A Call for Critical Instructional Design

On October 27, 2017, as part of an international fellowship at Warwick University, I offered a workshop with Jesse Stommel about critical instructional design. What follows is the transcript and slides for the talk I gave during that workshop.


To get at why critical instructional design is even something to talk about, we have to understand it as a kind of resistance. And for that, I have to start with a story.

A very long time ago, I wore the mantle of instructional designer for a small start-up firm in Colorado whose nearly sole client was a company that provided unfacilitated online training for banks, and whose primary foundation for instruction was Bloom’s Taxonomy. Quite literally, software for corporate training was designed around the cognitive domain of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. All learning, in this case, boiled down to five component objectives:

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating

And every course we wrote scaffolded learning along the ladder of these objectives, almost always resting at application-level work. Doing a task was the end for which understanding that task was the means. If you knew how, and you could do, then learning had happened.

Bloom and his team defined knowledge as involving “the recall of specifics and universals, the recall of methods and processes, or the recall of a pattern, structure, or setting.” Which means that, to instructional design, knowledge is the same as recall.

Most of my day was spent building self-guided training modules in a software platform designed around Bloom's Taxonomy, learning objectives, and alignment of content with assessment. Design was nearly mathematical, in order to make learning utterly standard. This standardization, derived from research-based “best practices” arose from a desire to make the acquisition of knowledge efficient and impossible to avoid.

Those best practices were derived primarily from behaviorist theories of learning, like those forwarded by B. F. Skinner. In his chapter “The Technology of Teaching“, Skinner asserts that:

The application of operant conditioning to education is simple and direct. Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn. They learn without teaching in their natural environments, but teachers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behaviour which would otherwise be acquired slowly or making sure of the appearance of behaviour which might otherwise never occur (429-430).

In other words, the secret to efficient learning is a controlled environment, a managed environment, a place where the correct behavior results in the desired outcome. Later, Skinner would forward an idea about teaching machines which could guarantee that learners would reach desired outcomes, regardless of the presence of a human teacher.

Operant conditioning and the manipulation of response to stimuli are at the heart of theories that support instructional design. But more, they form the foundation of almost all educational technology—from the VLE or LMS to algorithms for adaptive learning. Building upon behaviorism, Silicon Valley—often in collaboration with venture capitalists with a stake in the education market—have begun to realize Skinner’s teaching machines in today’s schools and universities.

And there’s the rub. When we went online to teach, we went online almost entirely without any other theories to support us besides instructional design. We went online first assuming that learning could be a calculated, brokered, duplicatable experience. For some reason, we took one look at the early internet and forgot about all the nuance of teaching, all the strange chaos of learning, and surrendered to a philosophy of see, do, hit submit.

The problem we face is not just coded into the VLE, either. It’s not just coded into Facebook and Twitter and the way we send an e-mail or the machines we use to send text messages. It’s coded into us. We believe that online learning happens this way. We believe that discussions should be posted once and replied to twice. We believe that efficiency is a virtue, that automated proctors and plagiarism detection services are necessary—and more than necessary, helpful.

But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

In the time since I was an instructional designer building training courses for corporations, the digital landscape has changed so radically as to be unrecognizable from 1999. We've seen the advent of social media, wiki spaces, crowdsourcing, and Connectivism, a resurgence of Constructivist pedagogies, the Massive Open Online Course, and more. Instead of the relatively sterile, humorless environment of the early LMS, now across the internet, we are exposed afresh to the idiosyncrasies of culture, and also the deep-seated problems of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia... and on many fronts we're seeking ways to challenge these issues using digital media. There have been hashtag revolutions, fake news, cyberbullying, and the rise of micro-celebrity.

And yet, instructional design at its core, has not changed much. Neither has the technology upon which it floats.

When I left instructional design and entered graduate school, I was immersed in teacher training founded upon the critical pedagogy of teachers like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, bell hooks, Peter Elbow, and Henry Giroux. Here I learned about an approach to education that involved helping students develop an epistemological relationship to reality, to encouraging them to be “readers of their world” so that they could better grasp the oppressive forces and institutions that controlled their society, and could develop a knowledge of their ability to make change. Bloom’s Taxonomy disappeared as an approach, replaced by student-centered learning, collaboration, and problem-based education.

Starting in 2005, fresh out of graduate school, I found myself again teaching in fully online environments, only now in higher education settings. Immediately, I found it a challenge to bring the principles of critical pedagogy into a digital classroom space designed against them. The learning management system sought to do just that: manage learning; and I was hard put to find ways to perforate the baked-in pedagogies of the interface so that a more critical learning could take hold.

Over the last 12 years, I've been developing a different approach to instructional design—always with Jesse’s support and help—which is critical instructional design.

Critical instructional design is a term and concept I introduced during a Digital Pedagogy Lab online course offered in Canvas. That course sought to explore the possibility of an intersection between critical pedagogy and instructional design. Because the two approaches to learning are at odds with one another, the intersection between them necessarily birthed something new.

And that new thing is still being born. Critical instructional design is an early, emerging attempt to get at some concrete methodologies for creating agentive spaces in online and hybrid learning environments.

It’s not an iteration of traditional instructional design. It doesn’t find its roots in behaviorism or the ideologies of B. F. Skinner. Instead, critical instructional design looks to Freire, hooks, John Holt, Seymour Papert, and others for both inspiration and complication.

The critical instructional design approach prioritizes collaboration, participation, social justice, learner agency, emergence, narrative, and relationships of nurture between students, and between teachers and students. It acknowledges that all learning today is necessarily hybrid, and looks for opportunities to integrate learners’ digital lives into their digitally-enhanced or fully online learning experiences.

Importantly, in keeping with its social justice roots, critical instructional design seeks to create learning and educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds, leveraging techniques especially to give platforms for those voices most usually suppressed or oppressed, including the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, people with disabilities, and more. It works against the standardization of so many educational technologies, and aims for the fullest inclusion possible.

Jesse spoke on Tuesday (and in his blog post he posted last night about the need to find ways to allow emergence in teaching and learning. Assessment of all kinds assume a desired outcome; and below that they need to assume that all learners can reach the same outcomes, no matter their backgrounds or intersectionality.

When I am asked why I don’t use traditional assessments (or rubrics) (or learning objectives) when I teach, I answer that I believe that 1. participation is an individual choice; 2. learner contributions are meaningful content in the course; 3. there are no “right” answers to the questions I’m bound to ask. I could build assessments for courses I teach, but that would require a sense that learners would accomplish what I want them to accomplish.

How do we ever know for certain that what we want learners to accomplish is what they should accomplish? In truth, we don’t. But if we don’t at least manufacture outcomes, then we teach into a space of uncertainty, un-measurability—and that’s scary. And yet, as my colleague Amy Collier has said,

“If, as online educators, developers, policy makers, designers and researchers, we don’t attempt to work with the messiness of learning, we will not be able to make really meaningful educational experiences online, or make meaning from the online experiences that our students, faculty and colleagues are having.”

One of the key principles of critical instructional design is that concept of emergence, that outcomes are determined by the learning process, and not as much predetermined. Jesse recommends that we don't wield outcomes like weapons, and I usually give the advice that if you must include learning outcomes in your course, plan for everyone to meet them mid-term... and let the rest of the term emerge.

I build courses the way I imagine stories. A fiction writer at heart, I'm much more interested in a slow build to an unexpected climax than I am a predictable storyline. When I envision a course, my best hope is that students will be narrators (reliable, unreliable) and that it will be their characters that drive the story.

Today is no exception. There are no outcomes here, nothing that I nor you could check off a list and say "I learned exactly what he said I would." Hopefully, what you’ll learn will emerge out of how you participate, what you decide to read, what rabbit holes you go down, the way you’ll listen (to me, to each other, to yourself).

At the end of my keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2016 Institute, I welcomed a question from one of the audience members. She said: "Everything you're telling us makes sense, and it sounds really good. But, when I get back to my institution, and I'm the only one thinking these things, how do I actually make things happen? What can I do to change the way I teach?"

And I answered, "I really can't tell you. How critical instructional design grows is up to you. You have to figure out what it means, how to make it happen." As I said a few minutes ago, "Critical instructional design is an early, emerging attempt to get at some concrete methodologies for creating agentive spaces in online and hybrid learning environments."

So what happens now is that we spend some time working together to make these ideas become practice.

Photo by Ken Reid on Unsplash.