Muddying the waters

A pile of books forming a vortex

I had hoped to write this third R511 blog this past weekend, but life intervened. The heat went out in my house on Saturday, so I spent most of the day dealing with getting that fixed. Then while I was studying on Sunday, my mother called to say the apartment next to hers caught fire. She’s okay, but staying in a hotel for a few days while the apartments in her building get inspected and repaired. Since then, I’ve managed to get some studying done.

The readings for this week are sort of eye-opening. As a student of Instructional Systems Technology, my experience in the field is extremely limited, but one of the things I know is there is a model known as ADDIE, which stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. These are supposed to be the stages we go through to while coming up with instructional materials or working on instructional projects. The readings this week cover a bit of the history of the ADDIE model and also talk about some of the controversies that surround it, and point to some alternatives.

In “A Hard Look at ISD” in the February 2002 issue of the journal Training, Ron Zemke and Allison Rossett describe how the foundations of ADDIE were laid in military training during World War II, and that they were subsequently “accepted as semi-gospel in business, industry, and government.” However, they add that there’s a bit of controversy about whether it’s supposed to be a heuristic or an algorithm. As a heuristic, ADDIE would be more of a guideline to be used, but as an algorithm it would be series of steps to be rigidly followed.

In the many jobs I’ve had over the years, I’ve seen that rigid steps are good for people who are starting out and lack the experience that allows them to take creative approaches to problem solving. This feels borne out when the authors wrote, “This ‘ISD for Dummies’ strategy […] was created to allow people with little experience to create reasonably acceptable training.” This poses a couple of potential problems. As an instructional designer gains more experience, will they comfortable venturing outside the algorithmic steps, and if they feel comfortable doing so, will their organization allow them to do so? Where is the dividing line between using ADDIE as an algorithm and using it as a heuristic? I imagine it’s not as cut-and-dried as saying, “Tomorrow we use ADDIE as a guideline, not a template.”

One of the other readings that captured my attention was “Characteristics of Instructional Design Models” by Robert Branch and David Merrill, which is the second chapter of the book Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology by Robert Reiser and John Dempsey. The first reason it caught my attention was because the authors wrote, “ADDIE is not a specific, fully elaborated model in its own right, but rather a paradigm that refers to a family of models that share a common underlying structure.” They go on to describe different facets of ADDIE, before blowing it all up.

They write, “A key criticism has been that traditional ID approaches emphasize breaking complex skills down into their component parts, and designing instruction that initially focuses on teaching those component skills. It has been argued that doing so leads to fragmented instruction and is likely to result in learners having difficulty integrating the various part-skills that they are learning; in other words, inhibiting learner ability to perform complex skills.” Wow. I’m being taught this model and told how important it is, and now I’m being told that maybe it isn’t so great after all.

They go on, “In response to this criticism, several ‘whole task’ models of instructional design have been proposed. In general, these models prescribe that throughout a sequence of instruction, learners should be presented with a series of progressively more difficult whole task problems of the type that the learners will be expected to solve by the end of that instructional sequence. A key idea is that such task sequences are more likely to enable learners to successfully perform the complex whole task.” They then go on to describe two “whole task” models, known as pebble-in-the-pond and 4C/ID.

I’m not entirely convinced, but since I’m just starting out in this field, I have nothing solid to base my doubts upon. If we accept ADDIE as a heuristic or as a paradigm, then it seems possible that these whole task models use the same steps as ADDIE, but repackage them in some fashion. The descriptions of these two models aren’t in-depth, so maybe it’s just hard for me to understand the significance. But since I’m still trying to grasp all-that-is-ADDIE, throwing two new models at me feels like it’s muddying the waters, so to speak.

I had hoped to write this third R511 blog this past weekend, but life intervened. The heat went out in my house on Saturday, so I spent most of the day dealing with getting that fixed. Then while I was studying on Sunday, my mother called to say the apartment next to hers caught fire.…


  1. I’m right there with you in being a little confused by the ADDIE critiques. It helps that we were in the same two classes last semester, I feel like you and I probably have a fairly similar grasp on the field. After learning that the ADDIE approach was pretty much gospel in R521, it has been somewhat destabilizing to read all of these critiques. It’s also hard, as you mentioned, to draw distinctions between ADDIE and non-ADDIE models – perhaps for those who are more experienced in the field the differences would become clearer. I guess in my mind a whole-task and an ADDIE approach don’t have to be incompatible, because isn’t ADDIE more of a design process/heuristic? Wouldn’t it be possible to analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate a whole-task curriculum? Maybe there are some very specific meanings to “analyze” and “develop” that I’m not quite getting here.

    At any rate – you’re not alone! Thanks for putting down in words some of the disquiet I was feeling as I was reading.

    1. I think you hit it on the head – ADDIE and whole-task don’t necessarily need to be incompatible. But since we’re still learning it all, maybe we’re missing something.

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