I have a feeling that most employees of Construct get asked the same question I do all the time: “So, what is instructional design?”

At some point, most of us probably had the same question. The answer to this question first came to me in the book Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen.

I am going to share a few nuggets of wisdom I got from this publication. We all might benefit from taking a look back at the basics that got us where we are.

How Do We Engage our Learners and Increase their Knowledge?

Dirksen talks about the human brain as a two-part system. There is the rider: the conscious, verbal, thinking brain; and the elephant: the automatic, emotional, visceral brain. The rider tends to exercise restraint and lead us to rational, long-term decision making. The elephant is usually impulsive and seeks satisfaction.

Dirksen lets us in on a secret: If you can get the attention of the elephant, then you will lessen the burden on the rider side of your brain.

Dirksen recommends the following activities to engage the elephant:

Once we have gotten the attention of the elephant, how do we design an experience for the learner to gain real, useful, and lasting knowledge?

Dirksen has a few recommendations:

Dirksen gives an example of a learning situation that applied many of these recommendations. The learning objective for a class was for the learners to recognize and make an excellent help wanted advertisement. To build up to this objective, they had to complete a series of activities. They ranked 5 advertisements from best to worst, identified problems with advertisements provided to them, and researched good examples of advertisements to bring to the class. Finally, they worked together as a group to create an excellent help wanted advertisement.

How do you engage your learners’ elephants? Are there some daily practices you find yourself using to increase your learners/ knowledge? When was the last time you really learned something and learned it well?

I find that going back to the basics can actually help me innovate when I am brainstorming activities learners need. Hopefully they help you too!


Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. New Riders, 2016.

Sarah Polhill

Instructional Designer at Construct