Learning is promoted when teachers rearrange their existing building blocks for educational design.

  • As a teacher, how can I implement a teaching innovation without replacing everything I am already doing that is working so well?
  • As a teacher, how can I innovate within my existing teaching repertoire and continue to innovate without spending too much time and energy?
  • As a teacher, how can I learn effectively and productively build on what I am already doing?

What does it mean and why is it important?

An educational design consists of smaller parts, which we call modules. For example, a teaching plan consists (in some order) of modules such as a starting assignment, an explanation phase, a phase in which students work on their own and an application phase. Also in other domains, larger wholes are composed of modules (think of houses, computers et cetera).

Using a limited set of modules provides the opportunity for generating wholes through various specific combinations of modules within a given domain. Modularity thus consists of working with a limited set of building blocks and principles/rules to generate a huge diversity of innovations/creations (also called generative). In education, modularity provides a powerful productive mechanism for generating specific combinations by allowing teachers to vary and innovate in their educational designs with sequences and contents of key building blocks in a particular part of the educational field (this could be, e.g., didactics, pedagogy).

Practical implications

At ICLON, we have developed several tools and professional development programs for a wide range of educational innovations that enable teachers to expand their teaching repertoire through recombination and adaptation of already existing educational building blocks. The following are some applications:

  • Context-concept teaching;
  • Task-based education;
  • Adaptive education;
  • Speaking skills in education;
  • Inquiry-based learning.

This short knowledge clip (2 minutes; in Dutch) shows the essence of a modular approach to designing task-based and adaptive education.

In the Dutch publication Uitdagend gedifferentieerd vakonderwijs (Challenging and differentiated subject-specific teaching) elaborates and illustrates the modular approach for various educational innovations for almost all school subjects in secondary education.

Scholarly publications

  • Dam M, Janssen F.J.J.M. & Driel J.H. van (2018), Attention to intentions – How to stimulate strong intentions to change, Research in Science Education48(2): 369–387.

The implementation of educational reforms requires behavioral changes from the teachers involved. Theories on successful behavioral change prescribe the following conditions: teachers need to possess the necessary knowledge and skills, form strong positive intentions to perform the new behavior, and have a supporting environment for change. However, existing approaches to teacher professional development in the context of educational reforms are predominantly aimed at the development of knowledge and skills and at creating a supporting environment, but lack attention to teachers’ intentions to change. In the study described in this article, we performed ‘motivating-for-educational-change’ interviews (MECI) and explored the influence on teachers’ intentions to change in the direction of the proposed national biology education reform, that is, the introduction of a context-based curriculum. The MECI comprised two tools: building on earlier successful experiences and using lesson segments to rearrange instructional approaches. We explored the influence of the MECI technique on the strength and specificity of participating teachers’ intentions. When conducting the MECI, many participants expressed that they now realized how they had already implemented aspects of the reform in their regular instructional approaches. Furthermore, all the participants formulated stronger and more specific intentions to change their regular instructional approach towards that of the proposed reform while taking their regular instructional approach as a starting point.

  • Janssen, F. J. J. M., Westbroek, H. B., & van Driel, J. H. (2014). How to make guided discovery learning practical for student teachers. Instructional Science, 42, 67–90.

Many innovative teaching approaches lack classroom impact because teachers consider the proposals impractical. Making a teaching approach practical requires instrumentality (procedures), congruence (local fit), and affordable cost (limited time and resources).This paper concerns a study on the development and effects of a participatory design based teacher training trajectory aimed at making guided discovery learning (GDL) practical for student biology teachers. First, we identified practical heuristics for designing GDL lessons by analyzing design protocols made by biology teachers who are experts in GDL. Next we inventoried student responses to their regular lessons and to GDL based lessons. Based on this we prepared a teacher training program for eleven student biology teachers in which they applied the heuristics and stepwise extended their teaching repertoire in the direction of GDL. The participants’ design processes and resulting lesson plans were scored on both use of design heuristics and GDL characteristics. The participants were interviewed about their motivational beliefs before and after the program. Results showed that student teachers are able to design GDL lessons and used the heuristics to design GDL lessons. Their motivation for implementing GDL in their classroom had increased substantially. The paper concludes with a critical reflection on our method of participatory design and its applicability.

  • Janssen F.J.J.M., Grossman P. & Westbroek H.B. (2015), Facilitating decomposition and recomposition in practice based teacher education. The power of modularity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 51(7): 137-146

The turn towards practice-based teacher education has marked a growing consensus around the need to focus professional preparation more directly on the enactment of teaching practice. However, the shift towards practice has also revealed some unresolved tensions among complementary but competing components of learning to teach: the relationship between decomposition and recomposition in learning a practice; the relative importance of skill versus will in learning to teach; and the relation between developing routines of practice and developing adaptive expertise. This paper explores the promise of research on hierarchical modularity as one way of understanding and reconciling these tensions.

  • Janssen, F.J.J.M., Westbroek, H.B., Doyle, W. & Driel, van J.H. (2013). How to make innovations practical. Teachers College Record, 115 (7), 1-43.
  • Vrind, E, Janssen, F.J.J.M, Van Driel, J.H., & E. Stoutjesdijk (2019). Naar een praktische adaptieve aanpak voor spreekvaardigheidsonderwijs in moderne vreemde talen. Pedagogische Studiën (96) 15-39.

Contact person for this principle
Michiel Dam