Sunday, 21 September 2014

Learning design: through the square window

Any book or guide on learning design will tell you that you're supposed to start by working out learning outcomes. But anyone who's worked on the learning design of a university course will tell you that that's something which academics find it very hard to do. It's the same if you try to get them to start by working on any other abstract and high-level design aspect, such as pedagogic approach, assessment strategy, or even media mix. What they want to work on first is the syllabus: the subject matter which the course is going to teach.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Academics' core competence lies in their subject matter knowledge; it's the essential part of their identity, where they see their value and self-worth as lying - and it's what they most enjoy thinking about. I've recently been working with two groups of academics, who were very willing to do the learning design activity our university now requires of them, but who had great difficulty getting to grips with it until they'd done what they wanted to do first, which was work out their syllabus. It was remarkable how much better and productive the discussions about learning design went after that.

I think the books are wrong and that it doesn't actually matter if academics want to start with subject matter. I came to this conclusion five years ago, when I started my present job, and I came up with a workshop device to embody it. The device is a simple 2x2 window, which I called my Play School window. (See note below.) The four panes were labelled: Subject matter, Learning outcomes, Learning activities, and Assessment tasks. The point is, it doesn't matter which pane you start with. If academics need to start with subject matter in order to feel comfortable, then that's fine, and it may actually be better to have some concrete examples of syllabus topics on the table when thinking about other design aspects. They can't (or shouldn't) get far working out a syllabus before the question arises: what do we want students to be able to do as a result of studying this? Repeat back all the presented information word-for-word? No, of course not; so then, what? And hence looking at syllabus or subject matter can be moved easily into a discussion of learning outcomes, and then into a discussion of assessment tasks - or what students are going to do to show that they've achieved the learning outcomes - and then into a discussion of learning activities - or what students are going to do to develop those abilities. And that will enable a more focussed discussion of the syllabus and subject matter to be covered, and so on.

You can start on any pane and go through them in any order, as many times as you need. All that matters is that you have them all filled in at the end of the day, and that they all align: that the learning activities supported by the subject matter will enable students to achieve the learning outcomes, which they demonstrate by performing the assessment tasks. This is what John Biggs some years ago called "constructive alignment", which is or ought to be one of the fundamental concepts of learning design.

Reference on "constructive alignment"
John Biggs, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2nd edn (Buckingham: SRHE and the Open University Press, 2003). “A good teaching system aligns teaching method and assessment to the learning activities stated in the objectives so that all aspects of the system are in accord in supporting appropriate student learning” (p. 11). A fourth edition of this work, rewritten with Catherine Tang, is now available (2011) from the same publisher. See also his own website and the wikipedia entry for Constructive alignment.

Note on Play School
For those not of my generation or not in the UK, Play School was a TV programme for pre-schoolers, in which each episode included a film clip, showing something interesting or wonderful, as seen through one of three windows in the studio. In addition to the Square Window, there was also the Round Window and the Arched Window, but those don't fit the needs of learning design so well.)

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