This past year I've worked with colleagues at Brigham Young University, studying how practicing instructional designers do their everyday jobs - and in particular, how they use theory. My co-authors are Steve Yanchar, Joseph South, and Dave Williams. We presented our in-progress findings at AECT in Ahaheim, a couple of weeks ago.
Based on interviews and examination of working products of several designers in higher-ed and corporate settings, we found some interesting things. All our practitioners had instructional-design degrees and were glad they had that training and background. The degree gave them entry into the field and credibility with clients. Initial training in models and theory guided their general practice and orientation.
On the other hand, participants in the study did not report high levels of systematic theory use in their jobs. A designer might reference a theory when challenged on a particular design decision. Or they might consult a theorist when grappling with a challenging issue. Generally though, theory was in the deep background.
Another interesting finding - Not much effort to keep up with theory in the professional literature. Participants benefited from initial exposure in graduate school, but theory was strongly associated with that initial training, rather than part of a conversation that evolves over time.
These findings confirm in my mind the puzzling connection between what researchers do and what practitioners do. It's not merely that practitioners are failing in their work - the theories available often have only a limited relevance to the immediate issues facing the practitioner. Somehow we need to find better ways of dialogue and reciprocal influence.
On a related issue - one colleague mentioned a discussion with a leading theorist, approving wholeheartedly of people adapting or modifying his theories as they are put to work in real settings. I wonder if practitioners feel that same permission. Would be an interesting study for next year - to query theorists about their hopes and intentions for use of their work.