12 Militaristic Origins, Power, and Faux-Neutrality

A graduate student’s interrogation of traditional instructional design

Hannah Hounsell

This summer, I had the most meta experience of my life. As a capstone to my instructional design graduate certificate, I was involved in designing instruction for Design Forward (https://bit.ly/CoLabDF), a program about critical instructional design. Oh, and in order to design the curriculum, I went back and, bit by bit, class by class, I critiqued the traditional instructional design training I received through my instructional design graduate certificate (as a fun activity, count how many times I say “instructional design” in this piece). When it came time to sit down and write about my experience, I floundered at all the meta. What piece of the meta was I going to reflect on? After being steeped in so much meta for the past three months, was it even possible to unravel it for an outside audience? And then, of course, as a university staff member and current graduate student, my age-old worries about what expertise I could possibly have in this area resurfaced. What follows is my attempts to resolve these tensions while also providing a perspective that furthers the field of instructional design… No pressure.

Unraveling the Meta

Let’s start with some context. When my friend and mentor Robin DeRosa opened the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative (https://bit.ly/OpenCoLab), AKA the CoLab, at Plymouth State University as a hub for teaching and learning praxis and community-driven academic professional development and I became involved in its inaugural days, I knew next to nothing about instructional design. Through my limited interactions with instructional designers when I was still a Program Support Assistant, I gathered that these were university staff members who helped faculty with instructional problems, particularly related to academic technology. Through my work in the CoLab, this understanding was questioned, unpacked, unpinned, expanded, and is still being defined and redefined—much like everything else I learn by working at the CoLab. When I started a graduate certificate in instructional design at the university in which I worked, it became clear to me that the instructional design we were doing in the CoLab was nothing like the instructional design I was learning about in my online classrooms.

So what’s it like to work in an office where we frequently talk about turning education on its head by encouraging faculty to ”ungrade” (https://bit.ly/IntroUngrading) their students, leave behind deadlines, cultivate classroom environments that are adaptable and embrace possibility, use open educational resources, etc.; and then, at night, I turn around and I complete my graduate assignments about ADDIE, Agile, the Understanding by Design Framework, and rubric creation? At first, it was nothing but frustrating. I felt like completing these assignments wasn’t advancing my expertise beyond getting me the degree I needed to get into the classroom as an instructor. It felt like a repeat of my four years of undergraduate education courses (I pursued teacher certification), but with even more focus on structures and systems. Some of it felt directly opposed to the values, goals, and mission of the CoLab, a place where we encourage design based on care, accessibility, flexibility, and personal and public contexts. For example, in almost every grad course I took centered around curriculum, I was tasked with creating traditional, criterion-based rubrics for my units, without engaging in the active conversation in fields of pedagogy around the detriments (https://bit.ly/TroubleRubrics) of standardized assessment tools like rubrics. I felt ashamed, or like I was wasting time in a program that was antithetical to the values that were near to my heart.

However, when my capstone experience coincided with my colleague Martha Burtis and Jesse Stommel’s piece on Hybrid Pedagogy, “Counter-friction to Stop the Machine: The Endgame for Instructional Design,” and Martha’s idea to develop an “emergent exploration of critical instructional design” through the CoLab’s Design Forward program, I started thinking about how my frustration might be channeled into something productive. I was unintentionally engaging in critical reflection of the traditional instructional design curriculum that was guiding my graduate certificate. My experiences with a more critical pedagogy in the CoLab and my experiences learning about, writing about, and utilizing traditional instructional design were coming together. At their intersection was the development and articulation of my own approach to critical instructional design.

Speaking of meta, In 2016, as part of “MOOC MOOC: Instructional Design,” a meta-MOOC designed for interrogating teaching and learning development,  Sean Michael Morris wrote:

Our corroboration of techniques for managing learning… is complicity, not agency. In many cases we have surrendered our agency for systems, theories, “best practices”, that work smoothly, that take the effort of agency off our shoulders… There must be another way. And if there is, we will discover it through critical reflection on the systems for managing learning which have proliferated [emphasis added]… It will not come necessarily from knowing etymologies, nor from archaeologies, nor from our learnéd experts on learning (Vygotsky, Freire, Skinner, the whole lot of them) unless they help us recognize the path we’ve tread that we must now transgress [emphasis added] (Morris, 2016).

Morris’ reflections on the purpose that systems, theories, and practices serve in unearthing the well-tread teaching and learning trail have allowed me to find meaning in my traditional training. I approached Martha with the proposition that I help her with Design Forward by reviewing my traditional instructional design classes and providing specific critical reflections that could inform the Design Forward curriculum. My hope was that, in order for participants to, in Morris’ words, transgress the ID path, I could help illuminate the traditional path we’ve tread.

Traditional ID is Based in Contexts that Need to be Interrogated

In my Introduction to Instructional Design course, we learned about the history of instructional design using Reiser’s “A History of Instructional Design and Technology” (2001). Instructional design has origins in World War II where psychologists and educators were recruited to design military training to prepare millions of drafted soldiers. These psychologists went on to research, publish on, and develop the field of instructional design. Modern instructional design also has corporate influences. Throughout the 70s and beyond, the desire for increased productivity and business results influenced instructional design, especially the growth of a systems approach to tackle specific revenue goals. The use of technology and the need for training around programs and software in the corporate world precipitated growth in the instructional design profession.

I wonder how many military and corporate influences we can still see in our modern instructional design utilized outside of these contexts? For example, the air force was instrumental in the development of aptitude testing to determine whether or not potential airmen had the skills necessary for flight training. Aptitude testing is utilized in higher education from determining student acceptance to placing students in math, science, and language classes. An article out of eLearning Industry, “Instructional Design: A Military Perspective,” by Instructional Technologist for Helmerich & Payne Int’l Drilling Company, David Mallette, provides an eye-opening perspective on ID that I think will sound really familiar to anyone who has ever had formal ID training. Forgive the long quote, but I think the whole thing is necessary to see the hold that its military origins still has on instructional design:

Given a clearly stated performance problem, the instructional systems technologist will provide a firing solution consisting of a performance-based, criterion referenced objective and the lowest cost, highest efficiency medium [emphasis added] to deliver it in 4 hours or less. I use the term “firing solution” deliberately because there is a direct historic military analogy. The Allied bombing campaigns of WWII used what is termed “saturation bombing” strategy. Due to the lack of guidance and aiming tools, hundreds of bombs would be dropped in the hope at least a few would hit the target. In spite of the cost in lives and resources, it was the best they could do and deemed necessary. Today, the military uses precision guided weapons carried or propelled by precisely designed delivery systems to hit the target precisely. Training professionals should too [emphasis added]. The performance-based, criterion-referenced objective delivered using the lowest cost, highest efficiency medium is our tool (Mallette, 2012).

Commonly used instructional design practices that mirror the most cost-effective method for killing people is a grim picture. At the very least, this passage demonstrates the military and corporate origins and influences on traditional instructional design’s obsession with performance outcomes, criteria and objectives, and low-cost/high-efficiency solutions. These terms are familiar to any instructional designer or instructor. Tie learning to outcomes. Outcomes to assessment. Do more with less. Create workers/soldiers/students ready to perform and produce. Should practitioners in the field of education base their teaching and learning on systems designed to churn out capable soldiers and increase profit margins? These origins and the systems they engendered can’t go unquestioned. Instructional designers need to consider the purpose of the education they design and what structures and systems can support those purposes. Or better yet, can systems alone support our purpose?

Traditional ID Thrives on and Perpetuates Hierarchies

From the very first instructional design class I took, I was struck by these thoughts: Why aren’t we talking about pedagogy? Why aren’t we talking about students? Why aren’t we talking about humans? I think it’s because, through the corporate/military lens of traditional instructional design, people don’t matter as much as outcomes. Winning the war. Increasing productivity. Increasing the bottom line.

Another perspective is that a “people agnostic” approach in the instructional design profession helps establish boundaries and barriers between the field of teaching and the field of instructional design. From the very beginning of my graduate coursework for Curriculum & Instruction and Instructional Design, there was a differentiation established between “instructional design” and “actual teaching.” This differentiation precipitates a hierarchy between those who design instruction and those who teach. In the instructional design profession, subject matter expert (SME) is the name given to the teacher that works with the instructional designer. Even in my intro texts, the power dynamics between these two roles were obvious. Instructional designers are experts in the many design structures and frameworks—ADDIE, Agile, UbD, the 9 Events of Instruction, Bloom’s Taxonomy, etc. Instructional designers support the integration of technology or help design in online spaces. Instructional designers aren’t teachers. In ISD From the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design, one of my intro texts, author Chuck Hodell writes this bit of advice: “Work as an instructional designer—never a subject matter expert—while designing. In the same way that a designer does not want to be challenged on design expertise, a designer should never challenge a SME on subject matter expertise. Fair is fair. It is often best to state your role early on—that any questioning of the content is meant for clarification [emphasis added]” (2016, Working Effectively With Subject Matter Experts chapter). We don’t even have to read between the lines here. The message is clear: instructional designers should stay in their lane. Questioning is means for clarification and should not be misconstrued as critical. Do not challenge the almighty SME.

And by the way, the instructional designers that I have met in my time within institutions of higher education have all held staff roles. I don’t think that’s a coincidence when we are talking about power dynamics between instructional designers and SMEs. University staff are told to stay in their lanes and “act like staff” in a thousand tiny (https://bit.ly/StaffMicro) and big (https://bit.ly/StaffNoSay) ways every day of their professional lives.

It’s hard not to continuously quote Morris, so I’m going to do it again and I’m not even going to apologize for it. In 2018, Morris wrote the article “Instructional Designers are Teachers” and discussed the ways that traditional instructional design programs weaponize their structure-obsessed curricula to maintain power dynamics within ID.

Skills-based and outcomes-based, positivist-inclined, Bloomsy instructional design training programs, often disguised as advanced degrees or certificate programs in online teaching, have perpetuated the notion that instructional designers are computational, technicist, and mechanistic in their work [emphasis added]. Most instructional designers are taught that their work should consist of aligning outcomes to assessments, assessments to assignments, assignments to content. That they should be masters of Screencast-o-Matic and Powerpoint and Voicethread rather than teachers. Courses are not compositions for these instructional designers, but rather blocks fit together and packaged, tied round with a rubric for a bow. (Morris, 2018)

And these power dynamics play out in other ways besides the instructional designer/ SME dichotomy. Traditional instructional design’s obsession with structures and frameworks leaves very little room for student choice and agency, emergence, and flexibility. In the always spot-on words from Maha Bali, “…by making concrete, discrete decisions about what will be learned in advance of learning encounters it ignores the differences, interests, capabilities of both teachers and learners” (2014). This approach supports designers and teachers as the undeniable authority over learning.

I don’t think that my ID teachers were nefariously rubbing their hands behind their online courses and cackling about their evil plan to oppress future instructional designers via torture by Bloom’s taxonomy. But I think the history and trajectory of instructional design has gone unexamined by practitioners. This is a self-perpetuating issue because a profession built around rejecting inquisition is inclined to replicate itself without reinvention.

Traditional ID Tries to Convince You that it is Neutral

To return to my earlier statement, my introduction to professional instructional design did not include conversations about people. Ok, yes, let me be clear, we talked about how people learn, remember, engage, motivate, and how to design learning experiences that use evidence-based best practices to encourage learning. So in that way, we talked about people. But whatever conversations we might have had around learning design as a tool for perpetuating or breaking systems of oppression or discussing design in the context of inclusion, accessibility, affordability, and equity, we replaced them with conversations and assignments around systems. I think I’ve made it clear by now: traditional instructional design is obsessed with structures. It’s because structures are safe. Structures feel neutral, nonpolitical, objective. Rubrics feel neutral, nonpolitical, objective. Learning aligned with goals and goals aligned with assessment feels neutral.

Another quote from the intro text that Hodel wrote illustrates this sentiment about ID perfectly: “The neutrality of the ISD [Instructional Systems Design] process is vital to its effectiveness as a system. It must not contain any inherent bias or preconceived notions about any aspect of a particular design process. This is vital when an instructional designer is making important decisions about various aspects of a course design, including implementation choices and other noncontent-related areas” (Hodel, 2016). Although Hodel specifically speaks of instructional designers having no biases around which systems of design are better, whether intended or not, this quote presents instructional design as a practice that is somehow free of bias or prejudice. As if design isn’t often weaponized (https://bit.ly/WeaponizedDesign) and exclusionary (https://bit.ly/ExclusionaryDesign).

It’s easier to perpetuate the myth that instructional design is neutral because we have established a clear hierarchy between instructional designers and teachers. It’s easier to think of back-end professionals who fit instructional activities into tidy, pre-determined structures and who align learning to outcomes, outcomes to assessment, assessment to content as neutral beings. I’m reminded of “personalized learning” fantasies (https://bit.ly/TechFantasies) which suggest learning and teaching can be automated, objective, free of human error… because how (https://bit.ly/BiasedTech) can something automated be biased?

I encourage all instructional designers who have been led to believe that they aren’t teachers to resist because it’s the first step in understanding that instructional design is not neutral. Teaching and learning are acts of liberation and thus designing teaching and learning is an act of liberation. Folks are empowered to transform an oppressive society through education.  Privileged folks become aware of their own privileges. Systems of privilege become interrupted. This is the basis of Critical Pedagogy. In “Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of Education,” McLauren (2015) writes that we must push past the reductive understanding that the purpose of Critical Pedagogy is simply to empower and transform; we must ask ourselves who is transformed/ empowered by Critical Pedagogy and for what end (p. 9)? We promote critical thinking in our classrooms. We use classrooms as sites for rich, even controversial discussions, embracing and utilizing students’ differing perspectives. However, we must ask ourselves, as educators, to what end is critical thinking, debate, and discussion? We don’t build these skills in students because of what Bloom’s Taxonomy or ADDIE tells us; we build these skills in students because they empower our students to enact political and social change. We can interrupt oppressive cycles with learning and teaching:

Sometimes it might be some new awareness or consciousness that we gain. Perhaps a friend from a different identity group shows us a different perspective, or we read a book that makes us think differently, or we enroll in a course that introduces new possibilities. We begin to see the big picture that groups all over the world as working on these same issues… once you know something, you can’t not know it anymore, and knowing it eventually translates into action (Harro, 2018, p. 33).

Political neutrality isn’t possible in the classroom because the very act of teaching our students is political. Our purpose is not to pump our students with information and train them to conform; our purpose is to teach them how to question, challenge, and change the world they live in. Instructional designers are engaging in a political act when they design learning.

Instructional designers are also engaging in a political act when they use systems that go uninterrogated. Neutrality supports, maintains, and strengthens the status quo. And the status quo is often designed to oppress. According to Kandel-Cisco’s “Avoiding neutrality in climates of constraint: Moving from apathy to action” (2018), “Educators… exhibit complicity through their silence… passivity, while seemingly apolitical, is actually a political act in itself—an act that demonstrates satisfaction with the current state of affairs” (para. 10). Oppressive ideologies like white supremacy are intrinsic and pervasive in our systems and, because they are politically, historically, economically, and psychologically replicated, they often go unquestioned. I encourage instructional designers to resist a preoccupation with maintaining neutrality and using uninterrogated systems. Their systems grew out of the military. They were influenced by corporate and capitalistic needs. They are based on sociological and psychological studies fraught with their own history of bias. Some instructional design practices replicate oppressive systems. Amy Collier says it quite beautifully: “Design is not a neutral activity. We design through our own lenses, assumptions, politics, goals, beliefs about the world–through our own humanity… Our instructional designs–both digital and analog, implicit and explicit–embody what we believe about students, about education, about the goals of learning” (2017). So if Collier is right that design is not neutral, then it is biased and a critical instructional designer should pull that bias toward justice and learner empowerment.

Ending with an Anecdote

At the end of June, right when I was gearing up to present my mini-unit (https://bit.ly/tradIDslidesrevised) during Design Forward on the origins and evolution of instructional design, an interesting conversation took place in the CoLab’s “Teaching & Learning” Microsoft Teams where all instructors in our institution are welcome to take part in informal conversation around pedagogy. A professor asked for some resources and advice about the psychology of deadlines. In particular, they wanted to know if there was research about deadlines improving performance and task completion. They noticed that a lot of students struggled with the completion of assignments and self-regulation when they relaxed their deadline requirements due to COVID… and a lot of students appreciated the flexibility. The professor wondered if there’s a sweet spot between flexibility and strict deadlines where students felt like they had a healthy structure to support their success without making it punitive. Another professor posted a research paper as a response, “Cognitive performance is enhanced if one knows when the task will end” by Katzir, Aviv, and Liberman.

In a lot of ways, this article seemed contradictory to one of the values of Design Forward and critical instructional design—that structure dampens humanity, individuality, creativity, and possibility in a classroom. After reading my piece, it might seem like I think that critical instructional design calls us to pick up our pitchforks and torches and chant “down with all structure.” But I think that structure and possibility can coexist. In everything we do, we are bound to structure in some ways. For the pilot of Design Forward, we were bound within the four weeks that the workshop was scheduled for. We bound ourselves to working inside a Google Document and utilizing a HyFlex modality. In traditional classes, we are bound by the beginning and end of a semester. We are bound by the need for students to submit all assignments before grade cutoffs. We function within these “beginnings” and “ends” because that’s how human society works. But I think that critical instructional design asks us to interrogate design frameworks, practices, and origins instead of accepting them because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” It asks us to never sacrifice humanity for the efficiency of a pre-packaged process. And it asks us how we can work within the confines of immovable beginnings and ends, while also allowing human messiness intrinsic in learning and teaching to flourish.


Collier, A. (2017). Design and the beauty of palimpsests. Digital Learning & Inquiry. https://dlinq.middcreate.net/dlinq-news/design-and-the-beauty-of-palimpsests/

Bali, M. (May 3, 2014). Curriculum theory, outcomes/objectives, and throwing the pasta out with the pasta water. Reflecting Allowed. https://blog.mahabali.me/pedagogy/curriculum-theory-outcomesobjectives-and-throwing-the-pasta-out-with-the-pasta-water/.

Burtis, M. F. (2021) Design forward: An introduction. Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative. https://colab.plymouthcreate.net/2021/06/04/design-forward-an-introduction/

Harro, B. (2018). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adams, W. Blumenfeld, D. Catalano, K., DeJong, H. Hackman, L. Hopkins, B. Love, M. Peters, D. Shlasko, & X. Zúñiga (Eds), Readings for diversity and social justice (p. 427-34). Routledge.

Hodell, C. (2016). ISD from the ground up: A no-nonsense approach to instructional design (4th ed). Association for Talent Development. [Kindle Edition].

Kandel-Cisco, B. & Flessner, R. (2018). Avoiding neutrality in climates of constraint: Moving from apathy to action. The Educational Forum, 82(3), 290-302.

Mallette, D. (October 3, 2012). Instructional design: A military perspective. eLearning Industry. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/instructional-design-a-military-perspective

McLaren, P. (2015). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education. Paradigm Publishers.

Morris, S. M. (April 12, 2018). Instructional designers are teachers. Hybrid Pedagogy. https://hybridpedagogy.org/instructional-designers-are-teachers/

— (2016). MMID: Toward a critical instructional design. Digital Pedagogy Lab. https://digitalpedagogylab.com/toward-a-critical-instructional-design/

R.A. Reiser. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49:2, p. 57–67. http://faculty.mercer.edu/codone_s/tco665/2014/History_of_Instructional_Designtwo.pdf



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Toward a Critical Instructional Design Copyright © by Hannah Hounsell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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