What Can Language Teachers and Teacher Trainers Learn from Designers?

By Emma Cresswell and Ania Rolinska

Reflections on using Learning Design in the language classroom


We’d like to introduce you to Jane. Jane works as a teacher educator, preparing students to teach English in state schools. Part of the preparation is a practicum which allows her trainees to put theory into practice. Jane’s course is very busy and the few one-to-one consultations offered to the students are not sufficient to let them voice their concerns and talk through any challenges and doubts they may have about linking the theory and practice. Jane is concerned about their development as reflective practitioners and so decides to explore how the issue could be addressed. When investigating her context and her learners, she concludes she needs a way of connecting with her trainees outside the classroom so that she can learn more about their particular teaching experiences during the practicum. She establishes objectives for her project which focus on her trainees developing a more reflective approach to their practice through structured reflections and dialogue with peers and tutor.

Having done some research, she decides that blogs could provide the space for the teachers-to-be to engage in deepened reflection. To help them do it in a focused and purposeful way she sets up a series of tasks – the trainees are to identify a challenge in their practicum, research it, create action plans, implement them and then carry out self-evaluation. While they go through the process, they are supported by their trainees and supervisor through blog comments and face-to-face meetings with the latter. To introduce her blogging project to her students, Jane creates an animation: https://plotagon.com/268132. Before she shares it with her trainees, she seeks constructive feedback from her colleagues and after some toing and froing she not only refines the video but also sets up a project website https://developbyblogging.weebly.com

At the end of the process, Jane is surprised that ‘she has managed to build a project – step by step – from scratch and now it is ready to be implemented. What is more, it is something she hadn’t thought of before!’* She continues to reflect on the power of collective thinking, peer support and feedback and concludes that there should be more opportunities for teamwork in education to let teachers address the challenges they encounter in their contexts. She has a strong sense of achievement in terms of her own progress and the final outcome, as demonstrated in her final observation: ‘it is worthwhile to engage learners in challenging tasks – if properly guided they will develop and will derive lots of satisfaction from learning’.

The challenges of integrating educational technology

While reading the scenario above, did you happen to draw parallels between Jane and yourself? Perhaps it prompted you to think back over the last few classes you have taught and the role technology played in them? Technology is almost omnipresent in the modern classroom and in recent years there has been a big push for using technology in education. It’s worth stopping and asking ourselves why there has been such a push to integrate technology into our classes. What is it bringing to our classes?  Are we really enhancing our students’ learning or simply trying to keep up with the Jones’ Language Academy across the way? And the most important question of all: once we decide to use the technology, how do we go about finding a balance between it and pedagogy?

Learning Design

In order to find answers to some of the questions from the previous section, Jane looked beyond her immediate context to see how change is brought about in other disciplines. She followed very closely the Learning Design (LD) framework, and the task she set her students also mimicked the cycle. Mor & Croft (2012) define LD as a way of “devising new practices, plans of activity, resources and tools aimed at achieving particular educational aims in a given situation”. The scheme draws on the ways in which designers go about creating blueprints of new products or buildings. LD as an approach in education has been around since the early 2000s.  In recent years it has developed a wider following on the back of the successful Hands On ICT MOOC (http://www.handsonict.eu/) and most recently an EVO (Electronic Village Online) Session Teachers as Designers(http://teachersasdesigners.edublogs.org/).  It is the EVO Session that Jane’s case study comes from.

LD consists of a sequence of stages labelled with ‘active’ verbs:

  • Imagine – The educator identifies a challenge within their context, a puzzle that they would like to solve, e.g. Jane struggling to get a proper insight into her trainees’ professional development.
  • Investigate – The learning designer investigates the wider context of the challenge, its material and social characteristics, the main actors and their wants and needs. This may be similar to a needs analysis during a Business English class, but is usually much more comprehensive. In the case of Jane, for example, it also included timetable constraints. This information is helpful in refining the challenge as well as identifying aims, objectives and initial evaluation criteria.
  • Inspire – The knowledge of the context can guide the educator in researching and evaluating existing innovations to see what lessons they may learn and how they can build on other’s solutions. These innovations can also come from other contexts. For example, Jane was inspired by the collaborative focus of some of the case studies she had read, which referred to disciplines other than ELT.
  • Ideate – Based on the investigation and research, the learning designer devises a solution that addresses the aims and objectives of the challenge, and that meets the needs and wants of the people involved, in the case of our scenario a reflective blogging project.
  • Prototype – The LD approach is not only about conceptualising but also taking action so the educator creates their technological intervention in order to carry out tests and evaluate the solution. Prototyping is meant to be rapid and it’s good to start the process early so that you can tweak your solution until you and your stakeholders are happy. Jane, for instance, started with a video and developed it into a fully-fledged website.
  • Evaluate – When prototyping, it’s important that you have clear evaluation criteria, ones that are aligned with your objectives – how else are you going to measure your success? It’s good to start evaluating early so that even small bugs are caught. Throughout the process Jane sought feedback from her peers, fellow-participants on the Teachers as Designers course.
  • Reflect – In the LD approach this entails more than just thinking about what worked and what didn’t. For Jane it meant that she reconsidered her perceptions of collaborative learning for example.

The stages can be conceived of as a cycle or, in the case of bigger projects, as a spiral – with some stages taking place in a consecutive fashion while others occur concurrently.

Looking at these stages you may well be asking yourself what is supposed to be new or different about this approach. And you would be justified. The different phases mentioned above closely reflect what we already do in the classroom on a regular basis.  However, the LD process enables us to put these actions together into a sequence and it is this synergy of the separate parts working together that turns out to be so powerful. And this is what comes strongly through in Jane’s scenario.

The cyclical nature of the LD process is one of the key elements as it encourages the designer to constantly evaluate and reflect on the process. We like to think we make informed choices in the classroom when choosing an activity, a method or an assessment but it is often kept tacit and intuitive. Articulating it and putting it down on paper may actually help us to rethink and introduce qualitative changes before implementing them in the classroom. Teachers are often said to be reflective creatures, well trained due to observations to think of what went well and what went wrong and what they would do differently. But these reflections frequently remain on the Hot Feedback form filled in after the observation. It seems important to think more widely, to tackle the whys and hows and build in opportunities for iteration which help us to polish the projects.

It could also be said that teachers are often afraid to fail or lose face in front of their students and because of this we wait until the project or term finishes to carry out any self-evaluation or to request feedback from the learners. That way, if the feedback is unfavourable at least we don’t have to face the students. However, failure is potentially a powerful way to learn if it is conceptualised as simply part of the developmental process. We often tell our students that they can learn from their mistakes and the same goes for us teachers. LD helps us to achieve this in an incremental, step-by-step fashion. And the students can be involved in the process as co-designers, thus empowering their own learning that bit more.


As we saw with Jane, teachers working with the LD framework usually feel rewarded at the end of the process, even though the amount of commitment in terms of time and energy may pose a challenge. What they find satisfying is the way in which the framework helps them innovate, not by reinventing the wheel but by building on existing solutions in a more informed fashion. Design is always redesign after all (Latour, 2008). LD assists the teachers in planning and focusing ‘on the different parts, without leaving anything apart or overworking on other aspects’. The constant iteration and revision results in spotting weaknesses and visible refinements particularly if peer feedback is available. They can rediscover the value of evaluation at early stages of planning and testing their designs, which prevents them from making a major mistake at the time of final implementation. The LD process feels quite intuitive and most teachers are familiar with its tenets but perhaps do not follow the guidelines fully in their practice, preferring to rely on their instinct. The LD framework reintroduces them to certain common sense practices which may help them readjust and make more informed decisions about technology integration, or indeed other techniques and methods (drama or art approaches for example) into their classroom from now on.

Author’s Bio: Having taught in Thailand, Argentina and Spain, Emma is now the ADoS at IH Coimbra (Portugal). She also tutors on the IH COLT course on OTTI and is currently dabbling in the world of Learning Design, moderating courses for both EVO and IATEFL LTSIG. When not attached to a computer Emma can usually be found trying to decipher the Portuguese language, often with the help of a fino or two!


Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (With Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk) In Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto (editors) Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society – Falmouth, 3-6 September 2009, e-books, Universal Publishers, pp. 2-10.

Mor, Y. & Craft, B. (2012) “Learning Design: reflections on a snapshot of the current landscape” Research in Learning Technology http://oro.open.ac.uk/33910/ Accessed: 20/05/2016.

* All the unreferenced quotes come from LD journals and final feedback from the participants of EVO Teachers as Designers session in Jan-Feb 2016 (consent to use the quotes has been granted).