We learn best when we learn through a systems approach.
—Comenius, The Great Didactic, 1650
The earliest instruction in recorded history was not training in our modern sense, but what we would today call performance support or coached performance improvement. The ancient Greeks, focused on oral coaching, delivered hands-on apprenticeships coupled with extensive mentoring. The word "mentor," in fact, derives from a figure in Homer's Odyssey who acted as a life-long learning guide to the hero's son. Similarly, the early Romans also insisted on hands-on apprenticeships; nothing was allowed to be taught that couldn't be instructed while the student was actually at work. Learning was on-the-job performance support, or it was nothing.
During the Middle Ages, the guilds (medieval trade unions) organized their training into performance-centered systems in which learners developed skills through competency-based exams and were certified as either apprentice, journeyman, or master performer. Always there was coaching and mentoring alongside the practical daily experience of the apprenticeship. One learned, quite simply, by doing.
As the age of agriculture slowly gave way, in the 1700s and 1800s, to the industrial age, a gradual shift occurred, and there started to appear the first vocational institutes in the form of factory and correspondence schools, our first distance learning institutions. The precursor of written instructional design was the teacher's "lesson plan"—in which were recorded the objectives for the curriculum together with the learning solution. The learning solution—which typically combined book readings, lectures, written exercises, oral discussions, and tests—was, in effect, the original "blended" solution.
Instructional design (ID) did not become a full-fledged profession, however, until World War II, when it was literally born under gunfire. Instructional designers were suddenly needed to create training courses for the complex operations of highly technical military assault weapons—air force planes, navy submarines, and computerized anti-aircraft guns. They also invented the army training film and introduced the new discipline of "human factors" (to complement the "machine factors"), which was such an essential part of the new high-performing defense systems. Not surprisingly, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) was also launched at the height of World War II, in 1943. (See also Human Factors and Ergonomics.)
During these early pioneer days of instructional design, behaviorist systems reigned supreme, and for good reason. Designers were creating courses that primarily taught an intricate series of physical tasks requiring split-second timing, and a behaviorist model was ideal for this. The Army Air Corps needed training designers who, in the words of Robert Gagne, "could transform farm boys into airplane mechanics in thirty days instead of two years." The key to success (a principle still valid today) was the breaking down or "decomposition" of training into small behavioral units or steps, followed by the proper sequencing of these steps. Taught and applied appropriately, the technique was enormously successful.
From its inception during the War, instructional design was also automatically "systems" design ("big picture" design incorporating intricate, interlocking parts and procedures rather than "piecemeal" design), for at the heart of the war effort was the need to train on how to operate complex, computerized weapon systems (rather than mechanical weapon systems).
In the 1950s, following World War II, B. F. Skinner and the behaviorists carried this systems campaign into civilian territory, with their promotion of the new technology of the automated teaching machine (which primarily taught sequential procedures), and the "programmed instruction" (PI) movement was born. This movement announced that small-step instructions, with interactive branching possibilities, would bring radical cost reductions to training. To some extent it did, and on the strength of this, behaviorist programmed instruction, with its detailed sequences of small steps, took hold as a major movement during the 1960s. Its strategy of intricate, branching interactivity led in turn to the computer-based training (CBT) movement of the 1970s. Modern computers could support the rigorous branching demands much better than could the mechanical teaching machine.
By the mid-1970s, instructional design had matured to the point where, in a series of white papers from both civilian and military sectors, it announced a systems model of its own called "ADDIE." ADDIE (which, although unnamed, had actually been in widespread use since the 1950s) stood for the formal instructional design process of "Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation," which went into the creation of classroom training. We shall have more to say about this in a moment.