Being a Designer of Learning

Recently, teachers in our Blended Learning grant project met for the first time to learn more about what Blended Learning is, and to get an idea of the work we hope they will accomplish this school year through the program.  The grant funding provides release time to work together collaboratively to backwards-design at least one unit that will be delivered  to students using blended learning.  We designed this professional development for the teachers using blended learning: direct instruction pieces such as how to use Moodle to set up a course, and other tools to support the learning such as Google Docs, blogs, and wikis are all available via tutorials on their Moodle course.

Last year, the teachers that participated in this project seemed bogged down by all of the technology tools and many just didn’t embrace the backwards design aspect, resulting in various levels of completing the project and successful impact with students. This year, we are changing things up a bit.

This change came about as a result of attending Advance UBD training with Grant Wiggins in July.  I wrote earlier about one of our big take-ways from this –we need to think like a designer –a designer of learning. This applies not just to teachers designing learning for the classroom, but to those of us charged with designing learning for teachers. We used the Understanding by Design process to design this professional development course.  The first step in the process is to determine what it is we want students (in this case teachers) to know and be able to do.  Here is our transfer goal:

Students(Teachers) will be able to independently design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop 21st Century knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

From here, we determined our goals for understanding and acquisition goals for our teachers:

The students (teachers) will understand that an intentional shift in content delivery and instructional practices, away from the traditional schooling model, transfers the ownership of learning to their students.


  • What Blended Learning is and how it helps students
  • What UBD is and how it helps students
  • What 21st Century learning is and how it helps students

This gave us a much better place to begin designing our learning activities, always looking for alignment to assure we are on target to help our teachers reach these understandings.

Last year, our kick-off meeting focused on Moodle. We gave a brief presentation on what Blended Learning is – then proceeded to focus the majority of the workshop on getting each teacher onto Moodle where they could start building the online portion of their course.  We did provide a series of tutorials on the backwards-design process which they were expected to have watched prior to coming to the first work session, though we know that few did (Moodle provides pretty good stats on that)- and the result is as we should have expected – the focus was on the technology, and not on how to design learning.

This year, after deciding on our learning goals for the teachers, we knew this had to change. We decided it was critical to focus this first half-day workshop on bringing teachers to an understanding of the importance of being designers of learning, and to have a unified understanding of what blended learning means.  Rather than just telling them how we define these concepts, we started with a Socratic Seminar. We believed this kind of activity would be a way to honor the expertise in the room, let them construct their own knowledge, and to model and activity that they might use with students.  A brief but thought-provoking blog post by Anders Norberg was used for the Socratic Seminar. The 6 small groups were randomly formed, and each group had a good mix of teachers from different grades, levels, and subject areas.  The resulting discussions were rich and insightful.  It was tempting to jump in and steer their conversations, but our team recognized the importance of allowing the conversations to go where they needed to go.  Fears about technology and in many cases a lack of technology gave way naturally to discussions (“Is this what we are supposed to be talking about?”) to find answers to the guiding questions “What is Blended Learning” and “Why Blended Learning.”   At the end of the 20 minute conversations, they shared out with the whole group and had pretty much nailed the definition on their own.

Following this, we gave a  brief presentation on Blended Learning, (offering the definitions given in the Innosight report)  and then moved into an activity to help teachers understand where Blended Learning fits in the learning design. Each participant was given a strip of paper with one element of learning or teaching printed on it.  We projected the Venn Diagram you see below:

Teachers were asked if the item would be classified as something that mostly would be in a traditional classroom, blended classroom, or could be in both.

Some of the elements that they needed to place on the diagram included:

-Online Quiz
-Face-to-Face collaboration
-Video Podcast
-Students playing games
-Database resource link
-Instructional Design
-Formative Assessment
-Students reading a textbook
-Teacher lecturing
-Project based learning
-Motivated, Successful Students
-Online collaboration
-Threaded discussion

The “aha” for our teachers was that nearly all of these elements could fall into any area of the chart. This became clear as the person with the title, “Instructional Design” and the person with the outcome, “Motivated, successful students” placed their strips of paper on the diagram.

Another “aha” moment was that as a Designer of Learning, they manipulate all of the other pieces- but to create a blended learning environment – they need to allow students to have some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace.  .  As a Designer of Learning, they decide which elements are best delivered in a traditional manner, and which could be enhanced through technology. As a Designer of Learning, they decide what is best taught through direct instruction, and what might be self-paced.  Direct instruction –what many think of when they hear the term “teaching” – is just one of the elements. A Designer of Learning carefully plans how all of the elements will be deployed   to assure that students achieve the learning goal.

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

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