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Part 5: Learning Design and Pedagogical Theories

April 16, 2013

Having earlier dealt with the narrow question of pedagogical neutrality, and then provided a conceptual map of the broader landscape for Learning Design, it is worth returning to the thorny question of pedagogical theories and Learning Design. A notational framework for describing examples of many different pedagogical approaches may be of interest to a small audience of theoreticians who are fascinated by the challenge of abstract representation. However, the great majority of educators would be interested in a descriptive framework in order to help them teach more effectively.

By comparison, it would be possible to notate almost any musical performance (no matter how unpleasant), but few people would be interested in this notation purely as a challenge to the capabilities of the notation system. Rather, writing down musical ideas is a way to convey great music from one person to another over time and space. An abstract framework for notation is itself of little interest to most musicians – what matters is what it conveys, not how it does it. We remember the names of great composers, not the names of those who developed music notation.

The ultimate rationale for Learning Design is that it can convey great teaching ideas among educators in order that learners may learn more effectively. This improved learning arises from their educators adopting new, effective teaching strategies for designing learning experiences.

The conceptual difficulty is that the Learning Design framework tries to avoid privileging any particular pedagogical theory over another in its notational system, and yet almost all educators who could use Learning Design would wish to use it to improve learning, and improving learning requires a theory of how students learn.

We propose two ways to approach this problem. In the first approach, we have provided a Learning Design Conceptual Map to help explore the relationships among the “moving parts” of how an educator comes to teach in a particular way at a particular moment. The LD-CM provides a way for approaching this question that focuses on the core Learning Design concepts (guidance, representation/visualisation and sharing) but also draws attention to the many related issues that affect teacher decision-making.

Given a particular instance of teaching and learning, the LD-CM can be used to investigate how assumptions about theory and the learning environment relate to teaching plans, classroom activities and learner responses. In broad terms, it is a question of the internal coherence of actions within a given set of pedagogical (and other) assumptions. As everyday teaching is littered with examples that lack this kind of coherence, it is not an insignificant issue.

However, this first approach is, in part, a fudge. A thorough-going relativist interpretation might say that internal coherence is the only question that could be asked, as there is no “reality” by which to externally judge questions of teaching and learning effectiveness. However, the vast majority of educators believe there are more and less effective ways of teaching, arising from their observations of learner responses and the findings of educational research. In addition, most pedagogical theories ultimately contain ideas about how an educator “should” and “should not” go about teaching, which belies a view about reality (otherwise there would be no “should”).

Our second approach starts by using the Learning Design Conceptual Map, where a chosen pedagogical approach can be described in the Educational Philosophy box. This choice is, ultimately, informed by evidence from the Theories and Methodologies box immediately below it, which deals with evidence from educational research. Different kinds of research evidence frequently provide support for different pedagogical theories – for example, quantitative analysis of small tasks might be used to support particular types of direct instruction theories, whereas broad qualitative analyses of student skills on reaching the end of their education might be used to support constructivist theories.

This is not the place for a debate over the validity of different pedagogical theories and their underlying evidence. Rather, we seek to use the LD-CM to draw attention to the way that different kinds of research evidence inform different pedagogical theories that in turn inform different teaching and learning activities which can be represented using a Learning Design notational system. At the level of individual educators, the explication of these connections can help to clarify decision-making about teaching and how these decisions connect pedagogical theory, research evidence, learner characteristics and context in order to promote effective student learning. At a macro level, the same Map can be used to help structure academic debate about types of research evidence (including whether particular evidence is conflicting or rather about different facets of education), and the links between research evidence and types of teaching and types of student learning, in order to facilitate judgements about effective learning.

For everyday practice, the question of teaching and learning effectiveness depends not simply on the chosen pedagogical theory or the research evidence in favour of this theory. It depends on the wider mix of issues identified in the LD-CM such as: the characteristics and values of institutions, educators and learners; the nature of the teaching lifecycle (and the granularity of teaching design); the use of descriptive frameworks for teaching and learning activities, together with guidance and sharing; the use of tools and resources to support implementation of teaching and learning; and the various responses of learners (e.g., reactions, assessment, evaluation).

The “best” pedagogical theory may be highly ineffective for student learning in a particular context if other parts of the LD-CM are not considered or implemented appropriately. Equally, a set of very difficult educational circumstances (e.g., education in a poor country) may still lead to highly effective learning where certain elements (e.g., a gifted teacher) overcome difficulties. Any thorough investigation of the effectiveness of a teaching and learning approach needs to examine the full set of interactions within the Learning Design Conceptual Map, including the potential for positive aspects of one part of the Map to override negative aspects in another part.

Part 5.1: Is effective teaching and learning always “learner-centred”?

There is one final issue in pedagogical theory that is relevant to this discussion of Learning Design. Many educators, particularly in the past, have tended to teach using methods that focus heavily on content transmission, and little on active student tasks (such as student-led analysis, research and discussion as used in Problem-Based Learning). A preference for content transmission approaches is rarely due to a sophisticated understanding of the evidence to support this approach, rather, it is often simply a replication of the experience of past teaching practices – that is, educators often teach the way they themselves were taught.

This issue takes several forms. One has been a desire to shift education from being “teacher centred” to “learner centred”, or “teaching centred” to “learning centred”, or from the “sage on the stage to guide on the side”. This general view seeks to focus attention primarily on how the learner learns (and hence how all other aspects of education should revolve around this) rather than simply how the teacher teaches. Another way to view this is a shift from an “input” model of education (what the teacher imparts to learners) to an “output” model of education (what do learners know and can do following teaching and learning activities). A focus on what learners actually learn is essential to an understanding of effective teaching and learning, and so to the extent that “learned-centred” means “what works for student learning”, then being “learner-centred” is the foundation of effective teaching and learning.

But learner-centred is sometimes taken to mean that all learning must be led by the learner, and that teaching, particularly any type of direct instruction or drill and practice-style teaching, should be avoided. Given the many examples of ineffective content transmission-style teaching, based on unreflective past experiences of teaching, it is understandable that in some contexts there is a reaction against “teacher-centric” methods. In some circles, “teaching” is almost a dirty word.

However, this reaction against teaching can go too far. Even in teaching contexts with a strong focus on the learner, there is usually an important role for the teacher in structuring the opportunities for learning, and scaffolding the learning process to assist learners to learn. These structuring and facilitation decisions can still be described and shared using a Learning Design descriptive framework.

Going further, different teaching approaches may be used for different subjects, and at different stages in learning. Certain kinds of learning may benefit more from direct instruction approaches (e.g., language learning, basic mathematics), whereas other kinds of learning may benefit from collaborative or constructivism approaches (e.g., 21st century skills). Lecturing has its place among the suite of teaching methods that can assist a learner to learn. So to the extent that “learner-centred” means little or no role for educators, we see many contexts in which this will not result in the most effective learning for students. Ill-informed and unguided discussion can be as ineffective for learning as poor content transmission.

This is not the place for a debate on the relative merits of different teaching and learning approaches for different subjects or stages of education, but we simply make the point that educators can use all the components of the Learning Design Conceptual Map to assist with designing and implementing effective teaching and learning activities, where the effectiveness is ultimately measured in terms of learning outcomes rather than teaching inputs. For most educators, this means using a wide range of teaching and learning approaches depending on what is most effective in their context. And to the extent that sharing learning designs helps educators to adopt new, effective teaching and learning methods, then ultimately student learning will improve.

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