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…

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Curriculum design

Today I attended the University of Hull’s summer University Learning and Teaching symposium on ‘The Lost Art of Curriculum Design’.  Symposia and conferences often leave me feeling tired and cynical, so I’m delighted to report that this one has left me brimming with enthusiasm and a desire to implement and share ideas.

My university is planning a far-reaching process of curriculum overhaul.  One of the pieces of educational theory that figures in the process is that of ‘threshold concepts’.  It was good, then, to have Professor Ray Land – who, along with his colleague Jan Meyer, came up with the notion – present at the first speaker.  Land, with the help of a series of lovely images and metaphors, gave a vivid exposition and defense of threshold concepts and their potential power.  Such concepts are fundamental and transformative ideas which alter the perspective of those who obtain them, allowing them to think like, say, an historian, an economist, a literary scholar, and so on.  It has been suggested, for example, that ‘opportunity cost’ is a threshold concept within economics, and ‘signification’ is one for literary studies.

To make threshold concepts a key part of curriculum reform is a canny move in the respect that it appeals (in both senses) to the discipline-specific expertise of the teaching staff whose job it will be to teach the revised curricula.  They are the people best-placed to thrash out, as a subject team, what the fundamental and transformative concepts of their discipline are – what it means to think (in my case) like a film and television studies academic. (And a media and cultural studies academic… – threshold concepts, although they emphasise ‘disciplinarity’, are not an enemy to interdisciplinarity; Land has suggested that interdisciplinarity may be a threshold concept, and perhaps interdisciplinarity is a threshold concept within film studies.)  The process of thinking and discussion that this will entail will be positive in itself, as most reflection is, and is likely to have two salutary effects on the curriculum: it will probably become more focused on concepts rather than coverage, thus promoting deep learning and thinking, and it will become more joined-up, with individual module tutors having a heightened awareness of the programme as a whole.

Threshold concepts are powerful, but they are not everything.  To know that you want your students to attain these concepts is one thing.  Coming up with the learning activities, the broader learning environment and the modes of assessment that best facilitate the acquisition and the demonstration of the possession of such concepts is the real challenge.  Here, the work of scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, with their focus on ‘what the student does’ (the subtitle of Biggs and Tang’s seminal work), is absolutely essential.

A little coda: It is said time and again, and it is true, that teaching is not sufficiently recognised or incentivised in higher education.  Research, so the logic goes, is the key to career advancement.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a real shame.  However, in my three years of being at Hull, I’ve found it to be a great place to teach, and to pursue professional development in teaching.  And although I recognise the following feeling as partly a function of my own particular personality, I nevertheless find it hard to understand how someone can start to reflect authentically on teaching and learning and not be seriously bitten by the bug.  Teaching is a large part of most of our professional lives.  Why would we not want to be as good at it as possible, and to approach it with the same thirst for knowledge, interest in what others are saying about it, and passionate enthusiasm as we do our research?  This (as Glenn Burgess, our PVC for learning and teaching, was kind of saying in his closing remarks) is surely the real meaning of that idea that is often paid lip service to: an integration of research and teaching (which can be ‘teaching what you research’, but should be so much more besides).  One of my colleagues (@DrAmyMDavis) is a Disney scholar, and she once told me that Walt Disney used to say that he was more interested in his theme parks than his films, because the former were always changing, whereas the latter, once completed, were relatively fixed.  If our books are our films (and our articles our shorts), then our modules and programmes are our theme parks: structured experiences which we offer to our students, and try to improve upon and update year after year.

I’ll end with a quote which Ray Land included in his presentation as a poetic way of thinking about threshold concepts (and really, the whole of learning, and of life):

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
(Tennyson, Ulysses. Full text available here.)