Learning environments and learning experiences

If teachers were to live in constant full cognizance of the full weight of responsibility that they have, the result might well be blind panic, or paralysis.  I’m not referring to the quantity of work that many teachers experience, but rather to the fact that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of being the guides to particular fields of knowledge, and to the broader experience of learning as a whole.  As a result of one’s teaching, a student might be inspired to devote a lifetime to a subject, or equally might swear off it forever.  Few people emerge from their educations completely unscathed.  In my experience, teaching is second only to parenting as an activity which almost every day leaves you feeling that you failed in some small or large way, that you didn’t manage to provide what was needed in that particular situation, and that with more time, and patience, you could have done better.

Since this blog began earlier in the year I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic proselytiser of various pieces of education theory/scholarship.  And a lot of that theory itself radiates enthusiasm, if not zeal.  The parts of it that I have encountered are often very ‘up’.  In particular, books about teaching in higher education which are at once research-based and designed to offer guidance to teachers will be quick to point out where we have been going wrong up to now, but will also offer clear advice about how we can make things better, perhaps by moving towards a student-centred mode of teaching, and/or ensuring constructive alignment between learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks, and/or ensuring that we create feedback-rich learning environments.  I have no doubt that thinking through all of these ideas and applying them to my own teaching has been hugely beneficial.  But I also have no doubt that in teaching there are no magic bullets.  Nothing I have learned or tried has stopped me feeling ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ about teaching a fair proportion of the time, and as I look back on my year of teaching there’s one thing in particular that I keep returning to.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at getting students to participate in classroom activities, and at designing those activities themselves (the two things are of course related).  Reading Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science was something of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in this respect; that book gave me a name for and a way of thinking about things I had been trying to achieve for a few years.  If something is well-designed, be it a public space or a domestic appliance, then one’s engagement with it will be smooth, natural, intuitive.  Few of us need to be told how to find a cash machine or a place to sit in an urban area, nor how to operate a microwave (some people reading may also detect the influence of Heidegger via Paddy Scannell here – another set of ideas I’ve been absorbing for the past two years).  In my classrooms, I consciously design things in order to encourage students to act in particular ways, to engage in particular activities.  Sometimes it will be a spatial matter: I will make students sit in a horseshoe around a screen so that the audio-visual sequence we are analysing is there before us, everyone can see and respond to everyone else, and so on.  Sometimes I will issue a set of instructions that create a series of steps for the students.  Sometimes, taking control of the learning environment will also involve, quite simply, holding one’s nerve in the face of initial reluctance to talk.  Teaching/learning is too inherently ‘sticky’ and ‘subversive’ to be as smooth as the other kinds of design alluded to above, but there are similar motivations at work.

‘So what?’ might be the response so far.  All teaching activities are planned and therefore by logical extension ‘designed’.  What gives me pause for thought is the element of coercion that goes along with certain kinds of learning environment design.  A big part of the job of all but the most fortunate teachers is getting students to speak more than they are naturally inclined to.  We smile while we do it (well, most of us, most of the time), of course, but we are applying pressure.  A lot of this can be justified in the name of getting the best out of students (notice the language of extraction), and again, it could not really be any other way.

And yet.  There are times, over the past eighteen months or so especially, when I have felt that my role as teacher was shading into something more like that of a ‘gamemaker’.  I think that, along with carefully-structured activities which assign students roles which are difficult to escape, things like provocation, persistent questioning, playing the fool, and even plain old goading all have their place in teaching and learning.  But so too do things like prolonged solitary reflection, letting a question or a piece of reading stew in the back of one’s mind for weeks (months, years), and the right to say ‘I do not feel ready to talk about this yet’.  If learning environments should be designed to cultivate in students the kinds of habits of mind they will require for ‘deep’, ‘life-long’ learning, then those environments should not just be about cut and thrust, wall-to-wall talking, and rapid cycles of feedback.  One of my teachers once told me, as I was about to embark upon my own teaching, ‘Don’t be afraid of silence.’  More and more, I see the value of such advice (especially when I consider that the filling of silence can often be as much about the alleviation of anxiety as it is about the contribution of something worthwhile).

It is good to feel permanently dissatisfied.  It is a sign that one is still learning, and still alive.  When my teaching resumes in the New Year, one thing I will try to do is let my teaching pendulum swing back (or is it rather a deepening spiral? – that’s the metaphor that most closely fits my pattern of thinking on the topic) a little towards a set-up that allows students more space and time to reflect, and to involve themselves in ways that may be less audible and visible to others, but may also be ultimately more beneficial to them, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

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…