Monday, July 2

Our kind of people

(Please bear with me. This has been percolating for a bit, and i'm airing it on a larger stage than I had originally intended.)

I have been a few things in my life, but I really, really like being an instructional designer. I love the idea and practice of helping people learn better - to do better. This is pretty fortunate, as people are willing to pay me to make this happen. However, I've come across a problem with my feelings about instructional design: I find myself in quiet moments thinking that instructional design is the domain of a 'certain kind of person.'

If you're reading this, I think you know who I'm talking about: the autodidact's handmaiden, the unapologetically pedantic, the learning architect. Those who love to to think about learning knowledge transfer performance support so much that they put books like Design for How People Learn and 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People on their pleasure reading lists. Those who get into internet arguments about Alton Brown's instructional method. Those who will cut you at the mention of 'learning styles'. You know, our kind of people.

I love our kind of people. I love meeting them at conferences and online. Perhaps more than anything, I love meeting novice instructional designers who seem to have more sense than I did at their stage in the game. The idea that more of us can be made intentionally (rather than "accidentally", even if it seems that's how most of us got here) is really appealing.

Which leads me back to my problem. In the last few years, the responsibility for helping budding intentional designers has crept up on me - an direct report here, a correspondence mentorship there. Pretty soon I really started thinking about what it means to have an ordered introduction to our industry. I also quickly found out that maybe not everyone who is serious about learning knowledge transfer performance support name drops Vygotsky. Maybe they just want to get things done and not meditate so much on the deep roots. (Also, it's possible that they just don't care that much about Alton Brown.) I'm learning that intentional designers like to worry about sensible things, like what tools they should learn to use and what learning theories are most applicable, or how they should really feel about ADDIE. This is bemusing for someone who didn't even know the term instructional design until after he had created two elearning courses for actual money. I started to think that maybe my real problem is that my idea of what an instructional designer should want might not have a lot to do with what an instructional designer has to do.

So it is with this mental about-face that I started listening more closely to some voices who have been talking about a particular problem related to the creation of our kind of people - we don't have good ways to talk about what it is that we're supposed to be doing. Our kind of people are they way they are because they had to figure it all out and create tools and guides and strategies from scratch without the benefit of routines. The fact that they relished doing so...well, that's how you knew. But in the service of being intentional, maybe we can say that there's simply more romance than virtue in reinventing the wheel. This is where people like Susan Devlin and Julie Dirksen and Steve Flowers are advocating the most sensible way for us to help intentional designers: to put our experience and solutions into patterns of instructional design so that it's less of an educated guess as to which interventions to employ. Maybe we I need to spend more time leaning the ladder against the wall to scale the problem than worrying about making the kinds of people who would build their own ladders.

I'm really excited about the idea of helping to create an instructional design pattern library. I think you should be, too. How do we get started? 

[Steve and Julie, this is your cue :) ]

Craig Wiggins has been helping people create and manage learning experiences for the last 10 years. He is the eLearning Instructional Design Strategist for the Corporate Executive Board's Corporate Leadership Council, where he manages the creation of meaningful distance learning and performance solutions. Wiggins holds a B.A. in anthropology and an M.Ed. in curriculum development, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak usability, accessibility, and proper task analysis into the mix. In his natural habitat, he is usually storyboarding on wall-sized whiteboards or pontificating on Google+.


Judy Unrein said...

Cammy, I can't say it enough... I love the work that you're doing helping "accidentals" be more intentional, and in such a practical way. Kudos.

Unknown said...

Cammy was one of my original "she-looks-smart-i'm-going-to-read-everything-she-posts-and-just-admire-her-from-afar" people :)

Cammy Bean said...

Hey guys, I didn't write this post! But thanks :) Was just wondering who did...

< Cammy

Judy Unrein said...

Uh, sorry about that, Craig. From 2800 miles away, you can totally be mistaken for Cammy! ;) Kudos still apply, of course.

I've gotten a good dose of dissatisfaction over the last year or so with much -- not all -- of what our field is teaching itself these days. I applaud the efforts to take us on a better path... with or without mentioning Vygotsky.

Amanda said...

Hi Craig,
I would claim to be one of the people you are talking about on some levels. However, I think I also fall into the intentional designer category. I have been working in education since I graduated college in ’99. I started as an elementary teacher and found myself frustrated pretty quickly with the inability to create the way I wanted to teach. I was given a curriculum and, for most subjects, a standard format for presenting the information. It wasn’t long before I found myself looking to do something that I could use my creative juices for. Long story short, I am now working within a higher-education setting with a title that would confuse but a job description of an instructional designer. How exactly I got here is a longer story, but I would agree with the “accidental” view that Cammy Bean described in her article, The Accidental Instructional Designer.

No matter how I ended up here, I do love what I do. As you stated, I love “helping people learn better – to do better.” In this light, and in the role I am currently in, I am always looking for the deeper roots and trying to find ways to connect what I do on a daily basis with the research that makes it make sense. So, in that way I suppose I am one of the people you are talking about. However, as I mentioned I am also trying to become an intentional designer. I am currently taking courses toward my Master’s Degree in Instructional Design and Technology at Walden University. But even in this, I am always looking for the deeper roots. It is through my studies that I have learned about Vygotsky.

This question of whether or not instructional design should be put into patterns so that intentional designers have a structure to follow seems to me to be contradictory to what our field is all about. Are we not always looking for a better way? Are we not asked by the organizations that we work for to help them to become “learning organizations… improving performance by finding new things to do and new ways to do things” (Harper & Glew, 2008)?

Perhaps the process for finding the new ways to do things could be structured. However, I fear that putting too much structure to something could cause it to become stagnant. Unless, the right kind of people, those that you speak of in your blog, are the ones doing the work, then instructional design could become the job of every Subject Matter Expert who needs to develop training for their department. But we will always need “our kind of people” to always be thinking outside of the structured pattern to make sure we are being the best that we can be.

With that said, I would beg of you not to stop building the people who build their own ladders. Maybe not all instructional designers need to be this way. However, as in any field, there are those who will simply do the job and then there are those who will find the best ways to do the job! We need both in the instructional design field just as every other field does! So, by all means, let us put a structured process in place for what we do, but then let us make sure to have those who will always evaluate that process to make sure it is the most effective, efficient way that we can do it!

Thanks for your thoughts here! I look forward to learning more!



Harper, S. C., & Glew, D. J. (2008). Is your organization learning-impaired? Industrial Management, 50(2), 26–30.

Bean, C. (2012, January 9). The Accidental Instructional Designer. Learning Solutions Magazine. Retrieved from

Unknown said...

Amanda, thanks for your comment!
First of all, congratulations for deciding to self-identify as an instructional designer. I totally promise that it's all lollipops and foot massages from here on out :)

In my mind, the value of design patterns is not so much to reduce the specialized work of the instructional designer (though it is true that, with an adequate understanding of design patterns, SMEs may come that much closer to being able to successfully 'go it alone'). One of my first concerns when i started thinking about all of this is that our field is demeaned enough already - why work toward something that will only further give the impression that we're just following stitching patterns?

So, two things:

1) i quickly found that the value of design patterns is to clear some of the "and here magic happens" out of the way of the designer so that they can focus on effectively creating a learning solution that is crafted to the learning need (this is, in the end, what we are supposed to do) rather than fussing with the details of whether or not a particular intervention element has been...vetted (?) by the community. I also see lots of controversies surrounding the use and validity of certain design patters, but at that point we will have come quite a long way in that we will be discussing intervention elements by using a common language. That'll be a huge leap forward - debating intervention elements and such in the same way that we debate theories now, or that psychiatrists vet items that would enter the DSM-IV. This leads to my next point...

2) ...which is that, ultimately, it's not a bad thing if SMEs get closer to actually functional learning intervention creation as a result of this. I have a couple reasons for saying this: first, there are always going to be SMEs who go it alone, and the sad fact is that the world is not so fair as to allow us to capitalize on their failures by being called in to fix things. A lot of times, nobody else knows that anything is wrong, and things are just...wrong. Second, a lot of SMEs who care enough to get it right might become people like you - people who feel empowered to turn their caring into proficiency and eventually seek to become the instrument of change that they want to see - if they are given tools to succeed. If we're going to have accidentals, let's at least give them a head start.

Remember: proper analysis (understanding the gap, the skill desired, the audience, and the environment) is still necessary. This is not something that non-IDs tend to do in any kind of rigor (hell, this is not something that IDs often manage to do with any kind of rigor). Insightful design is still necessary - maybe we'd be better off requiring an ID to go to buy some lumber rather than felling trees.

(Regarding the bit about ladder builders and, well, tree fellers: yes. The thing is, ladder builders and tree fellers find their way to mastery because they are drawn to it. They have to want it, and they have to struggle a bit. See Steve Flowers' recent post for more on this:

Thank you again! Please keep reading, and definitely keep learning. Good luck at Walden!

Steve said...

Glad I dropped by to check out the post. This'll be a two part comment (it's long:))

I'm working up a more detailed explanation for a future post but Amanda's apprehension to the approach of patterns is one of the more common responses we've received. Nobody wants a process to constrain their thought processes. I don't blame them. But...

Here's the thing about patterns. Patterns aren't cookie cutters. Patterns aren't templates. Patterns aren't implemented to constrain creativity. Patterns exist to offer signs of validity and a generative way for a community to build a language to solidify and build on that validity. A way to draw intersections between science and practice.

Craig mentioned "some magic happens here" in the design process. Many times this equates to an arbitrary guess or estimation. We like to do things as a field that are new and fresh and different. This approach can disregard the science of "what works".

Let me clarify one of the ways a pattern library could manifest as a tool for the profession. Keep in mind, pattern languages originated in architecture.

Let's you were a new designer on the job within a company, by yourself, with nobody to help you figure out the best way to go. This isn't an unusual situation. Happens frequently.

So you currently have one choice. Go by your education, experience (limited), guts and google. Make your own mistakes and stumble through the path of design applying creativity to solve problems, often without the tools or experience to fully illuminate these problems.

Fast forward 5 years. You've got 5 years of the process described above under your belt and now you're at another company. You have other folks working with you. You may or may not have had the passion to drop into voracious reading and study to improve your own craft. And now it's you that is the Journeyman to the new apprentice. If you care enough, your passing the essence of your experience onto newer folks.

A single path of validation of the decisions and process that flow into the identification and framing of a solution. One person. Now passing on that single channel. The development of the field becomes an idiosyncratic process. Unpredictable in quality and reliant on the passion of the individual.

The problem here is there isn't much generative improvement or validation of these design practices. Almost no professional structure to the development of the individual design language and no leverage of a professional field of practitioners to push the field forward.

(onto part 2)

Steve said...

Part 2 of 2

A pattern language is a tool. It's won't make decisions for you. But it will provide you some baselines and validations of matches.

Let's rewind a bit to the same fresh passionate ID that either fell into it or launched from school. What if that ID had a set of tools to help identify profiles? What if those profiles matched up with patterns of application that showed an example of when and how it worked in a similar profile? This wouldn't stop the ID from creating a variant, selecting another pattern, or creating a completely new pattern of application for the presented profile.

The beauty of a well validated pattern set is that it's never finished growing. You can add your own along with your validation data. You can rate a pattern. You can add a variant of another pattern that just worked better for you.

We "invent" (make up, guess, exercise creative cognition, whatever you want to call it:)) a lot of stuff in this field. Most of the problems we encounter every day have been solved before. Sometimes these are solved well. Sometimes not. But rest assured, when broken down to a granular level, the problems you're seeing aren't novel or unique enough to start from scratch every time. Shouldn't a profession rooted in social / cognitive / psychological sciences be rooted in as much science as we are art?

That's the function of a pattern language. It's a shared body of applied science that bridges the gap between problem and the solution more clearly and confidently than "magic happens here". It's more about making connections than it is about enforcing prescriptions.

Tools can be used or ignored. Good tools are built by entire professions. That's what we're talking about with a pattern language / library.

Making it easier to do the right thing is a worthy goal.

Amanda said...

Thanks Craig and Steve!

I appreciate you taking the time to further clarify the idea of a pattern language/library. I can definitely see where it would be a great benefit to the field. Steve, I like your comment that it is more about connections than prescriptions. And Craig, I agree that there will always be those who, even when given a process will look for something even better. So, as long as those things are true, let's build the pattern!

Craig, I laughed out loud when I read your comment "and here magic happens" because it is so true. I haven't been in the field for long, only about 5 years, but I have experienced this multiple times. The idea of putting validity behind what we do is exciting! Even just recently, my wife said to me, "I never realized how much you do!" after seeing a compilation of a project I am working on. For those who see our finished product to understand that there is theory and process behind our work could change the level of respect for the field.

Also, Craig, concerning SMEs going it on their own, I also agree that they are already doing so and unfortunately, at times, only making a mess of things. So, yes, giving them the skills can never hurt. And I do believe that having the pattern library would be a benefit to letting them go it alone.

So, in the end, I feel as though we are on the same page, after a little further clarifcation. I still think that encouraging those who have it in them to build their own ladders is a benefit to the industry, and I think you should keep doing that! But, you are right that not everyone needs to have to build the ladder, just those of us who can't seem to help it! :)

Thanks again for all your thoughts!


Unknown said...

Steve, thanks for continuing your tradition of illuminating blog commentary :)

Unknown said...

Amanda, it does sound like we're on the same page. Now we just need to all start working to create this library.

(Oh, and my wife has had pretty much the same reaction, being able to see how the sausage is made, so to speak.)

Anonymous said...

Hey folks,

So a couple of things:

First, I can totally see why Judy confused you and Cammy, given that separated-at-birth thing you've got going on.

Second - Re Amanda's concern about the pattern library concept (which is a very fair concern). Steve's already addressed it somewhat, but I'll add to that a little.

My interest in pattern libraries was based on a talk that I saw Jared Spool give last year -- he was talking about general web design, not learning applications, but he was addressing the failure of templates and style guides for the design of large scale sites.

Basically, templates and style guides broke pretty much as soon as you defined them, because there was always some exception that made them not useful/usable in the current context.

He went on to talk about pattern libraries, and why that was proving much more effective. They weren't prescriptive (e.g. in this situation you must use this template), but meant that if you needed a search widget, you didn't reinvent the wheel, you just checked out the pattern library and grabbed what had already worked elsewhere.

There seem to be some essential elements there - autonomy on the part of the designer, pattern objects that were large enough to be useful but small enough to be flexible/modular, and a pull vs push mentality about the whole thing.

The topic of control and compliance has popped up recently, and this is a very delicate issue in this context - we want to get away from building ladders from scratch, but not to the point where we are telling everyone they must have a 6' aluminum ladder in all circumstances or else they just aren't doing it "right".

I think Craig's point about a common language is a critical element. Right now, a huge amount of the good work happening in instructional design is tacit practice -- people have felt their way into doing the right thing.

But the way we push the field forward is to take that tacit practice, and make it explicit, so we can start evaluating it at a more critical level. Tiger Woods may have started out a good natural golfer, but you don't become a professional without explicit practice and coaching.

I want to work on this to help new folks with some guidance, and not have them have to start over from scratch all the time, but honestly, I want this for myself even more -- I want the field to start having some solid ground to stand on, test against, and improve on collectively rather than individually.

Judy Unrein said...