How to grow a band-like-thing-that-involves-instructional-designers [1]

[1] Note: How to Grow A Band is the name of the Punch Brothers documentary.

Instructional designers get a raw deal.

They are experts in digital pedagogy. Creative imagineers of communities of learning. Aesthetic chefs. Inquirers and scholars of “the digital.”. Translators and interpreters of social and educational practices in digital spaces.

But they’re most often thought of as web developers. At best, people recognize that instructional designers have skills. They do, it’s true. At worst, instructional designers are seen as button adders and clickers. Navigation fixer-uppers. Finders of pretty pictures. Content packagers.

At Middlebury, we’ve been having “design jams” to discuss our unique approach to instructional design. We call it critical instructional design. We have written and talked a lot about it. We’re big fans. As Sean wrote:

Critical Instructional Design looks to educational pioneers like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Holt, John Dewey, Seymour Papert, and others. The Critical Instructional Design approach prioritizes collaboration, participation, social justice, learner agency, emergence, narrative, and relationships of nurture between students and between teachers and students. Critical Instructional Design also acknowledges that all learning today is necessarily hybrid, and looks for opportunities to integrate learners’ digital lives into their digitally-enhanced or fully online learning experiences.”

Critical instructional design is hard to do, not just because a critical approach brings a lot of complexity to pedagogical work. It’s hard to do because it troubles the usual relationship people establish with instructional designers. The instructional design relationship I described before generally places IDs in a service role: providing a standard process through which projects are funneled and, generally, and not having a voice in pedagogical and strategic directions.

The “field” of instructional design isn’t much help here. It’s built around the idea of process (ADDIE, backward design, pick-your-favorite). The “discipline” of instructional design is a process, a set of practices informed by research. You, too, can buy a copy of the process and apply it to your project. But better yet, hire an instructional designer and they’ll do it for you. But instructional design really should not be a cookie cutter process that serves up the same baked goods at any institution to any student. Our students deserve better. Our teachers deserve better. And instructional designers can offer more.

What we’re lacking is a good analogy. An analogy that communicates the relationship of an instructional designer to a project, to an initiative, to a faculty member, to a student. How do we help people take advantage of the range and depth of what instructional designers bring? How do we make space for the complexity instructional designers can bring, especially when most of our project plans aim at reducing complexity toward “getting things done?”

I’m open to your analogies–please share. I’ll offer one idea here for your consideration.

As I usually do in situations where I’m stuck, I return to the places where I find my joy. Anne Lamott, always. Anne of Green Gables, of course. Legos are always worth a try. This time, I will return to the Punch Brothers.

I recently watched a video of the Punch Brothers performing for an Australian radio programme (wink wink) called ABC RN. After they performed Movement and Location, the radio hosts asks the band about their creative process. Listen to what Chris Thile says (watch the whole thing, but the quote starts around 9:38, which is where the discussion sparked an analogy for me):

Chris Thile: “We’re starting to discover a voice–a compositional voice–that’s sincere and natural coming from each one of us…really trying to find a voice that serves everyone’s needs and satisfies everyone’s musical goals. That’s what being in a band is all about.”

Could this be a good analogy for our digital learning projects? Could we start to think of every instrument in the band (the digital pedagogy instrument, the student instrument, the content instrument) having a composition voice that is sincere and representative of band members’ goals and needs, of the listeners’ goals and needs? Could we make music–varied and responsive to us and to listeners–that amplifies the richness of what each musician brings to the band?

Some additional guiding principles for growing a “band” that connect instructional designers more deeply with other partners in the project (like faculty and students):

“It’s a pretty free-flowing collaboration. You know, the lead idea can come from any of the five of us, then we sort of develop it together.”

“I have a four-headed filter that I put everything through”

Finally, and isn’t this beautiful:

“In the same way that in a relationship–in a romantic relationship–you hope that you end up experiencing more of the world as a result, you know, of sort of linking yourself to another person’s world. I think that’s what musicians are after in collaboration. Is that you get to experience more of the musical world if you really allow yourselves to see it through someone else’s eyes.”


Image by BoetnDeure, CC0 via Pixabay

Amy Collier

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