Of Straw Men in Instructional Design

“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”
― Adam Gopnik

Ran across this post from 2011 in one of my searches for something…I can’t recall what.  It discusses the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) model for training – a way to ensure that training effectiveness is maximized by laying out a defined process for developing instruction – starting with Assessment (needs assessment), Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation (it’s more commonly known as the ADDIE model).  As the author of the post points out, it was really the first development model in the field of instructional design, developed initially for the military, but widely and comprehensively adopted in business, technology, etc.

But the author rapidly moves to the following assessment – quoting someone else:

However, according to Dave Meier, in The Accelerated Learning Handbook, the ISD model is “too slow, cumbersome, stiff, linear, and emotionally dull…to get the job done today.” Meier says its weakness reflects a male-dominated point of view and a behavioristic approach to learning. Its origin in the military explains why it is overly linear, analytical, verbal, left-brained, academic, top-down, and prescriptive.

active adult air force angry
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Ouch…that’s kinda harsh.  I will note, that, having been in the military, I have seen the application of this model in that setting, and can confirm that its application there was indeed linear, top down and prescriptive.  Then again, so was the military itself.  I have seen (and created) many other applications of this model that would not be so characterized.

But the author seems to go on to suggest that we abandon the ISD model as archaic and outmoded.  She then exhorts us to adopt a newer model – in this case a “rapid instructional design (RID) model.”  The RID model she discusses has some interesting and potentially useful aspects.  It’s surely the product of more recent thought and more specifically adapted to the times.  Does that make the “outdated ADDIE model” useless and a target for replacement?

“A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect.”
― Ivan TurgenevFathers and Sons

It’s easy for newer generations to relegate the older ideas to the role of straw man – something to be systematically attacked and destroyed in order to make room for the new idea.  I’ve seen it happen with advances in medical knowledge and clinical reasoning.  I’ve seen evidence-based medicine attacked many times using this method.  Usually it comes from ideas that are simply more specific applications of the older, more general model.  And, almost always, it results from an incomplete understanding of the old ideas.  These new models don’t so much fill gaps in an incomplete theory as create their own, more specific targets for the theory.  Such, I believe, is the case with our instructional design blogger’s treatment of ISD.

The RID model, as presented, emphasizes appealing to all learning styles, increasing the amount of self-learning required from students, and teaching to higher-order Bloom’s Taxonomy objectives.  But left unstated is the underlying ADDIE process – analyzing the needs of the students (and their learning styles), designing the appropriate level objectives and degree of self-learning, then developing, implementing and evaluating the instruction. In short, RID isn’t a complete development model – it’s a design model – it is targeted at a single process within ADDIE based on a set of assumptions about the learners.

RID’s ideas are reasonable and worth consideration when designing a curriculum.  But they do not constitute a development model.  RID is not a replacement for ADDIE or the Instructional Systems Design process.  Instead, it’s an advertisement for it – one that could not have been developed without attending to the categories that the ISD/ADDIE model lays out so clearly.

In academic discourse, we need to get beyond the nihilism of straw man arguments and other logical fallacies in order to advance our ideas.  Most often, we will find that our new ideas are more incremental than revolutionary, but, if presented in a thoughtful manner, can nonetheless contribute to the advancement of our disciplines.  Instead of setting fire to our straw men, maybe we can add a few new bricks to the solid foundation of the past.