Have we "Reclaimed" Instructional Design?

In 1996, David Merrill and the ID2 Research Group published Reclaiming Instructional Design, a paper that "attempts to make clear [their] belief that instruction is a science and that instructional design is a technology founded in this science," and they wanted "to identify some of the assumptions underlying the science-based technology of instructional
design, and to clarify its role in the larger context of education and social change."

In short, as they titled the paper, it was time to "reclaim instructional design" from "a lot of people associated with instructional technology who don’t seem to know where they are going. Neophytes who are pursing instructional technology are lured this way and that by the varied philosophical voices crying lo here."

So, twelve years later, where are we? Have we "reclaimed" instructional design?

To sum up the article, Merrill and the ID2 research group (BTW, ID2 stands for second generation instructional design) do an excellent job outlining what science is, and how instructional design is, according to that definition, a science.

Do I agree with what they say? Yes, I do. It would be hard for me not to. Not only was Merrill my professor, but Leston, Mark, and Jean were all doctoral students with me in the program. But personal relationships aside, and I know I talk about them a lot, I agree with what they say. Again, not because I know them, but because I see the world the same was as they do.

Now, to be fair about this, I must also point you to an EXCELLENT alternative point of view on the topic.  Brent Wilson, who was the person whose comments spurred Merrill to write Recaliming ID, wrote Foundations for Instructional Design: Reclaiming the Conversation, which was includeed in a fantastic book on instructional design, Innovations in Instructional Technology (link to the entire book via Google Books).  In his essay, Brent doesn't argue point by point with Merrill, but rather looks at things from a very different lens.

In short, it looks as though one of the main differences between the two points of view comes down to the old beahviorist/constructivist point of view.  Merrill, et.al. contend that learning is an individual process, and Wilson counters that there needs to be consensus.  Now let me be clear: I AM OVERSIMPLIFYING THINGS HERE, AND I KNOW IT (so don't send me a million comments telling me so).  But many of each sides' points stem from those lenses.

Wilson makes the point of the day in his conclusion.  He writes:

"The practical problem is the mediocre quality of instruction. The response is instructional design. As Richey (1998) notes, agreeing on the details of formulating a problem requires some degree of shared ideology, but that is precisely where we agree—on the general nature and importance of these problems. Then and from that base, competing theories and perspectives enter the dialogue. As researchers and practitioners grapple with problems of practice, they are led to countering explanations and theories, leading to re-descriptions of problems and proposed solutions. As so many have argued, the interplay between theory and practice is a dialogue, which is the healthiest possible condition for a field, even in the face of proliferating perspectives. Cutting short that dialogue would be a mistake. Keeping our eye on the end goal, improving instruction, should be enough to hold us together as a community of professionals."

So,  again to the question, twelve years later, where do we as a field stand on instructional design?  Not really anywhere different.  I do think that in the last twelve years the field's voice has definitely shifted from a more structured, behaviorist perspective to a more open, constructivist perspective.  For me, well, it's not hard to see where I stand on that spectrum.

I think this conversation is one that needs to continue.  Yes, I know it's more fun to talk about the new tools and toys that are coming out and see how we can implement them in instruction effectively, but I think this collective soul-searching is imperative to us as a field. No matter where we stand on the conversation of reclaiming instructional design, we all can agree on one thing: the problem, (as Wilson put it) mediocre instruction.

What do you all think? I know a number of practitioners read this blog, does this conversation have any relevance at all to you, or is this something that only the academics care about?


  1. ****THIS PERSON LEFT NO NAME**** I wonder why? --jhc

    That 1996 editorial by Merrill was a bit extremist. He was basically trying to shoot down constructivist approaches "who don’t seem to know where they are going", like Kirshner, Sweller, & Clark argued for recently as well.
    Jonassen published a response the Merrill opinion piece in the same journal, you should check it out.

    And if you have to explicitly argue that something is a science, it probably isn't. That includes instructional design and the learning sciences and cognitive science.

    Or if you have to repeatedly assert that something is "verified" by cognitive research and evolutionary theory (like cognitive load theory), then it isn't. Once they added good (germane) cognitive load and bad cognitive load, it became unfalsifiable and less scientific.

  2. Yes, I am a former student of Merrill's, but I think all of this is just me trying to make sense of what I learned under him. I'm not trying to go through this and tell everyone how great he is, his work speaks for itself. Rather, I'm trying to see where I stand now as a faculty member in comparison to when I was a graduate student. Do I think the same things? Is what I learned relevant still? What has changed?


  3. What you are saying does definitely make sense.
    As practitioners we need to collaborate actively and dedicate our studies for quality design. We are at a century, in which theories need to be put into practice. We need to be in cooperation in order to enhance our constructivist perspectives. However, while doing this we also need to start developing our knowledge on the theories which we have learned 10 years ago. It is the time of change!

  4. [...] the well established area of ‘Instructional Design’. So I was interested to see this post reflecting on a paper by David Merrill et al. from 1996 entitled ‘Reclaiming instructional [...]

  5. I would have to say that the discussion regarding instructional design as a science has been somewhat muted as discussions have shifted to the technologies available for not only delivering information, but encouraging participation.

    But if you listen closely, within those discussions you will still here the debate over how we encode new information into our existing knowledge base.

  6. My thoughts on "Reclaiming Instructional Design" can be found in one of my posts: "Can Instruction be Designed?" http://discursive-learning.blogspot.com/2007/06/can-instruction-be-designed.html

  7. [...] really all started coming to mind for me a couple of years ago when two posts I wrote on this blog, Have we reclaimed Instructional Design and Instructional Design in Academia: Where theory and practice RARELY meet, were listed on [...]