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Teaching as design: New research from technology-rich learning environments

Peter Goodyear


‘We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference. And any environment is a chance environment so far as its educative influence is concerned unless it has been deliberately regulated with reference to its educative effect.’
(Dewey, 1938/1916, p.22)

The study of how teachers plan and prepare for lessons is a well-established sub-field of research on teaching. Two recent developments have refreshed the area: the increasing complexity of learning environments in which students and teachers are using digital technologies, and richer socio-material theories about how human activity tangles with tools and spaces. The growing fascination in schools with design thinking is a related development, though whether it is a fad or a fundamental shift in orientation remains to be seen (Manzini, 2015). One way or another, teachers’ engagement in design activity is likely to persist as a worthwhile focus for educational research.

Classrooms in which good educational use is being made of digital devices do not organise themselves by chance. Teachers who regulate such classrooms spend time and serious mental effort in formulating worthwhile tasks, considering how their students might best organise themselves, and thinking ahead about what tools and resources will be needed. They imagine the architecture of a convivial learning environment, tuned to the specific needs of the students and the task. Experienced teachers know that determining the extent or flexibility of structures and scaffolding is important. If designs are too loose, mayhem may ensue. If designs are too tight, students will miss important opportunities to figure out what to do, and to thereby learn how to regulate their own ways of working. Current concerns about students’ misuse of mobile phones in lesson time reflect wider uncertainties about these aspects of self-regulation.

‘If we had better ways of accounting for the processes through which teachers’ designs are enacted we could add a missing developmental dimension to social theories that have taken a “material turn”.’

So researching how teachers design for technology-rich learning activities is a worthwhile area of study. If we knew more about how experienced teachers do this work, we could improve teacher education programs. If we had better ways of accounting for the processes through which teachers’ designs are enacted – tracing the entanglements of ideas, activities, tools, spaces and outcomes – we could add a missing developmental dimension to social theories that have taken a ‘material turn’.

I’d like to point to two recent examples of research that do this. The larger example is a new special issue of BERA’s British Journal of Educational Technology (volume 49, issue 6) guest-edited by Donatella Persico, Francesca Pozzi and myself. The special issue is on ‘teachers as designers of technology-enhanced learning interventions’, and collected within it are empirical studies of teachers engaging in design activities, enacting their designs and/or reflecting on the work involved and its results. It also includes surveys of the literature, conceptual reviews and descriptions of new educational design tools and methods (one of which is discussed in a recent BERA Blog by authors Diana Laurillard and Eileen Kennedy [2018]). Two papers provide excellent ways into the field: ‘A critical analysis of technology‐enhanced learning design frameworks’ (Bower & Vlachopoulos, 2018) and ‘Exploring teachers’ needs and the existing barriers to the adoption of Learning Design methods and tools’ (Dagnino, Dimitriadis, Pozzi, Asensio-Pérez & Rubia-Avi, 2018).

The second example is a new paper in the British Educational Research Journal on ‘Framing learning entanglement in innovative learning spaces’ (Carvalho & Yeoman, 2018). It brings together an array of ideas about relationships between people, the tools they use and the spaces they inhabit, in order to provide better support for teachers and other professionals engaged in design for learning. It makes mutually informative links between education, architecture, anthropology and archaeology.

The tools and other materials available to students in the learning environments that teachers co-construct with them are extraordinarily sophisticated. Dewey would be astonished, but he would probably press his argument more firmly. Understanding how such densely populated ecologies function, and how teachers can act to regulate their educative effects, is more important and challenging than ever.

The new special issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology on ‘Teachers as designers of TEL interventions’, guest-edited by Donatella Persico, Francesca Pozzi and Peter Goodyear, is out now. The editorial to this special issue is free-to-view until the end of January, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Bower, M., & Vlachopoulos, P. (2018). A critical analysis of technology-enhanced learning design frameworks. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(6), 981–997. Retrieved from

Carvalho, L., & Yeoman, P. (2018). Framing learning entanglement in innovative learning spaces: Connecting theory, design and practice. British Educational Research Journal, 44(6), 1120–1137. Retrieved from

Dagnino, F. M., Dimitriadis, Y. A., Pozzi, F., Asensio-Pérez, J. I., & Rubia-Avi, B. (2018). Exploring teachers’ needs and the existing barriers to the adoption of Learning Design methods and tools: A literature survey. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(6), 998–1013. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1938). Democracy and education. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger. (Original work published 1916).

Laurillard, D. & Kennedy, E. (2018, October 30). A new tool to help teachers as digital learning designers [blog post]. Retrieved from

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: an introduction to design for social innovation. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.