Article Review: “Education as Design for Learning”

This fall I am working on a personal statement to articulate my core values and beliefs in education. In my research, I found “Education as Design for Learning,” an article by Richard Halverson and Erica Rosenfeld Halverson.

Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I find that having the words to describe what you are thinking or observing is necessary  for thinking critically about it. When I am learning something, I need the big picture to hang the details on. Then, as I read, I can square my experience, understanding, and prior knowledge against the framework.

Article Summary

Halverson and Halverson describe the field of education research as fractured by a perceived lack of integrity. Education researchers have sought to legitimize their work by borrowing techniques from different disciplines, such as the “hard” sciences, but the diversity of approaches has further muddied the water: “The derivative approach to methods made education research too applied for theory, yet too abstract for practice.”

The authors point out that the opportunity here is to seek what is unique about learning and teaching in order to find identity and direction. “This is where design comes in.” Learning is defined as the natural human process in which a person interacts with people, tools, and the world. Educators design structures to shape this interaction so as to achieve a desired outcome. Thus, “education research is the study of the design for learning.”

Using the lens of design also grounds learning in the “experience of the learner, rather than the organizational requirements of what needs to be learned, [which] continues to provide a compelling counter-narrative to the standards movement in school reform,” referring to Dewey’s The School and Society (1915).

This all sets the stage for describing three different approaches to educational research:

  1. Type 1 (positivist) – global, draws on scientific methods; ex. No Child Left Behind, Common Core
  2. Type 2 (practical) – local, draws on practitioner knowledge; ex. Lesson plans
  3. Type 3 (hermeneutic) – critical, draws on historical, social, economic, or political contexts; ex. Questioning the validity of standardized testing

All three types make use of artifacts. This might be a particular assessment done by a teacher, a school document describing the policy on bullying, or a district-wide initiative. “Artifacts provide four key analytic opportunities: intentions, features, affordances, and outcomes.” Intentions and features are done by the designer, affordances address the interpretation by the user, and outcomes show what the artifact has done. Most importantly, this common language of design could unify education researchers from each type.

My thoughts

I would have loved to take this seminar! The idea of being surrounded by people with this diversity of backgrounds and debating the philosophy of education sounds really exciting. #edugeek

Design just keeps on coming up in my reading… The authors do address whether this is just another fad, though I agree with them that it points to a new way of looking at what are an “ancient traditions of teaching and learning.” I believe education is fundamentally different from other sciences. Education has the goal of producing beneficial effects. The first thing that I teach my students in differentiating between engineering and science is that engineering is trying to achieve a specific, human goal and whereas science is (supposed to be) observational and objective. So it makes sense to me that techniques from other sciences have never quite squared and that design would.

I find myself most interested in Type 2 research. The idea of phronesis, “Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom,” definitely resonates with me. All of this research is, at the core, about helping students learn and grow, and the frontline of that is the teacher her/himself. Even though I am a big picture person, I quickly get down to the practical details. “Type 2 research treats local autonomy as a capacity to be cultivated, and more important, studied.” Even when I explore research ideas that look at the school level, it is always focused on helping administrators shape their institution, which is really just another level of student.

Two quotes about Type 2 research that resonated with me:

The real potential for Type 2 research, though, is to generate new approaches to addressing the problems of public education that are grounded in actual school experiences. Type 2 artifact- based narratives promise to situate best practices in recognizable contexts so that novices can draw on and extend local knowledge and expertise in change efforts.”
Studying what expert practitioners perceive as significant provides insight into which features of local contexts can be highlighted, enhanced, or eliminated, and how best practices mitigate obstacles and find opportunities in contexts that thwart similarly situated colleagues.”

As a practitioner, understanding these three types is useful. As I look for ways to improve my practice or school policies, I often want to look to what other teachers have done. Looking for Type 2 research would give me practical strategies. Alternatively, I think every teacher has been in the position of listening to a new school-wide initiative and thinking, “Really? They want me to do what?” Type 1 research would give me the perspective on the bigger system. Type 3 research could help me think critically about the hidden lessons my students experience, whether this is my choice of support materials, language I use for discipline, or even my body language.

One of the adjectives that comes to mind when I think of a well designed piece of furniture or technology is “elegant.” Perhaps envisioning education as “design for learning” will be an elegant way forward to what is a complicated human endeavor.

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