Thinking About “Critical Instructional Design”

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Source: https://goo.gl/fGFdVn ; CC 2.0

From the beginning of computer technology, the vision of what computer can help in the field of education was based on a mechanical understanding of learning.   How learning is conceived and the role of instructors that are inherent in the design of Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) are still alive as DNA of the contemporary educational technology and influence our educational orientations. Unfortunately, this limits the role of education and misguides its potential.   The commonly shared view of human learning as something that can be “easily quantified and measured” based on clear and concise learning objectives is traced back to CAI  (1.5 Operant Conditioning, para 4).   Thus, what is later developed into the field of instructional design carries this orientation.   Educational institutions continue to fall back on the same direction.   The influential modern educational theories, such as behaviorism and Bloom’s Technology, buttress “the cult of efficiency” of our time, and legitimize the traditional teaching and curriculum conventions.

Critical Instructional Design” refers to any critical approaches to instructional design with the understanding that learning is multi-faceted in nature and complex.  As Amy brought up the messiness of learning in her introduction video, how learning takes place cannot be clearly defined.  There are so many variables that affect one’s learning and learning environments.  How these variables interact and influence how one’s learning becomes or not becomes are essentially complex.   By narrowing and conveniently streaming down the complexity to the concepts of “learning outcomes” or “assessment measures,” the conventional instructional design substantially limits educational possibilities and opportunities.   Amy believes that we can tap into “more humanistic, holistic, critical, and speculative approaches” and grow educational opportunities that work for many students (1.7 Assumptions, para. 2).

Now Breaking It Down into Words…
The conventional understanding of what “instructional” means in the context of higher education comes with the image of courses with assigned textbooks and lectures given by instructors in front of classrooms with students sitting as an audience.  “Instructional” generally means offering guiding information as in an instructional manual.  The manual is very useful if you can put things together by following the steps provided in the manual.

The notion of “design” is everywhere these days.  It can be a static description of a model or trigger a discussion of any complex processes.  According to Wikipedia, there are two opposing ideas of understanding design as a process:  1) the rational model; and 2) the action-centric model.  The action-centric model is antithetical to the rational model and:


1) designers use creativity and emotion to generate design candidates,
2) the design process is improvised,
3)no universal sequence of stages is apparent – analysis, design and implementation are contemporary and inextricably linked.

So if we take the approach of the rational model, then it matches with and does not negate what the conventional instructional design is trying to do, while the action-centric model seems approximate what critical instructional design would be trying to do.

I believe that what is mostly missing from the conventional instructional design is learners and teachers as agents of learning.   So critical instructional design would seek to bring learners and their relationships to their fellow learners as well as to their teacher/instructor as an essential faucet of the design.