What is Instructional Design Theory?

By Peter de Lisle

“The film business is vaguely designed the way buildings are built. The architect does the blueprint and turns it over to the contractor. He then follows the instructions, and, if nobody goes in to change those orders, you end up with a building that’s only sort of interesting. I’m of a carpenter mentality. I have a rough idea of what I want to do, but I’m going to start hammering. Then when I get along, I’ll look at it and say ‘We should move this wall here.’”
– George Lucas, Film Director (quoted in The Connection, July 1997: 16)


Within the field of Instructional Design, there seem to be two constant refrains.

* On the one hand, it is said that designers rarely work according to theories. They merely work intuitively (Gros et al., 1997: 49).
* On the other hand, it is maintained that much of Instructional Design theory is no longer applicable in the current context of rapid change, global communication and high technology (Reigeluth, 1996).

These two prevalent views seem to suggest that there is a tension between theory and practice. What, then, is the role of theory? What are its shortcomings? Wherein lies its salvation? How can it become a vital and valued aspect of design?

This essay considers the role that theory plays in Instructional Design (ID), outlines the basic theoretical approaches within the field, and discusses how theories come to prominence. It then describes the way the ID process is usually tackled, analyses some problems in current approaches, and suggests a way in which those problems can be overcome, suggesting how theory can contribute in a more positive manner to the development of quality learning experiences for students.

© 2017 Peter de Lisle