Learning Material Didactics 2

Here, you will find the second issue of the journal Learning Material Didactics from May 2009. You can download and read the entire issue or you can immerse yourself in the individual articles depending on your interest. (All articles are in Danish).


By Thomas Illum Hansen, University College Lillebælt

In Denmark, there is a common tradition of analyzing and evaluating learning materials in the subjects and from a subject didactic perspective. “What else?” – one might be tempted to ask. Are there other significant perspectives? After all, most learning materials are produced in order to ensure good and worthwhile teaching in subjects. With this second issue of the e-journal Learning Material Didactics, we have chosen to focus on learning materials in the subjects in continuation of the subject didactic tradition.

Read full preface

Before we dive into subjects and learning materials, it must be pointed out however, that several other significant perspectives on learning materials are given in Læremiddel.dk’s optics. A classic example is the textbook-critical perspective which has also formed the tradition. Back in the late 1800s, it was the European peace movements that gave rise to widespread criticism of the ideological content of textbooks and their tendency to be nationalistic, create enemy images, glorify war, etc. In the early 1930s, a commission was set up, who had to critically evaluate the learning materials in the school’s subjects. Since then, the movement of trade unions have followed up with an ideological critique of learning materials, that culminated in Denmark with the school book critique of the 70s. An issue that has been addressed by Ruth Mulvad and Mette Risak in The Political School Book (1980). Most recently, a particular focus has been placed on gender and ethnicity in learning materials with a number of studies in Norway and Sweden which have contributed to further developing the ideology-critical approach to a more general discourse critique, i.e. a critique of the language use of learning materials because there is a tendency to favor certain groups of students at the expense of others.

Another recent tradition that should be mentioned is the media-oriented approach that has emerged and kept pace with the digitalization of learning materials. Inspired by sociological and/or socio-cultural theorists such as Niklas Luhmann and Lev Vygotsky, the focus has been on the structural significance of learning materials in teaching and in school as a dissemination system. A focus that has been sharpened with digitalization, because with digital media, it has become obvious to everyone that knowledge is and always has been facilitated. Several of Læremiddel.dk’s largest projects – “Learning materials about learning materials”, “Learning material culture 2.0” and “User-driven innovation of digital teaching aids” – contribute directly to developing this tradition. Roughly speaking, the school’s relation to a world outside the school is possible through media, and digitalization has made it clear that there is a difference between talking about the world, reading about the world and gaining access to knowledge about the world via the internet. In continuation of this, parts of the pedagogical research and the pedagogical subjects in the teacher education have gained insight into the concept of medium as a didactic reflection category on par with other categories such as goals, content and method. And this is quite new, as learning materials have mainly been a matter for the subjects and subject didactics so far.

The subject didactic perspective on learning materials is therefore one among several others, and it is important to emphasize that the different perspectives can enrich each other. Therefore, this theme issue contains both general and didactic perspectives on learning materials in the subjects. Learning materials are not only seen from within the subject as means that can support the students’ subject-specific learning, but also from the outside as means for the development of the teacher, the subject group and the profession’s competence and professional language. Thus, this issue is structured so that we first present two articles with general perspectives on the function of learning materials in subjects and subject didactics with the Danish subject as an example, then two subject didactic articles on learning materials in mathematics and history, respectively, and finally conclude with a more general problem concerning digital learning resources in the subjects.

The general perspective on learning materials in the subjects

Bodil Nielsen starts off with “Learning materials – support and development”. The title is ambiguous. On the one hand, Bodil Nielsen points out that learning materials must of course support and challenge the students in their learning processes. On the other hand, she unfolds a series of arguments that show, step by step, how learning materials can and should support and develop the teacher’s work. The starting point is the many demands and challenges that characterize a teacher’s everyday life. The view is that learning materials should function both as support in everyday life and as inspiration for development, e.g. when the teacher has to justify and adapt their teaching, relate to the many expectations for the teaching from the outside world (parents, colleagues, politicians…), turn the curriculum into practice, collaborate with colleagues and in general take care of and develop practice.

Dorthe Carlsen and Jens Jørgen Hansen follow up with an article that deals with a general problem and subject didactics at the same time: “Are there learning material genres? – a perspective on learning materials in Danish ”. The article understands learning material genres in the frame of reference between intention, textual features, and actual application. More precisely, it is a genre perspective that emphasizes that learning materials can be divided into different types and genres, depending on what they do and want the user to do in teaching – a so-called communicative genre perspective on learning materials. The fruitfulness of this perspective is shown by the fact that it makes one aware that a choice of learning material is at the same time a choice of a genre that determines a large number of factors – including the teaching space and situation, the social interaction between teacher and student and students’ comprehension and learning processes. Overall, they distinguish between basic textbook, reading book, exercise book, evaluation materials, teacher’s guide and anthology, and analyze these as genres that can be characterized by their respective purpose and ways of combining different types of text elements, e.g. instructive, informed and narrative text elements. This theory is translated into an analysis of the learning material “From another globe – Read literature in 5th and 6th grade”, which demonstrates that teachers should be aware of the learning material genre so that they can organize teaching that exploits the potential of the learning material and makes students into competent, reflective users of learning materials.

The subject didactic perspective on learning materials in the subjects

With Bent Lindhardt’s article “Understanding your textbook – in mathematics”, we switch to a subject didactic perspective – although, his analysis models also seem to have general relevance for an assessment of textbooks. According to the author himself, he takes a practice-based perspective on learning materials, based on 25 years of versatile experience with textbooks. However, the models of the article are based on theory used to generalize the experiences. The starting point is a short description of the textbook’s building blocks. Partly, the primary actors (the author, the teacher, the publisher and the school) who have an impact on the structure of the book. Partly, the primary categories in which, according to Bent Lindhardt’s perspective, the main ideas of the textbook become clear : 1) content, 2) method and learning, 3) structure and form, 4) target group relevance. The four categories are elaborated with a number of specific examples. In particular, the function of the “assignment” in the textbook is the subject of a thorough analysis, which is of general interest. Because even though there are differences in assignments in the different subjects, there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the article – also for other subjects that share a common ground with mathematics regarding how it is advantageous to analyze the tasks’ degree of openness, abstraction and theoretical nature.

Jens Aage Poulsen’s article “Narrativity in learning materials” also takes a subject didactical perspective, but as the title suggests, his problems are not limited to the subject of history. With simple narrative features from the American historian, Hayden White, he shows that historical representations are constructions that typically use and sometimes combine elements from four basic narratives: the romantical, the tragical, the comical and the satirical/ironical. A point that has general relevance for the analysis of learning materials – insofar as the learning materials of many a subject contain a historical presentation. Not surprisingly, most learning materials in the subject of history fall within the first category, where the narrative features are used to harmonize the presentation and make it appear as the absolute truth of what actually happened. Jens Aage Poulsen scrutinizes this harmonizing tendency by compiling an analysis of three learning materials – a Norwegian, a Swedish and a Danish – in part with the requirements in the current curriculum, in part with a Nordic questionnaire survey of history teachers’ expectations of the subject’s learning materials. In particular, the curriculum’s requirement that students must develop historical awareness, and teachers’ expectations of living narratives in the learning materials are contrasted to the absolute and informative narrative form of the analyzed learning materials, which does not lend itself to awareness and independent reflection.

A quantitative study of digital learning resources in school

In conclusion, we present the quantitative study “Digital learning resources in primary and secondary education”, which we have carried out in collaboration with the research center DREAM. It is relevant to present in this connection because we primarily perceive IT and digital learning resources as learning materials in the subjects. The point is that IT and digital learning resources are not goals in themselves, but means that should be used with specific academic goals in teaching, and which must therefore be understood in interaction with other types of learning materials. That is why we, among other things, have used the survey to ask the Danish and mathematics teachers about their prioritization of learning materials in preparation and teaching respectively, their assessment of their own IT competences, their characteristics of the form of teaching in their most recent teaching lesson, and their expectations for the integration of IT and teaching in the future. On that basis, we can identify the relationship between teachers’ competences and the use of learning materials. However, the survey raises more new questions than it provides definitive answers. The presentation of the results is therefore put into perspective with Læremiddel.dk’s latest initiative – the project “User-driven innovation of digital teaching aids”. In other words, the survey on the one hand serves as an indicator of the state of the (stag)nation – the current use of IT in teaching or lack thereof – and on the other hand, of the need for new surveys. Thus, the article is based on a number of forward-looking questions that make the study, and with it, this second issue of the journal Learning Material Didactics, look ahead: What does the study not say? What challenges do we face? And how do we move forward?

Thomas Illum Hansen, May 2009