Teaching as a Design Science: Teachers Building, Testing, and Sharing Pedagogic Ideas

  • Diana LaurillardEmail author
Reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


Approaching teaching as a design science encourages teacher collaboration, to harness the inquiry that goes on every day in classrooms and channel it into shared knowledge that could benefit the whole community of teachers. This chapter explains what teaching as design science is, why leaders of IT should consider it when implementing IT, and how to put it into practice in their leadership of IT.


Teaching as a design science Pedagogy Teacher collaboration Learning design Teacher professional development Blended learning Conversational framework Learning designer Pedagogical content knowledge Design science TPD Online learning Learning technology 

What Is Teaching as a Design Science?

Educational researchers have tried hard to influence teaching, and with some success, but never with the resounding large-scale improvements that teachers and researchers all want to see (Morris and Hiebert 2011). In part, this is because pedagogic content knowledge development “is a complex process that is highly specific to the context, situation, and person” (Van Driel and Berry 2012). Teaching knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of guidelines or captured on video by “expert teachers.” These techniques may help, but they do not assure improvement.

At the same time, our education systems could be seen as massive uncoordinated experiments, where every day, every teacher has the opportunity to try out and test new techniques and learn from their students what works and what does not. The idea behind “teaching as a design science ” is to acknowledge this: to formalize and celebrate an approach to teaching that enables teachers to innovate, test, and share their teaching knowledge. If teachers were to share, test, and build on each other’s learning designs, teaching would be a design science – “improving its practice, in a principled way, building on the work of others” (Laurillard 2012).

Seen as a design science, teaching can then harness the inquiry that goes on every day in classrooms and channel it into shared knowledge that could benefit the whole community of teachers.

It is certainly feasible. The next three sections show that teachers are already adopting a more collaborative approach to teaching innovation, and there are now digital tools and online communities to support this activity.

Teacher Collaborative Inquiry

Teacher professional learning is increasingly seen as a socio-constructivist activity that shifts the focus from what can be done for teachers to what teachers can do for themselves (Makri et al. 2014; Najafi and Clarke 2008; Van Driel and Berry 2012). The research shows that:

teachers’ learning is facilitated and sustained in communities that are collaborative endeavors, acknowledge and value participants with different levels of expertise, and focus on practice-related issues. (Najafi and Clarke 2008, p. 244)

To go beyond local endeavors to the community as a whole, Morris and Hiebert propose an approach to improving teachers’ methods of teaching by creating and sharing artifacts or instructional products (Morris and Hiebert 2011). Such an approach enables understanding to be accumulated over time. Teachers and researchers create materials, try them out, and “feed the information from the trials back into the products”(Hiebert and Morris 2012).

This iterative process of collaborative sharing of scholarship-informed practitioner knowledge could be the key to reconfiguring teaching as a design science, because it addresses the challenge of teacher-led inquiry (Laurillard 2012). It helps teachers build their knowledge of teaching by encouraging them to engage in the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to the community. Teachers work in “design mode” (Hong et al. 2009), with a collective goal of innovation and knowledge advancement (Scardamalia and Bereiter 2010).

Teachers are not so much scientists – who try to understand how the world works. They are more like engineers – who try to make the world a better place. Like engineers, they use science, where it improves what they do. And like engineers, they use feedback, redesigning their teaching in the light of what happens in practice. “Design engineers” – the term suits what teachers actually do.

A recent report on 10 years of research on professional development of teachers emphasized the value of the collaborative sharing of practice in teacher networks and identified the importance of tools, especially digital tools, to support professional learning (Avalos 2011). Others suggested that “knowledge sharing” could transform educational institutions into “learning organizations” (Argyris 1994; Buckley et al. 2004). Collaborative teacher inquiry is a significant change in professional development because it means that teachers can move progressively from their teacher-centered thinking toward more student-centered actions (Butler and Schnellert 2012; Chang et al. 2015).

Teacher collaborative inquiry was recently advocated as policy for the profession in the USA (United States Department of Education (USDoE) 2014). However, unlike engineers, teachers have few tools to support professional learning their design work.

Learning Design Approach and Tools

Over the last 10 years, the development of digital tools to support teachers’ use of effective pedagogy has been driven by the need to represent learning designs in digital form (for example, the Learning Designer ( is a freely available online design tool for teachers), to make it feasible for teachers to share good pedagogical practice online (Masterman et al. 2013). The learning design approach to planning teaching and learning activities enacts exactly this kind of collaborative inquiry. It enables teachers to make their intuitive processes both visible and shareable (Ghislandi and Raffaghelli 2015) and encourages them to be more learner centered (Dobozy 2013). The digital form of learning design promotes high-quality learning activities and reduces the investment of design time (Agostinho 2006), because the design work is shared across the community.

However, these digital tools have not yet been widely deployed in the educational mainstream (Masterman et al. 2013). So while digital tools for learning design have become more sophisticated, allowing teachers to discuss, redesign, and reuse learning designs on the small scale, it is not yet clear how easily they can be adopted into the widespread daily practice of teaching and learning (Ghislandi and Raffaghelli 2015).

Online Teacher Communities

The potential for online technologies to support the development of larger communities of practice has prompted researchers to examine what they could do for teacher professional development (Lin et al. 2008; Matzat 2013; Zhang 2009), although they argue that the area is seriously under-researched (Dede et al. 2009; Schlager et al. 2009). Nonetheless, the evidence is slowly accruing that teachers value online communities for the exchange of ideas and links to resources (Duncan-Howell 2010; Rolando et al. 2014) and find that it encourages a more student-centered approach and the use of digital technology (Archambault et al. 2010; Vavasseur and MacGregor 2008).

The gradual shift toward the ideal of a widespread community for teacher collaborative inquiry is now transformed by the availability of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The pedagogic form of such courses is generally highly didactic for very diverse participants, but the platforms do also support discussion. Teacher development courses are more collaborative in nature and can achieve the significantly higher engagement of 30–40% of participants, in comparison with the modest 2–3% of most such courses (Laurillard 2016).

For the first time, therefore, there is a congruence between the digital tools to support the sharing of pedagogies, the digital platforms to orchestrate collaboration on the large scale, and the ambition for teachers to be able to engage in collaborative inquiry. For the first time, teaching is viable as a design science.

Why Should Leaders Consider Using This for Implementing IT in Schools?

IT in schools typically begins with implementing the hardware and software and with good intentions to support teachers in using it. However, the good intentions fade fast. A recent United Nations Educational, Scienticif and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) review of IT in primary education showed that in national policies the distribution of funding resource between human capacity and technical capacity always favors the latter (Kalaš et al. 2012). This makes no sense. Teachers play the principal role in changing how effectively learners learn, and they need good solid support if they are to succeed in the difficult task of harnessing technology.

The argument for using the idea of teaching as a design science goes like this:
  • Schools must adapt continually to their changing environment.

  • Schools must innovate to keep pace with the requirements of their context.

  • Rapid technology change means that teachers must use collaborative inquiry to manage the workload required for pedagogic innovation.

Who else is there to work out what the new pedagogies might be, and how to make optimal use of continual digital innovations? Who is better placed to discover what works? How can teachers be seen as anything other than a professional community of designers who build on each other’s best ideas to make progress in the face of continual change?

Schools Must Adapt to a Changing Environment

School leaders are aware that their school – the curriculum and its teaching – has to develop in response to the changes in the very complex social-cultural-political-economic-technological-financial environment it inhabits. All these forces create pressures and constraints, against which the school leaders are trying to construct a forward-moving vision for their school and their students. Continual responsive development is necessary, but rarely funded.

Schools Must Innovate

Innovation moves forward when there is the opportunity for professionals to collaborate, exchange ideas, experiment, and share the results. This is the model we are familiar with in the world of scholarship and research, as well as in many fields in which professionals have to adapt fast to changing contexts, such as architecture, engineering, policymaking, and IT design. The organization of schools, the configuration of classrooms, the curriculum, and the pedagogies have all undergone change and development in recent decades, but despite the increasing focus of national policies on the use of IT in schools, it is not being used to support the most powerful forms of learning (Ertmer and O’ttenbreit-Leftwich 2010). To do this, it is essential that teachers:
  • Are involved in the change and development process

  • Have the opportunity to develop their own beliefs and sense of self-efficacy with IT

  • Have strong support from professional learning and from the management and culture of their school (Association for Learning Technology (ALT) 2014; Ertmer and O’ttenbreit-Leftwich 2010)

Governments have made little provision for such activities, and the responsibility for this quite dramatic shift in school practice has been left to the schools themselves in most countries. International surveys show that digital technologies have not yet been fully integrated in teaching and learning (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2016).

Teachers Must Collaborate to Innovate

Innovation is costly and inevitably increases workload in the short term, even if there is a planned payoff in the longer term. It is especially difficult for schools to innovate when both policy and technology change at alarming rates. IT can be highly effective, but it takes time to learn how to best use it and embed it in the curriculum.

Collaboration spreads the cost of innovation. It accelerates successful innovation, as each teacher builds on the work of others, and contributes to building community knowledge. This is the model for science and scholarship, orchestrated through peer-reviewed academic journals and conferences. Teachers must also be innovators now. They need their own tools and support mechanisms to accelerate and distribute the responsive innovation schools need, as the next section shows. This is what it means to treat teaching as a design science.

How Might School Leaders Incorporate the Idea into Their Leadership Practices?

Academic studies repeatedly demonstrate the need for teacher self-efficacy in IT and more teacher development, but school leaders receive little support for making this a normal part of the school workload. However, given the now near-ubiquitous presence of IT communications systems and design tools, there are more ways of lowering the threshold of innovation. This section suggests how IT can support not just students in collaborative learning but teachers as well.

One approach is to use the Learning Designer, a tool for teachers that mirrors the academic journal process, by enabling teachers to build on what has gone before, experiment, innovate, test, redesign, test, and publish. It can work well as a useful adjunct to meetings and discussions.

A related approach is for staff to do a relevant massive open online course (MOOC) together, as a way of keeping up-to-date with developments in blending digital learning with conventional class and homework activities.

A Tool to Support Learning Design

The Learning Designer is a digital tool that supports a pedagogical knowledge-building community by creating a constructionist learning environment for teacher development (Laurillard et al. 2013). (The tool is open and free to all on simple registration at As “teacher-designers” (Goodyear and Yang 2009), they can use a knowledge-building process, building on the work of others in the community, developing and testing their own innovative ideas, and then sharing the results with the community (Ferrell and Kelly 2006; Laurillard and Masterman 2009). Being online, the community has the capacity to reach all teachers wherever they are.

The pedagogy underlying the tool promotes the appropriate inclusion of the six types of learning operationalized by the Conversational Framework (Laurillard 2012; Laurillard et al. 2013), giving them feedback on their design. As they plan the sequence and duration and for each activity select the appropriate learning type, a pie chart displays a graphic of the current balance of their pedagogy across learning through acquisition, inquiry, practice, discussion, collaboration, and production. In this way it prompts the teacher to articulate an optimal learning design, i.e., a sequence of teaching-learning activities for a specified learning outcome. Their design then becomes a digital object which can be shared with other teachers, adapted to other’s contexts (Zhang and Laurillard 2015), and exported as a Microsoft Word document, or a plan for implementation in a virtual learning environment.

An Online Collaborative Teacher Development Community

For scaling up the collaborative inquiry process, MOOCs now offer the kind of platform that succeeds in engaging teachers in discovering and experimenting with new forms of learning, such as blended learning – mixing IT solutions with conventional teaching, both in class and at home. (A MOOC on Blended Learning Essentials, for teachers, runs on the FutureLearn platform: and For example, there are two courses on Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started and Embedding Practice. Teachers in schools and colleges have been following them together, as a school-based group, for example, so they can discuss the ideas as they apply to their own context.

The Learning Designer is used in both courses, as well as in MOOCs run by other platforms, where it has been embedded as a form of collaborative exercise for the participating teachers. The evaluations so far show that teachers are excited by the tool and willing to share their ideas and to adapt others’ patterns to their own context.

Leadership Practice

What can the school leader do? It is most important to demonstrate the value the school leadership puts on teacher professional learning, on innovation, and finding out how to make optimal use of digital learning. Teachers are very good at helping themselves and are happy to run the whole process, once it is endorsed by the leadership team. Here is one way to approach it:
  1. 1.

    Propose a collective focus on blended learning or digital learning as a way of tackling a challenge of interest to the teachers, such as student motivation, class behavior, difficult concepts, and skills. It should be an issue of interest to the teachers where pedagogic innovation could have an impact.

  2. 2.

    Decide which MOOC(s) to look at and when (search for “ICT blended digital learning” through Coursera ( and FutureLearn courses ( to fit with the plan.

  3. 3.
    Plan a sequence of collaborative workshops over a term, each around an hour or so, and the series of workshops could go through the following sequence of activities:
    1. (a)

      Identify the good challenge(s) to work on and describe what you hope to achieve through a new pedagogical approach and the groups who will work together to do this.

    2. (b)

      Use a session to explore the Learning Designer tool: sign up, go to the Browser screen, and explore the Education designs; click on one and review it in the Designer screen; experiment with changing the duration of some activities to see how the pie chart changes; click on Turn editing on, and edit the design by changing the text, adding/deleting activities within a segment, and teaching-learning activities (TLAs), changing times, learning types, etc.; and save and export as a Word doc or as the code for others to use.

    3. (c)

      Explore other designs to see how they use digital resources, and look at some of the reviews as well.

    4. (d)

      Use the ideas from the MOOCs to plan a session that defines the learning outcome you want to achieve and uses blended learning, where you add a resource to define the uniform resource locator (URL) students will use and plan the activity around how they will use it.

    5. (e)

      Exchange and peer review other groups’ designs, and reflect on the feedback you give and receive to revise your design.

    6. (f)

      Test it out in class, and note what happens.

    7. (g)

      Discuss the results in the next workshop session.

  4. 4.

    Report back to a plenary staff session on where to go next on embedding digital learning as a way of addressing teaching-learning challenges and how best to work collaboratively across the school to do this.


Such a program of within-school innovation could build slowly but would put the teachers in the driving seat of change.


Innovation is essential for schools to flourish in the face of unpredictable changes in political, financial, and technological forces. Teachers are best placed to innovate, because they can understand and discover what their students need, what works, and how to mix the old with the new. But they have never had the support and trust of the education system that would enable them to develop the program of teacher collaborative inquiry that could drive forward the effective innovation we need. By reconceptualizing teaching as a design science, supported and orchestrated by the right digital tools, we could define a new vision for a teaching workforce able to innovate and adapt effectively.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationUniversity College LondonLondonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sara Dexter
    • 1
  1. 1.University of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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