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WANTED: Designers of Instruction

According to Connie Malamed, “instructional design involves the process of identifying the performance, skills, knowledge, information and attitude gaps of a targeted audience and creating, selecting or suggesting learning experiences that close this gap, based on instructional theory and best practices from the field.” (Malamed, 2010) For those of us who are practitioners of the art of instruction, this is just part of what we do on a daily basis. Until recently, however, I had not given much thought to instructional design. It was enough to plan lessons for next week and hope for the best. Historically, the term “instructional design” has been reserved for eLearning courses and online instruction, but I believe it is time to bring the instructional design framework into our onsite classes.

There is a plethora of research and discussion regarding growth- and fixed-mindsets within education. Every education professional falls on the mindset continuum somewhere, and where we fall determines in large part our practice. Regardless of your thoughts and beliefs on this topic, I want to challenge you to consider making a subtle mind shift about how you view preparing for future instruction. For example, which of the following activities sound more appealing? Planning lessons or designing instruction? When I was faced with that question the first time, I had to stop and consider each activity. As a teacher, I have been planning lessons for nearly 30 years, but had I ever truly designed instruction? I was almost ashamed to consider my response. As a seasoned professional, of course I should have been designing my instructional activities all along. The sad truth is that all too often I simply relied on the curriculum to guide my choices.

I recently shared with my colleagues at a workshop the “nuts and bolts” of instructional design. The state-adopted curriculum provides a huge chunk of what we do in a classroom, but we must remember that any curriculum that we are given is only mandated to meet 80% of our state standards. Who decides how we are going to teach the remaining 20%? The classroom teacher is responsible for that. If we aren’t actively involved in monitoring which standards are taught, which skills are mastered, and which standards aren’t included in my texts, our students are not going to receive what they need to be successful in the next grade.

As part of this mind shift, teachers must start with their state’s instructional standards. Granted it is much easier to open the curriculum manuals to the next page or unit to begin planning instruction, but I doubt that there is a single state which insists that teachers finish the curriculum rather than teach the adopted set of standards. After examining the standards for each subject being taught, the instructional design can begin. As shown in the diagram, the state-adopted curriculum is a critical tool that we use for this process, but it is not the only tool.

Student data is also an important component to our instructional design, but there is a lot more to consider than just the “easy-to-gather” academic data. In addition to student achievement data, teachers must consider the demographic makeup of their classes, the individual and collective interests of the students, and the perceptions and beliefs students have about school in general and your class in particular. If your instruction is not meeting the needs of your students or if it is not actively engaging them in the learning process, you are wasting your time and their time. Instructional design enables teachers to develop meaningful, purposeful, and memorable instruction. The data is there. We must consider all of it as we plan our instruction.

Another important tool that an instructional designer uses is their expertise. We don’t hear much about this facet of teaching anymore, but it is a practical and powerful tool in our toolbox. Beginning teachers often struggle because they don’t have the experience behind them to think on their feet. When something begins to go awry, these teachers don’t have a storeroom full of previous experiences to pull from to turn things around. As seasoned professionals, we owe it to ourselves and our younger colleagues to share our experience. We owe it to our students to be reflective practitioners who thoughtfully reflect upon what we have taught and consider how to improve our delivery. Don’t discount experience. As the adage goes: experience is the best teacher.

Resources are the next tool that designers of instruction use to plan their lessons. Resources are interactive digital or print materials that go beyond the paper and pencil activities or the textbook/workbook pages we have been provided. As professionals who must attend a given number of hours of professional development every year, we do not like participating in sessions that are lecture-driven or require a bunch of busy-work. Most of us feel those activities are a waste of our time and do not add anything to our teaching practice. Yet, in our own classrooms, we deviate little from the very practice we dislike. Why do we do that? I believe it is because designing high-quality instruction takes more time and significantly more effort than selecting lessons from a manual. Using hands-on materials and student-created projects takes more time and makes more mess, but the level of engagement and the depth of learning is greater.

The last piece of this instructional design framework is our classroom routines. Humans are creatures of habit and find safety in established routines. As teachers, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to design an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. The routines we put in place are often those with which we feel most comfortable, but we must also keep in mind that there are twenty other people in the room whose comfort should be considered. Think about your students. Are there any special needs present? Are there any other disabilities? What is the traffic flow like? What do students do with completed work? What should students do if they finish early? It is essential that we consider how much these classroom routines affect how well students cope with the environment we have created.

After the classroom instruction is designed, the lessons must be delivered, but that is not the end of the process. An integral part of instructional design is reflecting on how the lesson went, how the students responded, what the outcomes were, and then determining the next step in the instructional process. Instructional design is an ongoing, cyclical process. Like any continuous cycle, the process is dependent upon each step. To omit or diminish any one step would harm and weaken the entire process. As teachers we encourage our students to reach higher and work harder to achieve their highest potential as learners. Shouldn’t we do the same ourselves as teachers?

Designing high-quality instruction is hard work. There is no doubt that it requires more time and effort than simply following teachers’ manuals to build weekly lesson plans. Instructional design has a long-term focus; we are building units of study based on grade level standards and learning objectives. The goal is not to get through next week. The goal is not to finish the curriculum. The goal is to provide our students with the tools and skills they need to be successful not just this week or this year but for the rest of their academic career.

That is a lofty goal, but I believe it is a challenge worth attempting. Will it be simple? Not a chance! Will it take more time and effort? You had better believe it! Will it be worth it? Well, that is up to you. By changing our mindset to view our planning process differently, the trajectory of our educational efforts shifts, and over time the difference is quite significant. Are you ready for a change? Are you ready for your students’ level of engagement to improve? Are you ready to be the best you can be? Now is the time!

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