Design, orchestration and fuelling: seeing past “front of house” teaching

Last year, pre-pandemic, I was asked for some thoughts on how we might understand teaching in a way that more clearly reflects the diverse educational activities that go on at my university. This came after some comments I made in response to the phrase “front of house teaching” that featured prominently in discourse about promotions. While it may not have been intended in this way, I worried that that phrase has connotations of a person standing in front of students, such as in a lecture or a tutorial. It is a phrase that, to me, allows too much recognition to turning up, saying interesting things to students and then disappearing. What about the many forms of teaching that are not like this? Even in the case of lectures and tutorials, what about the many activities that good teachers do outside formally scheduled sessions, that are directly about teaching students? Seeing past “front of house teaching” is more crucial than ever with the move to online, because that model simply won’t work in our current circumstances.

I would like to start with a modest framework for reconsidering the activities that make up teaching of any kind. The following diagram is an adaptation of concepts from Goodyear and Dimitriadis’ (2013) paper, in which I have made the pre-design and evaluative elements more explicit.

Teaching and learning activities, adapted from Goodyear and Dimitriadis (2013)

The simplest place to start is with breaking down a teaching session into design and orchestration. 

Design is about planning tasks and configuring environments such that students are likely to engage in practices that are conducive to learning what it is we want them to learn. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during time allocated for preparation.

Orchestration is about responding to emergent conditions as well as what students do (i.e. their practices). There is always a gap between the design intentions and actual student practices (and teacher practices, for that matter), and orchestration is the process through which teachers guide, structure and scaffold student learning on the fly. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during the scheduled teaching session.

In the diagram above, design and orchestration are linked by a direct arrow, which signifies that the design configures the sorts of orchestration that are possible and probable. They are also linked through student practices, since the design structures and constrains what the students do, as does orchestration. Of course, orchestration must also do this in response to student practices (hence the two-way arrow). This means that good orchestration is achieved by knowing something about what the students are actually doing (which is not necessarily in line with the design expectations of what they will do). These ideas are explained in more depth from halfway down p. 139 to the bottom of p. 140 in Fawns (2019)

The other two boxes, fuelling and reflection / evaluation are often neglected in workload models. “Fuelling” (my term) is about the learning that needs to happen in order to do a good job of the design and orchestration (e.g. the thinking, reading, and talking that is not working directly on the teaching but is directly related to it, and is not, therefore, general faculty development or CPD). See also Anne-Marie Scott’s post on “Fueling and deprivation“. This could, perhaps, have been called “preparation”, but that word has picked up connotations from previous workload models where, for example, one multiplies the length of a teaching session by 3 for a new lecture or 1 for a lecture that has been delivered previously. That kind of preparation, because of the time allocated, comes to be mostly about working on lecture slides or in-class resources, which is actually just a small element of what I would call “design” within the model I’m presenting here. Some meaningful design work (i.e. thoughtful consideration of aims, pedagogical approaches, analysis of students, structuring of conducive learning environments, etc.) might also be possible within that allocated time if one is quick with one’s preparation of materials. But doing meaningful design well in such a short space of time is only possible if one has learned important things about the subject, the students, the context, and about educational design in relation to these elements. That is what I mean by fuelling. If design is the hands-on work of configuring specific teaching and learning tasks and environments, then fuelling is the learning that supports that design work. It might include discussing ideas with colleagues, reading literature (either about the subject or about pedagogy), or thinking about the kind of teaching that will be appropriate. I separate it out from design because it is important to allow time for this, and because it may include aspects that don’t make it into the design (good fuelling allows for blind alleys and exploration).

Reflection and evaluation are related to fuelling, and might consist of the same kinds of activities, but these are now targeted at making sense of the teaching that has just happened, rather than informing that which is about to happen or is currently happening. It might seem extravagant to separate these two categories, but they represent the actuality of a teacher’s work. We need to think and learn before we design, and we need to think and learn after seeing how our design has manifested. Both the orientation and the timing are different, and so there must be time for both. 

So far, I have presented these as discrete categories, but this still reflects traditional approaches with scheduled teaching sessions as in lectures, tutorials, problem-based learning, etc. It does not capture the important things that teachers do that are not formally scheduled. Breaking down teaching into these categories, and then considering them, not as linear but as ongoing and mutually shaping, can highlight the diversity of approaches, even within the same teaching method (e.g. there are many ways to do a lecture, tutorial, PBL session, or whatever) and the continuity of teaching activity across the year. 

Let’s consider some of the activities that happen in my own online postgraduate taught (PGT) programme, in order to problematise even my more inclusive model of teaching above. On the MSc Clinical Education, the following activities make up just some of my teaching. Those marked with an asterisk may be repetitive (i.e. sometimes I will use the same model as the previous year, but I will always review each activity before making that decision).

Online video tutorials. 

  • Designing the tutorial (design)* 
  • Setting preparation tasks for students to do beforehand (design)*
  • Pre-tutorial announcements (orchestration)
  • Entering early to configure and test the space and settings (design)
  • Running the tutorial (the bit that’s normally called “teaching”) (orchestration)
  • Uploading recordings of tutorials (admin?)
  • Writing up and posting summary notes and questions from the tutorial (orchestration)

Discussion board facilitation

  • Designing the tasks for students to do that week via the discussion board (design)*
  • Reading posts (orchestration – I suppose?)
  • Responding to posts (orchestration)
  • Creating new prompts (orchestration)

Each of these activities takes a varying amount of time depending on the number of students, how the course is going, and the course model – some courses involve more discussion than others. Note, too, that some of this is not related to specific teaching themes but can be to do with clinical education more broadly, or to do with relationship and community building.

Curation (reading lists, pointing to journal articles, web links, exemplars)

Something like 2/3 of this is done before the course starts (design) and may be modelled on the previous year with some updates. The rest is done in-course, in response to what ends up being discussed. While this sounds like orchestration, I would probably characterise most of the work as fuelling, because the interaction with the students is relatively fast, but the searching and processing of information to support that interaction is more onerous and time-consuming. This can also be the case with responding to posts, email responses, commenting on drafts, etc. It is possible to do all of these tasks relatively quickly without fuelling, but the quality of teaching may suffer, particularly when operating at postgraduate level.

Email responses

On my programme, this has many functions, but these mainly fall under pastoral and academic. This takes up a lot of time because we are very invested in our relationships with each student and because email can be an important channel for some, particularly those who cannot attend tutorials or who do not like the open discussion setting of the discussion board. Due to the fact that we are an online PGT programme full of part-time students who are also professionals with significant responsibilities (and, being older, significant family commitments), there are many discussions of extensions, interruptions, etc., which often involves careful handling and supporting of motivation, confidence, etc. I guess this is a form of orchestration, although it often requires learning about regulations and good practices, and is supported by developing a philosophy of teaching (fuelling).

Online meetings (e.g. one-to-one)

We often have ad-hoc, one-to-one video meetings with students where there is a need (e.g. to make sure the student is ok, to handle sensitive issues, to discuss complex ideas). These may be teaching-specific or related to the overall programme. I guess this might be called orchestration?

Formative and summative assignments

Alongside the setting of these and the giving of feedback, assignments generate a huge amount of discussion via various channels. There is an obvious design component, but the marking and feedback can either be seen as a single act of orchestration (where the student does not respond to comments given by the teacher) or as a more drawn out exchange (where there is dialogue around the comments, or where I comment on pre-submission drafts). Within the marking / feedback / dialogue process though, I will often look things up or read about a concept (fuelling) in order to point students at potentially useful ideas and resources. We also often discuss the students’ work within our teaching team and how that informs our understanding of the assignment and the course. And, more generally, the activity of reading and evaluating students’ assignments is a kind of subject-specific fuelling that I can learn a lot from, provided I have the headspace.

It is possible to pay only cursory attention to any of the categories in the diagram above, but the quality of teaching and the student experience will suffer. It is easy to neglect design, for example, by simply teaching the same way over and over, according to a template. The problem is not just that content and style become stale, but that insufficient consideration is given to the specific context of this instance of learning and these students. A related problem is that teachers do not develop experience and knowledge of design. Similarly, it is easy to neglect fuelling by relying on a pre-existing ability to design and orchestrate the subject and the kind of students at hand. However, thinking, talking and reading in the service of developing those abilities for this context will improve the teaching (which, in some situations, is necessary or at least important) and the teacher. Reflection and evaluation can be left to central evaluation systems, but this only provides information (very limited information, at that). By engaging in discussion, by thinking about how things went, by informing oneself about students’ approaches and understandings, and by reading around the topics that arise through those other activities, the teacher can meaningfully judge and understand their own design and orchestration, and can inform not only how they might refine these in future, but what they might need to learn in order to do so successfully (i.e. what kind of fuelling might be important).

I think good teachers will always combine the different activities in the diagram – they are what makes good teachers good. I would like to see this combination recognised and rewarded, rather than thinking of teaching as what happens when the teacher is in front of the class. 

Please let me know what you think in the comments or via @timbocop.

References

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital Education in Design and Practice. Postdigital Science and Education1(1), 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0021-8

Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: Reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology21, 1–13. http://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21i0.19909

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