Teachers as designers of learning

Mark Burgess outlines a design process teachers can use when developing learning and teaching units.

Mark Burgess, Director of 21st Century Pedagogy at the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), the research and innovation unit of Northern Beaches Christian School, NSW, is passionate about teaching and learning. In this article, Mark describes how his team apply a design approach to educational problem solving and self-directed learning

A good teacher has an instinct for good design.

  • They care how the text on a worksheet is laid out.
  • They care about the beauty of the empty space on a page.
  • They care about the movement of students around a room.
  • They will be sensitive to the emotional climate in a learning space.
  • They can predict how much time should be allowed for certain activities in a lesson.

They will be aware of the aesthetics of a learning space - important factors such as fresh air, uncluttered walls, natural light and the level and type of noise.

They are aware of the various tools available to them in creating a valuable sequence of learning events.

A good teacher will design a learning component, such as a lesson or series of lessons, as a set of learning activities that most effectively deliver a positive learning experience for as many students as possible.

How does this idea of teacher as designer translate to current and future learning practices?

If we accept that the traditional model of a teacher in front of a class is less and less relevant, then we accept the following factors:

  • That the teacher, as broadcaster of knowledge and determiner of acceptable experiences, does not meet the educational needs of a learner in this globalised, digitised and rapidly changing world.
  • That the educator now has a multiplicity of roles as a teaching moment expert, a facilitator, a co-learner and a mentor.
  • That students now need skills for collaborative learning, digital navigation, creative problem solving, effective communication and more.

(New technologies and 21st century skills, Trilling and Fadel, 2009)

How will teachers identify and develop solutions for the requirements and opportunities now presented to them?

In a changing learning environment, teachers will become learners and collaborators, embracing and managing all modes of learning. They will identify and provide vibrant learning opportunities in:

  • situations where the classroom is being flipped and students are learning via presentations on their smartphones that are linked to QR codes
  • learning environments where teachers are communicating with students via Facebook and class blogs, which allow students to share ideas and present their learning to a global audience
  • which they encourage brevity in their students’ communications by conducting conversations in the Twittersphere, while others use Pinterest an online pin board for organising links and notes, instead of conventional referencing methodologies
  • situations where the word homework is an anachronism, because learning can occur throughout the day and in a variety of places
  • subjects where students are able to develop their intrinsic motivation by learning in their preferred learning mode with content of their choice.

Then we can see how the teacher is more and more a designer of learning experiences in a constant and ever changing learning environment.

Some people are intuitive designers, for the rest of us there is benefit in being able to participate in a process of design.

The question that has to be asked is:

What type of training and background does the typical teacher have in the design process?

How does a teacher develop learning resources for the new metaphors of learning spaces such as cave, watering hole, mountaintop and campfire? (Nair, Fielding & Lackney, 2009; Thornburg, 2007).

How does a teacher make the transition from PowerPoint to students being able to find a better presentation in the first five minutes of a lesson, courtesy of InstaGrok?

Making the transition: developing a model for curriculum delivery

In my role as learning activist, I have worked as a leader for a team of teachers undergoing just that transition.

We have, at times, struggled to redefine our pedagogies from solely didactic to content expert, storyteller, springboard and assessor. To achieve this, we developed a model for curriculum delivery and creation which facilitates authentic learning, assessment for learning and learning anytime and anywhere on any device.

Creating a model of unit development allowed us to make decisions about content, skills and delivery. Using this model, we developed a unit on ecosystems, which had students performing the real world work of scientists - observing, identifying, classifying and analysing flora and fauna in our neighbouring bush.

We were able to determine the critical outcomes to assess and develop assessment tools which were required for subsequent learning.

Students created their own database and then had to refer to it for their final presentation on food webs.

We were able to link to online tools for identification, and we designed an interface so that students could access the entire unit, ‘Ecosystems: Why should I care about the environment?’,online.

We continued with a unit on forces which culminated in students constructing a device of their own choice, based on some expert practical instruction and self-directed research.

The best example of our model was a history unit on contact and colonisation in South America. The unit was designed as a blended board game, where students had a choice of pathways to complete the game. Coded messages throughout the unit provided opportunities for logical/mathematical learners to engage.

The final lesson involved the coded messages leading students on a treasure hunt. While this could appear the basest form of external motivation, it linked closely to the themes and content of the unit. South America was colonised with three motivating themes: God, gold and glory! The treasure hunt linked into two of these and the key for decoding the message was a stylised item of Incan culture, the quipu.

This Incan quipu was designed to decode messages

Continuing and evolving in 2012

This year we continue to improve the interface for our students. We have trimmed the Moodle page, which we use as our learning management system, to the following graphic and collaboratively designed a unit sequence that requires students to use IT skills in the context of their learning.

Our latest unit sequences students through the IT skills required at the same time as they work through an integrated unit for science and geography. Titled ‘Passport to my world’, the students are orchestrated through 25 sequenced learning activities.

Flexibility is built in so students can work ahead, jump ahead, and change activities part way through to suit their mode of learning at that time.

With this context in mind, I suggest that a design based approach to teamwork would be highly advantageous for schools to adopt. It provides a platform for the collaborative work practices that lead to more varied and deeper learning experiences.

The design process

I recently had the pleasure of attending an impromptu design workshop at the Hasso Plattner Institute School of Design Thinking (HPI).

I was repeatedly told that the design process is actually very simple and can be followed by anyone with a problem to solve or a process to improve.

The elements of the HPI design process are in order:

The process gains value when it is iterative and ideas are developed over many applications of various elements of the process. For example, the lines added in the following graphic indicate where the results of one process might feedback into an earlier process.

A simple description of the design elements

Research: the process of developing a problem or question, of determining the scope of a problem, of considering all factors involved.

Empathise: this is a key step in the process. The team has to develop a human face to the problem. The problem has to be defined in terms of a person. The point of view of a particular person has to be articulated as the context for the problem.

Ideate: specific elements of a solution are described and voted on.

Prototype: using whatever materials are available, a prototype has to be developed. At this stage, the cheaper the prototype the better, as it needs to be tested and refined. Initial minimal investment is scaled up through the many iterations of the design process.

Test: the prototype needs to be tested and reviewed for its critical functions. Aspects of presentation, such as colour, need to be ignored in the early stages and factored in much later in the process.

A multidisciplinary team

The design process can be extended by a multidisciplinary team. Imagine the benefits of connecting with an English teacher to advise on embedding literacy in science and mathematics learning, or a design and technology expert to advise on practical solutions for social challenges discussed in geography, or having a K-6 teacher on board to assist in developing units of work that cross all key learning area (KLA) boundaries and still meet syllabus requirements.

One of the key elements of the design process is arriving at the right question. The right question will bring clarity and assist in reaching the right solution. The HPI use this iterative design process with business, to provide solutions for developing countries, and in education, IDEO do similar work.

Challenges for educators involve tweaking the design process to change the educational paradigm within the constraints of our educational work environment. Of course, what is ideal is to use a design process like this to actually enhance the educational work environment.

A recent meeting with one of the Principals in the Vittra schools consortium in Sweden highlighted the importance of continually being able to ask the right question about what we do, so that continual innovation keeps learning alive for students and teachers alike.

Finally, view SCIL Quest video to discover what student learning looks like at Northern Beaches Christian School.

References and further reading

d.school: Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, Stanford University Institute of Design, accessed 20 January 2018.

HPI School of design thinking, Potsdam University, accessed 20 January 2018.

IDEO, Design thinking for educators, accessed 20 January 2018.

The language of school design, DesignShare: Designing for the future of learning, accessed 20 January 2018.

Nair P. 2003, ‘Making peace with campfires: Confessions of a reformed radical’, Education Week, vol. 22, no. 28, p.29.

Nair P., Fielding R. & Lackney J. 2009, The language of school design: Design patterns for 21st century schools, 2nd ed.

New technologies and 21 century skills, Google sites, accessed 20 January 2018.

SCIL Quest, Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning and Northern Beaches Christian School, accessed 20 January 2018.

Thornburg, D. D. 2007, Campfires in cyberspace: Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century, Thornburg Center for Professional Development, Lake Barrington, IL.

Trilling B. & Fadel C. 2009, 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, accessed 20 January 2018.

Vittra, Vittra Schools Consortium, Sweden, accessed 20 January 2018.

Keywords: design process; s elf-directed research; secondary; learning space

How to cite this article: Burgess, M. 2012, ‘Teachers as designers of learning’ Scan 31(2)

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