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A Framework for Phronetic LDT Theory


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My purpose in this chapter is to offer a reimagined view of theory in the field of learning design and technology (LDT). Instead of viewing theory as an external storehouse of knowledge, or a rule-like system for professionals to apply, in this framework theory is viewed as an orienting aid that supports practitioners as they refine their personal capacities for perception, discrimination, and judgment. Theory plays this orienting role as it offers insights into LDT-relevant practical knowledge, productive heuristics, points professionals towards opportunities to act, or identifies significant patterns and forms of excellence to which they can pay attention as they attempt to improve their craft. The chapter concludes with some implications for this framework for future research and practice in the field.
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A Framework for Phronetic LDT Theory
Jason K. McDonald
My purpose in this chapter is to offer a reimagined view of theory in the field of
learning design and technology (LDT). I will call this the phronetic framework for
LDT theory, taken from the Greek term for the capabilities exemplified by those
considered excellent in a given domain (Dunne, 1997). To lay the ground for this, I
first summarize historically dominant views of LDT theory and discuss challenges
such views have presented to researchers attempting to develop theory that is
useful to practice. In short, I will argue that historical views are limited by their
assumption that a theory’s purpose is to generate a body of objective, technical
knowledge that, when properly applied, produces at least probable results
(Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009b). Second, I outline a reconsidered perspective
for how LDT theory can support practice, informed by a philosophy of practical
action as articulated by thinkers such as Dunne (1997), Dreyfus (2014), Schön
(1983), and Wrathall (2011). Central to this perspective is coming to see skillful
performance within a field as a type of sensitivity one develops to affordances in
one’s environment, along with the ability to respond to those affordances in an
intuitive way. This contrasts with viewing expertise as being built on one’s
intellectual mastery of discipline-specific information. Third, and aligned with this
perspective, I sketch the framework itself. It describes types of theories that can
help practitioners discern and respond to salient, situational affordances instead
of relying upon rule-like systems of knowledge. Finally, I discuss implications of
the framework for research and practice within the field.
Keywords: Learning Design, Phronesis, Theory
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For the purposes of this chapter, I use the term
in the same way as I did in McDonald
and Yanchar (2020):
The term theory, as we use it here, is rather broad in meaning and scope. While theory
in the social sciences and education often refers to formalisms that provide some kind
of explanation—for example, causal accounts of the relation among variables—it is
also generally used to refer to ideas that bring certain kinds of order and direction to
practices, as in theories of instruction, theories of teaching, theories of design, and so
on . . . . Literature within the social sciences and education commonly make reference
to related terms, such as “conceptual frameworks,” “perspectives,” “models,” or
“constructs,” all of which refer in some way to theoretical abstractions that clarify what
a phenomenon might be, how it might be caused, or how it might be dealt with in
practical ways to solve problems . . . . In the analysis we offer here, theory is used to
refer to all of these varied formalisms, and possibly others, that are assumed to
perform these kinds of functions. Thus, our use of the term theory is purposefully
broad and inclusive. (pp. 633-634)
Historical Views of LDT TheoryHistorical Views of LDT Theory
The Strong View of LDT Theory
An influential position among certain LDT theorists has been that the field is a science, built
on a systematic theory base technically rational enough to allow for prediction and control
of phenomena associated with learning (Clark & Estes, 1998; Gilbert, 1971; Gropper, 2017).
The practitioner’s primary role, therefore, is to properly apply the knowledge that
researchers generate. This can be called the strong view of LDT theory. It was exemplified
by Merrill et al. (1996), who claimed
Instructional science involves identifying the variables to consider (descriptive theory),
identifying potential relationships between these variables (prescriptive theory), and
then empirically testing these relationships in the laboratory and the field . . .
Instructional design procedures . . . must incorporate those scientific principles
involved in instructional strategies, just as the invention of the airplane had to
incorporate the discovered principles of lift, drag, and flight. (p. 5)
In the strong view, theory is maximally prescriptive, with some going so far as to claim it
can “control and engineer quality and quantity of learning” if used correctly (Post, 1972, p.
14). Gilbert (1971) even asserted that if they are applying theory as they should, “two
[practitioners] working independently on the same subject matter will produce lessons that
are virtually identical in all essential respects” (p. 216). Although it may be tempting to
consider statements like this to be historical relics, advocacy for the strong view is not
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exclusively found in the past; renewed calls for it, or similar positions, can be found in the
writings of 21 century theorists as well (diSessa & Cobb, 2004; Gropper, 2017; Merrill et
al., 2007).
The claims of the strong view have not gone unchallenged, however. Because the critiques
have been well-articulated elsewhere, here I only summarize a few notable points. Yanchar
and South (2008) argued that the pursuit of scientific and technical rigor has led to
“research . . . that is detached from the concerns and dynamics of actual practice. . . . [It]
often results in abstract models and statistical patterns . . . that offer little insight to the
practicing designer” (p. 85). Jonassen et al. (1997) pointed to the uncertainty inherent in
human situations, and so the fundamental inadequacy of attempting to reduce complex
systems to cause-and-effect relationships (cf. Honebein & Reigeluth, 2020; Wilson, 2013).
McDonald et al. (2005) echoed this concern, while also pointing out the tendency in
prescriptive models to reduce instruction to the manipulation of learners’ behavior while
neglecting important “aspects of human action . . . such as creativity, freedom, and
responsibility” (p. 92; cf. Gur & Wiley, 2007; Matthews & Yanchar, 2018a).
The Soft View of LDT Theory
For reasons such as these, many LDT theorists have come to regard the strong view as
idealistic but overly simplistic. While often drawn towards the promise of prescriptive
knowledge, they prefer to describe theory as either being “probabilistic . . . [since] the cause
does not always result in the effect,” or as “[identifying] good methods for accomplishing
goals” (Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009b, p. 7). This can be called a soft view of LDT
theory. Proponents still assume a formalized body of rational, instrumental knowledge is
foundational to good practice, but maintain that its role is to increase the likelihood of an
outcome instead of truly guaranteeing any results (Jonassen et al., 1997; Reigeluth, 1997,
1999; Winn, 1997).
The soft view offers a useful course correction to the extreme position taken by strong
adherents. Nevertheless, it presents challenges of its own. Most significant for this chapter
is that, as Wilson (1999) concluded, “too often . . . the knowledge and wisdom gained from
years of practitioner experience is subordinated to the structured, formal knowledge of the
university researcher or textbook.” This is related to one of the soft view’s central
presumptions, shared with the strong view, that theory’s primary purpose is to turn data,
experience, and insight into an “object of analysis” (Dunne, 1997, p. 5) that stands apart
from any individual (cf. Bereiter, 2014). Knowledge is valued as it is transformed into an
explicit, instrumental system that specifies context-independent properties of things,
isolated apart from "the opportunities and possibilities for action that . . . . are relative to
the perspective or stance one adopts on [a] situation” (Dreyfus, 2014, p. 8).
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This is not a critique of the intended practicality of LDT theories. Clearly the field’s
theorizing is appropriately focused on addressing practical issues. Rather, it is a claim
about the assumed nature of what theorists develop. Both strong and soft views presume
that theories are artifacts that sit independent of any researcher or practitioner, serving as
external storehouses of knowledge and containing the power to solve problems of practice
(Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009b). They reduce the complexity of the world, condensing it
into technical models or techniques that attempt to eliminate, or at least minimize, the
possibility of a misstep (Bednar et al., 1991; Elen & Clarebout, 2007). Ideally, theories are
objective and so can be picked up and used by anyone (possibly with some level of
intellectual preparation); they are meant to be tools that assist one in controlling or
optimizing situations with some degree of precision (Honebein & Reigeluth, 2020;
Reigeluth, 1997). When one views theory this way, it is logical to prioritize it over the
seemingly less-dependable, idiosyncratic practitioner know-how that is taken to be the
alternative (Clark & Estes, 1998; Klauer, 1997).
A Critique of Historical Views
Both the strong and soft views share a central presumption that grounds expertise in
mastery of a body of decontextualized information. Despite the seeming logic of this
position, Dreyfus (2014) argued it is too limited to support truly skillful performance in any
domain. This is not an indiscriminate argument against the value of theory
in toto
. Instead,
it pertains to perspectives that define expertise as some form of matching features in a
situation with instructions provided by rules or rule-like information. Applying theory in this
sense is simply too blunt an instrument to help people navigate the fluidity and intricacies
found in most situations (Dunne, 1997). This can be seen in some of the observed tensions
between theory and practice. Rowland (2017) critiqued some LDT theorizing for being too
obvious, resulting in supposedly research-based findings that “do not go beyond what
experienced designers would consider common sense” (p. 196). At the other extreme sits
abstract theories that are too vague or imprecise to offer practitioners the concrete insights
they are typically looking for (Honebein, 2019; McIntyre, 2005; Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman,
2009a; cf. Wilson, 2013; Yanchar & South, 2008). Reigeluth (1997) further noted that “the
more we attempt to account for diverse conditions,” meaning the more researchers attempt
to inject situational factors back into an abstract theory, “the more likely we are to be
criticized for seeking to ‘micro-manage instruction’” (p. 45). Such theories can become
unmanageable, imposing so many conditions and constraints that they tend to collapse
under their own weight (Wilson, 2005).
Dreyfus (2014) further argued these types of challenges are inherent whenever knowledge
is viewed as an external system for people to deliberately apply in a technical sense (cf.
Dunne, 1997). More, or better, information will not fundamentally alter what practitioners
are able to achieve when attempting to use it in rule-like ways. There “are just too many
features [in any situation] . . . . to determine which rule or concept should be applied”
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(Dreyfus, 2014, pp. 231–232). As I have argued elsewhere, “skills . . . cannot rest on a
foundation of technical rationality . . . any more than a conversation can be . . . carried out
by using a flow-cart or decision tree” (McDonald & Michela, in press). So, if there is an
alternative way to understand how theory can support practice, one that avoids the
dilemmas of the strong and soft views, it begins by questioning this starting point about
the role of decontextualized information in expert performance.
Reconsidering How Theory Supports PracticeReconsidering How Theory Supports Practice
The Nature of Expertise
If theory should not be thought of as an external, rule-like system that practitioners apply in
an instrumental sense, what role should it play? Addressing this question begins by
reconsidering the nature of disciplinary expertise. Thinkers like
Dunne (1997), Schön (1983), Dreyfus (2014), and Wrathall (2011) have persuasively argued
that grounding expertise in people’s nonconceptual, embodied absorption in the world--and
not their intellectual mastery of technical, procedural information--best explains the nature
of skillful performance. It also provides a means for understanding how information, like
theory, can support practice in ways other than those laid out in the strong and soft views.
Expertise is exemplified by:
discerning and responding appropriately to the subtle features and specific
requirements of each situation. . . . without any explicit sense of effort, responding
intuitively to the unfolding of circumstances without having to stop and think about
what we are trying to accomplish – or otherwise needing to represent the conditions
of satisfaction of our activity. (Wrathall & Londen, 2019, p. 651)
Wrathall (2011) illustrated this by describing a person’s skillful use of kitchen equipment.
One’s expertise with a knife is not based on knowing more facts about it than someone
else. While explicit information about a knife may be useful for some purposes, anything an
expert can say about it is secondary to the way he picks it up, wields it without thought
towards certain ends, and uses it in relation to other kitchen equipment. He may or may not
be able to articulate what he is doing at any moment, and, in fact, his thinking may be
completely wrong in even important respects. Yet, proof of his expertise is still observable
in his actions.
This skillful absorption is what Schön (1983) called “knowing-in-action” (p. 50), a practical
know-how found in people’s capabilities or dispositions that cannot be detached from
themselves as knowers or the practical situations in which they act:
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A tightrope walker’s know-how . . . lies in, and is revealed by, the way he takes his trip
across the wire . . . [and] a big-league pitcher’s know-how is in his way of pitching to a
batter’s weakness, changing his pace, or distributing his energies over the course of a
game. (pp. 50-51)
Dunne (1997) offered further characteristics of knowing-in-action. It is an affective
capacity, “available to one only as a person already committed to [an] activity – and never,
therefore, as a detached ego” (pp. 358-359). It is characterized by “unpredictability, open-
endedness, and frequent irreversibility,” being “a form of influence” people bring to bear
within situations rather than being based in technical control (p. 359). It is informed by
people’s pasts and their hopes for the future. It is also informed by the past and
possibilities available through one’s culture, as exemplified by the way language “already
[has] all kinds of tugging effects” (p. 360) that limit thought, but how it also offers a “kind of
” upon which people can draw to disclose previously unseen ways of experiencing
the world (p. 361, emphasis in original). As opposed to the strong and soft views’
presumption that knowing-in-action is “primitive,” and “encourages fads, gurus, and magical
thinking” (Clark & Estes, 1998, p. 7), proponents of knowing-in-action argue for nearly the
opposite; “research-based suggestions tend to be relatively simple, impersonal and
generalized, whereas the classroom craft [i.e., knowing-in-action] on which teachers
depend is complex, personal, and contextualized” (McIntyre, 2005, pp. 365–366). I add that
this is true not only for teachers, but LDT professionals as well.
Of course, the primary way one develops knowing-in-action is through practice. People
become skilled LDT practitioners by practicing LDT (assuming, of course, their practice is
effective). Consistent practice over extended periods of time, supported by helpful
feedback, leads to people developing capabilities (e.g., knowledge and skills) recognized by
a community as expert performance in that domain (Ericsson et al., 1993).
Expert performance is more than correctly executing a series of process steps, however. In
addition, Wrathall (2019) explained that developing expertise in any domain also “brings
[an] individual into a changed or more refined form of responding to his or her environment”
(p. 26). People “develop a new attunement to the world” (p. 21), consisting of three forms
of sensitivity:
“Discriminatory Capacities
: the ability to discern meaningful situations in the
: the inclination and skill to respond to solicitations to which one was
previously not responsive—that is, one experiences situations as calling on her or him
to act or respond in particular ways;”
: the ability to decide what is to be preferred or disfavored in any given situation
(p. 25, emphasis in original).
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For instance, expert LDT professionals recognize cues that distinguish a situation as a
candidate for applying a learning technology (Hoard et al., 2019), feel empathy for learner
groups that demands their action (Matthews et al., 2017), and are drawn into situationally
appropriate phases of the design process without deliberating on a rule that tells them it is
time to start (Kirschner et al., 2002). Together, these kinds of affective responses help
define the particular “style” (Wrathall, 2017, p. 22) of responding to situations that are
recognizable as being LDT practice.
In this model of expertise, deliberation and forms of cognitive problem solving typically
become useful when something does not go as planned or when people are inexperienced
in navigating an environment on their own (Dreyfus, 2014). When such moments occur,
someone might find explicit information, like traditional forms of theory, to be useful. But
using them as rules, principles, or any strong or soft term that essentially means directions
to follow, keeps people from elevating their performance to expert levels. Dreyfus
illustrated this through describing a relatively common breakdown in expertise:
Most [expert] drivers have experienced the disconcerting breakdown that occurs when
suddenly one reflects on the gear shifting process and tries to decide what to do. Suddenly
the smooth, almost automatic, sequence of actions that results from the performer’s
involved immersion in the world of his skill is disrupted. . . . He detachedly calculates his
actions even more poorly than does the [less skilled driver] since he has forgotten many of
the guiding rules that he knew and used when [learning], and his performance suddenly
becomes halting, uncertain, and even inappropriate (p. 35).
So, there may be a place for novices, who are still in the realm of basic competence that is
largely rule governed, to apply theory in the sense of acting in accordance with a set of
instructions. But experts rely on their “resourcefulness,” and on forms of knowledge born
out of their “character and dispositions”--none of which “can be made available in treatises
or manuals” (Dunne, 1997, p. 228). Attempting to follow the rules often hinders instead of
helps their ability to perform. It is not the right information that allows experts to
successfully manage a situation, but their ability to perceive subtle details and grab ahold
of relevant situational affordances (Wrathall & Londen, 2019).
Further, it is not warranted to describe experts as somehow unconsciously or tacitly
applying theory, as some theorists have argued (Honebein & Honebein, 2014; Reigeluth,
1997). Assuming that because people
deliberately and instrumentally apply
information means that this is the paradigm of all performance is not only logically
unjustified, it ignores considerable empirical evidence to the contrary (Dreyfus, 2014). It
presumes the primacy of theory over practice, and then tries to explain what
professionals do in a manner that reinforces this priority (cf. Wilson, 1999). While it might
be possible to restate what experts do so it retrospectively appears that they were applying
a theory, doing so blinds one to most of what actually happens when skilled performers
engage with a situation (McDonald, Bowman, et al., 2021).
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The Role of Theory in Expertise
Recognizing that technical rules limit one’s ability to rise to the level of expertise is not to
argue that explicit information has no value. There is a way to conceptualize information
use in a way that supports people in their attempts to improve performance after they have
gained experience. But it requires theorists to understand the products of their work as
being something other than “a static rule system that designers merely learn, then apply”
(McDonald, Bowman, et al., 2021, p. 3). Instead, since what defines LDT as a field are
disciplinary patterns that describe professionals’ “skillful and improvisational engagement
with each other and with the world” (p. 2), theory can be viewed as a partial and imperfect
expression of what some experts have done, not a mandate about what all experts must
do. In this view, theory does not govern good practice, but models some of the conditions
under which it could occur. It is a facsimile of what skilled professionals (those who are
attuned to their environment) are often able to achieve without formal, external supports.
So, it can help draw practitioners’ attention to what others have considered as part of their
good practice (Dunne, 1997). It can also provide practitioners with a broadened perspective
where researchers share the wisdom they have gained through their own engagement with
educational issues. But it does this in the spirit of colleagues telling each other “war
stories” (Orr, 1990, p. 175), instead of attempting to establish a comprehensive body of
knowledge that sits underneath practice and forms “the intellectual foundations of [the
field]” (Richey et al., 2011, p. 1). As Biesta (2022) stated, “the point of educational
scholarship is not to tell educators what they should do, but to provide them with resources
that may inform their . . . own educational judgment and inventiveness” (pp. vii-viii).
LDT theory can have this kind of impact if it is designed to help practitioners tune the
discipline-specific, affective sensibilities that Wrathall (2019) described. Rather than having
predictive or probabilistic power, and so being an instrument one can wield like any other,
good theoretical accounts work on practitioners, catalyzing a change in how they
experience situations, so they come to see and feel things the way experts do (Dunne,
1997; Wrathall, 2011). Theory can help practitioners discern fine-grained situational
affordances and orient them towards previously unseen possibilities (Wrathall & Londen,
2019). It can also model the character of good practice (Yanchar & Faulconer, 2011).
Finally, it can move practitioners’ feelings, desires, and values, drawing them in towards a
full, wholehearted commitment to the field and its practices (Wrathall, 2019). Theory is
meant to be educative, and as is true for so many educational aids it should build
practitioners’ capacities so they can ultimately act independent of it (even though at one
time it may have been an essential support). What LDT professionals practice seeing and
feeling will, over time, become more see-able and feel-able to them on their own. Borrowing
from Thomson’s (2019) discussion about how certain styles of philosophical writing can
achieve similar aims, “rather than [being] complete, self-contained [reports] in which all the
important conclusions have been explicitly drawn,” theory can “take . . . [practitioners] on a
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journey that helps [them] ‘learn to learn,’ that is, to learn how to see, encounter and
understand the phenomena repeatedly at issue
for [themselves]
” (p. 186; emphasis in
The Phronetic FrameworkThe Phronetic Framework
For theory to have this impact, those who develop it must think differently about it. In his
study of practical knowledge, Dunne (1997) articulated what's involved as one's knowing-in-
action matures. His work can serve as a foundation for a framework for what LDT theory
can be (Figure 1). Along with what Dunne provided, I further recognize the contributions of
LDT theorists like Parrish (2014), Wilson (2013), and Yanchar (Yanchar & Faulconer, 2011;
Yanchar & South, 2008). These scholars have also described ways to engage with theory
that go beyond applying it in a limited sense, instead considering it to be a resource that
practitioners actively interpret, revisit, extend, and remix to transform it into forms of
knowledge or action the original researchers may have never anticipated. Their work helps
clarify how theory can function like an orienting aid, supporting practitioners as they refine
their personal capacities for perception, discrimination, and judgment, instead of being a
set of rules that define good practice.
Figure 1Figure 1
The Phronetic Framework for LDT Theory
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As I describe the framework, I emphasize that while I will provide examples of prior LDT
research that function as suggestive possibilities to illustrate each category, what follows
should not be viewed as merely new labels for the same theory the field has always
produced (neither do I claim the original researchers’ intent was aligned with my purposes).
The framework is meant to facilitate a reimagining of what LDT theory could become. It
provides a view into what kinds of theoretical contributions might be a refining influence
that works on practitioners’ dispositions, and discloses new ways of seeing the world, so
they become more responsive and flexible when experiencing both common and unfamiliar
situations. The examples are therefore provided to clarify each category, and to suggest
how each might be empirically investigated.
LDT-Relevant Practical Knowledge
At the base of the framework sits the nature of practical knowledge as it is relevant to LDT
practice. As with others cited throughout this chapter, Dunne (1997) argued that the
knowledge upon which experts rely is more akin to a “resourcefulness of mind and
character” (p. 312), instead of a technical information system that exists independent of
their actions. The kinds of experiences LDT professionals tend to have, nurture their
resourcefulness as members of the community of practice, resulting in a form of discipline-
specific practical knowledge that cannot be wholly separated from the individual actor, nor
from the field of practice out of which it was born (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This means that
through their involvement with the field, practitioners come to see, feel, and discern things
that are distinct to LDT as a domain, as “the result of the gradual refinement of responses
that grows out of long experience acting within [their] shared cultural practices” (Dreyfus,
2017, p. 34).
A useful form LDT theory can draw attention to the types of dispositional resourcefulness
relevant to disciplinary expertise. These theories act as a “kind of reinforcement” for
practitioners, “contribut[ing] to a heightened awareness on [their] part” of attributes they
can develop, and giving them insight into how to exercise and strengthen their own
capabilities (Dunne, 1997, p. 160). Dunne further reasoned that offering practitioners this
type of support can lead to levels of expert performance comparable to “the gifted
carpenter who, when confronted with crooked walls and warped timber, contrives,
nonetheless, to produce an excellent finished job” (p. 283). An equivalent situation in LDT
might be a practitioner faced with out-of-date technology--constraints that restrict them to
shallow forms of interactivity, and limited time and budget--yet nonetheless is able to
facilitate a memorable and effective learning experience. Placing the nature of practical
knowledge at the framework’s base is meant to reinforce that what is achievable as one’s
knowing-in-action develops is foundational to any other accomplishment practitioners
might pursue with theory’s assistance.
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Two forms of LDT theory could potentially play this role. The first is theory that offers
compelling accounts of the types of dispositions associated with resourceful LDT practice.
For instance, Belland (1991) articulated a notion of connoisseurship in educational
technology that “attends to the affective needs of the learners” (p. 26) and qualitatively
changes how practitioners appreciate, evaluate, and design new learning systems (cf.
Parrish, 2012). He included knowing students “as people and not just as the ‘kid in station
86’” (p. 27), and recognizing where “kindness leaves off and obsequiousness or patronizing
begin” in the tone of an instructional text (p. 30), as examples of the kinds of traits LDT
connoisseurs might develop.
The second form of LDT theory is theory found in design precedent that models how other
practitioners have engaged their practical knowledge towards a particular end. Through the
reports of concrete actions taken by specific designers in specific cases, precedent offers
practitioners a “vicarious” experience that prompts their reflection on how they could act in
ways appropriate for their own situation (Howard et al., 2012, p. 35). It serves as an aid that
helps them focus on, and attend to, salient issues with a richness that is usually not
available through conventional research reports (Boling, 2021).
Productive Heuristics
The framework takes further shape with four forms of theory built on the foundation of
practical knowledge and character. The first is theory that supports the productive activities
associated with LDT where one creates products, systems, services, or environments that
have learning value. Dunne (1997) described theories that support productive work as
knowledge of the affordances possessed by different kinds of material (what they offer
towards the pursuit of certain ends), along with what kinds of work can draw out potentials
a material offers. Such theories are heuristics that sensitize practitioners to the relevant
field of forces involved when making something meant to serve a particular purpose
(Gibbons, 2013). Many of the models, principles, frameworks, or guidelines common in LDT
already describe or explain these kinds of issues. Consider Mayer’s (2014) multimedia
principles of instruction that provide useful information about how one can take advantage
of learning affordances offered by visual and aural media technology.
However, Dunne (1997) contended that such knowledge should not be treated as
deterministic or probabilistic rules. Doing so lends the mistaken impression that productive
heuristics have a fixed reliability on which practitioners can rely. It assumes a model of
practice where one simply finds the right inputs associated with desired outputs--albeit
inputs that may not be as dependable as one would want. But there is no static probability
that a heuristic will work (see Wilson, 2013). Even if one were to account for situations and
variables to a minute level of detail, as Reigeluth (1999) once speculated would be ideal if it
were not impractical, learning environments are never stable. Arguing for a probabilistic
model of theory assumes the value of a heuristic exists in the abstract, apart from
practitioners’ skills or the needs of a situation, so it’s efficacy can be at least partially
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determined before one has experienced a circumstance firsthand (see Dunne, 1997, pp.
128–130). As Honebein and Reigeluth (2020) have more recently concluded, practitioners
should consider “all instructional methods as having unknown . . . usefulness
instructional situation is known” (p. 14; emphasis in original).
Further, the probabilistic model ignores that “affordances, the way things in the world offer
themselves to be used by us, are contextually determined” (Wrathall, 2014, p. 210). For
instance, to a hungry person, a table affords itself as something that facilitates his sitting
and eating. But these affordances recede for a person looking for something to help them
change a lightbulb. In their case, the table affords itself as a steady structure on which they
can stand. Similarly, the learning affordances of materials LDT practitioners work with will
shift and adjust depending on their current purposes. One implication of this is that some
productive heuristics associated with a type of material may not be relevant to certain
practitioners’ aims (Dreyfus, 2017). Those whose purposes are similar to what Mayer
(2014) assumed when he conducted his research could reasonably find his multimedia
principles to offer valuable insight. But practitioners who use media technologies for
different purposes might find them to be less germane (see Koumi, 2013, for a critique of
Mayer along these lines). Further, attempting to attribute causal power to productive
heuristics, such as assuming they describe invariant facts (or even probabilistic principles)
about how learning must work, is also unwarranted. Doing so ignores the “concernful
involvement” of learners in their own learning, meaning certain heuristics could be more or
less relevant in a given case depending on how learners themselves find artifacts they are
interacting with to “matter” within their overall life story (Yanchar, 2021, p. 28; see also
Yanchar et al., 2013).
This is not to argue that “the expert [exists] in a special, privileged position outside the
principles of [science]” (Benner, 1984, p. xix). Clearly, at least some productive heuristics
are based on biological or similar constraints on human capacity for instance how the
physiology of the human eye has led to principles of contrast that allow visual elements on
a computer screen to be as readable as possible (Mithun et al., 2019). But such scientific
knowledge alone is insufficient to guide expert performance. There is no “fixed and
identifiable behavior [that] constitutes the excellence in excellent practice” (Gottlieb, 2012,
p. 505; emphasis removed), meaning that there is no decontextualized standard or
outcome that exists isolated from situational realities that defines expertise. So when, how,
or even if well-established scientific principles apply in a given situation are decisions that
theorists cannot make for practitioners in advance (Dreyfus, 2017). Nor can the quality of
an instructional system be determined in advance of its use based on how well it adheres
to the specifications that productive heuristics provide (McDonald et al., 2005; McDonald &
Gibbons, 2009). The practitioner themselfmust weigh the considerations offered by
productive heuristics (or any theoretical construct) with the indeterminate number of other
situationally relevant issues that affect the aim she is pursuing; “to be [an expert]
for a unique modification [of relevant principles], unspecifiable in advance, and by no
means easy to determine in the situation itself” (Dunne, 1997, p. 311).
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The alternative to a rule-based model, according to Dunne (1997), is for practitioners to
enter into a “conversation” (p. 117) with forms of knowledge like productive heuristics (see
also Schön, 1983). Since the world of practice is too complex to be managed through
technical information alone, the value of heuristics is found in the dialogue in which one
can engage with them, where they draw attention to relevant forces, help one question their
assumptions, explore possibilities, reconsider their aims, or take a step towards something
useful. In this view, a practitioner recognizes that productive heuristics often contain wise
advice that can inform one’s situational understanding, even if they do not represent
universal mandates.
Many researchers in the field already have experience investigating and generating
productive heuristics (with the qualifications just noted about how they should think about
what they develop). Such heuristics are often what Reigeluth and Carr-Chellman (2009b)
called “design theory,” meaning theory that “identifies good methods for accomplishing
goals” (p. 7). Along with the examples discussed earlier, another example is human factors
research as related to LDT that describes how the form and substance of artifacts with
learning purposes can align with the constraints and capacities of the human body (Gruber
et al., 2019).
Opportunities to Act
Another form of theory draws practitioners’ attention to opportunities for action, or
openings in a situation, so they can take advantage of suitable moments when they appear.
Dunne’s (1997) argument for this type of knowledge began by recognizing that in many
practical situations “success is . . . not so much . . . keeping one’s gaze fixed on the
preconceived form which one will impose on the material,” as would typically be the case
when one is building durable good (or when one is designing an instructional product for a
predetermined outcome). Instead, success is “a flexible kind of responsiveness.” It is being
able to recognize situational factors one can take advantage of to move one closer to a
desirable state (p. 256). A common analogy Dunne used was of a sailor who could
recognize that when the waves break in a certain way it is his best chance to cut across
them safely. In contrast to the forms of knowledge discussed to this point that drew
attention to practitioners’ dispositional traits, or to features of their materials that are
useful for certain purposes, opportunities for action focus on the attributes of the
circumstances in which practitioners find themselves. They sensitize people to those
sometimes-momentary occasions that provide an advantage within “a continually changing
complex of developing possibilities” (Liberman, 2013, p. 21). As with the other framework
categories, opportunities to act are not formulas for practitioners to follow. They function
more like a focusing device—sharpening one’s view, and accentuating what it might look
like when a useful opening appears.
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Within the field of LDT, these types of theories are often an outgrowth of research focused
on understanding the dynamics of the situations in which practitioners find themselves. For
instance, Richardson et al. (2019) studied the perceptions of university faculty and
instructional designers on the nature of their working relationships. Their research
uncovered several factors that indicate the faculty-designer collaboration was going well,
such as when relationships are “egalitarian” (p. 862), and when the parties involved had
clear expectations about what to expect from each other. Such conditions do not guarantee
success in any collaborative effort. But where they exist (or when one can arrange a
situation to bring them about), they can legitimately be viewed as creating a more fruitful
opportunity in which to act, allowing practitioners a space in which they can attempt further
actions that move them and their collaborators towards ends they find mutually desirable.
Significant Patterns
Theory can also describe patterns for how environments can be organized, or significant
relationships and structures between situationally relevant people, resources, activities, and
events. These describe another form of influence LDT practitioners can have, where they
enable or facilitate certain kinds of activities based on how they arrange a setting (or,
alternatively, prevent or discourage other kinds of activities). Dunne (1997) offered an
[A] teacher . . . will have a whole stock of largely unformulated knowledge about the
kind of pedagogical aids . . . that, in general, tend to work well, the typical difficulties to
be anticipated or pitfalls to be avoided, [and] the sorts of questions and promptings
that in the past have tended to work. (p. 368)
Many of these patterns also likely qualify as a type of design theory, as described by
Reigeluth and Carr-Chellman (2009b).
Understanding significant patterns primes practitioners. Being prepared with a repertoire of
patterns allows them to move swiftly and take advantage of opportunities to act as soon
as the favorable circumstance is recognized. However, Dreyfus (2017) emphasized that
even here, one is not relying on instructions for managing a situation. Doing so would
suggest that the purpose of significant patterns is to provide intellectual content on which
practitioners can deliberate when making decisions. Instead, this form of knowledge
should develop people’s capacity for intuitive action; it provides cues for how one might get
started, with the presumption that the fully appropriate response will not emerge until the
practitioner is fully engaged with the situation and is able to shape their actions to the
needs and demands of what they find (Dreyfus, 2014; Dunne, 1997).
While there are some similarities between significant patterns and productive heuristics
(here I note there is no need to be overly prescriptive in how boundaries are drawn between
framework categories), there are important differences as well. Productive heuristics focus
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on how to get the most out of the materials LDT practitioners use to develop artifacts with
learning affordances. Significant patterns describe how those artifacts--along with other
events, activities, and people--can be organized for a given purpose. Further, because other
people are often involved when a pattern is used, practitioners have even fewer assurances
that they will be able to manage, control, or optimize the situation according to a
predetermined plan. As I have written elsewhere (McDonald, in press-a), “what an [LDT
practitioner] begins is fragile . . . . Others may pick it up or not, and even if they accept it,
they may divert it into directions the original actor did not anticipate or may not agree with
(see also Biesta, 2013; Dunne, 1997).
For example, consider the patterns definitive of problem-based learning. This approach is
characterized by students who have responsibility for their learning, collaboration between
participants, ill-structured problems as the basis of inquiry, a tutor (or facilitator) who
guides students through the learning process, and informational, spatial, and/or
technological resources that facilitate participants’ free interactions (Savery, 2009). While
LDT professionals can prepare a problem-based situation in such a way as to encourage
the kinds of outcomes for which it is known, once a situation is given over to the
participants, they will shape it to their own ends--which may or may not match those of
other stakeholders (Hung, 2011).
Many of the instructional strategies or other techniques the field has developed throughout
its history describe significant patterns in the sense outlined here. Design precedent can
also play this role by providing concrete examples of how other designers have organized
situations to facilitate certain aims (Howard et al., 2012). I offer a similar qualification as I
have previously made about avoiding the tendency to see significant patterns as having
deterministic or probabilistic power in the abstract.
Forms of Excellence
Finally, theory can articulate forms of excellent practice that LDT as a field strives towards.
Yanchar and Slife (2017) defined these as the sense practitioners have of “what is good or
right to do in relevant situations, [and] what counts as satisfactory or unsatisfactory
conduct” (p. 154). Forms of excellence are usually tacit. They are the values and related
considerations that inform good practice, but that are often in the background and so one
is only implicitly aware of their influence most of the time. But Dunne (1997) emphasized
how much they matter, nonetheless. He noted that the excellences one pursues in a field
refine and shape one’s sensibilities, leading to a person being able to discriminate between
options with more sensitivity and nuance. Because the person is so attuned to the
outcomes both she and the field at large desire, they can discern how an alternative either
does or does not move them towards those ends. Gray and Boling (2016) illustrated this
through their study of design case reports, where they showed how the way both
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researchers and practitioners wrote about their work revealed their commitment to various
field-specific ideals, such as a concern for equality of access, or promoting learners’
agency and autonomy.
But articulating forms of excellence as one might do in a theory not only calls practitioners’
attention to what matters to the field. It can also change the experience they have with
those values:
Articulations are an attempt to formulate what is initially inchoate. . . . But this kind of
formation or reformulation does not leave its object unchanged. To give a certain
articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important.
(Taylor, 1985, p. 36)
Dunne (1997) indicated that one way articulating forms of excellence can change what
someone desires is that doing so can help clarify the types of actions that can lead to
valuable ends. This is more than only revealing an alternative means for achieving a goal.
As part of articulating the connection, one can come to affectively appreciate the new
method in a way one did not before. Practitioners can come to see the alternative as
appealing and alluring, which will help them more skillfully put it to use (Wrathall, 2019).
Forms of excellence have not traditionally been a focused topic of inquiry within LDT
research. While there are some exceptions, including the Gray and Boling (2016) study
referred to above as well as others (Matthews & Yanchar, 2018b; McDonald, Jackson, et al.,
2021), forms of excellence are often revealed as one pays attention to the standards,
statements of value, or competencies championed either by individual researchers or by
institutions within the field (for an example, see Yanchar, 2018). However, it would be to the
field’s advantage if researchers more intentionally studied such topics. Research
approaches have recently been developed to facilitate this (Yanchar & Gong, 2019; Yanchar
& Slife, 2017).
Implications and Concluding Thoughts
The phronetic framework offers several implications for LDT research and practice. First,
the framework categories better describe theory’s contribution to practice than those
borrowed from other enterprises, such as the traditional classifications of descriptive and
prescriptive (or design-oriented) theory (Reigeluth, 1999; Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman,
2009b). Traditional categories do not draw distinctions between the differing forms of
knowledge involved in practice as in the phronetic framework. So, they are blunter
instruments when it comes to guiding practitioners to select theory that is useful for a
particular circumstance. Terms more tailored to the types of needs practitioners encounter
can better inform them of the value a theoretical report is meant to provide. Knowing what
to reasonably expect from it can help avoid a person becoming dissatisfied because they
misunderstood what that theory offered.
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Second, the framework can broaden LDT researchers’ views about the types of research
they can conduct. Instead of solely, or even primarily, focusing on instructional strategies,
processes, and the like (which are only a subset of the needs of practice), the framework’s
categories draw researchers’ attention to needs that may be more foundational, but that
are often neglected in the literature. I noted earlier this is the case with research focused on
forms of excellence the field strives towards. The same is likely true for LDT-relevant
practical knowledge and character.
A third implication is that the framework helps legitimize any communicative artifact that
discloses opportunities or sensitizes practitioners to salient affordances. It does not
prioritize the traditional research report, but allows for alternative forms of knowledge like
that communicated through design precedent. Still, other forms of knowledge could be
explored that can also play this role. For instance, consider Wrathall’s (2011) explanation of
the value of poetic language, that has a “productive ambiguity” (p. 139), meaning it can
“oscillate productively between several different possible interpretations” (p. 140). Perhaps
LDT theory could take inspiration from poetic forms of discourse. This does not mean it
should be poetry in a formal sense, but that it might be designed so that it affords multiple
interpretations based on practitioners’ experience or need—even if one interpretation is in
tension with, or creates an inconsistency when compared to, another. For instance, take the
reflective practice
. In one sense reflective connotes how practitioners can “pause and
examine (or reflect) on their options for moving forward.” It also carries the sense of
reflection akin to how “a [jazz] musician [is] reflective,” where the term “does not mean they
stop and think about what note to play next. It means they are in tune with the situation,
reflecting back through their music the opportunities their collaborators offer” (McDonald,
in press-b). Both senses of
are true to how Schön (1983) described the term.
Even though they do not perfectly align with each other, both can highlight how one might
experience reflection in different circumstances.
As another example, Redström (2017) argued that designed artifacts can disclose new
definitions for what counts as a defensible end for a discipline to pursue, or what counts as
legitimate phenomena within a domain. In his view, artifacts often do this better than do
expository descriptions, and so should be seen as a legitimate form of theorizing. Future
research can explore how Redström’s work might apply to LDT, perhaps using the
affordances of newly designed objects to uncover innovative theoretical constructs related
to what counts as a learning technology, instructional strategy, or even learning itself.
Fourth, the framework helps legitimize the value of alternative theoretical conceptions of
the same phenomena. Since it is not theory’s role to describe a set of rules that define what
learning or instruction must be, but rather to disclose possibilities or to refine practitioners’
palates, there is advantage to providing many views that highlight different aspects of the
same issue (Wenger-Trayner, 2013). Different viewpoints support flexible expressions of
practice useful for different situations. As Yanchar and Faulconer (2011) concluded, “there
would always be more that could be said about the concepts involved, alternative
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interpretations to consider, further implications to explore, and new ideas to entertain” (p.
28). This implies that theorists should be responsive to the practical world as they
encounter it in all its inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies, not attempting to artificially
harmonize individual cases into generalizable laws, nor disregarding unusual or unique
findings in a search for patterns and regularities (cf. Yanchar, 2015). What determines
whether a theory is useful is not necessarily the degree to which it accords with [certain]
facts. It is better because either (a) it makes the interpreter more flexible and open to
dialogues with other interpretations . . . or (b) it focuses and make more sense of what is at
issue in a current [situation]. (Dreyfus, 2014, p. 18)
Finally, the framework not only allows for theory that has affective impact on researchers
and practitioners, but also values a theory’s emotional component. Since theory has more
purposes than only informing people about relevant information, its usefulness is partly
found in how well it also moves their feelings and sensibilities. “One’s perception of and
response to situations is ‘aesthetic’ in that it is mediated through feelings” (Dunne, 1997, p.
358), and so this should be a legitimate component of how researchers draw attention to
important possibilities they hope practitioners will consider. Dispassionate, technical
reports will continue to have a place in LDT theorizing, but should exist alongside moving
accounts that touch practitioners’ emotions, as well.
In conclusion, the central message of the phronetic framework is that instead of reducing
the world of practice into abstract models or techniques, theory takes its proper place
when it supports practitioners as they learn how to cope with practice in all its color,
vibrancy, and liveliness. As a field, LDT is in a strong position to produce this kind of theory,
perhaps more so than other fields that are not as tightly connected to practice or that have
more direct interest in scientific forms of theorizing (as is often the case in fields like
psychology or the learning sciences; cf. Wilson, 2005). The advantage of a practice-
oriented discipline like LDT should be that it develops the theories that practitioners find
most useful and applicable. I urge researchers within the field to consider how this
framework for phronetic LDT theory can improve their work to support practitioners. By so
doing, they are meaningfully contributing to the field’s core purpose of creating excellent
learning experiences—experiences that target “both intellectual and emotional” outcomes
(Gibbons, 2016, p. 34), and that are unconstrained by time or place.
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Suggested CitationSuggested Citation
McDonald, J. K. (2022). A Framework for Phronetic LDT Theory. In H. Leary , S. P. Greenhalgh,
K. B. Staudt Willet, & M. H. Cho (Eds.),
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Page 27 of 27
Jason K. McDonaldJason K. McDonald
Dr. Jason K. McDonald is a Professor of Instructional Psychology & Technology
at Brigham Young University. He brings over twenty years of experience in
industry and academia, with a career spanning a wide-variety of roles connected
to instructional design: face-to-face training; faculty development; corporate
eLearning; story development for instructional films; and museum/exhibit design.
He gained this experience as a university instructional designer; an executive for
a large, international non-profit; a digital product director for a publishing
company; and as an independent consultant.
Dr. McDonald's research focuses around advancing design practice and design
education. He studies design as an expression of certain types of relationships
with others and with the world, how designers experience rich and authentic ways
of being human, the contingent and changeable nature of design, and design as a
human accomplishment (meaning how design is not a natural process but is
created by designers and so is open to continually being recreated by designers).
At BYU, Dr. McDonald has taught courses in instructional design, media and
culture change, project management, learning psychology, and design theory. His
work can be found at his website:
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In this study we explored how design studio instructors depicted the design critique, themselves as people offering critiques, and what can be learned from their depictions about improving instructors' abilities to offer critiques. To investigate these issues, we conducted a case study of studio instructors from design programs at a university in the United States. Our data consisted of three semi-structured interviews and one class observation each with six instructors from different programs, organized into a thematic structure that revealed insights into participants' self-interpretations. We found that our participants depicted critiques as being a complex challenge, often placing competing demands upon them that they were required to reconcile. They depicted themselves as meeting these challenges through their cultivation of four dispositions that helped them balance tensions they experienced. We report these challenges and dispositions using our participants own words as much as possible. We also discuss implications of these findings for helping studio instructors improve their ability to offer critiques; assistance should take into account the inescapable need instructors will face to balance challenges that arise during critiques and should also help them cultivate affective dispositions that will help them successfully respond to critique situations.
In this chapter, I present a view of instructional design that responds to the tendency some designers have shown to take ultimate responsibility for the learning that people experience. First, I describe different ways that designers have historically assumed they were primarily responsible for students’ learning. Second, I discuss how similar issues are still a concern even with recent evolutions in the field toward human-centered design practices. Third, I present a view of instructional design, based in the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, that considers it to be a type of relationship that designers enter into with learners, rather than principally being a process for making instructional products. In presenting this, I also suggest how a reframed view provides new ways of considering designer responsibility, helping designers better understand what they are influencing when they design. This can lead to designers being better partners with learners in pursuit of the unique disclosure of all parties involved, which is a type of achievement that could not be attained without viewing learners as equal contributors to the learning relationship.
In this article we report our study of objectivation in the conversation of a design team. Objectivation is the practical work in which groups engage to produce social objects that facilitate orderly collaboration. We observed how design team members came to agree on specific details about an educational simulation they were designing, as they treated simulation features like independent social facts that could be affected by and have effects on other simulation features, and that had discrete benefits that made them an asset within the product. In our report we describe patterns of objectivation in their conversation that produced these results. We conclude by discussing how our study relates to, and enriches, the findings provided by prior design research.
In this article we report our research into the concerns and other matters of significance for members of instructional design teams. Specifically we studied how members of a design team depicted the quality of their own motives while participating in team pursuits. This is a type of self-evaluation known as drawing distinctions of worth. Our research took the form of a case study, focusing on an instructional design team at a university in the United States. Based on interviews with team members and observations of their work, we developed an account of our research participant’s distinctions of worth organized around three themes: (a) distinctions of worth could guide their decision-making more than did the goals of the project; (b) competing distinctions of worth could be difficult for them to reconcile; and (c) their distinctions of worth could be accompanied by unanticipated costs. Overall, these themes reflect that distinctions of worth were a real aspect of our participants’ team involvement, and not merely their subjective responses to situational factors. This has implications for those managing teams or otherwise helping teams improve, which we discuss. We also discuss how research into instructional design teams that only focuses on external dynamics team members experience, and not on factors such as their distinctions of worth, cannot fully account for what it means for people to contribute towards team outcomes.
La mayoría de los investigadores que diseñan experiencias innovadoras de aprendizaje digital y luego realizan investigaciones que investigan la utilidad de esas experiencias de aprendizaje, no aplican completamente la teoría de la instrucción (Reigeluth, 1983, 1999; Reigeluth y Carr-Chellman, 2009a) como la base de sus diseños y El foco de su investigación. Esta elección impacta negativamente el juicio de diseño de los investigadores (Boling, et al.2017) y su credibilidad como garantes del diseño (Stolterman y Nelson, 2000). Esto finalmente conduce a barreras de difusión cuando se difunden sus innovaciones de aprendizaje digital. El propósito de este documento es ayudar a los investigadores y diseñadores de experiencias de aprendizaje a superar estas barreras de difusión al adoptar la teoría de la instrucción como base para sus diseños y utilizar seis principios para realizar investigaciones alineadas con la teoría de la instrucción: 1) Conocer los sistemas complejos cualitativamente, 2) Valor los fundamentos del diseño del tratamiento, 3) Practique una consideración imparcial de los métodos de instrucción, 4) Respete el triángulo de hierro del diseño de instrucción, 5) Distinga entre métodos y medios, y 6) Conozca su teoría de diseño de instrucción personal. Most researchers who design innovative digital learning experiences, and then conduct research that investigates the usefulness of those learning experiences, fail to fully apply instructional theory (Reigeluth, 1983, 1999; Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009a) as the foundation of their designs and the focus of their research. This choice negatively impacts researchers’ design judgment (Boling, et al. 2017) and their credibility as the guarantor of design (Stolterman & Nelson, 2000). This ultimately leads to diffusion barriers when disseminating their digital learning innovations. The purpose of this paper is to help researchers and learning-experience designers overcome these diffusion barriers by embracing instructional theory as the foundation for their designs and using six principles for conducting research aligned with instructional theory: 1) Know complex systems qualitatively, 2) Value the treatment design fundamentals, 3) Practice unbiased consideration of instructional methods, 4) Respect the instructional design iron triangle, 5) Differentiate between methods and media, and 6) Know your personal instructional design theory.