Why Instructional Design?

In his popular work “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Dr. Stephen R. Covey discusses the importance of having a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, extolling readers to “begin with the end in mind” (Covey, 1989).  Equally important, as Covey (1989) relates, is the ability to then proactively work to achieve that vision.  An example of this principle in action is the construction of a home:

You (first) work with your mind until you get a clear image of what you want to build.  …Then you reduce it to a blueprint and develop construction plans.  All of this is done before the earth is touched (Covey, 1989).

There are numerous parallels between Covey’s example and Instructional Design.  For example, developing a clear vision of your desired direction and destination is much like the Analysis phase of the ADDIE instructional design model.  Similarly, reducing and organizing gathered information into a blueprint and plans for construction is like the Design and Development phases of the model.  Finally, in the actual act of building the home, implementation occurs, followed by inspection/evaluation; was the home built as imagined, i.e. were intended results/objectives achieved?  If not, which phase of the plan must be revisited, reimagined, reworked, and/or redone?

When viewed in this light, Instructional Design is indispensable to effective learning, particularly when applied to the field of education.  Of course, in education it is not houses that are being built, but rather people.  Unfortunately, while it is standard practice to apply a deliberate, regulated, and process-oriented approach to home building, in education that is not always the case.  Romiszowski (1981) quotes noted psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner as stating that

“those of us who know where they are going, and can define the path that leads there, are in the business of training, whereas those who neither know their destination nor the means of getting there are in education.”

While Romiszowski himself acknowledges that this view of education is somewhat extreme, a distinction can sometimes be made between education and training that is based, in part, in its philosophy of and approach to instruction.

Indeed, a criticism by some in education of Instructional Design is a perceived reliance on Behaviorist learning theory (Resier, 1987).  This view reflects an incomplete understanding of the capabilities of Instructional Design.  Systematic Instructional Design seeks to create effective training in an effective manner, which can (and often does) include ideas taken from more learner-centered Cognitive and Constructivist learning theories.  Cognitivism emphasizes “making knowledge meaningful and helping learners organize and relate new information to existing knowledge in memory.  Instruction …should organize information in such a manner that learners are able to connect new information with existing knowledge in some meaningful way” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 60).  Constructivism equates learning with creating meaning from experience (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  According to Constructivism, learners should be instructed on how to construct meaning, and designers should align and create experiences for the learner that provide authentic, relevant contexts (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).

Instructional Design, grounded in learning theory, can bridge the gap between research and practice (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).  Instructional designers can create instruction that follows cognitivist and constructivist principles of relevance, basis-in-experience, and authenticity, and is by its nature learner-centered.  In this way, Instructional Design can be viewed as a vital tool for education to achieve its goals and objectives.


Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Fireside.

Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly26(2), 43-71. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/piq.21143

Reiser, R. (1987). Educational technology: A history. In R.M. Gagne (Ed), Instructional Technology: Foundations (11-48 Chapter 2). London: Routledge.

Romiszowski, A. (1981). Designing instructional systems. New York: Nichols.

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