What? The idea of a through-line in Learning by Design relates to the quality of the connections between learning activities in a teacher’s design and the relationship of those activities to the teacher’s objectives, assessments and outcomes. Looking for a through line in a teacher’s design means exploring whether and in what ways a ‘big idea’ is played out in the planned activities and whether or how each activity builds on a previous activity or contributes to a later activity. A through-line is evident when each activity makes sense on its own terms and in the context of the activities around it – learners should be able to see the connections and relevance of each activity or the teacher should be able to establish or explain connections easily and without labouring the point. Having a good through-line in a design means that the learners understand, and are always clear about, the purpose of the learning – where it is headed and why.
According to Wikipedia the idea of a through-line had its genesis in the theatre and,
…was first suggested by Constantin Stanislavski as a simplified way for actors to think about characterisation. He believed actors should not only understand what their character was doing, or trying to do, (their objective) in any given unit, but should also strive to understand the through line which linked these objectives together and thus pushed the character forward through the narrative.
Translated into the context of Learning by Design this notion of through-line means that teachers, through their designs, should strive to create or design activities – using the knowledge processes cumulatively to build deep knowledge and deep understanding – which are clearly connected, each with the other, and imbued with an overarching purpose.
Why? Designing with the aim of creating a through-line means that a teacher’s design is much more likely to make sense to the learners. If the purpose of each activity is clearly related to an overarching purpose the learner is more likely to engage with the design and be able to accurately identify where the learning is going and why. A good through-line can create the conditions in which a classroom is calmer and more task-focused and where there is little evidence of confusion or restlessness. Being able to identify the quality of a through-line in the designs of others means being able to provide meaningful and productive feedback, to engage in dialogue and discussion about the design and to make changes based on improving the connectedness, purpose and relevance of the activities. This also means that the exemplary or outstanding designs of other teachers are more likely to be identifiable and the reasons behind a design’s effectiveness to be understood.