Instructional Design: A Cautionary Approach

What is the purpose of Instructional Design?  To some perspectives, the answer might lie in the alignment or calibration of curricular needs to ensure equity of education.  In other groups, the answer may rest in the need to inspire students towards self-efficacy.  From my experience, to an instructional coach, the truth lies somewhere in between both of these goals.  We have to live in a happy balance of both curricular focus and student-driven curriculum.  

However, there are a couple of pitfalls when we attempt to reconcile these two mediums.  The first is the definition of curriculum.  I am writing from the great state of Texas in the good ole USA.  Unfortunately, for educators here, there is an actual legal definition of curriculum.  That definition is our TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards.  So to the average (much less beginning) educator, when they are told to focus on the curriculum, they are focusing on the standards.  These standards (much like the US Common Core Standards) do not include any form of soft skills such as self-efficacy, grit, ownership, integrity, spirit, curiosity, etc. much less classroom behavior.  As experienced teachers know, these soft skills become the cornerstone of all the learning of the standards and content knowledge.

The second pitfall is our addiction to quantitative analysis.  Why do I call it an addiction?  Quantitative analysis provides us with an answer that is usually very easy to interpret.  We don’t have to stop and think in order to understand what we are seeing.  The problem lies in that we become overwhelmed with the data and forget to investigate the context of the data itself.

For example, there is a sweeping trend among educational administrators across Texas to refer to Dr. John Hattie’s research on what affects student learning outcomes.  He explains that an affect size of 0.40 is equal to one year’s growth and then provides us with categories and their affect sizes.  His research spans six continents and hundreds of thousands of students, so his validity is very high.  An enamored administrator may look at his list and think “Ooh, Teacher Estimates of Achievement has a 1.62 affect size.  How do we ramp that up to have a larger impact on our students?” This is great, but then we step back and think to ourselves, that we want our classrooms to be student-centered, with students having control over their learning.  The problem is, when we look at Hattie’s list, Student-centered Teaching has an affect size of 0.36 (Direct Instruction is 0.60 for comparison) and Student Control Over Learning has an affect size of 0.01.  Neither one of these items though have context behind them to explain the low affect sizes.  For example, did the instruments used to develop these affect sizes measure what was occurring or what was probable?  Was the measurements taken in classrooms where student-centered anything wasn’t an option, therefore it didn’t warrant an impact?  If the study is focusing on impacts on student learning, what defines the learning?

On the other hand, when we are presented with qualitative analysis, we often get bogged down with trying to understand the nuances of what is occurring in the descriptions or dialogue of the examples.  Fortunately, some of those researchers also employ some sort of Sense-Making to provide us with categories to better understand the information.

For example, most educators have heard of Dr. Schlechty’s works on student engagement.  His center created a system that focuses on instructional design through the use of ten research-based Design Qualities: Content & Substance, Product Focus, Organization of Knowledge, Clear & Compelling Product Standards, Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures, Affiliation, Affirmation, Choice, Novelty & Variety, and Authenticity.  This instructional coaching system is all about creating student voice in such a way that the student feels empowered to learn more on their own.  This is different than the quantitative example, because in Hattie’s inventory list of 250 affects, student empowerment and student voice is not measured.   Below, is a table that compares Schlechty’s Design qualities to some of the Hattie inventory and their affect size.

Schlechty and Hattie
The beginning of this blog talked about finding a balance between both curriculum alignment and student inspiration.  All researchers agree that instruction needs to be designed.  It is interesting that the Schlechty model expects teachers to develop a spec sheet that helps define who they are designing for, while Hattie’s highest ranking inventory item, Teacher Estimates of Achievement (1.62 affect size), revolves around the teachers knowing their students.  In reality, design always requires the fore knowledge of who we are designing for.  So, how should we as instructional coaches approach instructional design?

Peter Dewitt in his book, Collaborative Leadership, talks about collaboration between instructional leaders and the impact on student learning.  “It starts with the self-efficacy of teachers, moves into the sense of collective efficacy, and ends with collective teacher efficacy.”  The collective efficacy ideals with the transference of a feeling of confidence of accomplishment between teacher and student.  As a side note, Collective Teacher Efficacy has a 1.57 Hattie affect size as a result.  Therefore, in order to have the highest affect on student learning, we have to examine how we are motivating our teachers and empowering them so that the efficacy is transferred to their students, thus resulting in the highest impact.  In tandem, interviewing students and witnessing their excitement while participating in a lesson that has been designed with Schlechty’s model results in a confirmation of learning.  So, in walking the line as an instructional designer, I will count my steps and pay attention to how I walk as well.

Allen, Gayle (2016) The New Pillars of Modern Teaching.

Bracey, Gerald, W. (2006) Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered.

Dewitt, Peter, M. (2017) Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most.

Schlechty, Phillip C. (2011) Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work.


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