My Granny taught me a lot about cooking. She’d read a recipe – say for pork chops with apple – and say that she thought she’d make it for tea, and maybe alter it a little bit, because she realised that she had some lamb chops and apricots that would make a good combination. Whatever she made was delicious – she was a great cook.
I thought about this today when I attended a seminar which was advertised as being about Team Based Learning (TBL). TBL is a very structured approach to active learning, and it has a fairly formulaic recipe. Some proponents say that it should be followed to the letter, others say that there can be some leeway in modifying it – but my experience today got me wondering: when does a learning design stop being a modified version of the original and start being something else altogether? The version I was told about today was an interesting type of active learning, but it was very removed from being TBL. It was not bad teaching and learning, in fact I think it was very good – but I don’t think the presenter had understood what the original design was all about.
So where do we draw the line? If I tell you that I am making you a Shepherd’s Pie, but actually I substitute the original filling with apple and the topping with meringue, is it still a type of modified Shepherd’s Pie? Surely not. How about if I keep the original filling and top it with meringue – is it now a not very palatable Shepherd’s Pie? Possibly.
To return to Granny’s cooking, of course in the example above she wouldn’t have told us that she was giving us pork chops with apple – she’d present the dish as her own, maybe as inspired by the original. And, importantly, my Granny understood cooking – she understood why the original elements worked together and why her substituted ones would also work together well. I think that’s the same for teaching and learning – before we can start swapping bits in and out of a successful design, we need to understand how and why the original design works.
Some people might say that TBL is poorly named, and that others can be excused for not understanding that it is a particular type of design. That might be so, but I don’t think that’s much of an excuse.