Faculty Focus


Instructional Design: Moving Toward a Less Structure, More Learning-Centered Environment

Do these differences seem semantic? To Jean Ramsey and Dale Fitzgibbons (reference below) they typify three modes of teaching, each located at a different place on a continuum. In the traditional mode, teachers pass on knowledge. Ramsey and Fitzgibbons note that most teachers have moved beyond this conception to a point on the continuum where they find themselves doing activities, exercises, leading discussions, and otherwise working to engage and involve students. But they observe that most learner-centered teaching still rests on teacher-initiated techniques. They see a place on the continuum beyond this, a place that simply puts the teacher among the students. “We’re here to learn together and you (the students) are as much a source of our learning as I (the teacher).” (p. 337) This “being” with students creates a kind of ultimate learning community.

“Being classes,” as the authors refer to them, rest on the belief that students themselves control what they are learning. Teachers cannot learn content for students — that one’s easy. But neither can teachers force students to learn what they are teaching. From any given learning experience, students will take vastly different things. They learn in different ways and filter all learning experiences through the unique set of past experiences. If you doubt these premises, the authors challenge you to take a learning experience that has occurred in your class, maybe a good student presentation, an exercise or an especially animated discussion, and immediately after its conclusion, ask students to write a paragraph about what they learned. “You may find yourself amazed at what some of them learn. What was intended as the major learning may pass them by completely, whereas some of their learnings may be unexpected, and unintended.” (p. 339)

Applying these assumptions in a classroom changes the role of both teachers and students. For teachers, it introduces ambiguity and uncertainty in classroom. “Content emerges spontaneously, and often serendipitously, from the process. There is no way to anticipate the learning opportunities that may emerge.” (p. 341) This means teachers must be grounded well enough in a topic area that they can go with the flow — respond with the content when, where, and on what topic it is needed.

As for students, in these kinds of learning environments, compliance is not enough. Cooperation won’t carry the day, and students need to bring commitment — an enthusiastic involvement in their own learning and the learning of others. Students and teachers engage in an exploration of ideas. In these classrooms, questions are valued more than answers.

“Being in the classroom” is at the far end of the learning continuum — well beyond where even the learner-centered among us have ventured with our teaching. But this article offers lots of encouragement to push toward this place of diminished structure. The authors repeatedly point out that “being is not just nondoing. Being classes have purpose and a clearly visible process to them.” (p. 354) In fact, the syllabus excerpt included in the article looks and sounds quite conventional. Students are doing written work, taking exams, and preparing projects. These two authors see course design as the creation of a “container,” the setting of boundaries within which students are given the freedom to self-organize their learning.

They also see viability for all three modes of teaching and see the possibility of all three being used in the same course. “What we advocate here is active and overt choice about where to operate on the doing-being continuum.” (p. 354) Those choices may depend on the nature of the content, the objectives of the course as well as where students are in their own development. They use different amounts of each depending on the time trajectory of the course — less of the being mode at the beginning; more at the end.

This article raises many questions, but a set of inserts appearing in the article describes actual classroom experiences that attest to powerful learning experiences happening when teachers are there in the learning process with students.

Reference: Ramsey, V. J. and Fitzgibbons, D. E. (2005). Being in the classroom. Journal of Management Education, 29 (2), 333-356.