Thursday, April 11, 2013

The music of teaching

Teachers and students have a vast range of resources to use: books, audio recordings, films, tests, simulations, games, photos, diagrams etc. The teacher's role is putting selected resources into context and finding methods to help students to reflect on and develop that input. However, although we have documented and stored so much content we have not succeeded in documenting or recording actual teaching methods in a standard format.

Teaching resembles in some ways the performance of music. You have lots of instruments that can be used and integrated in complex or simple structures and there are a wide range of styles to choose between. Courses can be orchestrated and can involve soloists as well as different groups of musicians or combinations of instruments. The difference is that music has a standard form of notation (at least western music) and is therefore accessible through the centuries. Teaching on the other hand has no form of notation, no way of expressing how a lesson or course is orchestrated, so that other teachers can draw on previous practice. Teachers often have to work in their own silo reinventing the wheel rather than being able to draw on other's experience.

We've created open educational resources (OER) but the big question is how to fit them all together. Maybe we need to develop a language for open lesson plans with a standard notation form that all teachers understand and can interpret. A choreography for teaching, Not to slavishly follow but for each teacher and class to interpret and adapt.Teaching is becoming increasingly complex today and it feels like time to develop methods to transfer teaching practice.

This is where Learning Design comes in. I've just read an interesting paper called the Larnaca declaration on learning design that describes various attempts at devising a notation for teaching (download the paper from the website). One such attempt is called LAMS Learning Design system (see example below). The lesson plan is represented by a diagram with a number of linked icons. Each icon tells what type of activity is proposed and each icon is linked to further embedded information on the details of the activity and even xml-code for educational technologists to be able to implement this activity in say a learning management system. The example below shows the organization of a roleplay and has a linear format but other learning designs could have more complex structures.

CC BY-NC-SA James Dalziel at

The article contains several other attempts to find a graphical means of describing the structure of a lesson and the potential for this is enormous. Not simply to describe how a one teacher has devised an effective method for helping students to grasp a particular concept but that now other teachers can easily interpret this plan and use it themselves. Just as a piece of music can be played in a variety of styles and interpretations so can a learning design be interpreted in various ways, depending on the teacher and the class context. Some forms of music, like jazz, depend greatly on improvisation whereas classical music stays more true to the written score. The same may be true for teaching using learning design. The key is recording and transferring good practice. If we can also find ways of linking to relevant open resources we can create complete lesson plans.

Time for open learning design to build on open educational resources.

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