Sunday, 4 March 2012

The two things you need to know about learning design

A nice game, recently publicised by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian column - is to sum up an area of expertise in just two things: the only two things you really need to know. The American writer Glen Whitman started the game in 2002 after a bar-room challenge to name the two things about economics (then his own academic field), to which he replied, after some thought: 1.  incentives matter, and 2. there's no such thing as a free lunch. On his invitation, other people have extended the formula to many other fields, such as stock trading (1. buy low; 2. sell high), acting (1. don't forget your lines,  2. don't run into the set) and history (1. everything has earlier antecedents, 2. sources lie but they're all we have). Apart from it being fun, people find the game a good exercise for taking a fresh look at one's own field and getting back to basics.

Playing the game with my own field of learning design, my first attempt at an answer was this:
  1. Decide what you want people to learn to do.
  2. Decide what they're going to do in order to learn this.
But the more I looked at these two things, the less I liked them.  The problem wasn't that they were untrue or unimportant; in fact, without realising it, I'd followed the ADDIE model (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate), which is how the learning design / instructional design process is often organised these days. The first of my things corresponded to the Analysis phase, which at its core is about identifying learning outcomes, expressing  them in behavioural terms - so "decide what you want people to learn to do" rather than just "learn". <1> The second corresponded to the Design phase, or thinking up a way for learners to reach those learning outcomes - which on the principles of active learning means "decide what they're going to do". <2> There wasn't anything wrong with my two things; they were just dull. I'd tried to be safe and correct, and I'd ended up with things that sounded obvious. Bor-ing, as Sherlock Holmes would say (at least when played by Benedict Cumerbatch).<3>

So I decided to sharpen my knives a little. The things people really need to know about a subject are the things they're going to get wrong, if left to themselves. No more Mr Nice Guy; my preferred answer lays down a couple of challenges.
  1. Teach people not subject.
  2. People learn because of what they do, not what you do.
The first is important, because if you're a subject matter expert you naturally take pride in your knowledge of your subject, and so when it comes to teaching you try to get in as much of it in as you can. That's all very well if your learners are aspiring to be subject matter experts themselves, but that's seldom the case: they're studying your subject in order to do something else, and that is the need which as a teacher it is your calling to serve.

The second is also about taking the focus off yourself and putting it onto your learners. It challenges the temptation to try to teach well by working hard: by studying lots of sources, by preparing teaching meticulously, by carefully crafting written materials. The reminder here is that the things you do can only bring about learning in others because of and insofar as it causes them to do certain other things; it’s learner activity which brings about learning, and the whole business of teaching can be summed up as getting learners to do those things which will enable them to learn.

Parenthetical notes

<1> The behavioural form is important even when the learning outcome is about command of a body of knowledge, which is usually the case in higher education: you can't get sufficiently precise about what level of knowledge or understanding you want unless you start thinking in terms of what students are going to be able to do - summarise, describe, explain, compare, analyse, interpret, evaluate etc. - see Learning as assimilation for other activity types.

<2> So for example, people don't learn just by reading something but by doing something with what they read. (See The Reader.)

<3> Couldn't it be the case that the two most important things about a subject really just are dull? Of course it could; but a lack of excitement should be a sign that there's a better answer to be found. The whole point of the game is to fling a small net across something vast and large ; if you really succeed in capturing something of its essence in a few words, there should be a frisson  or thrill: a sense of liberation as the squawk and clutter of too much detail falls away into relative insignificance. Anyway, if you're trying to explain your field to someone else, do you really want them to think it's boring?

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