Learning Design


Embracing notions of iterative development and emergent possibility

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … evolving web of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … acting and designing (according one’s experience)
  • Learner is … designer(s)
  • Learning is … elaborating, innovating (iterative, emergent)
  • Teaching is … orienting attentions, engaging, occasioning




Learning Design encompasses all activities associated with the development of practices, tasks, resources, and technologies intended to support meaningful and engaged learning in a particular situation. Learning Design discourses are the teaching-focused complement of Emergent Complexity Discourses, which are more focused on the adaptive dynamics of learning systems than on the pragmatics of influencing learning. Some uniting themes of Learning Design discourses include that learning is necessarily iterative, never linear, and always dependent on, but never determined by, teaching. To that end, an alternative title has been proposed:

  • Designing for Learning (Diana Laurillard, 2010s) – a processed rephrasing of “Learning Design,” intended to shift the focus of the activity to the learner and the learning, based on the argument that learning cannot be designed
Notions that figure prominently among discourses on Learning Design include:
  • Agile Learning – an ill-defined notion that has recently risen to popularity across sensibilities as diverse as Instructional Design Models and Design Thinking, Agile Learning appears to be associated with any attitude toward educational planning that acknowledges the inevitability of contingencies and the consequent need to adapt.
  • Cognitive Load Optimization (Stanislaw Paul Maj, 2020s) – a Learning Design model informed by Cognitive Load Theory involving carefully engineered, incremental learning sequences that, ideally, never overtax the learner’s capacities to perceive critical details (or associations among those details)
  • Contingent Teaching (Responsive Planning) – a pedagogical attitude of attentiveness and flexibility, whereby the teacher adapts methods, topics, and/or strategies to fit with emerging learner needs and/or interests
  • Embodied Design – an explicit blending of insights from Embodied Cognition with principles of Learning Design – that is, in effect, another name for Learning Design
  • Knowledge-Rich Curriculum (Knowledge-Rich Learning; Knowledge-Led Curriculum) (2010s) – effectively, a commitment to structure Formal Learning (see In-/Non-Formal Learning) around concepts and/or skills that have been identified a powerful and valuable – that is, empowering and useful for the individual and integral to the sociocultural situation. Typically, the concept of Knowledge-Rich Curriculum is associated with attending to the distinguishing qualities of a discipline and to modes of teaching that support Deep Learning (see Deep vs. Surface Learning).
  • Layers of Necessity (J.F. Wedman & M. Tessmer, 1990s) – a pragmatic revision to typical Instructional Design Models, offering advice for adapting models and distributing focus when confronted with limited time and resources
  • Learning Embodied Activity Framework (LEAF) (Joshua Danish, Noel Enyedy, Asmalina Saleh, 2020s) – a mashup of several prominent Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses that is focused on offering pragmatic design advice for educators
  • Mediated Action (James Wertsch, 1990s) – a notion from Socio-Cultural Theory that encompasses knowers’ engagements with (i.e., incidental encounters with, deliberate uses of, etc.) all varieties of tools (both physical and conceptual) to support their actions (i.e., thinking, communications, coordinated activity, etc.). A complexified notion, Mediated Action is understood to have multiple simultaneous goals and to be associated with power and authority.
  • Mediated Learning (Reuven Feuerstein, 1990s) – in effect, a more conscious and deliberate version of Mediated Action (see above), in which a more-capable other supports a learner in the development of a competency, especially one that could not be previously accomplished independently.
  • Occasioning (Participatory Pedagogy) – a metaphor of teaching fitted to most Coherence Discourses. Derived from terms that originally meant “to fall together,” Occasioning is used to foreground the assertion that learning is dependent on, but not determined by, teaching. Teaching is understood to comprise efforts to establish the conditions necessary for learners to exceed their current selves.
  • Socially Mediated Learning – a phrase that’s been in use at least since the 1980s and that is subject to a wide range of interpretations, all of which hover around the principle that one’s learning is influenced by one’s context
  • Spiral Curriculum (Jerome Bruner, 1960s) – a precursor to Learning Design, Spiral Curriculum was one of the first influential expressions of the notion of iterative design in education. A Spiral Curriculum involves revisiting of topics and themes (both across courses or across grades), each time in more sophisticated ways, to deepen understanding and to knit ideas across subject areas. (Contrast: Aligned Curriculum, under Attainment Metaphor.)


The notion of Learning Design was originally articulated in distinction from Instructional Design Models, which have typically been grounded in more linear, mechanical, and decontextualized principles – although that has changed in recent years. This contrast highlights the fact that “design” is among the most contested words in the current educational lexicon. On one hand, as in the case of Instructional Design Models, it is used to refer to rigid and mechanical approaches to curriculum and instruction; on the other, as in the case of Learning Design, it is invoked to signal adaptive and emergent attitudes toward learning and teaching. The latter meaning is the one intended here, and the one that is most prominently represented in cutting-edge educational research. Alternative positioning include:

  • Integrated Design (Marcelo Main, Brock Craft, Yishay Mor, 2010s) – positioned between Instructional Design Models and Learning Design, an attitude that seeks identify and integrate useful and defensible aspects from both approaches


  • Agile Learning
  • Cognitive Load Optimization
  • Contingent Teaching (Responsive Planning)
  • Designing for Learning
  • Embodied Design
  • Integrated Design
  • Knowledge-Rich Curriculum (Knowledge-Rich Learning; Knowledge-Led Curriculum)
  • Layers of Necessity
  • Learning Embodied Activity Framework (LEAF)
  • Mediated Action
  • Mediated Learning
  • Occasioning (Participatory Pedagogy)
  • Socially Mediated Learning
  • Spiral Curriculum

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Learning Design” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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