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Teachers are Learning Designers

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Late in 2012, I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post that articulated what I really feel should be and is a role of great teachers. Great teachers are "learning designers" who seek to create a space where all students are empowered to learn. I was further inspired to rearticulate this idea when I saw this video from Sir Ken Robinson:

What really struck me is that great teachers create the conditions for success, just as gardeners do. You can't make a flower grow, but you can design and improve the condition for that flow of naturally occurring events. It's the same for our students. We have the power and the duty to create the best conditions for students to flourish.

Empower Yourself

For so long, teachers have been disempowered to design. With prescribed curriculum, overly strict pacing guides and the like, teachers have been given little to no opportunity to innovate and design for learning. Personally, this was and is my favorite part about teaching -- the opportunity to design and be creative, to design learning that meets the needs of my students, to try new things -- and perhaps the opportunity to fail. Great learning models and structures have the space for teachers to design for their students while still remaining within the framework. Whether it's a driving question for a PBL project, a mini-task in an LDC unit, an instructional scaffold for a UbD unit, or a assessment for a GBL unit, teachers still have -- and must have -- the space that empowers them to design. If we want our students to be empowered, then we must model this empowerment to be a learning designer. If you haven't designed or been given the space to, this will be difficult. Look for spaces that can challenge your design thinking about what a learning space can be.

Stop Blaming Kids

There is one pitfall in Sir Ken Robinson's metaphor of teachers as gardeners and students as fruit. If you misunderstand this metaphor, you might think that it puts a heavier onus on students. It does not. If your students, like plants, are struggling to grow, perhaps it isn't them. Most likely it's the conditions that are being created for students. Now of course, there are many conditions creating opportunity for growth that may be beyond our control. In fact, you might conduct a Realms and Concern Influence protocol with other staff members to see what you can influence about a particular student. That being said, there is always something that teachers can do or design to create the seeds for growth. Look for opportunities to design rather than fearing roadblocks.

Revise and Reflect

As I mentioned earlier, if students are struggling, it's a great opportunity to revise and reflect on the learning design. Ask yourself:

  • Are more voice and choice or self-directed learning needed?
  • Should there be some differentiation?
  • Perhaps there could have been more formative assessments?

These are just some of the questions I ponder when students are not successful, but there are a whole lot more. These are also some of the questions that colleagues ask me, which goes to show that revision and reflection is a collaborative process as well as an individual one. Related to this, don't be afraid to fail. Consider it "failing forward," and continue designing amazing learning experiences for students. Also consider using protocols to help you reflect on your work in a safe space with colleagues.

Teachers, be empowered to become learning designers for all students. We need to look for these opportunities to design, but we also need to reflect on the current learning designs in our classrooms. Just as our world and our students are always changing, so must our designs for learning!

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melissa A. Rowe, MEd's picture
Melissa A. Rowe, MEd
Founder, - I coach students, parents, and educators to help students in under-resourced schools earn scholarships and go to college.

Excellent points, Andrew. I especially like the point about not blaming our students. I always remind myself that every brain is designed to learn. My goal is to make the content interesting and relevant, so that my students want to absorb it!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I really appreciate this post! I think we often think more about the inputs and outputs- what we're going to do and what the kids are going to do in return- rather than taking a systems approach to instruction. Margaret J. Wheatley explores the whole systems- thinking approach in Leadership and the New Science.

I also use Quinn's Six Questions ( as design tools, just to keep my own thinking squared away.

Kee-Man Chuah's picture
Kee-Man Chuah
A passionate educator, a selfless friend and a life survivor.

Appreciate the points mentioned, Andrew.

For too long, especially in my country, teachers are trained to be "gap fillers", transferring knowledge to fill the "gaps" in the learners' brains. But recently, learning design is getting more and more attention and teachers are made to be aware that, in order for learning to be maximised in the classroom, their roles are really important, as the designer of learning.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Thanks Andrew!

Learning design is the art of teaching. Not the science. It's understanding the soul of a human being. Where will this child learn the best? It's knowing your students, not blaming them. great point. Knowing them on a personal level will allow a teacher to create conditions in which they can grow. Some students will grow under many conditions and some only one. And, unfortunately, that one condition might be out of the classroom.

I had the opportunity to see one of my students this year achieve a blackbelt in karate. In a classroom, anxiety consumes him. On a karate mat, he's the boss. That's his realm of learning. And even though I let him perform in the classroom, practice his kicks and punches, it wasn't the same as seeing him in "his" classroom (the karate mat). In that classroom, he is the leader, he is the teacher. That day changed me.


Carla Meyrink's picture
Carla Meyrink
Founder of TCFL. Avid reader, blogger, runner

Thank you for this post - in today's educational climate, we need to be reminded often that in order to empower our students we need to empower ourselves.

Hannah Orcutt's picture
Hannah Orcutt
Kindergarten Teacher and Administrator

Thank you for this! I also love the "teacher as gardener" metaphor. Build a great environment for learning and provide the appropriate tools (which may not be the same for each student) and learning will happen. Certainly not easy, but what a great way to think.

Cristóbal CG's picture

Thanks! Does Ken Robinson has a book on this subject? or does he explain it deeplier than in this short video? some book maybe?
Or can yourself recommend some literature about teacher`s empowerment in this line?

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