Designing Instruction for Identity

Identity is the learning outcome that changes everything. There is process to attain identity everywhere. Even the simplest experiences can turn children into functioning adults. “Are you a big boy or a baby?” (Notice parents have no ethical qualms about shaping identity with or without the learner’s conscious will to do so.) We teach identity constantly. Whole graduate programs are about it. We don’t talk about it much as an instructional objective, however.

Manipulated Cover image from Matt Groening’s seminal work, School is Hell, 1982, Pantheon Books. This is the exact copy that I brought with me to Austria in 1990, and used to create cloze activities for Austrian high schoolers learning English. Ja, ein Leberkäsesemmel bitte.

My daughter is afraid of slugs, and is afraid of riding a bike.* It seems there is not much I can do about it at the moment, nor does it bother me in any way that she is afraid of slugs and can’t ride a bike at age 6. It’s cute. At age 24, I don’t think it will really be so cute anymore. I like her for who she is now, and I want her to be who she is now. For as long as she is 6, I’d like her to be happy with being 6. But no matter how much I love the girl she is now, she’s going to be someone else tomorrow– and I want that person to be someone who is not afraid of slugs and can ride a bike. That’s an important change; and most of it is identity.  As soon as she decides she isn’t afraid of slugs and can ride a bike (I know she can ride a bike because she didn’t fall over until she realized I had let go) she will be able to ride and will not be afraid, slug or no slug. As long as she thinks she is x, she will be x. We’ve got lots of words like “self-efficacy” to mask the truth of what we’re doing when we’re teaching for identity.

[UPDATE: Originally published May 3, 2018. By Jan 2019, she could ride a bike because she saw a neighbor kid, who she knows is no more agile than herself, ride a bike. I witnessed no pause, no fear, and no struggle. She simply peddled away along with the other kids. I have a feeling this metaphor will haunt me for the rest of my life!]

Designing identity is what we do when we talk about education. (I’m not talking about instruction– that’s something different.) Once we dig underneath a collection of performance objectives, and the billions of exceptions and complexity that accompany them, what we are really doing when it comes down to educating, is designing an identity that we hope learners will assume. PhD programs help people become scholars; ID programs help people become instructional designers. EFL programs teach people to identify as English language speakers. If you answer the question, “Are you an English speaker?” with the answer “No, I don’t speak English.” you are not an English speaker, even if your vocabulary adn English grammar are perfect. Despite your perfect grammar, the years you studied to accomplish that sentence, an your excellent test scores, you’re not an English speaker because you did not identify as an English speaker. In truth, underneath much of educational research is the true objective. At some level, instructional design is trying to figure out how to help people to become someone they were not when they first engaged the design.

The gradual acquisition of identity in graduate learners results in monumental skill increases. Case in point. I recently wrapped up the final course for a new batch of graduating instructional designers. One candidate I saw present on an LMS implementation (Fred Kelly) just today and another has already moved on to the ID job she came to the program to get, Janelle Galbraith. At one point in this paste semester I could see the change happening before my eyes. In a talk about revising websites, Janelle recounted her design process. There was a point in which a certain instructional image had to be redesigned. I could see it had gone through extensive development.  I took a guess at how many iterations, I guessed four. She replied, “HA! Try 18.” The next part of the interchange is what has been eating at me for weeks. I asked, “Wow, what kept you going beyond four?” and she answered, “because it didn’t work yet and that’s just what you do.”  It’s just what you do when you are a designer, but it sure isn’t what they did when they started the program. I would argue that keeping going when it’s not working is surely not what you do when you are an eye surgeon. It’s a good thing I don’t teach eye surgery.

I went through the same identity change myself. In 1990 I inherited a tutoring gig from Steven Pfaff as he left Karl-Franzens Universität Graz, Austria, to go to NC Chapel Hill to start on his doctoral study. He had been teaching using magazines, but that wasn’t my style really. I started using comics. If you have ever tried turning comics into cloze activities, you would quickly realize this is likely the worst textual choice for foreign language learning strategies one could imagine. I had a blast. Comics hinge on providing unexpected turns of phrase, not the ones the reader is prepped for. As discouraging for the serious learner as it might sound, I had a good time teaching. I think my learners had fun talking about the jokes, and I had a fair bit of fun choosing which words I would block with white out before I made the copies. What I didn’t do is see myself as a teacher, and surely not as an instructional designer. It was too much fun to really view it as work, per se. It took six years, a few student teaching placements, a comps exam, a number of academic papers, a whopping student loan, and then a full time teaching job to finally see myself as a teacher. Then, years later, it took a PhD and a stint with Microsoft to see myself as an instructional designer. All that to get back to where I was at 19, albeit with some identity. Would I still make a cloze activity out of a life is hell comic by Matt Groening? Hell yes. But I would do it over 18 times until it worked right. All this schooling and learning didn’t in effect change what I was doing; it changed how I was doing it and how I thought about what I was doing. The end goal of school is to make you someone new, and that’s painful because, now I would totally suck as an eye surgeon. So yeah Mr Groening, school is hell.


One thought on “Designing Instruction for Identity

  1. Pingback: In-school but out of class: Part 2 « craig dennis howard

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