Lessons From a Teacher in Instructional Design

April 2024
Ciera Carr

I truly love learning. From a young age, I knew I wanted to teach. For 10 years I taught preschool and kindergarten, during which I studied instructional design. On top of teaching, I spent some time training teachers and district staff in technology before I moved into my current role—an instructional designer here at Education Northwest.

All my years teaching learners of all ages, in many different formats, prepared me for what I do now: design engaging learning experiences for young people and adults in the field of education and beyond.

Here Are a Few Lessons I’ve Learned as a Teacher in Instructional Design.

For Lasting Impact, Create Engaging Learning Experiences

Ever since fifth grade, I knew I wanted to teach. My teacher, Ms. Wesley, made learning fun. In her class, we didn’t just take notes from the board—we experienced learning. From taking care of our pet squirrel to earning “money” and spending it in our class store, her activities brought learning to life.

When it was time for me to start teaching, I thought I was destined to follow in Ms. Wesley’s footsteps, teaching fifth grade. But I fell in love with early childhood. Part of what I loved was that everything was brand new to my kids—even the smallest things were a learning experience. One day during the pandemic, I was teaching my kindergartners about states of matter from my house. I explained how ice melts into water, then evaporates into steam. I picked up my laptop, walked into my kitchen, put a pan on the stove, and dropped an ice cube in. As my students watched it melt and evaporate, they were so amazed.

When we find ways to make learning memorable and fun, we keep learners engaged and improve the impact of our training.

When I design learning experiences today, I still strive to bring them to life for my learners. An adult mentor may not remember strategies for building cultural awareness if we just list them on screen in a virtual learning module. But if we embed an activity where they apply those strategies in a relevant, real-world example, they not only learn something new but also walk away knowing how to use it. When we find ways to make learning memorable and fun, we keep learners engaged and improve the impact of our training.

Center the Learner and Their Needs

When I was teaching during the pandemic, my district rolled out a one-to-one program—one computer for every student in the district. They needed teachers to serve as ambassadors at each school to help with the transition. Since I had studied instructional design and liked technology, I decided to sign up. What I didn’t realize was the district expected us to be point people for troubleshooting—not only for students and parents but also for our colleagues. That meant we had to lead trainings for many different audiences. I was trained by Microsoft, then took all that information and created my own trainings for my school. Later, I ended up leading trainings for district staff, as well. All these different audiences had different skill levels and different needs.

Any time I develop trainings, I know it’s essential to understand the learner—what they need and what they want. When I developed learning modules for the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, I went back to my time in the classroom. I put myself in the spot of an early childhood educator. I considered what that preschool teacher would need at different parts of the trainings and what they would not need. Having an intuitive understanding of the needs of diverse learners allows us to make relevant, applicable, and engaging learning experiences.

Accommodate Different Styles of Learning and Interaction

Because I love learning, I have attended a LOT of in-person trainings. When I know what I’m going to learn and understand in the session, I can be fully present. But when trainings are full of activities that feel less relevant—like making you get up and interact with random new people at every activity—I start to drift away. I don’t want a sit-and-get training, but I also don’t want to interact with the whole room. You want me to discuss this idea with my table? That’s cool; we’re family now! Just don’t make me do 10 ice-breakers in a single day.

Different learners have different preferences on how they learn and interact. I carry that in my mind on every project here at Education Northwest. For example, last year I designed in-person trainings and orientations for AmeriCorps VISTA—a program with adult learners of all ages, some of whom move across the country to entirely new communities for their year of service. When I thought about activities to include in the training, I thought back to all those in-person trainings I attended and all the poor introverts in those rooms. Then I reconsidered the learning objectives (what did AmeriCorps VISTA members really need to get out of their limited time in person?) and made sure to mix the right amount of interaction and social time—all while staying focused on topics that were most relevant for our learners.

Make Learning Inclusive to Provide Equitable Opportunities

I’m about to send my son off to college, and I think it’s amazing how many paths are available to young people today. When I was younger, there weren’t as many options—especially for women. I was not introduced to a variety of jobs in school, so the careers I considered were the ones that the women in my life already had.

Every learner deserves access to opportunity. Making learning inclusive can support them in exploring every path available to them. That’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about early childhood STEM—introducing little ones to science and technology so every student, including women and students of color, can see themselves excelling in these subjects and related careers. In my preschool and kindergarten classrooms, I used to teach coding and have STEM clubs. I want to infuse those kinds of opportunities into my instructional design today. By keeping our learners and equity at the heart of instructional design, we can have a significant impact on access and opportunity.

Even though I left the classroom, I will forever be a teacher at heart. With instructional design, I’m just teaching on a larger scale—but I always keep my students in mind.