MET:The R2D2 Model of Instructional Design

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A description and analysis of Jerry Willis' R2D2 model of Instructional Design for Constructivist learning with examples. This article was initially authored by Teunis (Tim) Roos (February-March 2012)


Jerry Willis(2009)[1], editor of the book, Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models and Examples [2], sees current Instructional Design (ID) as moving in three directions. First, there is a traditional ID that focuses on a linear method of design. The ADDIE Model and, more specifically, the Dick and Carey Model of Instructional Systems Design(ISD) are examples. These models are based on learning theories of the behavioral and cognitive families. Willis believes these models of ID run counter to the tenets of constructivism. Then there is the Design-Based Research (DBR) group who, in attempting to solve local design problems, hope to produce ideas and theories that are more broadly applicable. Although Willis feels DBR has some positive merit, DBRs inherent goal to produce generalizations run counter to constructivist principles. Willis proposes that a completely separate model of ID based entirely on constructivism is the only way to properly implement learning situations that involve activities based on constructivist learning theory.

Instructional Design (History and Development)

Up until the early 1900s, there was no effort made to standardize curriculum or instruction (Wiburg, 2009). It was left up to each teacher to decide what would be used in their classroom to prepare students for life after school. As a result of academic studies in behavioral sciences in the later 1800s and early 1900s, Edward Thorndike [3] encouraged the standardization of curricula and instruction so the educational process would become more efficient. These ideas of efficiency ran parallel to similar ideas put into practice in industry and business (Wiburg, 2009).

At the same time, John Dewey viewed learning somewhat differently and argued that the efficiency of rote learning provided no long-term benefit (Reiser, 2012). He felt that placing students in authentic situations where real-life problem solving occurred would provide better skills for life. Dewey’s ideas, however, did not have much influence at this time; possibly because the teaching models employed by the military to prepare soldiers in World War I and II required an extreme form of efficiency and served as models for classroom instruction as well (Wiburg, 2009).

Following World War II, behavioral theories of learning came to dominate classroom practice (Reiser, 2012). The work of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner led to the ideas of programmed instruction based on specific behavioral objectives. This led to the design of teaching tasks that were specifically aimed at fulfilling the required objectives. This was also the basis of Skinner’s teaching machines. Thus a form of systematic instructional design was born, leading to models such as the ADDIE Model and Dick and Carey Model of instructional design (Branch & Merrill, 2012; Wiburg, 2009).

It was soon realized that not all students can be treated equally or expected to respond equally to standardized objectives. Academic studies in cognitive learning theories began to have influence and were linked to practice by researchers such as Benjamin Bloom and Robert Gagnè(Reiser, 2012). Teachers were encouraged to use a variety of methods to reach all of their students, incorporating these into their design of instruction. These ideas, popularized by Madeline Hunter, focused on the individual learner and the content to be conveyed but fail to take into account the social context of the learner (Wiburg, 2009).

Constructivism in Education

Constructivism, as a learning theory, was formalized by Jean Piaget who argued that children, by engaging their senses in the objects and symbols around them, construct meaning and understanding in their minds (Driscoll, 2005). This construction takes place through assimilation of new information by creating connections to prior knowledge. If the new information does not agree with the prior knowledge, accommodation must occur through a process of internal cognitive negotiation. Lev Vygotsky added to this notion by emphasizing the importance of social context in learning. He felt that each person has a zone of proximal development extending beyond the current level of knowing that, if stimulated by a more knowledgeable person or tool, would lead to learning. Ernst von Glasersfeld [4] provided a radical definition of constructivism by arguing that an individual’s perception of reality and truth are internal constructs of the individuals mind and are not necessarily the same as any other individual. By taking the ideas of these three scientists, constructivism, in its practical classroom application, requires more student autonomy in learning situations guided by problem solving. This matches Dewey’s perceptions of learning (Wiburg, 2009). This shifts the role of teaching from a teacher-focused presentation of knowledge to be transferred into the students’ mind into a student-centered internal construction of knowledge through engagement with information in the form of symbols and artifacts. This shifts the focus of instructional design from information presentation techniques to providing opportunities for students to engage themselves with information.

Constructivism in Instructional Design (C-ID)

Although Walter Dick (developer of the Dick and Carey ISD Model) (1996) argues that principles of constructivism and constructivist learning activities can be accommodated by linear models based on behavioristic and cognitive theories of learning, Willis argues otherwise. Willis states that there is a difference between pedagogical ID and process ID (Willis, 2009a). Pedagogical ID focuses on the strategies and activities based on certain theories of learning that are incorporated into instruction through the design process. Process ID, on the other hand, involves the various steps taken and the theoretical underpinnings of these steps as instruction is designed. Willis reasons that constructivism can be incorporated into a pedagogical ID view of the Dick and Carey Model but stands in opposition to the process ID view of this model. He goes to considerable lengths to answer critics both of constructivism as a learning theory and its use in instructional design (Willis, 2009b). The following table summarizes what Willis sees as key differences in process.

The Outcome of Two Foundational Theories on Instructional Design (Willis, 2009c)
Characteristics of Objective-Rational ID Models Characteristics of Constructivist-Interpretivist ID Models
  1. The process is sequential and linear
  2. Planning is top-down and “systematic”
  3. Objectives guide development
  4. Experts, who have special knowledge, are critical to ID work
  5. Careful sequencing and teaching of sub skills are important
  6. The goal is delivery of preselected knowledge
  7. Summative evaluation is critical
  8. Objective data are critical
  1. The ID process is recursive, nonlinear, and sometimes chaotic
  2. Planning is organic, developmental, reflective and collaborative
  3. Objectives emerge from design and development work
  4. General ID experts don’t exist
  5. Instruction emphasizes learning in meaningful contexts
  6. “Formative” evaluation is critical
  7. Subjective data may be the most valuable

Maureen Tam (Tam, 2000) postulates the constructivist outlook and traditional design practice are incompatible due to their underlying theoretical basis. Based on five principles proposed by Lebow(1993), she reinforces Willis’ argument that instructional design does not just need modification; it needs a whole paradigm shift. This concept is echoed by Wiwat Puntai(2007) who proposes three principles of C-ID:

  1. C-ID is flexible – all stakeholders are involved in every aspect throughout the design process
  2. C-ID is non-linear – the process is spiral with no specified starting position; each aspect is continually reviewed
  3. C-ID is reflective – no generalizing rules are applied or proposed, reflection on context-specific events drive the process forward

The R2D2 Model of C-ID

Based on the aforementioned arguments, Willis set about to develop an C-ID Model that would reflect the values of constructivism as presented by Lebow(1993): collaboration, personal autonomy, generativity, reflectivity, active engagement, personal relevance, and pluralism. The acronym R2D2 [5] represents the name Recursive and Reflective Design and Development. In the spirit of true constructivism, Willis makes it clear that he is not proposing hard and fast rules or procedures. Rather he presents some general principle and procedures that help integrate constructivism into the design process. He supports others who have also attempted to develop similar models. His assumption is problems requiring ID are often ill-defined, having no well-known solutions and therefore present no clear point to initiate the problem solving process. He feels that the knowledge gained in going through the process is only contextually applicable and not broadly generalizable(Willis, 2009c).

Basic Principles (Willis, 2009c)

  1. Recursion – the steps taken in design need not follow a linear or waterfall sequence. The design problem should be able to be accessed from any angle at any time any number of times in any order. The situation or context determines the necessary steps, not the expert designer.
  2. Reflection – this is a continual cycle in framing the problems that occur in the design process, improvising a solution and finally implementing the solution.
  3. Participatory Design – all stakeholders, including students, need to be included in every aspect of the design process. The collective knowledge can be applied to produce more meaningful instruction.

General Procedures (Willis, 2009d)

The Impossible Triangle showing the recursive nature of the R2D2 Instructional Design process. Source: Dick (1996)

Willis presents his basic procedures graphically as an impossible triangle. This ensures the non-linearity of the model and allows entry to the procedures from any position. The design group will work on all three aspects intermittently and recursively.

  1. Define – involves three activities
    1. Creating and supporting a participatory team – This involves selecting all those who will be involved in any way in the ID process. A sense of empowerment must be provided to each member to help them realize they have equal input as a stakeholder. Each participant needs a full awareness of all aspects of the design so they can make informed contributions in all decisions. There are no real “specialists” or “experts” and the leader needs to be a facilitator rather than a dictator.
    2. Progressive problem solution – All aspects of the design process are addressed in a general way at the same time where everything affects everything else. This leads to the emergence of clearer objectives and more specific solutions in a continual spiral.
    3. Developing Phronesis (Contextual Understanding) – Only solutions that are directly derived from and applicable to the immediate context of the design focus are analyzed and implemented. No attempts are made to generalize from or to other contexts. It is only a good understanding of the immediate design focus that can lead to applicable solutions.
  2. Design and Development – these occur together to allow constant feedback an modification between the two. There are three activities.
    1. Selection of a Development Environment – includes
      1. Tools of design: software, hardware, manipulatives, etc. Factors of power, flexibility and accessibility guide choice.
      2. Process of design: pulling together components, linking the components into a single path prototype, add pathways to create alpha version, modify and clarify pathways to create beta version and further if necessary. Each step allows for recursion and revision of previous steps.
    2. Cooperative Inquiry – constant and cooperative research and reflection among all team members through formative evaluation to improve the final product. No quantitative goals are set. Qualitative goals are set and measured through subjective data collection in observations, interviews, artifacts, etc. This is done often throughout the process to obtain constant feedback for revision.
    3. Product Design and development – this involves the planning and development of the overall instructional techniques that will be used to provide the products of the C-ID process. A variety is encouraged and inclusion of student-centered techniques is necessary.
  3. Dissemination – this step has the design group focus on planning for methods of distributing the product free from commercialization, developing guidelines for adoption of the product into local contexts, and making final adjustments to make the product fit those local contexts. Each of these areas needs to be taken into consideration throughout the ID process.

Examples of Use

  • Willis (Colon, Taylor, & Willis, 2009) provides one example where he was involved in using his R2D2 Model to create instructional materials. This was a multimedia package designed to teach graduate students five critical ethnographic techniques in qualitative research. These were meaning fields, validity reconstruction, role analysis, power analysis and horizon analysis. The final product was presented on CD-ROM
  • R2D2 use is reported by Chwen Jen Chen and Seong Chong Toh (2005) of Malaysia. These designers built a virtual reality module to help novice car drivers attain driving skills.
  • Donna Merkley, Frederick Duffelmeyer, Penny Beed, Sharon Jensen and Aline Bobys (2007) used the R2D2 model to design a learning environment for preservice teachers to help understand early literacy assessment.
  • Ala Sadik (2006) produced a web-based learning environment using the R2D2 model of design. The environment was designed to study student-student and teacher-student online interaction in a math course.

Related C-ID Models

  • Yeongmahn You(1993) describes an C-ID model that uses chaos theory [6] as a guiding principle for instructional design. This theory avoids the standardized evaluation of effectiveness as well as the linear process of ISD having specific starting and stopping points.
  • Sonja Irlbeck, Elena Kays, Deborah Jones and Rod Sims (2006) develop a C-ID model based on emergence theory. These authors develop this model to include user input into the design process, especially for online learning environments
  • Douglas Kranch (2008)proposed the Iterative Individual Instructional Development Model (I3D) which promotes a cycle of reflective evaluation in a spiral manner. It allows the individual designer to evaluate the product through actual use.
  • Katherine Cennamo (2009)produced the Layers of Negotiation Model. This model incorporates a recursive process and identifies specific locations along the spiral pathway where reflection and negotiation among stakeholders is important.

A Related Instructional Design Tool with the Same Name

File:R2d2 model.png
A graphic representation of Bonk and Zhang's R2D2 Model used to develop online instructional materials. Source:

In 2006, Curtis Bonk and Ke Zhang (2006) developed a model to guide the design of online instructional delivery [7]. They named their model R2D2 which stands for read, reflect, display and do. This model ensures that teachers design their online instruction to meet various learning styles in a problem solving environment.

Further Reading

Stop Motion Video

ETEC 510: The R2D2 Model of Instructional Design by Harmeet Grewal


Bonk, C. J., & Zhang, K. (2006). Introducing the R2D2 Model: Online learning for the diverse learners of this world. Distance Education, 27(2), 249-264. doi:10.1080/01587910600789670

Branch, R. M., & Merrill, M. D. (2012). Characteristics of Instructional Design Models. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 8-16). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Cennamo, K. (2009). Design as Knowledge Construction: Constructing Knowledge of Design. In J. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design: Foundations, Models, and Examples (C-ID) (pp. 357-378). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Chen, C., & Toh, S. C. (2005). A feasible constructivist instructional development model for virtual reality (VR)-based learning environments: Its efficacy in the novice car driver instruction of Malaysia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(1), 111-123. Retrieved from

Colon, B., Taylor, K. A., & Willis, J. (2009). Constructivist Instructional Design: Creating a Multimedia Package for Teaching Critical Qualitative Research. In J. W. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 443-472). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Dick, W. (1996). The Dick and Carey model: Will it survive the decade? Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(3), 55-63. Retrieved from

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (3rd ed.). Toronto, Ont: Pearson Education.

Irlbeck, S., Kays, E., Jones, D., & Sims, R. (2006). The Phoenix Rising : Emergent models of instructional design. Distance Education, 27(2), 171-185. doi:10.1080/01587910600789514

Kranch, D. A. (2008). Getting It Right Gradually: An Iterative Method for Online Instruction Development. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(1), 6. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc. PO Box 79049, Charlotte, NC 28271-7047. Tel: 704-752-9125; Fax: 704-752-9113; e-mail: infoage@ infoagepub. com; Web site: Retrieved from

Lebow, D. (1993). Constructivist values for instructional systems design: Five principles toward a new mindset. Educational technology research and development, 4(3). Retrieved from

Merkley, D., Duffelmeyer, F., Beed, P., Jensen, S., & Bobys, A. (2007). Using the R2D2 model for creating collaboration among practicing teachers and preservice teachers during reading assessment preparation at four universities. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 15(4), 463. Retrieved from

Puntai, W. (2007). Integrating Constructivism into Instructional Design. Journal of Language and Communication, 12(12), 101-112. Retrieved from

Reiser, R. A. (2012). A History of Instructional Design and Technology. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 17-34). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Sadik, A. (2006). The Reality of Web-Based Interaction in an Egyptian Distance Education Course. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 5(1), 82-100. Retrieved from

Tam, M. (2000). Constructivism, instructional design, and technology: Implications for transforming distance learning. Educational Technology & Society, 3(2), 50–60. Citeseer. Retrieved from

Wiburg, K. (2009). Instructional Design: Is it Time to Exchange Skinner’s Teaching Machine for Dewey's Toolbox? In J. W. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 47-59). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Willis, J. (2009a). Three Trends in Instructional Design. In J. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 11-45). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Willis, J. (2009b). Foundations of Instructional Design: What’s Worth Talking About and What is Not. In J. W. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 81-108). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Willis, J. (2009c). Basic Principles of a Recursive, Reflective Instructional Design Model: R2D2. In J. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 283-312). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Willis, J. (2009d). A General Set of Procedures for C-ID: R2D2. In J. Willis (Ed.), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Examples (pp. 313-355). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

You, Y. (1993). What can we learn from chaos theory? An alternative approach to instructional systems design. Educational technology research and development, 41(3), 17-32. Retrieved from