. (Wilson,1997) If the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills are the guiding principles, which is the mantra of the instructional design community (Merrill, 1966) , then alignment of practice and theory would appear to be both essential and desirable. Creating that alignment has not always been seen as either easy or desirable. It also follows that if aligning theory to practice, and vice versa is a good thing, then the theories must be carefully evaluated, in order to provide the best possible  impact on learning and knowledge formation.


Presently there is a great deal of emphasis on creating instruction based on  educational theories resulting from extensive research into how human beings, children in particular, learn. Nearly every text holds forth on the necessity of tying pedagogy to a defensible, definitive theory. We must take the theoretical framework and make it a prescriptive tool as well as descriptive one. What exactly are the benefits of this approach and why has the rhetoric surrounding theory based education become so strident? What are these theories and exactly how different are they? More importantly for actual practice and implementation, how do they influence the design of instruction in the field of education today and how will they in the future? As (Wilson, 1997) puts it, there has always been a relationship between theory and design, or between science and technology. His point being, that just as people create theories, those theories help shape what people do. The logical outcome of that idea is that in order to be most effective, instructional design must map, to the fullest possible degree, to the underlying theories that shaped the design approach. Education, at its core is about change. Instructional design is the science of building instruction that fosters that change. In order to improve how and how well we educate, it is crucial to create actual link between theory and practice, not just talk about doing so (Spector, 2000).  Or, more concisely, theory and design must intersect if instruction is to be successful.


Instructional design approaches fall into four or five major categories. This is an over simplification of the field of instructional design, because exactly how many major theories exist remains in dispute. Some authors are of the opinion that the major theories "can be mapped to three broad educational approaches: behaviorism, socio-cultural, and constructivism." (Console, Dyke, Oliver, & Seale, 2004) Still it does not take an encyclopedic listing of each approach, its subsets and tangential offshoots in order to create a useful picture of the field. For the purposes of this analysis, the major theories that underlie current instructional design approaches are divided up into five amalgamated camps. (a) The behaviorist/ objectivist, (b) the cognitive, (c) the constructivist, (d) the distributed cognition, and the newly pitched tents of (e) the connectivist camp. In addition, there are those designers who build their instruction on an ad hoc basis. Selecting bits and pieces from various theories as they believe the outcome warrants, which seems in direct contradiction to the theory mapping concept. Within the camps, dozens of theories, models, and approaches swarm like so many desperate to be heard bees buzzing to assert their opinions. Each proponent of a theory is seemingly certain that their model, their approach, their theory will be the one that puts everything in proper perspective. Their model will solve the world's educational problems, and designs based on their theoretical underpinnings will cure the ills of an educational system constantly deemed to be 'in crisis'. In discussing the idea of the intersection of educational theory and instructional design, the prevailing theories will be examined and held up to the bright light of reason; and the methods of implementing these theories discussed rationally, without the presence of a predetermined favorite or a recommendation being made. No winner will be picked and no prom king or queen will be crowned. The purpose is basic; to examine each of the major theory groups and look at how these theories are put into practice.



The noted behaviorist, B.F. Skinner describes theories as "any explanation of an observed fact which appeals to events taking place somewhere else, at some other level of observation, and measured, if at all, in different dimensions." (Skinner,1950) He felt strongly that if theory was to have purpose, it could not be a "refuge from the data". That if theories were to have any actual value in the process of describing learning, than they had to reflect supportable, behavioral, observable data. The ultimate behaviorist, Skinner felt that theory could be an important component to education, but only if it took the data into account in all cases, not just when it was convenient. Another behaviorist, Edward Thorndike was also a proponent of theory and learning. (Thorndike, 1910) proclaimed that the educational theorists or practitioners who ignored theories derived from research were making grave and unscientific errors. For the behaviorists, who focus on an empirical, scientific approach, failure to follow established scientific research protocols is committing a kind of investigative heresy.

These early behaviorists were less concerned with designing instruction than they were with explaining behavior. Even so, the behaviorist theories formed the foundation for much of the first truly "designed" instruction, primarily built around the stimulus response theory. Instruction was linear. The conditions of learning were outlined, then the tasks described in detail. The actions the learner was to perform were explained, and the standards, or criteria for success explained so the learner came to understand how success was defined. It was only at this late point in the process that actual teaching occurred. A good performance was rewarded with positive feedback and reinforcement, while a less than acceptable result was reinforced with repeated or remedial instruction. Success was defined as an observable change in behavior. If behavior changed, a student learned. If there was no change in behavior, then the student did not learn. A great deal of instruction was built in this way, and curricula based on these principles are still taught in virtually every country in the world.


Cognitive psychology remains the dominant approach in psychology today. (Huitt, 2003) The focus of the cognitive approach is memory. How it works, how information is placed into memory, how people access and retrieve information, and how effectively they do so. This structure is called the three stage processing model. This model is based on three assumptions. First, humans have limited capacity to process information. Second, a control mechanism is required to make the process work, and finally, there is a two way flow of information (Huitt, 2003). Unlike the behaviorists before them the cognitivists, are concerned with the internal workings of the mind. The three stages of memory are sensory or working memory, short term memory, and long-term memory. Taking in information and translating it into a form the brain can use, called transduction, is limited by the brain's ability to process information. These processing bottlenecks limit how much data and how much thinking a person can do. (Miller, 1956) Piaget, who began to think of himself as a genetic epistemologist and a constructivist, was a major contributor to cognitive learning theory. Piaget defined intelligence as a mechanism by which an organism adapts to the environment, (Naidenova, 2001) As such, cognition was entirely confined to the internal working of the mind. Constructing the mental schemata that allowed an individual to be at equilibrium with his or her environment was the manifestation of that intelligence. How then to take this knowledge of how people learn and use it as a prescriptive in designing instruction?

Moving from learning theory to instructional theory, or actual pedagogy is both an art and a science. Robert Gagné, considered by many to be the modern father of instructional design, developed four major propositions for what he described as his instructional theory.

1. Learning goals can be categorized as to learning outcome or knowledge type

2. Acquisition of different outcome categories requires different internal processes

3. Learning outcomes can be represented in a predictable, prerequisite relationship

4. Acquisition of different outcome categories requires identifiably different instructional processes.

These four propositions form the framework for much of Gagné's work, including his well known Nine Events of Instruction (Smith & Tillman, 1996) Gagné began his life as a behaviorist. While his instructional design methods remained very much in tune with direct instruction and his behaviorist roots, Gagné began to focus more and more on how students learned and built his instructional programs to take advantage of, rather than ignore as unknowable, the internal mental processes of the learner. Rather than simply attempt to modify behavior, which was/is the behaviorist view of education, Gagné's approach evolved into one that considered how people learned and how best to make that happen, without completely abandoning behavior change as a means of measuring if actual learning occurred. The depth of his influence on the instructional design community insured that his methods and philosophy would dominate the field of instructional design even to date. (Richey, 2000) The idea of creating mental schema and that knowledge was created within the individual is critical to the cognitive school of thought and approach to learning. As a result, in order to be effective, an instructional design needs to be aligned with the human cognitive architecture (Merrinboer & Paas, 2003). A current version of the cognitive approach is cognitive load theory. According to this theory, people process information best in small units, or chunks. Instructional design that reduces cognitive load and increases the ability of the individual to retain information is the best design.(Clark & Meyer, 2008)


Constructivism has evolved into the prevailing theory among education researchers today. The seven primary constructivist values, collaboration, personal autonomy, generativity, reflectivity, active engagement, personal relevance, and pluralism are at odds with some of the traditional values of education, namely reliability, repeatability, and control. Because of this, the traditionally linear process of instructional design is fundamentally altered when a designer aligns instruction with constructivist theory. (Tam, M. 2000) Within the framework of constructivism, the theories of distributed cognition and situated cognition allow for the idea that "cognitive events do not necessarily occur within a human individual" (Issroff & Scanlon, 2002).

Problem based learning is another instructional model where theory and design intersect neatly. Built firmly on constructivist pilings, problem based learning takes constructivism to its core and adheres to the idea that the root of knowledge lies in our interactions with one another and our environment. Savery & Duffy (2001) delineate the linkages between theory of constructivism and the practice of instructional design. they argue the contextualization, and how the theory is applied makes the difference between success and failure in creating viable instruction. Technology offers the opportunity to apply a constructivist approach to distance education by "creating contextualized work environments, thinking tools, and conversation media that support the knowledge construction process in different settings." Jonassen, et. al. (1995)

Anchored instruction, proposed first by John Bradshaw at the Cognitive Technology Group at Vanderbilt University (CTGV) is another instructional design approach that has grown out of the constructivist school of thought. In anchored instruction the pedagogy is closely aligned with instructional design. Designers create 'authentic', that is to say, learning environments that are closely aligned to real world use of the information being taught, in order to make the learning relevant to the learner. The idea of using these authentic environments comes from a collection of research supporting relevance as a motivating factor in student's performance. These authentic learning environments are made to be collaborative, embracing the idea of cognitive apprenticeship in an attempt to replicate important aspects of an apprentice-master relationship. (Petraglia, 1998).

Distributed Cognition:

Distributed cognition theories flow from Vygotsky, (Kop & Hill, 2008) either directly or indirectly; and his theories of social and culturally mediated cognition. Situativity, or situated cognition is an attempt to move the theory beyond the traditional limits of psychology and utilize the perspectives of anthropology, critical theory, political science, and other knowledge theory sources for its rationales. (Wilson &Meyers, 2000) Where cognitivists and contructivists focused their knowledge construction and meaning making in the mind of the learner, situated cognition advocates focuses "on the structures of the world and how they constrain and guide behavior." (Wilson & Meyers, 2000) Distributed cognition is a theory in which thinking and knowing is ascribed to the group as opposed to the individual. Information is pooled, as is knowledge. (Bell & Winn, 2000) Distributed cognition has "the real world" as it's focus. How tasks are distributed, and how communication is critical is stressed because communication and task distribution are both critical to success in both the distributed cognition learning environment and in real world work situations. (Bell & Winn, 2000)

Advocates of both situativity and distributed cognition insist that in order to teach; culture, context, and history have to be included when building instruction. Designing instruction within these situated or distributed environments stresses communities of practice, student centered learning environments, and the teacher as more of a guide or facilitator than an imparter of knowledge. Distributed Cognition allows for a more active role for tools and artifacts, making them into virtual partners in the learning process, where situativity theory restricts tools and artifacts as repositories of cultural knowledge and thought enablers.(Wilson & Meyers, 2000)

How then does design instruction based on the distributed learning theories work? Distributed cognition is very dependent on modern communications and networked, interconnected learners. Technology plays an enormous role in these theories, and that is obvious from the prominent role the theories gives to tools and artifacts.(Bell & Winn, 2000) Distributed cognition puts a premium on tying learning to real world scenarios, utilizing technology to bring students into close mental proximity to subject matter experts and other, similarly curious learners. The result is students work on ill-formed problems that capture the flexibility and unpredictability of how those problems are solved in a modern work environment. Situated cognition allows for more focus on the role of the individual, and their internal processes in knowledge construction. There is a focus on the concept of the community of practice, and that knowledge, that is the complete body of knowledge on a subject, is the property of and situated within that community of practice. These communities of practice are not so much designed as they arise naturally in response to needs and constraints that already exist. (Wilson & Meyers, 2000) In designing an authentic community of practice within the structure of the classroom, the challenge is to keep as much of the authenticity as possible while creating a controlled form that optimizes the learning capabilities of the students. One of situativity's most novel attributes is the theory's accommodation of other approaches and a willingness to adopt those forms when appropriate. Still, situated cognition insists designing instruction need to "honor the constraints and affordances of the local situation." (Wilson & Meyers, 2000, p.84)


In the first decade of this new millennium, the emergence of connectivism, a new brand of distributed cognition has arisen. Synthesized by George Siemens, and championed by Stephen Downes, this 'new' voice in the forest of educational theories offers new ideas and new approaches in a crowded field. This viewpoint separates itself from other distributed cognition theories in three major ways. First, Siemens contends that knowledge is the process of connecting nodes, which he defines as areas of specialized information courses. These connections, identifying them, establishing them, and managing them are what constitute knowledge. in connectivism, "the pipe is more important the content of the pipe." (Siemens, 2005) Concisely, this attitude might be synthesized as "the learning is the network. (Kop & Hill, 2008) Siemens also insists that learning may reside in non-human appliances. This point is a fairly radical departure from most established learning theories. Other distributed cognition theories accept that non-human tools and artifacts and tool mediate knowledge, or act as sources of knowledge, but none go so far as to claim that appliances constitute actual learning. Finally, connectivism insists that the capacity to know is more critical than what is currently known.

This school of thought has its critics. They point out that connectivism does not explain or even concentrate at all on the individual and the changes in a person due to physical maturation, or social mediation. Verhagen says connectivism is not a learning theory at all, but a "pedagogical view on education with the apparent underlying philosophy that pupils from an early age need to create connections with the world beyond the school in order to develop the networking skills that will allow them to manage their knowledge effectively and efficiently in the information society." (Verhagen, 2006). Others are of the opinion that connectivism's contributions to the new way of communicating and teaching do not "warrant it being treated as a separate learning theory in and of its own right". (Kop & Hill, 2008).

Whether connectivism is in fact a unique theory, or a subset of one of the other theories of distributed cognition, it seems clear that it will have a place at the pedagogical table in the present and foreseeable future. How will this focus on connectivity, on flow, affect the science and practice of instructional design? As teachers become more like subject matter experts, or in the parlance of Orwell, a "first among equals" it is not reasonable that all subject matter experts will be well-versed in the various pedagogies, open source material sources, and technologies of the present or future. This shifts the role of the designer into the role of "educator to the educator". (Siemens, 2008) The traditional roles of the designer will, in many ways, remain the same. Creating instruction that engages the learner, sequencing the instruction for the best efficacy, and placing it in a context that makes for the best educational outcomes will still be central to the role of the designer. Connectivism however, demands that the designer pay an increasing amount of attention to "learning as the developing and forming of diverse, multifaceted network." (Siemens, 2008)

The Pragmatic View: An ad hoc approach

Dick, Carey, & Carey (2005) take the position that there are two basic approaches to instructional design The humanistic and the systematic. They are firm believers in the systematic design of instruction. They trace their theories to the work of Robert Gagné and his seminal book, The Conditions of Instruction, in which he lays out what he called The Nine Conditions of Learning. Gagné began his career in psychology as a behaviorist, but moved toward cognitivist theory. Subsequent editions of The Conditions of Instruction included an increasingly cognitive approach. Dick, Carey, & Carey (2005). As systematic designers of instruction, Dick, Carey, & Carey (2005) have adopted a pragmatic approach to the theories, in that they take from each school of thought those elements which they find useful, depending upon the situational aspects of the current problem (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2005). This approach is at serious odds with the movement to map pedagogies to the theoretical knowledge base that supports them. (Conole et al., 2004) Why then take such an ad hoc or unfocused approach to instructional design? Perhaps because "...theoretical exclusivity and didactic single mindedness can be trusted to make even the best of educational ideas fail." (Sfard, 1998)

When considering the intersections between theory and design, ignoring the practical comes at a price. The problem is that while constructivism holds sway in the hearts and minds of educators, outcomes are measured with standardized tests and curriculum objectives, desired outcomes, and standards for measuring performance are implicit and explicit parts of the dialog on what and how to teach. In these instances, the need to design instruction is more reverse engineered than built along constructivist or really the guidelines of any other single theory. Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman (2008) take a cognitivist approach and suggest that direct instruction generally yields the best results. In this system, aligning the instructional design model along cognitive lines, perhaps with Gagné's work as a guide, gives designers the best chance to produce instruction that will be both consistent within the theoretical model and produce the verifiable and consistently progressive outcomes that stakeholders demand. Reigeluth & Carr-Hellmann (2008) freely acknowledge that direct instruction may not produce learning with the best far transfer, which they agree is less than optimal, but opine the cognitivist/behaviorist approach will produce instruction designed specifically to produce desired testing outcomes


So who is right? The short answer is, I don't know. My feeling of inadequacy fostered by this admission is tempered by the fact that no one else seems to know either. As often as learning theorists write and rewrite the rules and definitions of knowledge, intelligence and learning, the educational community seems no closer to a single, adoptable approach to building instruction. Equally frustrating and interesting; as stridently as each new theorist proclaims new rules and theories as the new, improved educational Tao, they all seem to stop and sniff at the fire hydrants of theories past. What are they seeking? Often it appears that justification for their ideas is foremost in their minds, accomplishing this by refuting the work of their predecessors, or adopting fragments of previously formulated theories in order to build a foundation for their own work. What is promoted as 'new' often appears to be a vestige of theory past (Kop & Hill, 2008), a theoretical emperor all dressed up in a new set of technologically enhanced clothes. No matter the motivation, each successive generation of educational theorists seems similarly dedicated to both discrediting their predecessors at the same time as they diligently unearth ties between their work and knowledge produced by thinkers and theorists going all the way back to Socrates. The ancients believes that a single, universal truth existed, and well reasoned arguments would reveal it, as peas might be revealed when the pod is removed. It is an idea that, in a learning theory forest populated by ever more numerous trees, holds a certain luster. What does seem both necessary and important is the need for instructional materials to evolve from good science (Spector, 2000). Something Skinner and other behaviorists insisted upon at the dawn of the movement to tie science to pedagogy. The need to apply solid, well founded, research based solutions to the field of instructional design is both immediate and essential. The task of placing knowledge in the intellectual grasp of the next generation of thinkers grows more complex with every passing hour. New theories abound. Perhaps a better question than "Who is right" is, "How can the myriad learning theories be harnessed in order to produce a coherent system of knowledge creation that will satisfy the needs of the 21st century student?"


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