Skip to content

Part 1: Educational Notation?

April 16, 2013

Can we apply the lesson of music notation to education? Could we develop a way to describe the activities of educators and learners in classrooms (and online) so that great teaching ideas could be conveyed from one educator to another? Can we help to make implicit, private teaching ideas into explicit, shared ideas?

In this paper, we focus on the particular requirements of formal education where an educator plays at least some role in structuring learning activities for learners. Self-study, and learning in groups where there is no educator or educator-like role, is outside our current scope. This should not be taken to mean that we focus only on “teacher-centric” education – far from it – but it is simply to note that our scope is the potential for educators to learn about good teaching ideas from other educators. These ideas may call for an active role for the educator[1] in directing activities, or the educator’s role may be to facilitate learners as active managers of their learning.

In one sense, we have made progress already. The “content” dimension of education is captured in books, websites, recorded lectures, videos and other resources. But content transmission is not the only dimension of education – otherwise educational institutions would need only libraries, rather than libraries and classrooms.

Describing teaching and learning activities – what educators and learners actually do in classrooms and online – is less developed. In many school contexts there is a tradition of written lesson plans, and individual educators in universities and vocational training may write down activity plans for tutorials and practical workshops. But there is no generally agreed notational system for educational activities that has the expressiveness or widespread adoption of music notation.

If one stops to reflect for a moment, this is a surprising situation. Many educators could benefit from learning about the great teaching ideas of their colleagues, yet our ability to convey a great teaching idea from one educator to another is hampered by our lack of a common language for what we do in classrooms and online. We struggle to describe even something as simple as how different activities are conducted over time in a classroom (e.g., lecturing, small group debate, whole class discussion, individual reading, practical tasks, etc.) or its online equivalents.

Many very bright people have been educators, so the lack of a descriptive framework for education could be interpreted as follows: it is a very hard problem – if it wasn’t, some bright person would have solved it already.

By comparison with music notation, a descriptive framework for teaching and learning activities would not describe everything that occurs – rather, it would seek to convey enough information so that one educator could benefit from the great ideas of another educator. These educational ideas could be of many different kinds, based on different underlying pedagogical theories, in a manner similar to different styles of music.

Just as with beautiful or mediocre music, an educational notation system would not guarantee that the ideas written down would be educationally effective – rather, it is simply a way of conveying an educational idea using a common framework. And as with the problem of representing quartertone singing in the Western music notation, any system of educational notation will have weaknesses in describing some types of education, even where it is strong at describing others. Given the hard nature of the problem and the immaturity of this field, it is likely that early education notational systems will have many weaknesses and few strengths, but in the same way that music notation has improved over time, the same may occur for educational notation.

One important difference between music performances and teaching is that it is typical for musicians to faithfully reproduce the written musical idea. In education, however, there is an important role for educators to be able to adapt their teaching in response to the unique needs of their learners. This adaptation could take the form of reviewing a great teaching idea from a colleague, then reworking the idea for a future class based on the educator’s insights into his/her learners’ needs. Another kind of adaptation is where an educator decides to change his/her approach in the middle of a class – perhaps because the original plan is not working out as expected, or interesting new ideas have arisen in class that are worth pursuing.

Interestingly, the analogy with music does not break down completely at this point. There are traditions of improvisation in music (e.g., Jazz) that takes into account the immediate evolving music experience (often due to the musical interactions between performers), but even improvisation often uses some predetermined basic musical structures (such as the chord progressions in the twelve-bar blues).

Another point of comparison with music is whether the notation is for use by the creator of the musical experience, or for use by others. If a musician composes a piece of music for their own performance, they may not write it down using musical notation (or they may only write down a brief summary, such as guitar chords), as the musician remembers the details for performance. But when the musician wishes to convey the musical idea to another musician, musical notation becomes important. As many educators “compose” their teaching ideas for their own use, the need for notation may not be pressing in these cases; and yet when educators wish to convey a great teaching idea to other educators, they lack an agreed format for communication. An agreed notation format would also assist with other facets of education, such as documentation and quality assurance and enhancement of teaching and learning activities.

There are two compelling reasons for developing a system of educational notation. First, teaching is sometimes called the loneliest profession (Hooker, 1949) as individual educators often have little exposure to each other’s teaching. In many ways, the craft of teaching is still at a relatively amateur stage, and lacks the professionalisation that would come from a richer language for describing the essence of teaching and learning activities. While there are examples of team teaching and teacher observation in some contexts, there is much more that could be done to share good teaching practice, and a common notational format could assist this sharing.

Second, modern society and business expect more of graduates than just content knowledge. Skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, effective communication, creativity, intercultural understanding, critical thinking and others are required for success in the “knowledge economy”.  These skills have been called graduate attributes, soft skills, generic skills or 21st Century skills. These skills are difficult to learn in the abstract – instead, they need to be learned by working with content knowledge. Given this, transforming education for the 21st century means redesigning the core teaching and learning activities used with content knowledge, rather than simply adding extra courses on these broader skills, and leaving content teaching practices untouched.

As many educators find it challenging to combine content knowledge and the development of these broader skills in day-to-day teaching and learning activities, there is a need for professional development about innovative structures for teaching and learning activities that address this challenge (such as Problem-Based Learning, Role Plays, WebQuests and similar teaching strategies). While there are many aspects to this professional development, there would be significant benefits from a common language for describing great teaching ideas, just as an important part of learning a musical instrument is understanding and playing great music.

The primary focus of this paper is the implications of educational notation for pedagogical theory and practice, but it should be noted that there are also productivity implications. If educators can easily re-use and adapt the good ideas of their colleagues, then the preparation time for teaching may decrease (consider the many educators across the world re-inventing similar teaching plans each day). That is, successful sharing of good teaching ideas can lead not only to more effective teaching, but also to more efficient preparation for teaching.

In summary, we take inspiration from the history and uses of music notation to try to imagine a descriptive framework for teaching and learning activities that is broad enough to describe many different pedagogical approaches. A framework of this kind could help to propagate great teaching ideas in order to enhance the effectiveness of educators, leading to richer learning experiences for learners. There are other examples of descriptive frameworks that could be considered – patterns and plans in architecture, recipes, the Unified Modelling Language (UML) in software development, dance notation, etc. We leave it to other experts to draw out lessons for education from other descriptive frameworks – in this paper we use music notation as an extended analogy for imagining education notation.  In the next section we describe work on educational notation in the field of Learning Design, followed by a new conceptual map for Learning Design and the broader education landscape.


[1] Educators can play many different roles in the overall education lifecycle, such as: preparing educational content, preparing teaching and learning activities, implementing activities with students in classrooms and online, facilitating student discussion, conducting and marking assessment, using evaluation to improve future education and others. In some cases, a single educator plays all of these roles for a group of learners; in others, a different educator may play each role. In this paper we use educator to mean anyone who plays any of these roles, and hence could benefit from advice and examples of good practices.



From → Uncategorized

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: