The Language of Learning by Design: An Elaborated Glossary

Introducing this Glossary

The first teacher-responses to the concepts and theory of Learning by Design are usually related to the difficulty of understanding the terms ‘I just can’t get my head around them’ teachers say. ‘They’re too complicated and because I don’t understand them I feel stupid’. Teachers ask ‘why do I need these terms, why can’t we just speak in plain language?’ So, is the language of Learning by Design too difficult to learn?

The second set of responses, hot on the heels of the first, are invariably related to time: ‘we don’t have enough time for this stuff’ or, ‘it will take too much time to plan like this’. Then someone else says ‘we don’t have the time to sit around for hours planning’.

Finally, the third set of responses relate to the Learning by Design framework – ‘we’ve already got a planning-curriculum framework’ or, ‘not another damn framework’, or ‘we already know what we’re doing, we’ve been teaching for years, why do we need this thing?’

So, beginning with the first issue, the difficulty of understanding the concepts and terms. Learning by Design is fundamentally about addressing the need for a shared professional language. A language which allows teachers to identify, name, discuss, analyse, reflect-on, explain and make explicit their choices and decisions about how they teach. Using the language of Learning by Design means having the words to describe how we teach and how learners learn. Such a language allows practices to be shared and discussed – it means that feedback can be explicit and effective practices can be transferred and translated from one person to another. Such a language can help us to understand why some teachers are more effective in engaging students and bringing about deep intellectual learning than others and how every teacher can learn to teach in such ways. Sharing a professional language also means establishing the conditions via which teachers literally belong in the profession of teaching.

I am reminded of the story of the people of the city of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s famous book One Hundred Years of Solitude. The citizens of Macondo become ill and suddenly realise that their knowledge of the world is disappearing and that they are losing the capacity to remember the names of things. The solution for the people of Macondo is to make name-signs and to hang them on the things in their world. This is a tree, this is a house, this is a cow. The citizens realise that names, and naming, are crucial for making sense of the world, for communicating with and understanding each other.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein highlights the importance of being able to name things with this simile about an artisan and his assistant.

    Suppose that the tools (the artisan) uses in building bear certain marks. When (the artisan) shows his assistant such a mark, he brings the tool that has that mark on it. It is in this, and more or less similar ways, that a name means and is given to a thing. It will often prove useful in philosophy to say to ourselves: naming something is like attaching a label to a thing.

The terms used in Learning by Design are therefore not just names but ways of making meaning of how teachers teach and how learners learn. The focus of Learning by Design is pedagogy – the how and why of teaching – the terms represent key ideas in the language of pedagogy.

Perhaps what is most unsettling in learning a new language is being placed in the position of not knowing, when as the teacher, you are usually expected to be the knower or expert. Sometimes such unsettling experiences lead to personal insights ‘so this is what it’s like to be a learner… when you don’t really know or understand what you’re doing. (…) Good heavens, this is what my kids are going through’. Learning a new language takes time and as learners we should not expect to be able to understand new terms immediately, however, it is natural to feel uncomfortable when faced with something that does not make immediate sense.

Chris, a very experienced Year 3/4 teacher, after being involved in the Australian Research Council funded Learning by Design project for 15 months observed:

How do people who don’t have that, answer when they’re asked ‘What is learning?’

You’ve got to have a language, surely as professionals… we’re in charge of pedagogy, if anybody in the world is… and we should be able to talk about it – it should be a requirement of teachers coming out of teacher’s college.

Learning by Design provides us with a language to analyse and discuss what we do and how we do it…and we haven’t really had that before…

    It seems to me that Learning by Design enables you to answer the question ‘What is learning?’ We can say ‘this is learning…that’s learning’ because we have the language.

The importance of this language was highlighted in a recent conversation with a principal. I asked her what had been the most significant outcome of her school’s involvement, and those of her teachers, in the three year project she declared:

If you look at the minutes of our staff meetings we have moved from spending most of our time on administrivia, to talking mostly about teaching. That’s a big shift for us and it’s exciting!

    Most importantly it has given us the language to deal with what is happening in the classroom, we are now talking about explicit teaching and questioning what we do… We are continually verbalising our practice which means there is a constant dialogue about teaching and about pedagogy. We didn’t have that before – we didn’t have that language.

The second issue, that of time, can be more readily dealt with as, without exception amongst the fifty teachers and ten schools involved in the Learning by Design project, time stopped being mentioned as an issue after the first few months. This did not mean that time ceased to be a problem or an issue rather it meant that teachers were experiencing the impact, the shifts in student responses, the improved engagement and attendance as they began to plan purposefully with the LbyD framework and teach using the eight knowledge processes.

You could speak with any of the fifty teachers or ten principals and deputy principals involved in the project and they would say, with subtle variations but without exception, ‘Learning by Design works. It’s worth the time and effort to learn’.

The third issue, that ‘we don’t need this framework’ can only seriously be tested by using and evaluating the Learning by Design framework in practice.

So, what is Learning by Design?

An overview of Learning by Design

Learning by Design is the result of more than twenty years research by Professors Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope culminating in the ARC-funded Learning by Design project which involved fifty teachers and ten schools in Queensland, the ACT and Victoria (2005-2008). This research extended and built on the Multiliteracies research (1996-2002) which demonstrated the power of learning environments which:

  • Focus on diversity amongst learners and foster knowledge development as a process of belonging and transformation;
  • Offer and encourage multimodal expressions of meaning: linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial;
  • Use varied and appropriate higher order thinking skills and knowledge processes: experiencing, conceptualising, analysing and applying;

Learner diversity, belonging, multimodal meaning-making and pedagogy remain central concerns of Learning by Design underpinned by teacher professional learning and the notion of teacher-as-researcher as the means of translating pedagogical theory into practice.

Each of these characteristics is addressed in the Learning by Design framework which scaffolds teachers’ design-decisions. The framework prompts teachers to plan their curriculum by being explicit about their learning focus, knowledge objectives, knowledge processes, outcomes and learning pathways. The framework encourages teachers to document and become conscious of their pedagogical preferences, acting as both a reflective prompt (heuristic) and as a self-diagnostic tool.

Curriculum plans which are created using the framework may be published and shared with colleagues via school intranets or the internet and incorporate meta-data which make the plans searchable via a broad range of criteria. The Learning by Design framework also provides a standardised method with which to capture and document teaching plans, and a theoretical lens through which these plans can be analysed. At the heart of the framework are eight distinct ‘Knowledge Processes’. Mindful and appropriate deployment of the knowledge processes is intended to foster higher order thinking skills and deeper learning experiences.

In the next section key terms are explained. The teachers who began working with Learning by Design did not have a glossary and wished they had had one. We think this elaborated glossary will help ease your path to understanding and working with the concepts of Learning by Design.

Analysing functionally

Analysing critically

Applying appropriately

Applying creatively


Authentic Learning



Conceptualising by naming

Conceptualising with theory



Experiencing the known

Experiencing the new


Explicit teaching

Knowledge Domain

Knowledge Objectives

Knowledge Outcomes

Knowledge Processes

Knowledge Producing Community

Learning activity

Learning by Design

Learning Module

Learning Focus


New Learning & New Times


Repertoire of Practice



Transformative education

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