Theory in use; how to be a better learning designer

You have beliefs about what creates good learning, and what doesn’t. This is called your ‘theory in use’. It is your personal construct, and is almost certainly not exactly the same as that of the very best expert teachers – yet! Your ‘theory in use’ decides pretty much everything you do in the classroom, so it is worth improving!

Geoff Petty

During my teacher training, my tutors used Geoff Petting’s ‘Teaching Today‘ as a core text. It is a great book full of practical advice on how to be a great teacher. His other popular book, ‘Evidence-based teaching‘, based mainly on John Hattie’s meta-analysis on the effect sizes of different teaching methods, is even better. 

The book suggests that the way you teach or design learning is based on two things:

  1. Theory in use – your principles of learning and teaching
  2. Teaching strategies – processes and practices for delivering teaching

Petty argues that the closer your theory in use reflects reality, the better you are as a teacher. He says that both your theory in use and your teaching strategies can be improved by constant research, experimentation, and reflection. 

How well do you understand your theory in use and teaching strategies? Are they written down? How often do you add and adapt them based on student outcomes and feedback?

What is your theory in use?

Have a go at writing your theory in use down on a blank piece of paper with the Feynman technique to test yourself. Set a timer for around 20 minutes and start to write your underlying principles of learning and teaching as if you were explaining them to someone. Once you have everything out of your head, use books and the internet to fill in any gaps. 

Try to evaluate how well you have tested your principles and how closely you feel they reflect reality. Spend the next few days reading up on the principles of expert teachers you respect, is there anything you can add to your list?

If you are serious about being the best learning designer you can be and provide students with a great learning experience, you need to improve your theory of use and teaching strategies. First, make sure you know what both of these are, then spend some time adding to it from great teachers who share their knowledge and finally use a learning cycle to add to and adjust them as you gain experience. The world needs better teachers, and reflective practice is the first step to creating more of them.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

David Kolb published the book Experimental Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development in 1984 that introduced his learning cycle. The basic idea is that people learn from experience and that a structure can be put in place to support this learning.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

David Kolb

The cycle has four stages:

  1. Do: Concrete learning – encounter a new experience
  2. Review: Reflective observation – study and reflect on the experience
  3. Learn: Abstract conceptualisation – form new ideas or adapt existing ones based on reflections
  4. Apply: Active experimentation – apply new ideas to a unique situation

Kolb argues that all four stages must be present for effective learning to happen. A learning experience can start at any of the four stages but should move through the stages logically. The active experimentation forms the concreate learning for the next cycle allowing the process to repeat.

You might review something that happens at work, thinking about what worked and what didn’t and suggest why, using any data available to you. You can then create some general principles based on your reflections that can be applied in other situations. You can then plan another situation where you can apply these general principles. Finally, you can carry out your planned experiment and repeat the cycle, generating new or more robust general principles with each iteration. 

This process can also be used as the basis for planning learning experiences for other people. At University, the learn stage would represent the lecture in a traditional course where existing theories help conceptualise a set of general principles. The additional steps might take place as either independent study, small group seminars, tutorials or labs.

When designing online learning that uses technology to reimagine the learning experience, these four stages can form a framework for the student’s interactions with materials, collaboration, and active learning. Students could work through the cycle each day, each week, each month, or the course could be designed as just one repetition of the process with the expectation that the student continues iterations once the course has finished. 

Kolb’s Learning cycle is a simple introduction to structured learning that you can expand on with other approaches. Next time you are designing learning, think about if all four stages are present and experienced in a logical order for a more effective learning experience.