designing learning

‘Thinking Things Anew’

The other day I had a badly-designed experience in a restaurant. The food came about 50 minutes after we ordered it, which was bad enough. But the real clunker was, they failed to serve the drinks, which was water for two and an orange fizz for the third. That we had to wait for 50 minutes for at least the water was unacceptable. Then when my friend complained after the food was served, the waiter said, “It’s your fault. We could not serve until your soup was ready.”

(Really?)

What I took away aside from the decision never to go back to that restaurant again was that a badly-designed experience could be made better by ‘thinking things anew(Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 40).

Two things stand out. First is that an experience can be designed. Second is that fresh thinking about the design can improve experience.

When we think about the experiences students have as they go through school, it’s a worthy inquiry to explore how we might better design experiences and put some fresh thinking into what we do, how we do, and why we do what we do in the ways we do.

The big question is, How do we design school holistically?

Wiggins and McTighe suggest some facets for designing the experience of school (2007, p. 41):

  • “ The goal of curriculum is not to take a tour of the content but to learn to use and investigate the content, right from the start. Curriculum is thus inseparable from the design of valid, recurring performance tasks.

  • “If autonomous transfer and meaning making is the goal, then the curriculum must be designed from the start to give students practice in autonomous transfer and meaning making, and make clear via assessments that this is the goal

  • “An academic curriculum must be more like the curriculum in law, design, medicine, music, athletics and early literacy: focused from the start on masterful performance as the goal.”

The first implication is the centrality of the assessments we use to frame the experience. If assessments are the experiences of success for students, what considerations might we take in designing experiences students will have so they are able to use content, investigate content, rehearse knowledge, skills and understanding, until tasked with a performance of these in the assessment? And how do we align the plans and instruction to the assessments?

The second implication is that transfer and meaning making or understanding must be rehearsed deliberately. This means that the formative experiences we give our students must be intentionally crafted. Understanding is not gained by chance but by purposeful behaviors toward the goals of transfer and meaning making.

The authors also provide a set of learning principles, a few of which are quoted below.

Engaged and sustained learning, a prerequisite of understanding, requires that learners constantly see the value of their work and feel a growing sense of efficacy when facing worthy challenges” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

This principle suggests that in planning learning experiences, we need to draw upon authentic connections to the students’ prior learning and to their lives and the world. Drawing upon these contexts helps the learning experiences to gain meaningful connections to the students’ own experiences and hastens the cementing of relationships between school and scholar and life.

An understanding is a learner realization about the power of an idea. Understandings cannot be given; they have to be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

An inquiry makes sense with authentic connections, and part of the design is the anchoring of learning experiences to large, significant ideas, such as our common humanity, what constitutes a personally-relevant and responsible action as a response to what is being learned. These connections provide opportunities to link classroom experiences to the world, breaking the boundaries between real-life and school in ways wherein students can realize the power of ideas at work in their lives and the world.

The capacity to deeply understand depends greatly on the capacity to think things anew (and other related habits of mind), because any insight typically requires the refining of earlier ideas. Becoming willing and able to rethink requires a safe and supportive environment for questioning assumptions and habits (of mind)” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

The above principle is loaded with program implications.

First, the design of learning must provide experiences wherein students must draw upon habits of mind, those attitudes and approaches to learning, which must be rehearsed while rethinking ideas afresh.

Second, how a school or classroom provides a ‘safe and supporting environment’ asks of schools to design its culture – for example, how is risk-taking and failure viewed in the school? What are the attitudes toward failure? How does a school honor its students’ interests, strengths, prior learning? These are but a few considerations when we think of how safe and supportive a school might be.

Third, how students learn how to construct and use questions is a key part of design.

Fourth, how students are explicitly taught to use a repertoire of learning approaches is important in creating a culture of confident inquirers who feel safe to take intellectual risks and pursue personally- significant inquiries.

Some design considerations

To sum up the ideas above, we find that the design of learning experiences needs to consider:

  • How assessment aligns with instruction and instructional intentions.
  • How learning engagements provide authentic contexts for learning.
  • How students gain meaning from their learning experiences.
  • How to create learning experiences so that students arrive at large, powerful ideas (such as concepts and statements of inquiry).
  • How learning experiences are designed to draw out dispositions and approaches to learning and how these become visible to students in those experiences.
  • How to design a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • How to honor prior learning, interests, strengths of students.
  • How students learn how to use questions to pursue their own learning.
  • How to explicitly teach approaches to learning and build a confident self-directed learner.

If we take the patterns within these considerations, we find that these correspond to principles we must turn into practice so that our students experience a coherent, relevant, and challenging program in which each one grows and achieves.

We find that the systems of curriculum and instruction link to systems for assessment. We discover that social emotional learning is built in to the structures that support academic goals. We might also realize that collaboration and reflection are keys to this holistic implementation of a well-designed learning experience.

Making connections between systems

In their book about Coca ColaDesign to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility” (2015, p. 27), Butler and Tischler write, “Problems don’t exist in isolation. You can’t solve one without affecting another. This is where design creates value that’s hard to see or quantify, in that, by connecting things more smoothly, the entire experience improves.”

Essential takeaways seem to be that design is about making connections and that effective design makes for a coherent and meaningful experience.

From this we arrive at some essential questions in our program design. A few might be:

  • What connections can we make explicit between how we plan, how we learn and teach, and how we assess?
  • What connections can we make explicit between the soft skills and the academic ones?
  • What connections can we create between the resources in our environment and the perceptions of safety and support?
  • What connections can we facilitate between the students’ lives, the world and the classroom inquiries?

The fresh thinking that we need as we design learning experiences is mirrored by the fresh thinking we would like our students to do as they experience these.

What connections are you making between your learning and your students’? How might both these experiences gain meaning and transfer?

Just as a restaurant must make connections to make the dining experience a pleasant one, we are tasked with making connections between systems in our schools to make the experience one that our students will savor.

 

References

Butler, D. and Tischler, L. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility; (And how you can too). USA: Penguin.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design; Mission, action and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Supporting journeys to understanding

“Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is a quote often used in the press and by politicians. (It is misattributed to Einstein, but there is no proof he wrote or said it.) This witty and seemingly overused statement may be from a mysterious origin, but it strikes a deep chord as we consider its implications for teaching and learning.

Blaming external factors when students don’t seem to understand is an easy way to avoid change. If we seek craftsmanship and flexibility in our practice, we might increase the potential for our intentions in teaching to become the student outcomes in learning.

We can tell people something, or we can guide them to read and gain knowledge, but translating knowledge to actual practice requires understanding and the other more demanding cognitive processes in Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking.

If a learner knows a set of skills, for example, the student needs to rehearse those skills in different situations (Brown and Bennet, 2002), to gain an appreciation for evaluating situations and choosing skills that match the problem at hand. Evaluating situations and choosing the right problem-solving behaviors to approach these are valuable behaviors that require iterative rehearsal in many contexts so that the learner is able to solve problems in unfamiliar contexts as he or she gains facility in the complex process of evaluating situations, evaluating skills, and matching skills that are the best-fit approach to the unfamiliar problem (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006). Learners also need to be taught processes rather than just assigned processes to traverse (Merzenich et al., 1996).

What have we learned about facilitating learning? Here are some ideas to get us started.

Learning happens when learners feel psychologically safe.

When people feel unsafe, chemicals called cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body and the brain, and people react with the fight, flight or freeze response (Sylwester, 2004). The reaction inhibits the problem-solving part of the brain, the neocortex (Goldberg, 2009). Literally, feeling unsafe shuts down learning (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2010).

When we think about it, change is a threatening situation. When the ways that we must do things change, it causes us to deal with the implementation dip and presents challenges to our feelings of self-efficacy.

In these situations, and because change is an essential part of learning, we are mindful of how we might support the learners as they traverse the landscape of challenges. We might, for instance, get to know our learners so that we can provide different pathways to suit each one’s learning trajectory.

Learning requires design.

Learning is more likely to happen when structures are provided such that the learner doesn’t even have to think about these and can then focus on the task and the concepts at hand. Part of designing the environment is providing different ways and choices to access the concepts, not just one way, so each learner has his or her way to understanding, rehearsal, and performance.

Learning happens with purposeful and deliberately designed rehearsal – drills are useful in developing physical skills like dribbling a basketball, performing a karate kata, a routine for aesthetic movement. Rehearsal for cognitive ‘moves’ are also useful, when the designer/teacher specifically pays attention to the cognitive actions that the learner will be performing during the rehearsal activity (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006).

Learning is motivated by relevance to the learner. Providing authentic connections that allow learners to cross boundaries between school and life helps the neocortex to cast a wide net for connections, which lead to creative and critical thinking (Goldberg, 2009). When we create opportunities to activate prior knowledge, we are facilitating the learner’s choice of processes and approaches; when we facilitate open-ended, authentic problems in a range of contexts, we facilitate situations where the neocortex is able to find solutions to problems that might be unfamiliar.

Learning is facilitated by skillfully designed experiences, and the one facilitating learning needs to be deliberate. Deliberately designing flexible ways by which learners might approach learning supports personally relevant experiences for all learners.

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Csikszentmihalyi writes that “enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced within a person’s capacity to act” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 50). When learning is designed for deep understanding, the learner experiences something expressed simply in another overused statement, “Learning is fun.”

References

Becker. “Einstein on misattribution; I probably didn’t say that.” Becker’s Online Journal (November 13, 2012). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from http://www.news.hypercrit.net/2012/11/13/einstein-on-misattribution-i-probably-didnt-say-that/.

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

D’Addario, D. “The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time. Salon (Tuesday, August 6, 2013). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from http://www.salon.com/2013/08/06/the_definition_of_insanity_is_the_most_overused_cliche_of_all_time/

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain; Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377

Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 132(2), 297-326. http://dx.doi .org/10.1037/033-2909.132.2.297

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. New York: Skyhorse.

Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain; An educator’s handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.