Design Your Teaching

In education, we are taught to plan our lessons. In more progressive communities, we are taught to “backwards design” our lessons and units. Begin with what you want to accomplish, decide how you will know if you got there, then make sure you take your students through a series of activities that will allow them to be successful.

This seems reasonable path and folks are paid lots of money to lead faculty through the work. Unfortunately, it is a typical planning process which falsely assumes:

  • We know what we want to accomplish (despite the rhetoric around learning outcomes, they are rarely clear and bounded in authentic classrooms).
  • The instruments we devise for measuring what we hope to accomplish are valid and reliable (in some cases the quality of measures has been established, but those are very rare).
  • That we know how to get students to learn what we want them to (every group of students is unique, and lessons don’t transfer in the way teacher believe).

When faced with the task of making teaching decisions (and most other decisions), educators are better served by replacing the traditional planning models in favor of a design approach. When we design, we approach problems in the following ways:

  • We are guided by principles. In traditional planning, we follow steps and recipes for how to proceed. When designing from principles, we are guided by a comparatively small number of generalizations that capture what we want the lesson or unit to be. For example, we may be guided by the principle that “students have autonomy in deciding their final project.” As design proceeds, we replace those aspects that interfere with guiding principles.
  • We question decisions. When practicing design, we are critical of our decisions as we proceed. If later decisions cause us to rethink earlier decisions, then we revise our proposed activities.
  • We negotiate solution spaces. Once a teaching problem has been framed, the potential solutions are defined. The exact solution that we implement is the result of several factors. The nature of our students. The available resources. The preferences of the institution. The knowledge of the instructor. These are all factors that determine what can be done.

Teachers make decisions. Those decisions are based on the information we have at the time. When we plan, we assume we know all relevant information when we devise the plan. Designers know we have incomplete information, and they update their intentions as it becomes more complete.

Experienced teachers do this; they do it without being conscious of it. I think it is time to replace planning with designing in our understanding of the preparation teachers do for their lessons, units, and courses.