Remote learning is a crisis response to COVID-19. But could it also bring on a learning revolution?

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:

  1. Preparing teachers to design just as we do for architects, engineers and industrial designers.
  2. Empowering teachers to think of the work they do as being ‘design work’, so that they can more systematically engage in design thinking.
  3. Recognising how teacher design work is unique – unlike many other design professionals, teachers play a direct role in implementing their own solutions.
  4. Equipping all teachers with design support tools they need based on research about what is effective.
  5. 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

Congratulations Dr Knussen

No cap, no gown but a lovely place to hold a COVID-alterative graduation celebration. Congratulations Dr Knussen. You can read Lauren’s thesis, Investigating Early Career Teachers’ Design of Technology-Integrated Learning in Context here.

Sue Bennett, Lauren Knussen, Shriley Agostinho, Melinda Plumb, Lori Lockyer


Designing for effective teaching in higher education workshop at UNSW

Shirley Agostinho presented Designing for effective teaching in higher education workshop at UNSW.

Contemporary higher education is under increasing stress. Student expectations are diversifying and competing demands on educators are becoming harder to meet. Considering teaching as design work can be an effective way of meeting these conflicting challenges. In the past two decades, Learning Design as a field of educational research and practice is gaining traction internationally, with significant efforts to support university teachers’ design practices. The workshop focused on how teaching can be considered a form of design to support high quality learning experiences including an introduction to:

  • a systematic method for representing and documenting learning designs, particularly those that integrate technology
  • research on how university teachers design and implications for practice
  • the concept of sharable and adaptable learning designs

Teacher as Designer Workshop – EARLI2019

Our workshop at EARLI2019 in Aachen Germany: Teacher as Designer: An evidence-based model to stimulate teacher design work.

Abstract: Recognition of the design work of teachers has been a growing concept in the educational research literature for decades yet, teacher education rarely explicitly develops the knowledge and skills about design.  To make such a change in practice we need theoretically robust and empirically-based models and tools that will support teacher design.  This workshop presented the findings of our  multi-phase research project that studied the design practices of 48 Australian primary school teachers.

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 3.34.31 pm.png

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 3.34.45 pm.png

Workshop participants  interacted with the teacher design model that we derived from an Activity Theory framing and the findings of the study.

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 3.33.23 pm.png

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 3.33.30 pm.png

The workshop included a reflective discussion in which participants drew upon their own research and practice experience to inform future iterations of the model.

Thanks to those who joined us at the workshop and provided feedback on our teacher design model.  For those participants who would like to provide further input, please complete a few questions on this form (opens a new window).


Book released: Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age

Pleased to see the 3rd edition of Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age edited by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe released.  Our chapter, Learning Designs as a Stimulus and Support for Teachers’ Design Practicesrethinkingpedagogy.jpg, draws together our work on learning design in higher education.

Abstract: In the global higher education sector, university teachers are being challenged to improve student learning by effectively integrating new pedagogies and technologies. Quality teaching and educational experiences are considered critical to equip a diverse range of students with the lifelong learning skills essential for full participation in contemporary society. Educational design has emerged as an important issue with research and development work focused on ways in which university teachers can be supported to design learning experiences for students. This chapter provides a historical account of the research work within the context of international research on learning designs. One of the significant outcomes of using learning designs was the observed and reported impact on participants’ integration of technology, pedagogy and content. A key goal for the Learning Designs Project was one of reusability, that is, providing examples of good education and technology integration practice for teachers to apply to their own context.


Teacher Design Thinking at 2018 Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE) Conference

Thanks to those who attended our workshop, Teacher Design Thinking: An evidence-based model to support teacher design and technology integration, at 2018 Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE) Conference in Sydney – ACCE2018.

IMG_1830.JPGWe’d love your feedback! Please fill out this very short evaluation form

BERA Blog: How might teacher design help to support sustainable innovation in higher education?

Read our BERA Blog post based on our paper Bennett S, Agostinho S and Lockyer L (2018) ‘Towards sustainable technology-enhanced innovation in higher education: Advancing learning design by understanding and supporting teacher design practice’, British Journal of Educational Technology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12683

Teacher Design at ACER Research Conference 2018

It was a great opportunity to present our work in primary school teacher design at the ACER Research Conference 2018 (https://www.acer.org/research-conference).  We received very helpful input from participants.  Looking forward to advancing our Teacher Design Model.  The paper for the presentation can be found at https://research.acer.edu.au/research_conference/RC2018/13august/9/


Teacher Design Thinking project at #EARLI2017

We presented early stages of our current project focused on primary school teachers’ design practices at EARLI2017 https://earli.org/earli-2017


Extended Summary:

Teachers have the critical task of designing effective leaning experiences that address their students’ individual developmental needs, advance their deep knowledge and multiple literacies.  Teachers do this in a dynamic education context that requires them to respond to evolving state-defined curricula and expectations for quality teaching pedagogies that integrate appropriate technology.

This presentation reports on the research design and findings the first phases of a current Australian study that aims to understand how teachers engage in the design of learning experiences for their students. This knowledge is a critical step to informing the development of improved strategies and resources for initial teacher preparation and ongoing teacher professional learning.

To achieve this aim, the researchers argue that it is necessary to re-conceptualise what comprises teaching by drawing attention to teachers’ design work. As such, this study focuses on teacher design thinking as the teachers’ cognitive process when engaging in the pedagogical design of a teaching program level – a coherent series of lessons that make connections across the curriculum and cumulatively build students’ knowledge and skills.  However, the study also recognises that, while design thinking may be considered an individual cognitive act, ultimately teachers work in a social context that is influenced by social norms; government policy; school strategy, rules, resources; and interactions with fellow teachers (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2000).

Recognising both the individual and contextual aspects of teacher design work, the study is theoretically significant by integrating cognitive and socio-cultural approaches to investigate teacher design.  Using Activity Theory (Engeström, 2001) to frame the study, we conceptualise the teacher (subject) designing a teaching program (object(ive)) within a system comprised of rules, community, division of labour, and technical and psychological tools.  To investigate the psychological tools of teacher design we draw upon cognitive psychology concepts of expertise particularly associated with case-based reasoning and teacher knowledge schema.  Experts have extensive, well-structured prior knowledge on which they draw to make connections between past experience and a new situation, focussing on the deep structure of a problem and making links based on general principles (Lawson, 2004). Expert teachers draw upon their own past teaching experience or the teaching experiences shared by others.  Further, eexpertise in teaching involves activating a highly organized systems of knowledge (Berliner, 2004). Specifically, teachers choose effective strategies specific to the concepts being taught, known as ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ (Shulman, 1986) which has been more recently extended to include the technological domain (TPCK) (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

The study takes a qualitative, multi-phase multiple case study approach using research procedures that allow investigation of two main research questions:

  1. How do expert and novice teachers think about and approach the design of learning experiences?
  2. How do evidence-based models stimulate novice teachers’ design thinking?

The approach particularly allows us to investigate design as it is occurs rather than relying on participants to accurately recall their process after the event. In three of the phases, participants were asked to respond to a realistic design problem, designing a teaching program of learning activities and assessment which fit the Australian Curriculum and cater for cross-curricular opportunities; support multiliteracies learning outcomes; integrate technologies available in schools; and be grounded in quality teaching principles.

Phase 1 was designed to develop a preliminary characterisation of teacher design thinking in a simulated environment (i.e., research laboratory) allowing participants to be closely observed and questioned about their actions as the basis for preliminary findings about teacher design thinking.  Data collection comprised:

  • Interview prior to the design task about their teaching background and asked to recall their usual design practices (audio recorded),
  • Observation during the design tasks using a think-aloud protocol which prompted participants to articulate what they are thinking about and why they are making the design decisions
  • Interview after the design task to explain their design in detail and how they approached the design task
  • Design artefacts (e.g., notes, documented program, etc).

The aim of Phase 2 was to refine the characterisation of expert and novice teacher design thinking using data collected within participants’ work settings, and identifying key concepts and processes that can be documented through a design thinking model. Studying design thinking in the naturalistic setting adds further detail about how design processes and influences occur in context.  In addition to the procedures of Phase 1, data was collected to investigate the implementation of the designed teaching program, including: a design diary for participants record further development of the program and details of its implementation and a telephone interview before and after the program was taught.

Phase 3 focused on analysing the data collected in the previous phases to develop a model to stimulate design thinking.  Both inductive and deductive analysis techniques were used to identify differences and commonalities in expert and novice approaches to design.  Key findings identified experts’ emphasis on designing diagnostic, formative and summative assessment activities for students, considerations for differentiation based on student abilities, refinements based on available school resources, and opportunities for their own professional learning.  The findings were then integrated into a design thinking model to be tested in the subsequent, and final, phase of the study.

The presentation provides an overview of the research design, detail findings from the first two phases of the project and present the design model developed based on these findings.


Berliner, D. C. (2004). Describing the Behavior and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 24(3), 200–212.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward and activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2000). Mentoring in the New Millennium, Theory Into Practice, 39(1), 50-56

Lawson, B. (2004). Schemata, gambits and precedent: some factors in design expertise. Design Studies, 25(5), 443-457.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108,(6), 1017–1054.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.

Integrating technology in Primary Teaching

Our research team member, Lauren Knussen, recently presented an overview of her current PhD studies investigating how teachers design for technology integration at the Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales annual research awards presentation night.

Abstract: There is often much commentary in the media on whether our efforts to integrate technology in school education are working (Phillips, 2015). Research about teachers’ integration of technology into teaching and learning has focused extensively on teachers’ skills and knowledge (Bate, 2010), teachers’ practices in the classroom (Pegrum et al., 2013; Orlando, 2013), and barriers to technology integration (Ertmer, 2005). Research participants in these studies on technology integration have predominantly been identified as either pre-service teachers or in-service teachers, with little focus on teachers at the beginning or in the early years of their careers.

What is missing is an understanding of how teachers design technology-integrated units of work and how this design work is influenced and impacted by the teachers’ context. The study presented here addresses this gap while focusing on an under-researched group of teachers. Early career teachers are an important group to focus on because they are dealing with the stress and complexities of their first years in the classroom, as well as dealing with the steep learning curve of integrating technology in a pedagogically sound way (AITSL Teacher Standards).

This study is currently underway with seven early career primary teacher participants from government, catholic and independent sectors. An in-depth longitudinal case study design is used to follow each participant as they design, teach and reflect on a technology-integrated unit of work in their classrooms. By incorporating a mix of observation and interview methods, the study aims to increase our understanding of key influences on the participants’ design practice before, during and after teaching a unit. It is anticipated that findings from this study will inform our understanding of how to better support teachers’ integration of technology, both prior to qualification and in the early stages of their careers.

%d bloggers like this: