Learning to teach in innovative learning environments

Dr Lucila Carvalho (Massey University) and Dr Pippa Yeoman (University of Sydney)

Image source: Habits & habitats by Pippa Yeoman, University of Sydney HREC protocol number 14289.

Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) are sparking debate across the country and the world. For some, ILEs reflect exciting new opportunities for teaching and learning. For others, ILEs are a re-enactment of outdated open-spaces or forerunners of increasing digital detachment that could lead to a lack of “real interaction”. However, ILEs are compatible with educational initiatives that emerged in other OECD countries in response to new trends and social practices of participatory learning in the digital era.

What is an ILE? An ILE is not only a space equipped with digital tools and flexible furniture – it is also a space shaped by an underlying set of principles about how people learn. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education sees ILEs as holistic – as learning ecosystems – which include “learners, educators, families/whānau, communities, content and resources like property and technology”. But in spite of access to guiding principles for innovative learning, some classroom practitioners still have questions, such as: How do we put ILE principles into practice? What does productive learning actually look like in an ILE? and How do we engage in responsible innovation?This blog post draws on our recent research and describes a toolkit we have developed to help teachers explore practical questions about instructional design in ILE settings.

Our research: Framing design for learning

Our research is in the area of place-based spaces for networked learning. This means that we are interested in exploring how technology may extend one’s learning experiences in the physical spaces they find themselves in. The guiding principles provided by the Ministry of Education to underpin the development of ILEs in Aotearoa New Zealand align well with our work, which also takes a holistic stance. Sometimes we talk about an ecology of learning, which is helpful when thinking about the entire system in motion. At other times we talk about assemblages, which is helpful when thinking about the different components and subsystems and how they may or may not be working well together. Either way, our work honours the complexities associated with design for learning and orchestrating digital and material artefacts, tools, places, ideas and people (or a ‘network’ of elements). Our aim is to refine a practical set of theoretically informed tools to support teachers, instructional designers, educational managers and architects, in their work of designing for learning. Why? Because our experience tells us that there is an urgent need to translate the theoretical underpinnings of ILEs into practical action so that the rich and varied opportunities for learning that ILEs support do not go to waste.

We like to talk about design for learning in two distinct phases. The first phase involves advanced planning – designtime – including the selection of specific tasks, tools, and complementary social arrangements. The second phase – learntime – happens as learning activity unfolds. Thus, the first phase anticipates a certain form of human activity. The second phase works to channel what actually happens on the day to support intended learning outcomes. The difficulty for teachers or educational designers lies in being able to draw connections between what has been designed (planned) and what learners actually do (learn).

Our work applies ideas from the Activity Centred Analysis and Design (ACAD) framework to support educational designers to make the subtle but crucial distinction between what is open to alteration through design and what is not. For example, educational designers can control a number of task parameters such as pace, timing, assessment and mode of instruction. But they cannot directly control how long it takes for each student to grasp a concept or what students already know, both of which are clearly important and need to be considered in a learning design. Clarifying this distinction helps facilitate the exploration of relations between designable components and emergent learning activity. To help us make these distinctions and honour holistic notions of learning, we use the ACAD framework. ACAD has been used in the analysis and design of a broad range of complex learning situations, including schools, universities, libraries and museums (see The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks).

Essentially, the ACAD framework (Figure 1) focuses our attention on how three dimensions of design (things we can control) shape or influence learning activity. The three dimensions are called:

  • set design – the physical/digital tools available to learners,
  • epistemic design – the assigned tasks or suggestions of useful things to do, and
  • social design – the specific social arrangements used such as groups, pairs etc.

The choices that teachers make in terms of the set, epistemic and social design result in an assemblage of elements that both the teachers and students interact with during learntime. A fourth dimension of ACAD acknowledges that learners’ interaction with this assemblage cannot be entirely predicted in advance because people have agency to co-create and re-shape what is proposed – and they very often do. After all, that’s how we learn, isn’t it?

Figure 1. ACAD Framework

ACAD Toolkit for Action – Bringing theory into educational design practice  

Based on our desire to make these ideas actionable – or in other words, to help educators understand these ideas – we created an educational design toolkit. The ACAD Toolkit consists of four elements:

  • The ACAD wireframe
  • A set of ACAD cards
  • Images of a range of ILEs in action, and
  • Assorted short case studies of innovative learning scenarios.

How the toolkit works

The ACAD wireframe is a visual template that lays out the design landscape – combining dimensions of design (set, social and epistemic), Goodyear’s work on pedagogical frameworks and Alexander’s notion of designing across nested scale levels, from regional (macro), to structural (meso), to detail (micro). The ACAD cards are inscribed with elements of each dimension (set, social and epistemic) that are open to alteration, focusing attention where it will actually benefit learning. Selected ACAD cards are then laid onto the ACAD wireframe to represent an existing design or design something completely new. By changing or rearranging the cards different possibilities can be explored and critiqued. All the while, conversations are guided both in terms of detail and in terms of structure.

The ACAD cards (Figure 2) consist of four sets of colour coded design prompts that are positioned in different combinations on the ACAD wireframe.

  • Blue cards represent theoretical concepts or high-level philosophy, including names of prominent learning theories and their principal authors, or quotes selected to prompt reflection and discussion about learning.
  • Green cards describe the set (physical/resource) designs such as collaborative learning studio, pen and paper, laptop, and Learning Management System.
  • Yellow cards describe the epistemic (task/activity) designs such as lecture, guided enquiry or role playing; a few refer to basic task structure such as pace, mode of delivery, content selection, and assessment.
  • Orange cards describe the social design including team, group or individual or assigned roles such as mentor, leader, note taker etc.
ACAD cards
Figure 2. The ACAD wireframe (left) and cards (right)

Educational design workshops

Understanding the ACAD framework is one thing; seeing and hearing the varied richness of the conversations these analytical tools support is quite another. We have facilitated workshops using the ACAD toolkit in Australia and New Zealand, and every time the ACAD cards come out of the box, we are always surprised by the quality of conversation they stimulate – across diverse teams of educational and architectural designers. We think these educational design ideas are both incredibly fascinating and timely in this new landscape of ILEs. We are passionate about helping everyone interested in ILEs to think more deeply about the theoretical roots that influence educational practice. Our work includes ideas from the sociology of education, the learning sciences, embodied and distributed cognition (theories that connect body, technology and mind) and design thinking.

If you would like to explore the ideas from this blog in more detail, a first stop might be to look at some of our recent research publications (Lucila Carvalho and Pippa Yeoman). A full account will also make its way into the world in the form of a book, called Learning to teach in innovative spaces: A toolkit for action, to be published by Routledge in 2019.

Lucila Carvalho Photo 2018[1].jpgLucila Carvalho is a senior lecturer in e-learning & digital technologies at Massey University (Auckland). Lucila’s research interests are in networked learning, design for learning and innovative learning environments. Her research explores how knowledge and social structures shape the design and use of technology, and how technology influences social and educational experiences. She has published and presented her work at various international conferences in the fields of education, sociology, systemic functional linguistics and design. @lucila_fdc

Pippa Yeoman.jpg

Pippa Yeoman is an ethnographer of socio-technical innovation in learning who has conducted more than 1,000 hours of observational research in innovative learning spaces including long term participant observation, the analysis of multimodal learning analytics data, and the development of place-based interview methods in primary and tertiary settings. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, working with Professor Peter Goodyear on an ARC Discovery Project, Modelling complex learning spaces: Connecting use, management and design. @PippaYeoman


  1. ILE’s seem to favour Competence Based Learning and Literacies development, with an integrated Values and ICT programme. The development of those programmes will be an essential part of 21C education.
    However, we must retain conceptual learning (subject based learning) and respect that each conceptual based learning area e.g Science, Social Science, Mathematics etc. has its own culture and procedural strategies.
    For these conceptual learning areas the ILEs may not be suitable so we must retain subject based designed rooms that facilitate each learning structure and procedural requirements. Last week we saw Christchurch secondary schools reject ILE designed facilities since they did not provide for the subject cultures and procedural learning strategies. We must retain a balanced view of educational requirements and not allow the learning pendulum to swing too far in either direction.
    G Foster
    Education Futures 21C


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