Teaching as design

OPINION: Dr Don Houston, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Peter Goodyear 2015, Teaching as design, HERDSA Review of Higher Education, Vol. 2

This review paper draws together some ideas emerging from recent research and development activity in the field of ‘design for learning’. It explores the argument that teaching in higher education will necessarily shift the balance of its efforts towards a greater investment in design, as a way of coping with otherwise intolerable pressures on staff and resources. Incremental change is no longer sufficient to respond to these pressures: diversifying student needs and expectations; increasing expectations about and dissatisfaction with graduate capabilities; intensifying demands on staff; and rapid technological change. These pressures can however be better accommodated by a re-orientation of thinking, effort and resourcing towards more thoughtful design and planning of situations that are conducive to learning. The paper does not propose teaching as design as a panacea, acknowledging that sometimes designers get things wrong, but rather as a potential part-solution to challenges faced by the system.

It frames this argument by expanding the core conceptions of what teaching work entails, then focuses on some characteristic qualities of teaching as a design activity. Teaching is and has always been more than just transactions in the learning space: it involves planning, evaluation and reflection to bracket the transactional components that (hopefully) support and promote student learning. In deconstructing traditional teaching interactions such as the lecture, Goodyear makes the important observation that lectures have never been just about transmission of information but rather have provided a place for students to meet, to check in on progress, to watch experts think on their feet ‘and, on a good day, share a passion’.

Lectures, like other learning environments, can be designed to create situations that are conducive to learning. As Goodyear notes: ‘some careful forethought, imagination, empathy and planning will often tilt the balance towards success’. These elements, along with actionable knowledge of what designers do, are key components of teaching as design.

The article provides an introduction to research relevant to ‘teaching as design’ that interconnects issues of practical and theoretical significance. The study of teachers’ design work is explored through three main areas: design epistemology (or the study of ‘designerly ways of knowing’), design phenomenology (the study of the products of the design process), and design praxiology (the study of the practices and processes of design). For practical purposes, the paper discusses ways of building design capacity within universities, through sharpening the focus on students’ activity, and helping students to take greater control over the design of their own learning tasks and learning environments.

The article advocates teaching as design as the ‘intelligent centre of the whole teaching and learning lifecycle’. It is a means to think differently, to reconfigure elements of the learning environment to stimulate and scaffold ‘what the student does’. It can create structures within which students can exercise their agency as partners in learning.

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