Playing the game with my own field of learning design, my first attempt at an answer was this:
- Decide what you want people to learn to do.
- Decide what they're going to do in order to learn this.
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.
- Teach people not subject.
- People learn because of what they do, not what you do.
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.
<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?