Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science (Routledge, 2012)

I’m categorising this post as a review, but in what follows, rather than trying to summarise Laurillard’s wide-ranging achievements, I try to distil the heart of the book – the underlying principles upon which its vision of and suggestions for pedagogy rest.

Diana Laurillard, in describing teaching as a design science (as well as, not instead of, an art, as she is careful to note on page 1), wants us to see the similarities between teaching and pursuits ‘like engineering, or computer science, or architecture, whose imperative it is to make the world a better place’ (p. 1).

A design science uses and contributes to theoretical science, but it builds design principles rather than theories, and the heuristics of practice rather than explanations, although like both the sciences and the arts, it uses what has gone before as a platform or inspiration for what it creates.  Teaching is more like a design science because it uses what is known about teaching to attain the goal of student learning, and uses the implementation of its designs to keep improving them. (p. 1)

Paul Ramsden, in his excellent Learning to Teach in Higher Education (Taylor & Francis, 2003), sees moving away from a view of teaching as ‘transmitting knowledge’ and towards a view of teaching as ‘making it possible for students to learn subject matter’ as a prerequisite for improving one’s practice: ‘Success in learning how to improve your own teaching is related to the extent to which you are prepared to conceptualise your teaching as a process of helping students to change their understanding of the subject matter you teach them’ (p.17/8).  The focus, we might say, slightly crudely, is on getting students to do things.  However, as teachers, we have to do things to try to get our students to do things.  We have to create powerful learning environments, and we do this by designing our courses effectively.

In Teaching as a Design Science, Laurillard makes extensive use of the ‘Conversational Framework’ model which she developed in an earlier book, Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (RoutledgeFalmer, 2nd edition 2002).  The Conversational Framework presents a model which separates out a student’s conceptual understanding and their practice.  In the case of dentistry, the practice would include giving a patient a filling; in the case of English literature, the practice would involve writing an essay.  Laurillard suggests there is an iterative cycle between concepts and practice.  Dissatisfaction with one’s outputs (conclusions, perhaps) can cause one to reflect upon and modulate one’s conceptual understanding.

Sometimes an activity will produce what Laurillard terms ‘intrinsic feedback’.  Examples are most easily found when we look at babies, children, and other young animals.  When a baby tries, and fails, to get some food into her or his mouth, then s/he becomes immediately aware that s/he has not succeeded (because s/he not eating), so s/he perseveres, practicing the motion until it is perfected (as my seven month old son is reminding me, this is a lengthy process, and there is a lot of crying – and mess – along the way).  However, not all activities are as rich in intrinsic feedback as trying to eat.  This is one of the differences between informal and formal learning which Laurillard usefully spells out, and spells out some of the implications of:

Our brains have evolved to develop our first-order knowledge of the world from the earliest stages of infancy. […] While the psychologist will investigate and celebrate the power of every human brain to learn how to apply the correct force to the muscles of the arm and hand to pick up a cup, the educationist has to grapple with the problem that very few human minds ever grasp the proper Newtonian concept of force.  This fundamental scientific idea cannot be accessed in the same way as the everyday concept of force, and our brains have not evolved to cope.  Informal, spontaneous, developmental learning is immensely successful.  Formal, scientific, educational learning is at best only moderately successful. (p. 41)

Laurillard points out that an experienced formal learner will be adept at driving their own cycle of modulation and practice through research, discussion, and so forth.  What teaching as a design science aims to do is to generate varied, rich and iterative feedback loops to motivate and drive these cycles for less experienced learners.  The teacher can provide this her/himself.  Laurillard conceives of this in two main ways: the teacher can share conceptual understanding, or s/he can model instances of practice.  A lecture by itself, by the way, will not create a loop if there is no way for students to try to formulate their own understandings which the teacher can then help them to refine.  There has to be some kind of communicative loop, otherwise there is just one-way transmission.

It does not always have to be the teacher who provides the communication/modelling cycle.  It can also be provided in a peer group setting.  This still involves the teacher in the respects that an environment that facilitates effective dialogue or other collaboration has to be created (a massive and tricky topic, which I am looking into in detail before making collaborative learning a larger part of my modules), and the teacher will probably have to intervene if and when misconceptions are taking hold amongst students.  However, the process of having to articulate one’s ideas or demonstrate one’s practice to one’s peers is intrinsically valuable – it forces one to formulate – and will probably generate valuable feedback too.

The power of Laurillard’s model (which is probably best grasped in its graphic form, and at the time of writing an image is available here) really shines through in the chapters where different types of learning are examined (learning through acquisition, through inquiry, through discussion, through practice, and through collaboration), and it is shown which cycles within the Conversational Framework they will typically activate.  I had fancied my seminar discussion techniques to be a powerful learning environment, but thinking of them in relation to Laurillard’s model makes me see how much more varied and iterative I could make my feedback loops with some redesigning.

In higher education it is easy to often think of ‘feedback’ as the sheets of paper you give to students after you’ve marked their essays.  But if that were the only source of feedback they received, that would be an emaciated learning environment indeed.  Formal learning should be brought closer to informal learning in the richness and frequency of the feedback it provides in order to motivate learners and develop their abilities. As Laurillard puts it, ‘The teacher’s design task is to create the practice/modeling environment that provides the feedback the learner needs’ (p. 170).   Discussion, practice, ideas, sharing, back-and-forth: these are the things I want to design more of into my modules.  The work starts here…

Marking and feedback

In spite of the spirit-crushing loads, most of us keep on trying to say something hopeful. […] Instead of filling the pages with innumerable abbreviations in red pencil (“gr.,” “pn.,” “par.,” etc.), most of which most students ignore unless they are required to submit revisions, I usually manage to type discursive comments, trying to make them intelligible as direct talk to the student’s specific problems.  I ask myself “What is the problem that this student can most profitably concentrate on now?”  […]  The student receives what amounts to a letter from me about the project, and ideally he or she does not get the impression that writing the next paper is a hopeless task.  It is true that my “letter” does not take less time than “grading” used to take me when I felt responsible for marking every comma splice and dangler; it usually takes more.  But the time does not feel like something robbed from my life. Wayne C Booth. The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 238.

Marking season has arrived.  After the collective sigh of relief that met the end of the teaching semester, staff at the University of Hull and across the academic world are now assaulting one another with stacks of essays, exams and so forth (‘You’re giving me that pile?!  You should see the size of the one I’ve got for you!’).  I thought I’d take a brief break from marking and feedback to write a blog about marking and feedback.  It is a topic dear to my heart, and I have written about it briefly before (and will probably repeat myself to some extent here).  I love tinkering with and trying to refine the mechanisms for my written feedback.  I’ve come to believe that an effective feedback sheet needs to possess the following qualities:

1 It probably can’t be purely generic, but needs rather to be module- and task-specific.  I fear I’ve become slightly notorious in my departmental office for using my own feedback forms (which has necessitated extra care to ensure that everyone who needs a copy gets a copy, as the generic forms automatically produce a carbon underlay).

2 Following on from the previous point, the feedback sheet should include reference to the specific assessment criteria for the task in question, and these criteria need to be circulated in advance.  For a long time I resisted writing anything other than totally freeform comments, as I wanted my feedback to address the student individually and authentically, and I felt that measuring their work against excessively prescriptive and pre-established criteria might get in the way of this, and prevent me recognising and responding to excellent things that the student might have done outside these categories.
I suppose it’s inevitable that one becomes slightly less romantic as one’s teaching career progresses.  I now think that these pre-published criteria are important and usually very helpful to students.  They know in advance how they will be assessed (which is not the same as knowing what they ought to write), and this can alleviate anxiety and in most cases I think it leads to better writing.  In any case, one needn’t jettison the overall summary comment; it can still be added at the end.
This year I have for the most part combined a general comment with a grid of assessment criteria and levels of attainment – ie. a tickbox.  In my latest round of feedback sheets though, I’ve broken down the grid.  I now have a page of assessment criteria, still with a tick-grid to indicate level of attainment, but I’ve also left space for a comment relating to each criterion.  I’ve found that this has really focused my marking method, and I hope my students will find it useful too.

3 The sheet should be set up so that a ‘private’ conversation between the examiners (internal and external) can occur if necessary.  In the interests of consistency across a cohort, it’s sometimes useful to include a brief comment for the benefit of other examiners along the lines of ‘I think this essay deserves this precise grade because it’s slightly sharper than this other essay in the pile, which does similar things.’  (Of course, essays are marked on their own merits in line with assessment criteria and not to a curve, but when it comes down to the fine details of a mark here or a mark there, it’s useful to have some submissions that act as points of reference.)  Clearly, it’s inappropriate for another student to see such a comment (some – most? – examiners are also of the opinion that students should not be privy to disagreements between markers, and should not see comments or suggested grades that are in sharp contrast with one another), so two slightly different copies of the sheet need to be produced: a file copy, and a student copy.

Here (for those able to download/view .doc files) is one of my latest template sheets.  I’ll probably do more tinkering next year.

Feedback welcome!