2.6 Referent 4: A response environment organizer

Sometimes in thinking up a design, you can have the best didactical intention (referent 1) in mind, your specification or databank (referent 2) filled with the right needs, an existing design (referent 3) sending out interesting signals, and yet you are still waiting — waiting for that ‘click’ as the parts of the puzzle fall into place and your decision-making goes racing and tumbling to its conclusion.

There is something which can make this happen, something which will accelerate the ‘click’; a cunning designer is always watching and listening for it. It is a ‘bit of content’ which has two quite unique properties for the designer using it. The first is that, in the presence of referents 1,2 and 3, it triggers a picture in the designer’s mind of what the teaching—learning situation is going to be. The second is that it clearly has the potential (as it joins the rest of the content in the course or lesson) to serve as an anchor point and stimulator of the students’ learning. Its choice and use will do much in deciding how effective, valued, liked and efficient the learning experience is going to be. The ‘special bit of content’ is referent 4: an effective response environment organizer, or for short, an effective REO. In case study 1, the special bit of content which gave the vision of the designed encounter, with its pre- and post- visit programmes, was the visualized five-element concept of general practice shown in Fig. 2. With its arrival, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Scrutinize closely any description of a course or lesson that has scored highly on the Emax Vmax Lmax E’max criteria. In 99 cases out of 100 you will find an effective response environment organizer operating for the student in the way described above. It is also safe to speculate that its presence enabled the teacher or designer to ‘see’ how she or he was going to set up the learning experience of the student. Bits of content which I know personally (or have been told about) that have been used successfully as an effective referent 4 include: ‘eleven words on a blackboard’, ‘a set of symbols’, ‘a piece of sculpture’, ‘a curious medical symptom’, ‘a poem by D H Lawrence’, ‘Vincent Van Gogh’s small canvas: meadow grass’, ‘a hay fork’, the sounds of a patient’s heartbeats’, ‘the contents of a letter written by a Consul in Jerusalem to his superiors in Rome’. Special bits of content are used intuitively by good teachers as the nucleus of courses and lessons. They have been in the tool kits of gifted teachers for a very, very long time.

Below is a description by a writer (Bruner, 1966) who is recalling his own learning experience, and by implication that of his fellow students, in a series of lectures on the subject of literary appreciation. The special bit of content which determined the students’ appreciation of the course is the ‘eleven words on the blackboard’. The eleven words are functioning (for the teacher and learner) as a response environment organizer.

As a student, I took a course with I A Richards … It began with that extraordinary teacher turning his back to the class and writing on the blackboard in his sharply angular hand the lines:

Gray is all theory
Green grows the golden tree of life.

For three weeks we stayed with the lines, with the imagery of the classic and romantic views, with the critics who had sought to explore the two ways of life; we became involved in reading a related but bad play of Goethe’s, Torquato Tasso, always in a state of dialogue though Richards alone spoke. The reading time for eleven words was three weeks. It was the antithesis of just reading, and the reward in the end was that I owned outright, free and clear, eleven words. A good bargain. Never before had I read with such a lively sense of conjecture, like a speaker and not a listener, or like a writer and not a reader.

Jerome S Bruner (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction With permission: Harvard University Press.

It is apparent that the eleven words on the blackboard, in the hands of this gifted teacher, served very clearly as the organizer of the students’ learning experience — an experience which the writer and his fellow students found to be of superlative quality. We can also safely conjecture that when these eleven words (from Goethe) crossed the teacher’s path, he was able to say: ‘Eureka! Now I see how I must give my course!’ It was his special bit of content for a successful design.

Referent 4, for a given piece of instruction, is discovered, invented, or meticulously constructed by the designer-teacher, or by the designer when, for example, a teacher is not involved. My own criteria for deciding that a bit of content is an effective REO, is an effective referent 4, are these:

  •  the bit of content is a `system of stimuli’, that has the capacity — via the stimuli it contains — of generating the responses needed to shape the student’s learning to the instructional goals that have been set in an interesting and meaningful way.
  • the bit of content can migrate, so to speak, quite naturally into the design itself, and become the focal point of the student’s learning experience.
  •  the bit of content must serve as what Ausubel and Robinson (1961) have referred to as an `anchoring idea’ or ‘organizer’ in the cognitive structure of the learner that facilitates learning.
  • the bit of content is chosen, invented or constructed with the other three referents in mind: a set of criteria for a good design (referent 1), the nth specification of the needs (referent 2), and an appropriate model (referent 3).
  • the bit of content that the designer is contemplating as her or his response environment organizers (in the presence of the other three referents and the emerging idea of a design) generates, for the designer using it, an insight into the teaching/learning situation that is needed to realize the learning goals that have been set. In short, the bit of content in question (in the presence of the other referents) is the precursor in the designer’s thinking of the design per se.

A response environment organizer is a very personal thing. A bit of content serving one designer as referent 4 is not necessarily an effective referent 4 for another designer who is designing a course on the same subject for the same students and with the same goals in mind. The Goethe quotation, for example, is a very personal use of a quotation. It may very well not function as an REO for another teacher of literary appreciation. He or she would need to discover, invent or meticulously construct his or her own REO. Referent 4 is the product of one’s own intuition, creativity and logical thinking.

Here’s an exercise in the use of REOs. Go back for a moment into your think tank with the problem of deciding what is a good design for lessons on teaching six-year-olds to tell the time.


Can you think of a special bit of content that would serve you as an effective referent 4? If you have one, do you notice how this item sends changes chasing through the items in your databank (referent 2)? Does the special bit of content, if you have it, help your design pass the test of the criteria for a good design (referent 1)? Did or could the bit of content come from some existing design (referent 33 that you know about? If you don’t have an REO, is perhaps a shadow of an REO emerging?

The bit of content which is dancing around in my think tank at the moment (together with sundials, boiled eggs, cuckoo clocks, moons, digital twelve-hour-watches, birthday cakes with candles, and calendars) is the special time, on a 24-hour digital clock with a display of hours, minutes and seconds: 12 12 12. With the help of this time and the things mentioned, I can let the six-year-olds:

  1. experience that there is a difference between ‘one year’, ‘one day’, ’24 hours’, ’12 hours’, ‘half a day’, ’12 minutes’ and ’12 seconds’,
  2.  learn the difference between a digital watch and a conventional watch,
  3.  know that an alarm going off at ’12’ can be at 12 o’clock in the day or 12 o’clock at night, and
  4.  actually ‘experience’, by boiling an egg, the difference between an egg that has been boiled for 12 minutes, for 12 seconds and for 12 hours.

By using 12 12 12, I can also teach the children not to become ‘slaves’ of the hours, minutes and seconds of the day. With its help, we can even begin to explore the question, ‘What is time?’. We can make sense of the quarters in a year and the path of the moon ….

Referent 4 was our last referent in the four-referent paradigm proposed in this book. The referents are decision-making tools to help you transform a problem situation into a solution situation. In the privacy of your mind you know what ‘plan, structure and strategy of instruction’ you are going to use. The next step is to give this concept — still an abstract notion in your mind — concrete form. You must now work out this thought-up design. After a case study describing a design problem and its solution, you will meet some tips for use when thinking up a design. After that we will go on to Chapter 3 and the task of working out a thought-up design.

Before you begin reading case study no. 2, refresh your memory of the names of the four referents by turning back to paragraph 2.2 figure 3.

Remark Jan Nedermeijer: The idea of the REO is not easy to understand. Maybe a definition given by Tony Earl in an earlier text about a REO might help:

“A response environment organizer is some ‘concept’  ‘ idea’  ‘ set of case studies’  ‘list of principles’  ‘activity’  ‘procedure’  procedural diagram’  or similar ‘system of stimuli’  capable of generating – for the designer using it – an insightful view of the learning situations, learning events and responses needed to shape the student’s learning towards the learning outcomes sought through the course.” from: F.A. Earl, Some ideas on the design of learning experiences. Mededelingen 19 afdeling Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling van Onderwijs Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht. Juli 1973.

Some examples of Response environment organizers from Tony Earl and Jan Nedermeijer

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