Beetham on Learning Design

H800 notes on Beetham 1

Beetham explains that ’emergence of Learning Design as a dominant paradigm can be taken as a sign that activity is being reinstated as the focus of concern. Design for learning should therefore focus primarily on the activities undertaken by learners, and only secondarily on (for example) the tools or materials that support them.’ (p26)

Beetham explains the difference between tasks and activities:

  • tasks – are those that are set by the teacher and/or curriculum
  • activities – are what the learner(s) engage in/does, in order to complete the set tasks. Beetham explains that ‘Although good teachers will provide direction as to how tasks should be carried out, and may scaffold learners’ activities quite rigidly, different learners will still have their own ways of proceeding.’ (p26)

She offers a definition for a learning activity (p.28) ‘as  a specific interaction of learner(s) with other(s) using specific tools and resources, orientated towards specific outcomes.’

Because activities are interdependent on the task and the learner, the exact nature of the activities cannot be fully analysed until after the task is completed (p.29) – however, the elements can be considered when designing tasks.

Beetham refers to three approaches:

  1. associative – ‘building component skills into extended  performance’ (p.27); activities as ‘rule-based’ (p.29)
  2. constructive – ‘integrating skills and knowledge, planning and reflecting’ (p.27); activities as ‘incident-based’ or ‘strategy-based’ (p.29)
  3. situative – ‘developing identities and roles’ (p.27); activities as ‘role-based’ (p.29, role as in work not role-play)

Design principles common to all approaches include:

  • consolidation or practice
  • integration across activities
  • feedback

‘A learning activity is not a given entity, but depends on the capabilities of the learner.’ (p27) – what one learner finds simple another learner may not.

Beetham identifies the following issues for consideration in regard to learning design:

  • Authenticity of the activity – work-based (situative) or role-play/mimic (constructive)
  • Formality and structure – ‘Associative learning depends not on authenticity but on rehearsing skills and concepts in a highly structured way’ (p. 27). Activities can be highly structured (narrative) or open and loosely defined to enable learners to develop own approach
  • Retention/reproduction versus reflection/internalization
  • The role and importance of other people – social/participative learning for example
  • Locus of control – in relation to activity timings, length, assessment, etc

Beetham’s model for learning activities (see illustration below; p.29) is loosely connected to Engestrom’s activity theory:

Beetham's Learning Activity Model

Learning Outcomes and Learning Design

Curricula are based on learning outcomes, therefore these usually form the starting point for learning design:

  • associative – ‘performance of new skill or expression of a new concept’ (p.30)
  • constructive – evidence of new understanding
  • situative – participation in new situations or performing a more expert role.

Learning outcomes conform to a common format. In my experience this tends to be ‘by the end of the lesson the learner will be able to …..’

Beetham (p30) states that ‘while designers are often encouraged to consider separately those outcomes that concern knowledge, skills and values, it seems likely that concepts and the conceptual skills required to handle them are acquired in parallel, and that neither can be divorced from the values of the community in which they are practised.’

Beetham lists several criticisms for an outcome-based approach:

  • strict adherence to curriculum and its goals
  • fostering a strategic approach in which learners learn to the outcomes (I would add and in which teachers teach to the outcomes/test)
  • outcomes focus on learning that can easily be assessed rather than wider and ‘softer’ skills such as values, capacity to learn

Designing for Learners

The outcomes-based approach tends towards the acquisition and knowledge-transfer metaphors with learning being acquired and then tested. There is an assumption that all learners learn in the same way and demonstrate learning in the same way.

This is in contrast with the current focus on ‘learner-centredness’ apparent in standards (OfSTED 2 3). Beetham (p31) describes two challenges inherent in learner-centredness: knowing the differences between learners; and dealing with these differences in ways that support those learners.

In terms of differences between learners and use of technology, Beetham identifies ICT skills, emotional response to elearning and time management.

In terms of meeting differences, she identifies the use of individualised elearning and flexible learning (where learners have control over tasks and evidence).

Learning Technologies in Learning Design

Move from focus on structure (associative approach) with single best delivery style/structure/format to activity-based design with variety of representations.

Artefacts are the devices and technologies available within the learning environment, for example electronic whiteboards, digital cameras, mobile devices, etc.  As Beetham explains, ‘artefacts can have different meanings in different activity contexts’ (p.33)

Affordance describes the properties of an artefact when used for a specific purpose e.g. learning.

‘It is now understood that the medium used can have a profound effect on how content is assimilated and  remembered, and that different learners have different capacities with different
media. A choice of medium, or the opportunity to experience two media in parallel – for example a spoken text and a visual diagram –  have been shown to be  particularly effective for learning (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1996 in Beetham p.33)’

Artefacts can be used to enable learners to create own and collaborative representations of knowledge – moving the focus of control towards the learner.

‘No technologies should be introduced to the learning situation without consideration of learners’ confidence and competence in their use. Ideally designs  should also extend that competence, for example by  having learners explore  different functions, make choices about use of a tool, and integrate it with other tools in their environment. Designers should also take account of learners’ own
technologies, including mobile phones, email, instant messaging and personal digital assistants (PDAs), digital TV and radio, and social software.’ (p.36)

  1. Beetham, H. (2007) ‘An approach to learning activity design’, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (Eds) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, Oxford: RoutledgeFalmer.
  2. OfSTED (2009) ‘Common Inspection Framework for further education and skills 2009’, OfSTED, (online) Available from: (Accessed 27 March 2011).
  3. OfSTED (2010) ‘Handbook for the inspection of further education and skills from September 2009’, OfSTED, (online) Available from: (Accessed 5 April 2011).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *