Critical Instructional Design and Acts of Resistance

The following was delivered at the 2016 Open Education Conference as part of a presentation  titled “Critical Instructional Design and Open Education.” Amy Collier from the Office of Digital Learning and Amy Slay from the Digital Learning Commons were co-presenters. This post originally appeared here.


Post once, reply twice: the epitaph for online learning. Post once, reply twice: the fundamental flaw of instructional design.

Critical Instructional Design is new, and as such is grounded in the work of a very few people. I coined the term in January 2016 in an article on Hybrid Pedagogy, but the article — and the MOOC that it supported — simply put words to work I’d been moving toward since 1999, when I took my first job as an instructional designer.

At the core, that work was to develop a method for questioning our assumptions about learning and learning environments. It assumes that learning is a liberatory, discursive act of resistance, and that it exists within the context of a world mired in issues of social justice.

If there is any best practice in Critical Instructional Design, it’s questioning. Because generally, best practices distance us from the work we do. They distance us from students, but they also distance us from our own instincts. The best way for instructional designers to lead—the best way for teachers to lead—is to listen.

Because teaching is fundamentally a matter of instinct. It’s something we understand in our bones or in our hearts before we understand it in lines of sentences describing it. So, to try to list the best practices of Critical Instructional Design is deeply similar to listing the best practices of hugging.

Critical Instructional Design also resists traditional approaches to instructional design that rigidly define design processes and outcomes — and which find their roots in military training methods. Instead, Critical Instructional Design relishes uncertainty.

Working on this basis of uncertainty, then, Critical Instructional Design’s first practice is inquiry, and often second order inquiry. For example, we might assume that openness is tied to ideas like access, availability, flexibility. But Critical Instructional Design might ask questions like:

  • If a classroom is “open”, does it actively seek to decolonize the space? Does it confront the ways that it is ideologically, rhetorically, textually, socially, or otherwise closed?
  • If a classroom is “open”, how does it allow for unplanned learning to occur? How does it provide students access to one another? Or, even more important, does it perpetuate the polemical relationship between teacher and students?
  • What are the assumptions that “open” makes, and how is it yet grounded in teacher authority and not student agency?

More generally, Critical Instructional Design might ask a set of questions like this:

  • How does Bloom’s Taxonomy delimit student agency? What assumptions does it make about learning and therefore learners that reinforce education as a colonizing rather than a liberatory act?
  • How do learning objects, learning outcomes, and assessment broadly writ undermine efforts to decolonize education?
  • How is scaffolding presumptive?
  • Which identities does this learning experience make room for? Which identities does it censure? Who is left out? Who is brought in?
  • Is this learning space permeable? Does it acknowledge its context within the world where learners live, work, struggle, and play?

Critical Instructional Design isn’t not upsetting, especially in that it asks folks with instructional design and education degrees to think again about the foundations of their practice. It isn’t not upsetting also in that it rears an ugly head against the institutional effort to make learning efficient. But I believe we have to move toward a critical instructional design if we want teaching to become an act of solidarity with learners, if we want to revise what is deeply wrong in education, and if we want how we teach, what we teach, and why we teach to do good in the world.

Sean Morris

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