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Teaching through informed design: An example from English

All the examples of pedagogical practice that I share can be applied to a number of subject areas and stages. By looking at the structure of teaching and learning, I hope you are more able to readily apply great practice in within your areas as well as help others improve to. In these posts, I will give a description of the activity before then providing an analysis in the context of nudge theory (choice architecture and informed design).

The purpose of text

The example I am sharing in this piece was from a lesson I observed recently. There was so much about the lesson that I can talk about - but for this post, I am going to stick to a specific episode of great practice.

The teacher had set up a task around the purpose of text. Learners were required to identify and understand how language can be applied to different audiences. It was well resources task, with the different types of text being displayed on the classroom wall with matching descriptions cut up into cards. The basis of any good 'mix & match' activity.

The task was set with learners being able to choose whether to complete it on their own, or with the help from others. A simple set of instructions were given. "Look at the descriptions that you have and match them to the headings on the wall". The teacher then observed and only supported learners when necessary.

At the start of the exercise, some learners decided to work on their own. There were also a number who looked to work together. The learners started by reading the descriptions before looking around the class as to where they might be placed. Then came the process of sticking the description beside the 'correct' heading. Take a look at the image. Can you figure out what has gone wrong?

As I stated before, the teacher refrained from providing too much guidance. They did however, offer encouragement and would ask questions during the activity. At no point did the teacher provide any direct answers.

After around five minutes, it became clear that group needed some more guidance. The teacher paused the activity and then gave another instruction. "By each heading there should be only one card of each colour". This had an immediate impact. Learners first went to the headings that had cards with the same colour and had to decide which one to take away. Next, they had to decide where the card went - i.e. a heading which lacked a colour. Within the next five minutes and through exceptional collaboration, the learners had completed the activity. Each heading had four descriptive cards, all of different colour. To conclude the activity, the teacher asked learners a number of questions, one of the most challenging being, "how did you decide which card to remove?"

Unpacking the choice architecture

This learning experience was underpinned by exceptional planning. The teacher had designed the choice architecture in such away that learners could fail in a safe environment, and swiftly learn from their mistakes. Allowing learners to fail is a powerful teaching tool. It enables them to understand that it is OK to get things wrong. What is more, it is OK to get things wrong think about a potential solution - and get this wrong too!

The beauty of this experience lay in the informed design. The structure of the task has been meticulously planned - from the failure of the learners to the simplistic additional guidance. In giving learners the key ingredient; the requirement of there being one card of each colour, the teacher did not give the answer. Rather, it opened up informed discussions between learners which were based upon the work they had already completed. Learners spoke to each other justifying why one card should stay whilst the other should move. During this time, the teacher walked among the learners, asking questions and never providing solutions. The task came to a natural conclusion whereby learners could around the classroom and visually see that the work had been completed.

The colour coding and planning for failure were two powerful nudges. A reminder, a nudge is "any aspect of choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding options" (Thaler and Sunstein - 2008). Imagine if this activity did not have the colour coding? Imagine learners were simply asked to copy a definition. Imagine, these learners were given the answer straight away.

At the heart of consistently great learning experiences is informed design. It creates opportunities for learners to choose, without forbidding options. Remember at the start of this task, learners were free to choose where they placed the descriptions - and they did. For me, there can be no doubt, that all of these learners engaged with this multi-layered activity through a deep process of learning. All learners were challenged. All learners were stretched. All learners were nudged.

Try it yourself

I immediately began to think about how I would use this. Here are a couple of suggestions...

1) Psychology - write a model answer and colour code the AO1 (explain), AO2 (apply) & AO3 (evaluate) elements of the question. Set up headings for each and ensure that there can only be on of each colour attached.

2) History - colour code the key features, historical sources and interpretation and do the same

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#differentiation #stretchandchallenge #studentcenteredlearning #choicearchitect #informeddesign #failingsafe