The past months have seen a mammoth effort by school and university teachers to design remote learning programs that allow students to continue their education from home.
This switch to remote learning has been achieved at very short notice, in a time when our whole community is under significant pressure. This has set us up remarkably well for being able to maintain our education system until restrictions can be eased.
Even so, we know there are significant challenges. Teachers have had little time to create the optimal online educational experiences. Not all of our students have reliable access to fast internet. Many families are sharing devices for work, study and leisure. And many of us, teachers and students, are learning how to use the online tools as we go.
Remote learning has brought the work of teachers into our homes like never before. This gives us an opportunity to recognise the professional work teachers do when they design learning experiences for their students.
Imagine if these new modes of learning and teaching could spark a learning revolution that lasts well beyond the current crisis.
How do teachers design for learning?
Throughout their careers, teachers develop extensive professional knowledge. They know their subject matter and how to teach it. And they know their students and how to motivate them to learn. Teachers draw on this knowledge to design lessons that are customised to meet the diverse needs of their particular students. They also adjust their teaching ‘on the fly’ and adapt successful ideas to use again.
It is this expertise that has enabled our teachers to devise the best possible solutions for their students in a greatly condensed time frame in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.
Over the past 15 years we’ve been researching what school and university teachers do when they’re designing, and we’ve found that much of their work is similar to other design professionals like architects, engineers and industrial designers.
Like all designers, teachers are constantly engaging in ‘problem-to-solution’ thinking. Designers start by identifying a problem and developing their own understanding of it. They then move into cycles of thinking through possible solutions, checking how these fit the context, then adapting and refining to find the best way forward.
Teachers engage in design thinking as they prepare to teach (planning lessons, activities and assessments), while they teach (modifying based on student responses), and after they have taught (reflecting on their teaching and deciding what they will do differently in future). As they go, they draw on a range of supports – their colleagues, mentors, curriculum advice, online resources and collections of past examples.
The challenge is that most of this teaching design work is unrecognised. We tend to focus on the visible part of a teacher’s work, that is, the actual teaching interactions they have with students in the classroom or online. The work teachers do to plan, adapt and reflect is often done at home and outside work hours.
What’s more, the tools available to teachers to support their design work are much less well developed than in other design disciplines. This means teachers don’t yet have access to shared models and processes for designing, as well as software support tools that architects and engineers routinely use. Without these tools it is harder to build, share and sustain design practices within a profession.
So what does this mean for education in a post COVID-19 world?
We have witnessed teacher design thinking in ‘high speed’ mode over the past month. What would it take for us to capitalise on these capabilities and push us towards a learning design revolution?
Success will depend on five critical actions:
- Preparing teachers to design just as we do for architects, engineers and industrial designers.
- Empowering teachers to think of the work they do as being ‘design work’, so that they can more systematically engage in design thinking.
- Recognising how teacher design work is unique – unlike many other design professionals, teachers play a direct role in implementing their own solutions.
- Equipping all teachers with design support tools they need based on research about what is effective.
- Rebalancing the ‘out of hours’ demands on teachers’ time and reversing the global trend of reduced time for planning and preparation.
In this crisis, a bright light has been shone on the sophisticated work that teachers do. Just as we nurture our students’ problem solving skills to prepare them to be innovators in a complex world, let’s nurture design thinking by our teachers so that their design practices can reshape education for whatever the future brings.
Sue Bennett, Lori Lockyer & Shirley Agostinho