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If the eye were not attuned to the sun, men could not see it.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Did Ptolemy and Copernicus see the same sun rising above the horizon at dawn? The answers are “Yes” and “No.” Yes, they saw the same shining orb. No, Ptolemy saw a sun that circled the earth; Copernicus saw a sun around which the planets revolved. What differed was not the sun they saw, but its meaning, (Hanson, 1958).

The Search for IDT's Center

How should we define Instructional Design and Technology (IDT)? What is the meaning of our discipline? What is the meaning of our profession? A first step toward answering this question would be to determine w hich of our many goals and purposes is our central, or ultimate, end. What is our central mission and toward what should our efforts be directed? Until we could agree on a central concern, defining our field would be impossible. An inability to define IDT would be unfortunate, indeed, for no other success could compensate for a discipline's failure to understand its fundamental nature and reason for existing. “If one does not know to which port one is sailing,” said Seneca, “no wind is favorable (1969).”

This article invites the discipline and its profession to consider a new alternative for the central concern of IDT. To establish a context, it first reviews three traditional centers of concern. It then proposes a fourth alternative so apt and so obvious that it is almost invisible. The article then uses Aristotle's categories of the rational intellect to highlight the principled differences among the four centers; and finally, it explores some general and specific implications of the shift in focus for the discipline, the profession, and the constituent subfields of both.

Four Paradigmatic Centers

Three traditional centers

Three traditional centers of IDT have large numbers of advocates. Although seldom acknowledged as such, these traditional centers represent paradigmatic kinds of intellectual activity known from antiquity. These were summarized by Aristotle at least two millennia ago and have recently been re-appropriated by postmodern philosophy. (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E./1908; Heidegger, 1996; Arendt, 1955; Taminiaux, 1991.)

The scientific paradigm. The first traditional center views IDT as a science, like geometry and physics, where invariant laws, relationships, or principles are sought for, discovered, and applied. IDT embodiments of this central concern are found in instructional research, theory, and measurement.

Aristotle used the term theoresis to refer to the activities of contemplation and observation that define this paradigmatic activity. Within the activities of theoresis were three virtues by which the soul could come to know the truth: episteme, or demonstrative knowledge; nous, or intuitive intellect; and sophia, or philosophical wisdom. True to his colors as a philosopher, Aristotle saw sophia, or philosophical wisdom, as the supreme virtue, of which episteme and nous were constitutive.

Episteme included the kind of knowing that is most like the science we know today. It refers to the contemplative and logically demonstrable knowledge of things that have “unvarying originative causes,” whose existence is “necessary,” “eternal,” and “ungenerated” and whose range of application is “universal.” The model of mathematics, especially geometry, was used to illustrate the indubitable certainty that is the ideal of episteme. In this article, the episteme of theoresis will be identified with scientific knowledge and with the scientific paradigm of IDT.

The design paradigm . A second paradigm sees design as central. IDT is a design discipline, like architecture or engineering, where more effective, efficient, and appealing instructional products are designed, developed, and delivered (Reigeluth, 1999). IDT embodiments of this central concern are instructional design and development.

Aristotle used the term poiesis to refer to the rational activities of “making” or “producing” which are constitutive of the design paradigm. Poesis was the work of poets, artists, and artisans. In contrast to episteme , it was characterized by “varying originative causes.” Indeed, the very nature of making was to bring something into existence through the productive activity of the individual artist or creator. The existence of these creations was contingent rather than necessary, and the range of application of artisanal knowledge was more idiographic, situated, and contextual than it was universal. The creations of poiesis were also a-telic, because they were not ends-in-themselves, but were instead created to serve other ends, usually those of their makers. Poiesis is the term we will identify with the artistic production of artifacts and the design paradigm of IDT.

The technology paradigm. A third traditional view sees IDT as centered in modern technology, where the range of reference of technology varies from applied knowledge at one end of a continuum to hardware, software, and courseware at the other.

Technology, in this sense, is seen by its advocates as a complex of knowledge, artifacts, and technical skills that is essentially passive and neutral, waiting to be activated in order to accomplish the user's purposes. Although this view of technology would benefit from further sophistication and refinement, there is no question of the importance to IDT of the technological. What is in question is, “Is it the central concern around which other concerns should be subordinated.”

Aristotle saw techne , or art or skill, (from which technology is derived), as the virtue of poiesis, or making. Modern technology , however, belongs not only to poiesis , but has evolved over the millennia to become a hybrid of both poiesis and episteme —of both making and science. So complete has been this hybridization that the poetical origins of modern technology have been lost from sight. In fact, most would see the solid-state micro-electronic systems that are the basis of the current digital revolution as more the results of science than the products of craftmanship or art.

Heidegger (1997) saw this difference and held that whereas modern arts and craftsmanship have remained consistent with the ancient meaning of techne , (i.e., “bringing forth” in harmony with nature), modern technology operates at a different more advanced level which often redirects, challenges, and even supplants nature. . Consequently, we will present modern technology as a pardigm the combines attributes of both episteme and poiesis.

(For examples of the advocacy of these traditional paradigms IDT, see, for example, Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Bunderson, 2000; Gibbons, 2000; Simon, 1997.)

Having identified three traditional views of the central concern of IDT, we are now prepared to suggest a fourth. Before presenting it, we acknowledge the importance of the three traditional centers, even as we suggest that they should be subordinated to a concern that is even more central and important. Indeed, this concern is the very reason for the existence of our field—the reason why we apply science, design artifacts, and use technology. Because it is the reason for all that we think about and do, acknowledging its proper place would revolutionize IDT: i.e., literally cause it to revolve around a new center.

Help: Toward an Ethics-Centered Paradigm

We suggest that help is the ultimate center of IDT's concerns. Although rarely explicitly acknowledged as our center, helping learners learn always has been the reason for the existence of IDT. To see help, or helping, as our ultimate center is to see IDT in the realm of what Aristotle called praxis, the realm of political and ethical concerns of citizens in the polis, or city. To elaborate the notion of help and explain the differences among the four centers, we will present the discussion that follows in question and answer format. Q & A is colloquial and is thus appropriate to serve our ultimate purpose: the initiation of a field-wide conversation about the possibilities of IDT as a helping discipline and profession.

Q: What should be the central concern, or mission, of IDT?

A: The central concern should be to improve learning by providing help to learners and teachers. IDT is essentially a helping profession whose mission is to foster the growth of individuals in all of the important venues of their lives: i.e., the school, workplace, home, church, and community—the traditional locations of interest for education and the social sciences.

Q: Why do you use the word help ?

A: Help expresses simply, yet accurately, what we mean. It also locates the discussion of help in the ordinary world of practical affairs rather than in the world of the merely conceptual. Here, in the ordinary language of everyday life, are some typical definitions of help found in two typical dictionaries that ordinary people might use. Consider what they might mean in learning and teaching settings?

The first set of definitions is from the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1998/1999):

  • to give or provide what is necessary to accomplish a task or satisfy a need; contribute strength or means to; render assistance to; cooperate effectively with; aid; assist:
  • to make easier or less difficult; contribute to; facilitate:
  • to be useful or profitable to:
  • to give aid; be of service or advantage:
  • the act of helping; aid or assistance; relief or succor.

Similar definitions are found in the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (1831/1994):

  • to give assistance or support to (~a child with homework)
  • to make more pleasant or bearable: IMPROVE, RELIEVE…
  • to be of use to; BENEFIT; to further the advancement of: PROMOTE
  • to change for the better…

Additional meanings could be cited, but these ordinary definitions of help illustrate the meanings that we intend.

Q: Why do you call the aspiration to help “ethical”?

A: The aspiration to help people, to make a difference in their lives, is by definition “ethical,” involving questions about what is good and bad for humans and the nature of the good life—i.e., what the Greeks called eudaemonia. Although the terms ethical and moral are often used interchangeably, we use ethica l to refer to the social relation, whereas moral often refers to more formal standards or codes of conduct. In this sense, ethics is more fundamental than, and logically prior to, morality because it refers to the responsibility, or obligation, to put the other first and to be-for-the-other, upon which the establishment of moral standards or codes of conduct depends.

Q: What are some examples of the ethical?

A: Two examples from Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher of ethics, illustrate “putting the other first” and “being-for-the-other,” respectively. The first example is when we say, “After you,” to another when we approach a door at the same time. Levinas thinks putting the other first is just that simple. The second example is found in motherhood: the expression par excellence of sacrifice, or being-for-the-other (Levinas and Kearney, 1986). When it is pointed out that a woman has given her last crust of bread to her young children without withholding any for herself, a sufficient explanation of why she did what she did in most cultures is simply to say, “Because she is their mother” (Victor Hugo, as quoted in Holland, 1997).

Q: Upon reflection, it seems inarguable that IDT is a helping profession. Why has so little been said and written about it before?

A: As the introductory superscription says, “If the eye were not attuned to the sun, men could not see it (Goethe, 1805).” Modernism, the Enlightenment, and the enormous prestige of science have attuned us not to see the primordial fundamentality of the ethical relation (Inouye, 1995, 2003; Levinas, 1969; MacIntyre, 1984; Wilson, 1995). Also, the very ubiquity of obligation and responsibility make them more difficult to see. “If men were fish,” says a quotation often attributed to Spinoza, “the last thing they would see is water.” Being-for-the-other is so fundamental to what it means to be human that we take it for granted. It lies in the tacit dimension, in what Polanyi (1968) called our subsidiary awareness. Without discussions like this one, it would not be brought into focal awareness, where it can be articulated.

Unfortunately, the relative invisibility of the ends of our profession has caused us to focus instead on its more readily visible means. Consequently, the curricula we use to train IDT professionals, the literature we have them read, and the specializations they enter upon graduation are heavily weighted in favor of the means of our field, i.e., the theories, techniques and technology which we use instrumentally to help learners to learn. Little training is offered concerning IDT's ethical ends, and the prudent, practically wise considerations that members of a helping profession must be schooled in to help and safeguard those they serve.

Aristotle's Activities of the Rational Intellect

Help as Praxis

Q: You have stated that the Greeks used the terms theoresis to refer to contemplative knowledge, episteme to refer to scientific knowledge, and poiesis to refer to the knowledge of making. In addition, you have used episteme/poiesis to refer to modern technology. How did the Greeks refer to help?

A: Aristotle used the term praxis to refer to the political and ethical actions of citizens in the polis . “The mode of being of humans,” said he, “does not consist in producing (poiesis), but in acting (praxis)” (Aristotle as cited in Taminiaux, 1991). To help is a form of praxis: “practical action” involving social or ethical relations among people. Because praxis involves choice that combines right desire with right reason, praxis inevitably requires doxa, or judgment. Phronesis— i.e., prudence or practical wisdom, is the chief virtue of praxis and the manifestation of excellence of doxa ..

Episteme versus poiesis and praxis

Q: How does episteme differ from praxis and poiesis?

A: An initial difference is found in the fact that poiesis and praxis involve calculation and deliberation. Episteme does not deliberate because, “No one deliberates about the unvarying,” said Aristotle (350 B.C.E./1908 ).

Perhaps more fundamental is the difference between events or objects that arise naturally and those that arise through the exercise of human agency. The knowledge objects of episteme are eternal, occurring naturally, existing of necessity, and arising universally from the same invariant causes across all time and space. No amount of calculation or deliberation and no exercise of agency will change them. By contrast, the knowledge objects of poiesis and praxis are temporal, brought into existence by choice, existing contingently, and arising uniquely from varying causes that typically vary from time to time and place. Because of this lack of universality, poiesis and praxis are situated and contextual.

One way to see this difference between episteme on the one hand and poiesis and praxis on the other is to highlight their difference with respect to is and ought. Aristotle saw that true and false were to episteme as approach and avoidance were to poiesis and praxis. True and false refer to a relation that either is or is not. Approach and avoidance, on the other hand, refer to two possible courses of action that either ought or ought not to be taken. This difference will be important in the discussion below of the is of research versus the ought of evaluation.

Some examples may help clarify the difference. An example of an invariant analytically true relationship in episteme would be: Triangles have three sides. An example of a relatively invariant synthetically true relationship would be: E = MC2—the universal conservation law. By contrast, an example of approach versus avoidance in poiesis would be choosing in a specific situation and context whether or not to use the ADDIE model in designing and developing an instructional unit. An example of approach versus avoidance in praxis would be choosing whether or not to use nationwide testing to improve accountability in education. What is good, better, or best in cases like the latter is contextually bound, situationally specific, and temporally dependent.

Poiesis versus praxis

Q: In what ways do poiesis and praxis differ?

A: Poiesis is about things; praxis is about people. As Taminiaux puts it, “For the Greeks, the verb poiein and the substantive poiesis designate an activity involving things rather than people, whereas the verb prattein and the substantive praxis designate an activity with the agents themselves”(1991).

Another important difference is that poiesis is a-telic— i.e., its artifacts are produced to serve ends other than themselves whereas praxis is telic—i.e., its actions are ends-in-themselves. In poiesis, the ends served by the product are typically those of the producer. Because poiesis is a-telic, the activities of poiesis would be more appropriate as means to ends rather than as ends-in-themselves.

A third difference is that poesis is univocal, having one voice; praxis is equivocal, having two or more voices. Hannah Arendt (1958) writes that whereas poiesis is characterized by the univocity of its model, of its means and of its goal, the activities of praxis are thoroughly ambiguous, or equivocal, because they connect one or several individuals to others in and through the social relation.

This does not mean, for example, that a poem written by a poet can only have one meaning. The meaning of the univocity referred to is that the poem is the voice, or product, of a single maker, or a single will. Praxis, on the other hand, is equivocal because it arises from the interaction, or mutual interdependence, of individuals , or wills. Thus the activities of praxis are by definition equivocal because they arise from the multiple voices of a plurality of individuals.

Arendt further explains that the univocity of poiesis , or making, is defined by (a) its beginning, the producer's plan; (b) its goal, the completion of the product; (c) the means available for its implementation; (d) the capacities required of the producer, and beyond itself (e) a specific use of the product. These five standard elements, or causes, narrow the meaning of the thing that is made and show how the products of making are univocal, even when created by collaborators.

In praxis , such univocity cannot be found. The very life of someone in relation to and among others is inscribed within an existing network of relationships and of verbal exchanges of multiple voices which create multiple and constant factors of ambiguity.

After elaborating her teaching, Arendt concludes that poiesis , or the productive activity, is univocal, predictable, reversible, and often anonymous. Praxis, on the other hand, is characterized by relative ambiguity, unpredictability, irreversibility, and of individuality within plurality.

When activities combine

Q: In your view are there no forms of episteme legitimately present in what instructional designers do?

A: Aristotle taught that most activities in poiesis also involve episteme, so it follows that there may be many forms of episteme legitimately present in what instructional designers do. The involvements in episteme may, however, not be at the level that instructional designers expect and need. They may expect or need guidance at the level of laws or principles of learning that we have been socialized to believe come from episteme, but which is reality may actually belong instead to praxis. The authentic elements of episteme may be associated with the physical matter from which the artifact is made; or with the mathematical formalisms used to bring the artifact into existence. Although elements of episteme may be present, the overall making, per se, belongs to poiesis. Why? Because making the artifact is a “bringing forth into presence,” whose existence is contingent rather than necessary, which arises from varying originative causes rather than unvarying causes, and whose coming into existence is the product of choice and calculation rather than of nature acting by itself.

Q: Do you have any general suggestions about how to classify those activities that combine two or more of the kinds of knowledge?

A: The rule of combination is to classify the activity according to the ultimate purpose of the constitutive activities involved. For example, if a generalization from episteme were used to design an instructional sequence (poiesis) in order to maximize the help given to learners (praxis), the overall combination of activities would be in praxis. Thus, helping learners is the final cause in praxis “for the sake of which” the activities of episteme and poiesis were contributive.

The postmodern relevance of Aristotle's categories

Q: Why are you taking Aristotle's activities of the rational intellect so seriously? Is this ancient classification still valid today?

A: Aristotle's classification is still valid and the lack of understanding of it may be part of the reason that mainstream education and social science have been so unsuccessful in predicting and controlling the phenomena they study. If, for example, education and the social sciences belong to the praxis instead of episteme in theoresis, their missions, goals, and methods need to be rethought and reformed.

From Aristotle until Descartes—about 2000 years—the three activities of the rational intellect were as different, but legitimate. Because each was seen as independent of the others, the knowledge of one kind of activity could not be reduced to the others. With Descartes—who with Ockham initiates the modern period—the exercise of radical doubt with its insistence on knowing the mind through “clear and distinct ideas” and knowing the world through “rational inference” made episteme, or science, the primary and only legitimate way of knowing (Faulconer, 1992).

From Descartes on, poiesis and praxis could only gain legitimacy if and when they could be reduced to episteme As a consequence, the study of poiesis , as found in the arts and crafts, and the study of praxis, as found in the social, political and ethical realm, became increasingly scientific (epistemic). The study of their subject matters, i.e., fine arts, engineering, architecture, education, and the social sciences became increasingly scientific, adopting the methods of inquiry and the use of scientific tools that we employ today. Successive generations of workers in these fields were socialized to believe that scientific knowledge was the highest, if not the only, legitimate kind of knowing.

So great has become the prestige of science that the epithet “unscientific” with its pejorative connotation is often sufficient to discredit any discipline, profession, product, or person. For most in the Academy, the canons of science have become the criteria for respectability. Modern science has thus assumed the role once played by God in society. It explains creation, provides authority, pronounces truth, mediates communication, etc.

In recent years postmodernism, with its critique and deconstruction of modernism, has returned to Aristotle in attempting to trace where the Western tradition had gone wrong. Heidegger, one of the philosophers that all postmodern thinkers have in common, in his Project of Fundamental Ontology reappropriates the Nicomachean Ethics and the categories of knowledge described above (Heidegger, 1996).

The Relevance of the Categories to IDT

Q: Why are Aristotle's categories relevant to our attempts to define IDT?

A: Because the differences among the categories are also the differences among the paradigms of IDT, they can inform the defining process about what to include and what to exclude. Table 1 summarizes the discussion to this point.

Table 1. Aristotle on the categories of the rational intellect.


Genera, or Categories, of The Rational Intellect

1. Constituent faculties

The Scientific Faculty

The Calculative, or Deliberative Faculty

2. Activities Theoresis(contemplating or observing) Poiesis (making)

Praxis (acting)

3. The virtues (arête) through which the soul comes to truth Episteme (scientific knowledge.) Nous (intuition); & Sophia (philosophical wisdom).

Techne (art or skill) in making or producing art and artifacts

Phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom) in practical affairs.
4. Classical examples Geometry, physics Poetry, sculpture, architecture

Politics, ethics, social relations

5. IDT examples Researching and measuring Instructional designing and developing Learning, teaching, judging, and evaluating

6. Originating causes


Varying as a function of time, space, purpose, and choice

7. Ontology Necessary, eternal, imperishable, ungenerated

Contingent, temporal, perishable, generated by deliberative choice

8. Range of application

Universal, across time and space

Specific, depending on time, location and context

9. Positive and negative states Affirmation versus negation— is versus is not

Approach versus avoidance—ought versus ought not

10. The good and bad of its virtue Episteme's propositions are true or false. Techne varies from good to bad.

Phronesis is always excellent.

11. Ends, or final causes A-telic. Modern science has rejected final causes. A-telic. Poiesis seeks ends other than itself. Telic. Activities of Praxis are ends in themselves.

12.Characteristic properties of the activity

Invariant, quantitative, predictable

Univocal, quantitative, predictable, reversible, anonymous

Equivocal, qualitative, unpredictable, irreversible, individual

Although Table 1 can stand by itself as a catalogue of differences among the categories of the intellect, it may be pedagogically useful to review the systematic differences below in row by column order.

Rows 1 and 2. Row 1 shows two major divisions of the rational intellect: the scientific faculty in column I, and the calculative or deliberative faculty in columns II and III. Row 2 shows that the activity of the scientific faculty was theoresis , or contemplation and observation (column I), while the activities of the calculative faculty were poiesis, or making (column II), and praxis, or practical action (column III), respectively. Because theoresis includes not only episteme, or scientific knowledge, but also nous, or intuitive intellect, and sophia, or philosophical wisdom, it is overly broad for our present purpose. Accordingly, we have focused on episteme, that part of theoresis most akin to modern science.

Rows 3-12. The remaining rows represent dimensions that differentiate among the three activities: Row 3 contains the virtues, or ways in which the soul comes to know the truth, of theoresis, poiesis, and praxis. Row 3, column I, theoresis, contains three virtues, while column II, poiesis, and column III, praxis, contain one each. Row 4 shows classical examples of each of the activities; row 5 shows IDT examples.

Notice that each of the columns of row 5 contains a center of concern for IDT. Column I contains educational research and measurement; column II contains instructional design and development; and column III contains learning, teaching, and evaluation. Modern technology, a fourth traditional center, is not shown because it represents a hybrid combination of episteme and poiesis.

Rows 6 through 10 represent ways in which episteme differs from both poiesis, and praxis. If IDT's center of ultimate concern moves from episteme in the direction of praxis, then the following shifts are implied:

Row 6. Originating causes shift from unvarying to varying.

Row 7. Ontological status shifts from necessary, eternal, imperishable, and ungenerated, to contingent, temporal, perishable, and generated.

Row 8. Range of application shifts from universal across time and space to specific, depending on situation, context, and time.

Row 9. Positive and negative states shift from affirmation versus negation to

approach versus avoidance: i.e., from “is versus is not” to “ought versus ought not.”

If seeing help at the center implies a new paradigm, these shifts in foci could be decisively important in how our field defines itself. If the activities of episteme differ fundamentally from those of poiesis and praxi s, and if the phenomena of IDT belong to praxi s, then the methods used to find “is versus is not” in episteme might be wholly inappropriate to find “ought” versus “ought not” in praxis. Instead of looking for that which exists, our eyes should be attuned to looking for that which is wise and good to do. Seeing help at the center would put us in the business of seeking practical wisdom and helping people, the realm of ethics and choice, rather than in the business of just searching for what is objectively real, the realm of metaphysics and invariant determination.

Rows 10 through 12 show other similarities and differences among the three activities of the rational intellect.

Row 10. The good and the bad of the relevant virtue shifts from true versus false in the case of episteme and good versus bad in the case of techne to prudent versus not prudent in the case of phronesis.

Row 11. Ends or final causes shift from a-telic to telic. This shift is one reason why the ultimate purpose of IDT will be found in praxis instead of poiesis. Because the activities of poiesis are a-telic; they do not serve as ends-in-themselves, but are by definition only capable of being used as means toward other ends. This is why ultimate purposes will not be found in episteme. Although Aristotle's science included final causes, since the time of Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes, modern science rejected them. It became unfashionable and illegitimate to personify nature as having final goals or purposes.

Row 12. Characteristics of the activity shift from univocity, predictability, reversibility, and anonymity that arise from the productive activities of a single or unified will in poiesis, to equivocity, quantitative indeterminacy, unpredictability, irreversibility, and individuality in the plurality of praxis. These characteristics arise from the dynamic interaction, or mutual interdependence, of the multiple wills, the multiple ends, and the multiple means found in the social relation.

Having reviewed the systematic differences between the episteme, poesis, and praxis, we are now prepared to consider implications of these shifts in emphasis for the discipline, the profession, and the constituent subfields of IDT.

February 2005 IDT Record