Instructional Design: Science, Art and Craft

I’ve been reading some Henry Mintzberg recently.  His books–Managing and Managers Not MBA’s–both question prevailing thinking on management and leadership and present alternatives for effective management practice and development.  Both books include a model of management as a balancing act between science, art and craft. His argument is that effective management requires all three and an overemphasis on any one results in dysfunction.

I think it also offers some insight to effective Instructional Design.  Much of the recent debate regarding Instructional Design models and practice (see my own view here) seem to revolve around the prescriptive, process based models of ADDIE (and like models) versus  more open constructivist approaches, presumably more relevant for our networked and collaborative work environments.   The arguments tend to get unnecessarily polarized.  The following table is adapted from a similar one Mintzberg created for defined management styles.  I believe it works equally well for for Instructional Design practice.

Most graduate programs in Instructional Design and Educational Technology are squarely in the science column (psychology, human learning, and systems design).  New graduates emerge with a scientific bent seeking order, precise applications and and predictable results from their models and approaches refined in the scientific tradition. We quickly (or perhaps not so quickly) learn from experience (craft) what really works and what doesn’t, and also  that often unexpected creative ideas and insights improves our solutions (art).  Clearly, effective design of learning experiences requires all three.

The diagram below, again adapted from Mintzberg,  shows how these three approaches to learning design might interact and the potential consequences of relying on any one dominant style.  We have all seen examples at the extreme end of each style.   Bringing only an artistic design style to a project may result in a truly novel, creative or  visually stunning result that wows and inspires but does not teach.   Relying on proven learning science often results in dry, uninspired or demotivating instruction that may result in learning, but can be mind-numbing.  Craft, uninformed by art or science, and often from untrained instructional designers working from common sense rarely ventures beyond personal experience, with hit and miss results at best.

Combination of the approaches can also be less than optimal for producing effective learning experiences.  Art and craft together without the systematic analysis of science can lead to disorganized learning designs.  Craft and science without the creative vision of art can lead to dispirited design, careful and connected but lacking flare.  Learning design based on art with science is creative and systematic, but without the experience of craft can produce, impersonal and disconnected learning.

Effective learning designs then,  happen most when that elusive combination of art, science and craft come together. Where the three approaches coexist, through a skillfully assembled learning team the result is usually effective, motivational learning grounded in the realities of the organization.  I suppose a tilt toward one or two would make sense for certain subjects, skills or audiences.   For management,  Mintzberg says too much balance of the three may also be dysfunctional since it lacks any distinctive style at all!  Perhaps, a good lesson for instructional design as well.

20 thoughts on “Instructional Design: Science, Art and Craft

  1. This is very helpful for the field of instructional design, Tom. All the best for the coming year and I look forward to at least a few more blog posts from you this year 😉

  2. This is great — thank you. I suspect that I will refer back to this post for a long time. It’s sort of what I was trying to get to here: , but a much better answer.

    I’ve seen the art / craft / science idea presented as a continuum elsewhere, with art and science being the logical extremes, and craft been the intersection of the two, but I think the triangle is a more applicable (or apply-able) model.

  3. Excellent. Like many people, I expect, I’ll be squirelling this one away and using it as a basis for ideas later.

    Where do you think ‘industrial’ fits into the table? (Or doesn’t it?)

    I’m thinking something along the lines of;
    Egalitarianism, discipline, quality, economic, vertical integration, Technique embedded in secular society.

    I often reserve the term ‘industrial’ for my worst insults and it’s fantastically useful to take a less jaundiced view prompted by this. Thanks.

  4. I recently joined a committee charged with developing a new graduate program in instructional technology. This post gets at some of the ying-yang we’ve been discussing. To me the ‘craft’ you describe is a critical piece to include in a program, leading to student employment success after graduation. It will be important for us to consider the three approaches you’ve outlined as we move forward. I’ll be passing this along! Thanks.

  5. Harold:
    Happy new year to you as well. I hope to get back to more regular blogging soon. The new job has kept me busy, or maybe it was a self imposed hiatus 🙂

    I liked your venn diagrams. I don’t think art/craft/science is really a continuum. I think people operate more or less within each framework depending on their experience, training, world view etc.

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t think that “industrial” has a home on the chart. I suppose it’s more of an area of application (vs education, public sector etc) where the same three approaches can play out.

    I agree craft (experience) is a missing area of graduate ID programs. The voice of experience needs to be brought into grad programs through internships, external expertise, and loads of real world problem solving within the program. I’ve often thought a “studio” approach to graduate ID education where students emerge with portfolios or work (alongside their theoretical knowledge) would be innovative.

  6. Excellent post – reminds me of other “golden triangles” that I’ve seen in Management. This post encapsulates pretty well my views on the role of theory in ID. My critique of instructional designers (at least once they leave school) is that they almost never go back to theory. They rely on craft and art (as much as they have) and theory rarely informs their practice. Of course I’ve met people who are mostly into the science and have little art or craft – which of course makes for some pretty sterile learning 🙂

  7. […] The Performance X Design article that I have linked this to discusses some of the shortcomings in current graduate instructional design and technology programs when it comes to preparing graduates to inject a healthy amount of creativity into their work. If you explore more of Performance X Design, you will find several articles which provide useful insight on current theories and application models within the instructional design field. […]

  8. Tom, I think this is a brilliantly pragmatic post! I’ve just found your blog and will be visiting again. As we hack away at the formal vs. informal and the viability of ADDIE (poor girl, always under attack), I think you’ve presented a more holistic perspective.

    • Thanks Holly. Just took a quick at your own blog and as you say, I’ll be visiting again. Thanks for connecting. See my post “ADDIE is Dead, Long Live ADDIE” for some thoughts on the “poor girl”.


  9. I really love this representation. I’ve been putting together a few similar diagrams and these are definitely supporting factors. This has helped me to sharpen my representation.

    I think there’s another gorilla in the room that we’re not talking about. The industry has tended to gravitate towards resource homogenization. Specifically reducing specialized resources in favor of making the ISD (or a quasi-qualified ISD) into a jack-of-all-trades. I think that this is a critical error and is a significant contributing factor to industry woes. We expect too much of an ISD and it dilutes the focus on craft. We also tend to assign ISD as leads (producer / director) as a default for performance solutions. I think in some cases this is appropriate and can support successful solutioneering, in others it’s completely disastrous.

    In my model I’ve stratified solution engineering into three vertically focused disciplines (Venn diagram). These are Instructional, Communication (Representational), and Technical. Each of these is a focused craft in its own right.

    Why we ask an ISD to produce graphic representations (often at an entry level at 4 to 5 times the $$ costs) baffles me. Why we ask an ISD to craft well written prose (often at entry level at 2 times the resource cost of a masterful journalist) baffles me. Why we ask an ISD to conceptualize a technical solution, estimate costs, and oversee the production of the solution baffles me. But here’s what doesn’t baffle me — as an industry we keep cranking out reams of mediocre, half-baked, useless solutions. The reasons for this seem clear to me…

    If we want to sharpen the ISD craft and use ISD resources efficiently, we can’t dilute the focus. Higher costs, quality sacrifices – why?

    • Thanks for the comment Steve. I think a lot of Learning Designers feel the same frustration. All products and services (in business) experience cost and efficiency pressures over time, including learning products. In e-learning, this has resulted in the proliferation of “rapid development” authoring tools that often put a single ID (or even SME!) in each of the roles you mentioned.

      Apparently many customers of learning services/products don’t see the value of the higher quality learning results that come from more delineated professional roles. Or at least they don’t want to pay for that perceived value. On the flip side…maybe the value in fact is not always there. I’ve seen many beautiful, well produced e-learning programs that don’t teach a thing. e-learning programs do not have to be high end to teach well, but when rich media and interaction is justified, i agree that skilled multidisciplinary teams are the way to go. In the end, we are competing against a long history of information=training, and that puts the pressure on e-learning to find faster and simpler ways to simply pump out information (which as we all know is not always learning). That pressure however is not always a bad thing. There ARE more efficient ways to produce learning, and rapid tools are part of that solution. But in all cases, people need to work in roles they are skilled at. We need to continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of a our “quality” solutions so that the premium is seen as adding value.

      • I would agree, Tom, that many times the extra value that production quality provides simply isn’t there. Particularly when based on vapid designs.

        “Or at least they don’t want to pay for that perceived value.”

        My point is that they are paying for it. Let’s use an example that is a common case in my experience:

        Me: You didn’t use a graphics specialist for this did you?
        Re: No, it wasn’t in the budget.
        Me: How much time did you spend to get it looking like that?
        Re: Alot.
        Me: So you struggled with it?
        Re: Well, yeah. I told you, a graphic specialist wasn’t in the budget.
        Me: You reallize that your bill rate is over twice that of an entry level graphic specialist?
        Re: Umm…
        Me: You also reallize that while you struggled on this output (taking twice the time of a specialist), you still billed at your full rate? We paid 4x what we should have for lower quality because we couldn’t afford to put it in the budget? Bizarro…
        Re: …
        Me: By the way, the instructional design isn’t stellar either.
        Re: I know. I’m sorry, I had to spend too much time on the presentation parts. It’s not my fault.

        This is too common. Like I said, if scanned napkins or crayon drawings do the trick – I can dig. The value of production values are sketchy if they are based on skewed instructional perspectives or an attempt at putting information into rollercoaster cars using keyboard shortcuts.

        Part of the solution is an adjustment in the education of folks coming into the field to prevent information encapsulation as the default mode of solution.

        The other part is better resource allocation. Can’t see how you can support a full time equivalent for a specialty, bring in a hired gun or trusted freelance professional. The dividends of proper resource allocation are potentially staggering. Focus on craft is priceless.

  10. I like the table, which reminds me of the comparison between behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist approaches to workplace learning that Peggy Ertmer and Tim Newby published about 20 years ago in Performance and Instruction (link to PDF).

    I’ve thought for a long time that many individuals in the training and development field see themselves more as artists than artisans. By that I mean they pick and choose things to try because those things appeal to them at the moment. Many practitioners seem to be swayed more by fads and impressions than by theory and experimentation, even their own. I think that’s what’s behind the dental-plaque-like persistence of learning styles — or that inescapable 9-dot icebreaker.

    • Dave: that old P&I article was worth your comment all by itself :).
      “Swayed by fads and impressions” yes, and i think even by simple conventions and practices within their own organizations (culture?). I remember being guilty early in my career of designs that I knew wouldn’t really work so well…but hey..paycheck and all. Conformance to org norms is powerful without a solid base of evidence (even your own as you say) to draw upon.

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