Do Instructional Design Methods Result in Rigidity?


Do instructional design methods make teaching and learning too rigid? That is a challenging question to answer simply. Let me say that it depends on both the application and perspective. Allow me to start with a quote. David Greene, a former field supervisor for Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, said, “Imagine your brain surgeon having to “follow the book” while operating on you or lose his job. While you are on the table, he discovers an unforeseen problem that, because of his experience and practical wisdom, calls for a spontaneous change of plan, yet he can’t do what he knows will work. You die on the table. So have students” (Greene, 2014). In many ways, this describes the rigidity of our current education system.

The question of rigidity and instructional design is a hard question to answer. Before determining if instructional design methods make teaching and learning too rigid, we must first understand what instructional design is. Ultimately, instructional design is the process of designing, developing, and delivering instruction (IDC, 2020). As it is defined, and in this context, we should note that a design is merely a plan or drawing produced to demonstrate how something should or will work (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Other ways to describe design are a detailed or orderly arrangement, intention, decision, or precise formulation. Regardless of the description, none of these allude to flexibility.

We must also understand that over 25 different instructional design models exist, including the ADDIE Model, the SAM Model, Action Mapping, and so on (Culatta, 2019). Of course, this does not include the various hybrids and offshoots that some have experimented with. Logic would dictate that some models will be more flexible than others and in different situations, so making any blanket statement about the rigidity of instructional design is challenging.

Digging deeper, we must ask, what is the instruction provided in a designed manner being derived from or built for? The simple answer is standards. Many of these models, if not most, are currently aligned with Common Core Learning Standards. Therein lies our first problem.

By a design’s very nature, it will be relatively rigid because it is geared towards the desired result and set to a particular standard. In the case of general education, that standard is usually Common Core, a controversial standard known for its rigidity. As Glenna Milberg reported, “Parents have long argued against Common Core, complaining guidelines were too rigid with too much testing for students” (Milberg, 2019). Sheri Townsend, the executive director of The Spotted Zebra Learning Center, says, “Common Core has placed an overemphasis on testing and severely limited teachers’ ability to deliver individualized lessons to students” (Townsend, 2014). Think about that for a moment. If teachers do not have the freedom or ability to do what they feel is right for individual students, they are forced to adhere to either the standard or the plan. That’s rigidity.

It’s a trickle-down problem, though. The standard confines the design. If the standard is rigid, the instruction’s design will also be. If the design of the instruction is rigid for the sake of the class, then guess what happens to the individual student?

As a result of the Common Core standard, the instructional design for many classes is often seen as too rigid to explore and experiment outside of the plan or standard provided. The perception is that the needs, wants, or desires of the students, or even the learning styles of individual students, are often ignored. Since many instructional design models are aligned with Common Core, the models are at least somewhat guilty of being too rigid. Why? Regardless of whether one wants to blame the standard or the instruction design, the result is the same; instructors adhere to the curriculum design rather than teach children as individuals. In other words, the best instructional design is powerless when shackled by an unreasonable or inadequate standard.

The result of emphasizing testing scores over actual knowledge acquisition is evident. The Council of the Great City Schools argues that Common Core works (CGCS, 2020). However, we must ask, if the current model is working, then whom is it working for? Nearly 60% of high school graduates are unprepared for college and must take remedial courses without credit to catch up (Chen, 2019). Furthermore, over half of all high school kids do not feel prepared to make the leap to college (Stringer, 2017). Other examples might include how many kids don’t know their history, don’t understand how government works, don’t know their individual rights, don’t know how to navigate the financial system, do not engage in critical thinking, and this list goes on and on. Is this the result of the rigidity of instructional design, or has the instructional design been forced to adhere to and work around a horrible standard?

It might be wise to consider the needs of the students. We know that each student learns at a different pace and in different ways. Furthermore, some students are considered “advanced,” while others are a little slower to get the various concepts being presented. Unfortunately, too many on the slower end are pushed up to higher levels without truly being ready for it, and the advanced students are often forced to wait while everyone else catches up. A scenario that plays out in my head is teaching and evaluating a seventh-grader who reads and comprehends at a third-grade level. It is not going to end well.   

Indeed, an argument can be made that teachers need to know what they are covering before entering their classes, regardless of the standards placed upon them. I concur, to a certain degree. However, while one can appreciate the importance of having a plan or a vision for a class, that plan should probably not be the only thing considered for the lesson. Going back to the definition of design for a moment, if a design is a detailed or orderly arrangement or a precise formulation, it could be argued that design and rigidity are at least related. For this point, it should be noted that rigidity is the opposite of flexibility, flexibility is often lacking in the classroom, and this reduces the opportunity to backtrack, course correct, and clarify.   

Of course, I am not the only one who sees this. Neal McCluskey, the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said, “Education should move at a different speed for every student” (McCluskey, 2020). McCluskey argues that if the COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our current education system is entirely too rigid. He goes on to say that “ending a system with one “right” educational trajectory, and instead of having all kids learn at their own paces and times, is a broader solution that would eliminate the stigma of being “behind,” and ultimately be consistent with simple reality: All children are different” (McCluskey, 2020). We must then ask whether or not such a system is possible.

I believe that the answer is yes. There can be flexibility and instructional design at the same time. I am just not sure how common that really is. However, just like designing a garment, you can create that garment to be a little loose and much more comfortable. There is no doubt that education needs some structure, but it needs to be less rigid and consider the student’s needs. There must be a balance. In my experience, when the program design allows for flexibility and customization, on purpose, the outcomes regarding what is taught and what is retained are dramatically improved.

We must remember that you can have the best teacher in the world and the best tools at your disposal, but it is all for nothing if the process (or standard) is flawed in the first place. As an outsider, it is hard to tell whether the design is leading the standard or the standard is leading the design. What is easy to see is that the situation is not only too rigid, but it is also failing our children. Something needs to change.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my other education-related articles, such as:

The Common Core Question

A Leadership Lesson About Change in Higher Education


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