How to love content (2 of 3)

In my last post I talked about how I found the Instructional Design model of learning content types. In this post I’ll focus on how I used it, successfully and not, during the 1990s

You may see some ways they could be useful to you.

Ruth Clark said all content you’re asked to present can be classified as:


  1. facts: one-off pieces of information
  2. concepts: categories and classes of nouns or verbs
  3. procedures: prescriptive steps to achieve an aim (how to …)
  4. processes: descriptive steps showing how something works
  5. principles: rules of thumb where some judgement and interpretation is involved
[clear] She also used this performance-content matrix to create learning objectives. (This version is an Image from Tom Gram)

Tom Gram version of Content/Performance matrix
Tom Gram version of Content/Performance matrix

So for each type of content there are two levels of learning objective, Apply (or Use) and Remember. The exception is Fact, where the only thing you can actually do with a fact is remember it or, in a test, state it.  With a concept, you could have words like classify, categorise, match, group, distinguish, sort and so on.  The idea was that any piece of learning would have a balance of Remember and Apply objectives. A good course would be biased towards Apply, because of the limit of cognitive load in simple recall objectives, and also because, after all, we’re doing the training so that people do actually apply it in real life, aren’t we?

I’ve talked in a previous post about why remember objectives might be necessary in certain circumstances, but in those days even the admission that they weren’t the whole story was refreshing.

I used it everywhere in my own designs, and  thought I’d found a key to helping  designers and even trainers make sense of content. I had the opportunity to teach lots of groups at Scottish Widows the basics of instructional design and I always included it.  And they always struggled with it. Why?

No doubt my failings were partly to blame, but there were some things I learned as I went along.

Various vintage drawings of chairs
Groups seemed to easily accept the distinction between facts and concepts. We usually had some fun with the concept of a chair – what is it that makes a chair a chair such that it can include all the examples of things you know to be chairs and exclude the things you know aren’t.  So for example does a chair need a back?  Yes, that’s a part of the definition because without one it’s a stool.  Does it need legs? No it doesn’t, as you can have bar chairs with one leg.  And so on.

What I scheduled for a five minute discussion always turned into twenty.  People enjoyed the game but when it came to taking examples of content from work – like a mortgage –  and deciding if you’d treat them as fact or concept they always struggled.

(I quickly learned to approach the question that way – not ‘Is it a fact or a concept?’ but ‘would you treat it as a fact or a concept’).

The same happened with procedure and process, which were crystal clear to me. Procedure was instructions, process was description. But that went against the grain of how the business used the words – they didn’t make the distinction at all. Everything was a ‘process’.  You have a task to do, you ‘follow a process’. Habit trumped new ideas.

Most groups eventually got it, particularly when we went on to applying it to actual learning objectives but I realised that while I was of a philosophical, theoretical bent and enjoyed this stuff, most people didn’t. On my Taxonomy of Direness, somewhere between a Challenge and a Barrier.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I changed my views of how to use the ideas, how Clive Shepherd used them and the day Donald Clark took me to the pub.

No 1 in this series

No 3 in this series

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