Category Archives: First principles

1912 Vision for Schools

I’m reading The End of Average by Todd Rose. Really interesting so far.

Early in the book he talks a little about the history of education in this country and the struggle between humanist education and Taylorist.

He includes a quote I enjoyed, from the General Education Board, funded by John D. Rockefeller, in 1912. I love the clarity of the message (if not the message!).

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians…nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply….The task that we have set before ourselves is very simple as well as very beautiful…we will organize our children into a little community and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.


Four Qualities of a Memorable Course

I held a workshop for tax experts about how to lead an effective webcast. Near the beginning of the workshop I threw out the question, “What was the best course you ever took, regardless of medium, and what made it so memorable?” Four themes emerged from their answers. I love this list and now refer to it often.

Great courses are different. The instructors or developers made a clear effort to go beyond lecture in some meaningful, creative way.

Great courses are meaningful to their target population. They leave participants saying, “That’s exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.”

Great courses are full of memorable stories. The instructors had deep banks of relevant experience to draw upon, and the ability to relate them to illustrate important points.

Great courses are led by instructors who show the love they have for the topic through their enthusiasm. It is evident to everyone in the classroom that the instructor is genuinely fascinated by the topic. Their interest is infectious.

First Principles of Instruction, Part 2

This is a continuation of an article started here.

First principle number four: The Right Fit Principle, which posits that instruction is more likely to succeed if it correctly anticipates the prior knowledge and skill proficiency of its learners. If instruction is too basic, learners get bored. If it is too advanced, they get frustrated.

All courses are either electives or requirements. For electives, helpful course descriptions are critical. Learners need to have information to make good decisions. Of course, even professionals don’t always read carefully. I’ve seen frustrated instructors resort to all caps in their descriptions: “THIS IS NOT A BASIC COURSE.” Whatever it takes.

When a course is required, then it’s the designer’s job to ensure proper audience analysis is happening. Sometimes designers work with a target population enough to anticipate their skill level and misconceptions. If not, some research is in order.

If the target population is diverse in terms of their incoming level of skill and knowledge, acknowledge that in the design. Don’t just aim for the middle; create an instructional architecture that allows more advance learners to continue to advance while also accommodating the relative newbies. That’s not easy, but it’s better than boring half your audience and overwhelming the other half.

First principle number five: The Knowledge Is Power, but Only to a Point Principle

Is very common to see novice developers write objectives like, “participants will be able to deliver FAST feedback to their direct reports,” when it’s clear from their instruction that the best they can hope for is “participants will be able to describe the key principles of FAST feedback,” or similar. Sometimes this is semantics; the developer is aware that the course will only take learners so far and there are plans in place beyond this one class to support skill building. Sometimes, though, developers don’t recognize the difference between teaching knowledge and teaching skills.

The difference is significant, of course. Being able to talk about a skill in the abstract, and actually being able to do the skill, are two different things.

The key here is that course owners and developers should be as precise as possible about what level of skill learners will emerge from the classroom with, and they should communicate this to the stakeholders to let them know what their responsibilities are in terms of picking up where the training leaves off and delivering appropriate on-the-job training.

First Principles of Instruction

Some years ago, David Merrill published his “First Principles of Instruction.” It’s an important declaration, and I would encourage every instructional designer to become familiar with it. For me, the First Principles were exciting not only for their content, but also for the suggestion of how important it is for designers to remain grounded in a coherent set of core beliefs.

When I hit the point in my career where I was informing instructional strategy, it suddenly became really important to me to articulate my own core beliefs so I could orient myself to them. I still refer back to them today.

In that spirit, I present not First Principles, capital F capital P, but rather my own first principles. I’d encourage all instructional designers to do the same. What do you believe?

Principle 1: The Motivation Principle
Motivated learners will learn from any instruction, no matter the quality of the design. Unmotivated (and, especially, negatively motivated) learners can defeat even the best instruction.

Think about the lengths you will go to in order to learn more about your favorite hobbies. Not everyone has that level of passion for their careers, so it would be pretty rare to find a classroom in a professional environment where all participants are pegged to the positive end of the motivation spectrum. But learners will tend to lean more positive if they see themselves as part of a culture where they perceive a direct relationship between formal learning and professional growth.

Unfortunately, instructional designers can’t control the nature of their learners’ motivations. As much as possible, they should be aware of them, though. I would likely make different design decisions for a negative or neutral audience than I would for a positive one.

I don’t necessarily draw a distinction in this principle between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, though perhaps I should.

Principle Two: The Strategic Fit Principle
Instruction will have a greater impact on an organization if it clearly and intentionally aligns with the strategic priorities of that organization.

Being able to describe in detail how your curriculum links to the organization’s strategic priorities achieves a couple of different ends. One, your programs will receive greater support from leadership. Two, it may be possible to tap into the same metrics the firm is using to measure success of its strategic initiatives to measure the success of your learning programs (i.e., if participants in your program outscore non-participants on those key metrics, that’s evidence of the effectiveness of your program).

Principle Three: The Precise Objectives Principle
The more precise and measurable the instructional objectives for a course, the more likely the course is to meet the organization’s needs.

I’m often asked to review course materials that have objectives like “understand how to give constructive feedback” or “learn more about state and local taxation.” I’m always conflicted by vague objectives like these, particularly when written by subject matter experts and not by instructional designers. On the one hand, I don’t want to be the pedantic jerk arguing that “understand” is not measurable when no one else cares. I’m not interested in forcing expensive SME developers to spend time rewriting objectives as an academic exercise. On the other hand, I can only review materials against their stated objectives, and a lack of precision definitely hampers me. Sometimes, mushy objectives lead to interesting conversations with SME developers about their goals, and whether passing along awareness or declarative knowledge is really sufficient and what the implications are.

As a designer, taking time to get the objectives right helps ensure I really understand what I’m trying to achieve. The objectives, when well-written, provide invaluable inspiration when creating interactivity (or test items).

I actually have designed for projects where the instructional objectives were unclear, with interesting results, but as am instructional designer it’s an uncomfortable way to work.

More first principles in upcoming posts.