If I were a sloppy New York Times reporter, I’d start this blog post by constructing a faux-trend narrative about the increasing use of “design” in educational discourse or practice. But I’m not a reporter and don’t work for the Times, so I will just note that in the past six months I have come across enough references to “design philosophy” in education to rub me the wrong way. Not enough to take off skin, but to give me a bit of rhetorical rugburn. The argument runs something like this: “We need to design educational experiences so that we can …” and here append a predicate of your choice: engage the alienated, close the achievement gap, focus on important learning objectives, or solve the split-end crisis in cosmetology.
Yes and no.
Yes, it is important for schools and individual teachers to be deliberate in making choices about instruction. In that sense, one can engage in a sort-of designing process, up to a point. To the extent possible, you can focus on what matters and plan for experiences that help students accomplish the most essential objectives of a lesson, a term, or a program. In college teaching, I think F. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences and Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design are important resources for faculty and teaching assistants when planning courses. Wiggins and McTighe’s work began (and continues) with K-12 teachers, so those of us who coopted their book for higher ed are seeing value for our work as well. For both Fink and Wiggins/McTighe, it is essential for teachers to narrow down what is most important in a course and work backwards from those essentials.
Planning from that standpoint is incredibly helpful, just so long as one remembers the adage of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: battle plans don’t survive first contact with the main enemy force. I don’t usually think of students as an enemy force, and yet they can be a force of nature or at least chaos. More importantly and generally, what matters in teaching is not so much the planned curriculum as the received and learned curriculum. We may plan something, and we have the obligation to plan deliberately, and at the end of the day what students take away from the class may be quite different from our best and most thoughtful intentions. I’ve had days when my plans coincided almost perfectly with the direction of students, and I’ve had other days with very different outcomes.
So plan, without the hubris of assuming it is hermetically-sealed design work. Or acknowledge that “intellectual design” has some aspect of a misnomer about it.
Similarly, I bristle at the phrase “authentic assessment.” I first heard the phrase around 1990, referring to state exams that were not multiple choice but instead were essays or other performance tasks in a standardized setting. My thought at the time: “Please go find a nonindustrial society with such tasks as part of everyday life and then I’ll grant it as deeply and universally authentic.” More recently, I have read the expression in connection with assessment tasks where teachers or others who constructed the assessment hoped students would find the task meaningful. Please note the emphasis I added to hope. As with language about instructional design, the phrase “authentic assessment” can refer to the intention to construct an interesting and engaging activity. What it cannot do is guarantee student responses. And yet the phrase “authentic assessment” does make a rhetorical claim about the design of meaningful activity.
If it were possible to design other people’s experiences, Waterworld might not have been a disaster, nor the Udacity experiment at San Jose State University. But the world and people are marvelously complex and unpredictable, and those who argue on behalf of planning might wish to make a clear distinction between making deliberate and thoughtful choices, on the one hand, and guaranteeing the reception of those choices, on the other.