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How teachers can contribute to innovation in the classroom

How can we enable and support teachers to collaboratively design and develop learning materials and resources for successful teaching innovation?
How teachers can contribute to innovation in the classroom

Kay Kim - Creative Commons Attribution License

How do we truly innovate in the classroom? How can we design innovative learning materials and activities that respond to student needs and match complex curricular goals? How can we best use technology for successful innovation in teaching and learning? The answers always lie with the teachers. Their active involvement is integral to success. Recently, there has been a growing recognition of the changing role of teachers, not just “from sage on the stage to guide on the side” but “from distributors of knowledge to designers of learning experiences” [1] . But how do teachers design for learning? And how can we support them in becoming better designers?

The Open Education Studio wants to pay a tribute to the new education heroes: teachers as designers. How teachers share and use their own knowledge when designing technology-enhanced learning materials is a central question that challenges our views on the future of education in Europe and beyond.

Our conversation starts with four portraits of teachers [2] written by Ferry Boschman, Susan McKenney, Jules Pieters and Joke Voogt. These teachers are engaged in a collaborative project – the Teachers’ Design Team – and their common goal is to create new technology-enhanced learning opportunities for early literacy. Through interviews, teacher knowledge and beliefs related to the use of technology for early literacy were investigated.


Teacher design knowledge and beliefs for technology enhanced learning materials in early literacy: Four portraits

Teacher engagement in the design of technology-rich learning material is beneficial to teacher learning and may create a sense of ownership, both of which are conducive to bringing about innovation with technology. During collaborative design, teachers draw on various types of knowledge and beliefs: know-what (facts, information); know-why (principles, beliefs) and know-how (ways to shape learning materials and activities). The goal of the present study is to understand the nature of individual teacher contributions during the collaborative design of learning materials and activities for early literacy. Through interviews, teacher knowledge and beliefs related to use of technology for early literacy were investigated. Thereafter, teachers collaboratively designed learning materials and activities for use with PictoPal (a technology-rich environment for early literacy). Analysis of design talk that occurred during the design of PictoPal resources showed that teachers differ in the kinds of design knowledge they explicate during design. Of the four teachers, two teachers were inclined mostly to express know-how, one teacher proportionally expressed more know-what, and one teacher more know-why. Given the variety in knowledge and beliefs among teachers, practical implications for supporting such diversity during collaborative design are discussed.


Successful and sustained implementation of innovation in education succeeds or fails, depending on the commitment of the teachers [4]. While some teachers may choose to innovate of their own accord, many feel compelled to do so while tackling the complex challenge of translating abstract curricular goals into concrete learning materials and activities. For most, recognizing how affordances of technology could be used as part of such resources is an even greater challenge. The active involvement of teachers in determining the nature and content of innovation contributes to its ultimate success [5].

Few teachers innovate with technology in complete isolation. Though the frequency and intensity varies greatly, most teachers seek inspiration, guidance or support through collaboration with immediate or distant colleagues. Increasingly, and especially for technological innovation, teachers work together in teacher design teams (TDTs). Implementation of technology in education has a better chance of success when teachers are engaged in TDTs [6].

Conceptual underpinnings

For decades, it has been accepted that teacher knowledge and beliefs underlie teaching practices [7]. Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are intertwined [8] and they are used not only in the classroom, but also when teachers design materials, lessons and activities. Reform and innovation in teaching must take into account how teachers use the knowledge base of the profession [9]. Looking specifically at the design of technology enhanced learning, different kinds of knowledge and beliefs underpin teacher abilities to ‘engage skillfully in design’ [10].

Three types are particularly relevant to this study, which seeks to understand how individual knowledge and beliefs contribute to collaboratively designed technology resources for early literacy: know-what, know-why, and know-how.

Know-what refers to a teachers’ fundamental knowledge base, which consists of conceptual knowledge and facts such as subject-matter content and pedagogical theories. Know-why pertains to a teacher’s knowledge and beliefs about principles of learning and teaching. Know-how is a teacher’s skill to produce what is needed and can include learning materials, instruction or classroom management. This last category can include design thinking [3].

Thus, this study was undertaken to investigate: What kinds of design knowledge and beliefs (know-what, know-why, know-how) do individual teachers have and use during collaborative design of instructional material to be used in a technology enhanced learning environment for early literacy?


The study followed four teachers from one school who responded to an open call for kindergarten teachers interested in developing their own classroom innovation for early literacy, using an existing learning environment called PictoPal. The teachers were encouraged to design learning activities as they saw fit. One teacher (Henriette) was formally the lead kindergarten teacher. She acted as liaison and coordinated with the researcher to arrange introductions and workshops that could also be attended by three other teachers (Esther, Gees and Sylvia). The teachers knew each other well and had worked together for several years.

Teachers’ individual design knowledge was first explored using a semi-structured interview. Following these interviews, the four teachers worked together in a TDT to create a set of learning materials for use in their own classrooms. Over the course of three design workshops, they created instructional materials for PictoPal. PictoPal is a learning environment featuring on- and off-computer activities to develop understanding of the functions of print [11]. With PictoPal, teachers design activities around a specific theme (in this case, they chose ‘farm’). Using the on-computer activities designed by the teachers, children construct written products with the aid of the computer. Their prints are then used in off-computer classroom applications (also designed by the teachers).



Interview data

Henriette defined early literacy: “It means that children become aware that letters are not abstract but are meaningful.” For Henriette, early literacy means learning to understand the link between sounds and letters. She considers this development as: “… an exploration: ‘hey, but if you remove the first sound and you replace it with another sound, then it becomes…’ and that ‘expedition’, is just so wonderful to witness in kindergartners” (know-what). The appropriate way to teach early literacy in kindergarten is play-related and exploratory in order for children to make discoveries about literacy (know-why). The zone of proximal development, as is implicitly mentioned here, is also specified further: “You keep searching for the next step, and if they get it, then reading will develop in and out of itself.” Furthermore, Henriette mentions invented spelling (children writing words using the rudimentary knowledge of spelling conventions) as appropriate (know-why); developing skills for listening and whenever necessary calling in the aid of a speech therapist (know-how).

Design talk

Know-what. Compared to her team members, Henriette provided the most contributions to the conversation. She often initiated new conversations and also provided the most reactions to the language expert know-what. Understanding what early literacy means as well as explaining reading-related concepts is explicated as know-what. For instance, in response to the opening question (“What do you think is important in early literacy education?”), Henriette stated: “Early literacy means, functional writing, scribbles can be letters…”. She envisions using PictoPal by stating: “You would really have to listen carefully to the sounds”. Know-why. She states: “You make use of the zone of proximal development.” This remark was in response to Gees who says that teachers monitor the development of children. Henriette’s remark is part of a larger episode in which all teachers share their beliefs about early literacy education. “You try to enact the real world as much as possible…we go to a ‘store’… making it really meaningful for children.” To her, when children write a word, they should be able to understand what they write. Know-how. Most of Henriette’s contributions pertain to know-how: various words and categories of words regarding the theme ‘farm’ (the central theme of the design activities). She mentions all kinds of written material such as a mind-map of words, a small list, and a letter as being the appropriate written products children will work on.



data In contrast to Henriette, Gees does not provide a rich description of early literacy, rather she states: “… that these can be letters and that these can be used to make words (know-what). And early on, you may say: ‘just draw it, a message, letter or something like that’ ” (know-how). Gees explains what she does to stimulate early literacy but also explains how she thinks early literacy develops: “Just see how they engage with it. Do they write, at some point they start writing their own words, or they’ll ask things, and by breaking words down to individual sounds and putting them back together” (know-why). Finally, Gees provides detailed accounts of various activities regarding writing letters, making written objects, and writing ones’ own name (know-how).

Design talk

Gees provided less input to the conversation than Henriette and Esther, but more than Sylvia.

Know-what. Gees reminds the other three teachers that during the time period in which PictoPal is implemented, ‘the farm’ is the theme that is central to all learning activities in both kindergarten groups. This theme was established earlier that year by a committee of which Gees was a member.

Know-why. Gees states: “We have to monitor the development.” During design, she first poses the question whether to use capitals or not. She prefers not to, as she mentions this being the standard at their school. Second, in response to Henriette, she confirms that pictograms support vocabulary development. Third, she proposes that a screen for making a list should be divided into two: one depicting words, and the other depicting a corresponding Pictogram, as this would be much more effective in layout. However, the other teachers are not taking this up.

Know-how. After an initial look at PictoPal, Gees asks: “And do we need parents to help children with these activities?” The team decides to try and find parents for computer support. Know-how is also expressed by Gees by proposing various activities like making a letter for the farmer, and by discussing how the letter is actually being used on a farm, and how children learn how to pose a question (before actually writing the letter). Finally, she expresses how various written products can be used in subsequent off-computer activities.


Interview data

Esther explains differences between junior and senior kindergartners in the goals that each of them has to attain. “At the end of junior kindergarten, the goal is to write one’s own name, at the end of senior kindergarten, they have to write their own name, and that of a friend, mummy, daddy” (know-what).

On what is appropriate practice in early literacy, Esther explains: “especially by creating a safe environment in which children will talk” Also, in such an environment, the zone of proximal development is addressed: “Do not present children with something they are not ready for, you should always keep that in mind, I think” (know-why) Like Henriette and Gees, Esther also provides examples of reading activities, writing activities and listening activities (know-how). Some examples to illustrate this: “in the ‘spring-book’ they write words that are written on wildcards. And we have a ‘letter-table’, which is there when they start writing.”

Design talk

Estherprovided slightly less input to the conversation than Henriette.

Know-what is expressed by explaining that early literacy means engaging children in all sorts of writing activities.Also she mentions that children make discoveries about written material. Furthermore, know-what is expressed when discussing the theme of PictoPal with Gees.

Know-why. Esther stresses the zone of proximal development: “I find it important that early literacy development should occur by itself. If we sit a child down and tell him, you have to write this letter, that does not stem from their own fantasy.” Know-how. Similar to Henriette and Gees, know-how is expressed when discussing various activities on the computer, words and layout of the computer screen, She is the first one to propose making a letter (which later on is planned to be used during an actual visit to a farm).

Also, Esther expresses know-how as: what letter to be written by children, what kind of sentences and words, and the letter is used in play. Finally, Esther repeatedly finds words and sentences that pertain to the theme, like kind of animals and properties of animals (a cow provides milk).


Interview data

Like the other three teachers, Sylvia defines early literacy as becoming aware of the meaning of letters as is expressed by her statement: “Children start with scribbles, they see examples and start imitating, grocery lists, and it starts with small drawings and ultimately they become aware, like ‘hey, these are actually letters and then they start writing.” (know-what).

Also, similar to the other three teachers, Sylvia states the importance of building a learning environment that engages children in writing and stresses the importance of a safe environment: “safety is the first basis.” “Soothing, providing compliments, so that a child thinks ‘I can do it!’” (know-why).

Design talk

Sylvia offered the least input to the conversation.

Know-why. Sylvia is very detailed in providing reasons for how she teaches early literacy. On the zone of proximal development, she explains: “Keep going up a step” and “especially by letting it come out of themselves.” During design, similar to the other teachers, Sylvia stresses the importance of proper sentence building, as she provides an example: “You are an example” “they have to be good [sentence]”.

Know-how. Similar to the other teachers, Sylvia expresses know-how when brainstorming on the actual design of PictoPal, words and sentences to be used, and activities that can be done with the written material made with PictoPal. However, she makes fewer contributions that refer to know-how than the other three teachers. Although her comments are short, other teachers agree with what she says.



The findings of the interviews as well as the findings from design conversations reveal key themes in the knowledge and beliefs shared by teachers as they innovate for their own classrooms: specifically, the participating teacher discussions related to pedagogical issues such as zone of proximal development, play and authentic activity, and autonomous development of early literacy through discovering the link between sound and words.

During the design of PictoPal, all four teachers agreed on various design aspects:

● The goal of PictoPal is vocabulary development and learning to make proper sentences;

● This goal should be reached as children make a list, lower-case letters and categorize words on the computer;

● These written materials are then used in play as well as authentic activities such as visiting a farmer.

Additionally, all teachers made ample proposals for on-computer and off-computer activities in which children make a variety of written materials (lists and kinds of letters). Findings also highlight individual differences in design knowledge expressed in interviews and design talk. Know-what was hardly expressed by any of the four teachers, unlike know-why. For instance, teachers agreed that the material designed should target vocabulary development, which was translated into concrete materials and activities, such as making a list of words.

In solving design problems, individuals may differ in their problem-solving approach. Design problem solving (with know-how) is at the heart of the teachers design talk. However, Gees and Sylvia not only have less input (in terms of absolute amount of contributions), but they also differ in the kind of input they bring to the conversation. Gees brought in more know-what topics; Sylvia brought in more know-why information. Gees provided information on the specific theme; Sylvia explicated principles and beliefs on how to teach early literacy in education.

The teachers’ sense of community and unspoken power dynamics may have influenced their design conversation engagement. The team worked quite naturally together and, although some members were quieter than others, none appeared to feel uncomfortable. Still, it is notable that the lead teacher (Henriette) talked more than the others during the conversations.

Also notable is the fact that the teachers felt substantially challenged by this work. We bear in mind that the tasks were heavily scaffolded by the presence of existing materials (not requiring the creation of something completely new) as well as researcher-support. Our personal observations suggest that the task of adopting and adapting existing materials appeared to be within their own zone of proximal development. However, the degree to which it was challenging gives us cause to question the extent to which it would be productive – as is quite often the case – to challenge teachers to innovate from scratch.


Design is mostly intuitive [12], which was also shown in this study by the large amount of know-how expressed. Facilitators should be aware of the various characteristic design approaches. To engage all TDT participants, and to maximize use of their diverse knowledge to the enrichment of the final designed product, TDT facilitators should not necessarily work toward consensus immediately (a natural inclination for most designing teachers), but explicitly attempt to draw out the varied perspectives and knowledge within the group. Support can then be provided to the design process by giving information, facilitating discussions, or challenging teachers to explicate their underlying principles (know-why) and conceptual knowledge (know-what). Furthermore, teachers should be invited to reflect on their know-how. Steering the conversation towards explication of the reasoning underlying certain decisions can contribute to professional development.

References >

[1] Mor, Y. & Craft, B. (2012), 'Learning Design: reflections on a snapshot of the current landscape ', Research in Learning Technology 20

[2] This article is an abridged version of an article published by the authors in the eLearning papers and available here.

[3] Design thinking includes cognition about the design process itself, including efforts to understand, observe, take points of view, ideate, prototype and test. The design thinking mindset includes: human-centeredness, empathy, mindfulness of process, culture of prototyping, a "show don’t tell" approach, bias toward action, and radical collaboration.

[4] Clandinin, J., & Connelly, M. (1992). Teacher as curriculum maker. In P. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research on curriculum (pp. 363-401). New York: Macmillan.

[5] Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B. J., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. P. (2007). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921-958.

[6] Huizinga, T., Handelzalts, A., Nieveen, N., & Voogt, J. M. (2014). Teacher involvement in curriculum design: need for support to enhance teachers’ design expertise. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(1), 33-57. doi: 10.1080/00220272.2013.834077

[7] Verloop, N., Van Driel, J., & Meijer, P. (2001). Teacher knowledge and the knowledge base of teaching. International Journal of Educational Research, 35(5), 441-461. doi: Doi: 10.1016/s0883-0355(02)00003-4

[8] Pajares, M. F. (1992). Teachers’ Beliefs and Educational Research: Cleaning up a Messy Construct. Review of Educational Research, 62(3), 307-332.

[9] Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1-22).

[10] McKenney, S., Kali, Y., Markauskaite, L., & Voogt, J. (2015). Teacher design knowledge for technology enhanced learning: an ecological framework for investigating assets and needs. Instructional Science, 43(2), 181-202. doi: 10.1007/s11251-014-9337-2

[11] Cviko, A., McKenney, S. & Voogt, J. (2014). Teacher roles in designing technology-rich learning activities for early literacy: A cross-case analysis. Computers & Education, 72, 68-79. [11] Boschman, F., McKenney, S., & Voogt, J. (2014). Understanding decision making in teachers’ curriculum design approaches. Educational Technology Research and Development(62), 393-416.

[12] Boschman, F., McKenney, S., & Voogt, J. (2014). Understanding decision making in teachers’ curriculum design approaches. Educational Technology Research and Development(62), 393-416.

How can we enable and support teachers on individual, institutional, national or European level to collaboratively design and develop learning materials and resources for successful teaching innovation?