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Scaffolding the five finger filet

Instructional graphic designed to teach the Five Finger Filet game. Notice the five dots below the thumb depicting the pattern. Erena Furuya Howard, pencil on paper, 2017.

There is a game called the Five Finger Filet. One holds a knife and stabs between thine outstretched fingers, risking a dangerous errant stab. Personally, I never had any attraction to games like this. I would surely chop off a finger and regret my own stupidity in a matter of moments. This however doesn’t dissuade my 5 year old daughter from trying to get me to play such a game. Of course, I show that I will get it wrong and continually mess up, stabbing ridiculously far-off and in the wrong pattern. To instruct her father, Erena designed this quick instructional scaffold. The location of the dots is what is important. Notice the string of five dots under her thumb. That’s the pattern, to each finger and back. I actually had not known what the real pattern was. But what caused me pause is how natural her behavior was. If a five-year old so naturally creates visual instruction, what does it say about the way we teach and learn that teachers and masters students in education rarely chose that avenue? Is any one else getting the idea that the pendulum has swung too far toward understanding learning as simply reading, writing, and nothing else? Maybe I am just chopping off another finger.

A vision statement

I was recently asked to write a vision statement about how I saw the field of instructional technology and where i feel it is headed. So, I wrote one. I will share it here because it may spark some interest and could lead to some curious conversations.

Vision Statement about the future of Instructional Design

Prophecies of how MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) will revolutionize teaching and learning often praise the wrong aspects of these technologies. My vision of the future of instructional design does not see instructional designs replicating classroom teaching online. Rather, I see us educating in a way that respects the time and value of a face to face experience and taking advantage of the scaffolds that mediated instruction offers. MOOCs can deliver content better than previous technologies, but that is not all of education, nor is it much of instructional design.

Scholars warn us of the dangers of equating education with content delivery, and point to a dismal future where face to face instruction is a luxury only the rich can afford (Graham, 2012). I keep in mind the limits of technological tools and the value of the human experience when I talk about the possibilities technologies bring. My vision of instructional design is future where educators understand the limits of technology, but also understand how to manifest learning with these tools that cannot be created otherwise.

Accomplishing what cannot be done otherwise often questions assumptions about teaching. The paradigm of one teacher per classroom is deeply engrained in our perspectives of learning. However, placing learners among multiple instructors can dramatically influence how learners think. We can place learners among multiple experts in virtual approaches, but not in designs that take place in traditional classrooms. Even if we could put multiple teachers in one classroom, teachers in a classroom with learners tend to teach rather than discuss frankly among themselves. In teaching pre-service teachers, I recorded a discussion of four experts while they discussed and analyzed a video of real teaching. I placed their comments into annotations which appeared and disappeared from the viewable screen of that same video. Then, I asked learners to watch the video and discuss it. Approximately 50 learners watched the video with the expert annotations, and 50 without the expert annotations. In the learners’ resulting discussions, learners who had watched with expert video annotations used three times as much higher order thinking in their comments about the video (Howard, 2012). These learners were never told the comments were written by experts and not classmates. This is a teaching tactic available through technology that is not available otherwise. This was my dissertation study.

Another example of creating teaching and learning otherwise not possible is the use of anonymity as an instructional strategy. Traditional classrooms are not anonymous. This does not mean that the experience of critically discussing in an anonymous condition is worthless. It means there are ways to use anonymity that support learning, and potentially ways that could hinder learning. In a teacher education course that normally held design critiques, I had learners complete these critiques via a discussion board (forum). Approximately half the students discussed anonymously, and these students wrote twice as much criticism of their peers’ work. However, they also supported these criticisms with four times as much reasoning and supporting evidence (Howard, Barrett & Frick, 2010). Learners in the anonymous condition thus received and gave more criticism with reasons, an experience we want our future teachers to have. I concluded that while anonymity could have potentially negative consequences for a teacher who does not adequately prepare and monitor learner participation, anonymity also creates a worthwhile learning experience online that is not possible via the traditional classroom.

Simple email can support discussion in English for ESL learners who would otherwise never get the chance to read something written in English exclusively for them to read. While teaching in New York City (CUNY, 1998-2000), I jointly developed a small 5 week curriculum with other CUNY teachers that linked our respective students in Queens and the Bronx in pair work via email. Asynchronous pair work is not the same as pair work in class. Policies and procedures needed to be developed. However, this activity grew into a full 15 week course. I took the project with me to Kanda University in Chiba, Japan. In 2002, I received a grant for development of the project which allowed me to go to a number of our partner institutions, present the curriculum at conferences, collect interested partner schools, and create a sustainable curriculum. Since 2002, thousands of students have used the Kanda University Email Exchange Program and linked with learners at other colleges for cross-cultural pair work online (Howard, 2004; Van Moere & Howard 2002). These learning experiences were brought to life through the technology and could not have been accomplished otherwise.

Growing interest in design is a bellwether that this change is underway. Submissions of design cases to the Instructional Design Portfolio (once a feature in the Ed Tech periodical, Tech Trends) have increased so much that a new journal has emerged, the International Journal of Designs for Learning (IJDL). In 2008, there were four submissions of close analyses of specific at-a-distance learning designs submitted to Tech Trends. In 2009, another six were submitted. In 2010, the feature became a journal and seven design cases appeared in the first issue of IJDL. The number of submissions has doubled every year since the journal’s inception. For the 2012 issue, over 35 articles were submitted to IJDL (Howard, 2010; Howard, forthcoming). As the assistant editor for these publications, I witnessed the change in perspective of scholars and practitioners of instructional design from “taking courses online” to critically analyzing how the mediated instruction functions in unique and curious ways.

Now is an excellent time to be starting an online program. Established programs in instructional design and technology are retooling to meet the needs of learners who are both more informed about what they can learn using these tools and at the same time in greater need for guidance to navigate a sea of information at their fingertips (Boling, 2008; Howard, 2010). My vision for instructional design is respectful of the timeless scholarship that has brought the field of educational inquiry to where it is now, and excited about possibilities technology begs us to explore.


Boling, E. (2008). From students to scholars: Revision of the doctoral program in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. In, M. Orey, J. McLendon & R. Branch (Eds.). Educational Media and Technology Yearbook 2008. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Howard, C.D. (2012, April) The Impact of Modeling and Staggered Participation in Video-annotated Pre-service Teacher Discussions. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Vancouver, BC. Canada.

Howard, C.D. (2010) Obstacles to the credibility of online learning. eLearn, 12(1), online.

Howard, C.D. (2004) Identifying the role of corpora in EFL materials design. The Journal of the Rikkyo University Language Center, 11(1), 39-47.

Howard, C.D., Barrett, A.F. & Frick, T.W. (2010) Anonymity to promote peer feedback: Pre-service teachers’ comments in asynchronous computer-mediated communication. The Journal of Educational Computing Research, 43(1), 89-112.

Graham, G. (2012, October 5). How the embrace of MOOC’s could hurt middle America. The Chronicle of Higher Education. pp. B22-B23.

Van Moere, A. & Howard, C.D. (2002) Introducing Email Exchange in a Freshman Curriculum. The Journal of the Research Institute of Language Studies and Language Education, 12(1), 99-117.