How different is instructional design in a K-12 setting vs. a corporate training setting?

Instructional design, at its core, is about creating learning experiences that engage and excite learners to embrace new knowledge and skills. That said, does the context – whether instructional design is applied to a traditional school classroom or a corporate training room – matter? Or is instructional design the same, regardless of context, setting and audience?

Last Monday, Endurance Learning welcomed its newest employee – Lauren Wescott – to our team. I first learned of Lauren and her skill set about 6 months ago when I saw a post on LinkedIn that said she’d been working in a K-12 setting as a teacher and instructional designer for several years and now wanted to explore the world of corporate training.


Today, Lauren is going to share some of her insights on the similarities and differences between instructional design in a K-12 setting and a corporate training setting. 

In Lauren’s words:

Teaching and training are two words that are often used interchangeably. However, there are important differences to note. Teaching is more theoretical and abstract. Teachers are imparting knowledge. Conversely, training is hands-on and immediately applicable. Trainers seek to develop ability.

For example, a teacher would teach you the rules of basketball, the physics of the perfect shot, and the measurements of the court. A trainer would provide practical knowledge to master the skill of basketball and develop player abilities over time.

When examining K-12 and corporate learning environments, there are some important contextual differences to take into consideration.

Classroom management looks different.

In K-12 learning, many teachers spend 50% or more of their time focused on classroom management. Teachers are making sure that their students aren’t eating crayons or passing notes to their boyfriend. In corporate learning, classroom management challenges manifest themselves in the form of standoffish learners who resent their manager sending them to a session, participants with a superiority complex, multi-tasking executives or quiet-yet-brilliant participants who are unwilling to speak up in a large group.

Corporate training is focused on application while K-12 learning is primarily assessment based.

In K-12 learning, teachers spend their time preparing students for their futures, 10 to 20 years down the road. In teaching, the way to gauge learning is assessment, usually in the form of testing. As a trainer of adult learners your content is relevant to your learners today. Learners directly apply their learning to their lives and jobs.

For both teachers and trainers, however, instructional design looks very similar. The goal is engaging, exciting learning.

All learners need to be engaged.

Kindergarteners respond to singing, dancing, costumes, and visual aids. Guess what? Adults do too! Engagement is key in every learning situation.

All learners need to interact with their learning.

Kids love games, building, and crafting. Similarly, I’ve never seen a room of adult learners that didn’t perk up when I put a box of Playdoh or a bucket of LEGOs in front of them!

Truth be told, instructional design should be the same regardless of the context, setting, and audience. Instructional design should be based on solid educational principles. Content delivery should be dynamic, interactive, and applicable. What will vary between teachers in a K-12 setting and trainers in a corporate setting is how learning is verified at the end of a lesson. Is learning being taught and assessed or trained and applied?

Have you come to corporate training or instructional design from a different career field? What transferrable lessons have you brought that have made you a better trainer or instructional designer?

9 thoughts on “How different is instructional design in a K-12 setting vs. a corporate training setting?

  1. Lauren

    I am a graduate student studying instructional design and technology. I am also a elementary teacher looking to start a career outside of the classroom. When deciding how this transition would impact my career and life, I wondered the same question as how different is instructional design in a school system for a classroom setting than in a private organizational setting.

    Stating both the difference and similarities of the two settings made it easier for me to understand and put into perspective. Engagement is the key to providing quality instruction. As a teacher I remember the lesson that went best were also the ones that provided excitement and opportunities for students do something like you said in your post, play with play play-doe and or draw, glue, and just interact with the material in an exciting way. I’m interested in learning how that will translate to the adult setting when creating/designing new content in my new role as a Instructional designer.

  2. I have taught the Spanish language in elementary, high school, college level, and with adults! I totally agree with you about engagement!… another common denominator is opportunity to practice! Nice write-up with good perspective. Good luck in your future in corporate training! 🙂

  3. Lauren is right… It’s about engaging the learnings and finding the “hook” that gets them interested. Quality instructional opportunities should:
    1. Provide information about something.
    2. Allow the learner to do something with what they learned in a “practice” type of environment where it’s not threatening to still be learning.
    3. Instill confidence in the learner to apply what has been learned in different settings and situations.

    With all of these together, whether adult or child, the learner is being set up for success. It’s been proven, through the scientific study of how we learn, that you must do something with what you are learning about in order for the information to stick in your brain. Lauren did a nice job tieing together K-12 and corporate instructional design. It’s all about the learning.

    • You’re so right, Kelli! If this blog post was a few hundred words longer it just may have gone in that direction. The science of how we learn and what’s effective is super interesting and applicable to what we do. Thanks for your insights.

  4. This is such a timely post for me! I will be making an opposite career move from Lauren – I am leaving the field of adult education and training to teach high school next year. I’ve been a trainer for almost 13 years and don’t have any K-12 experience. I have been trying to read all I can and mentally adjust my expectations and perspectives on what my new world will be and I have not yet found where someone has experience in both worlds compares the two.

    Lauren’s comparisons are SO helpful and easy to understand. I am going to print this article and carry it around with me for reference as I adopt a new mental model on what “teaching” will look like to me.

    Thank you!

    • Wow. That’s amazing Kathy! High School teachers and so needed, and play a foundational role in the lives of our kids. I’m confident that you will find that at the end of the day, teaching is teaching. Having clear and realistic expectations, strong classroom management, and a good attitude will take you far. Good luck on your new adventure!

  5. Enjoyed the article. Lauren’s definitions of teaching verses training were “refreshing” as I too have been one to use them interchangeably. She also used some great examples that I can relate to – both the K-12 and corporate situations. Looking forward to more articles by Lauren!

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