• The Spark

Learning by Design

Author:  Lissa Pijanowski, Ed.D., Senior Fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education  | 04/26/2017

Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.
W.B. Yeats

As educators we all recognize the importance of sparking a student’s curiosity and motivation to learn. We know that when students are provided with opportunities to undertake meaningful tasks to solve real-world problems engagement soars. So, why isn’t this type of learning experience the norm? What are the barriers to creating learning environments that are authentic, challenging, and engaging?

Education today is mired with the pressure to “cover” standards to pass a “test” that measures proficiency. Unfortunately, curriculum and instruction have been stifled by strict pacing guides and a focus on discrete learning. I collaborate with educators weekly who reminisce about a time when teachers were empowered to design learning that was joyful. Teachers shared lessons that were authentic, hands-on, challenging, and purposeful. These were lessons that addressed more than standards; they focused on many of the soft skills we know are critical for student success in college, career, and life—skills such as being able to collaborate, create, solve problems, communicate effectively, and persevere in tasks.

I have also witnessed many talented, hard-working teachers who are able to create the joyful teaching and learning described above. They are most adored by their students and recognized among their faculty as the “go-getter” always striving for more. We would all argue that all students should have this joyful learning experience. Take a moment to reflect about yourself as a student. 

Reflect: Think back to an engaging lesson that you remember. How did it make you feel? What did you learn? What words describe the learning experience? What did your teacher do to set you up for success?

Become a Learning Designer

There are actions we can take now to empower teachers to create meaningful learning by becoming Learning Designers. Rather than simply planning lessons in a 2 x 2 box, what if we viewed our work as designing learning experiences? Every teacher is a leader and every teacher should be given permission to think outside the box, innovate, and create opportunities for all students to experience success.
So, what are the design elements that lead to great learning experiences?

Compelling Content: Beyond discrete standards, teachers have the opportunity to connect content and performance expectations to create real-world problems or situations for students to solve. Learning experiences that offer authentic, interdisciplinary tasks provide relevance and promote curiosity for students.

Learning Goals and Success Criteria: Any great lesson begins with clear goals for what students need to know and be able to do. Goals, coupled with criteria for success, should be communicated to students in a manner that clarifies expectations and serves as a guide for self-assessment.

Collaborative Culture: Learning is social and the purposeful inclusion of collaboration, throughout the learning process, is highly engaging for students.  Collaborative opportunities have endless design options such as flexible groups, partners, and online experts.

Student Empowerment: Student ownership in learning increases exponentially when students are given choice over how to show mastery or create a final product or performance. Additionally, inviting students to provide input into what they learn and how they want to engage with the content allows them to play the role of co-designer.

Authentic Tools and Resources: A variety of tools and resources, both print and digital, should be leveraged to create a final product as well as throughout the learning process. Providing a variety of tools offers students choice and emphasizes process over product. Digital tools and strategies such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, and production tools offer rich experiences that are highly engaging and honor how students like to learn and create.

Intentional Instruction: Based on the learning goals, evidence-based strategies should be carefully selected in order to have the greatest impact. Use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model provides structure for direct instruction and modeling (Show Them), guided practice (Help Them), and enabling students to become independent learners (Let Them).

Focus on Literacy: Regardless of the content, reading, writing, and speaking should be incorporated into every learning experience. Expose students to multiple texts, primary and secondary sources, and online resources. Encourage students to engage in academic discussions, collaborative conversations, and healthy debate. Engage students in opportunities to write and write often (e.g. lab reports, technical manuals, narrative stories, research summaries, opinion papers, or interactive student notebooks).

Feedback for Learning: Throughout the learning experience there are feedback loops to give students guidance on their progress toward the learning goals. This feedback can be teacher-to-student, student-to-student, or self-assessment. Feedback is formative and provides students with the safety and security that they can take risks and try new things without the fear of failure.

Instructional Design should lead to learning that is authentic, challenging, and engaging.  We need Learning Designers who are intentional about incorporating design elements, such as the eight listed above, to create experiences for students that they will remember long after graduation. And we need leaders who empower teachers to make it happen!

Join us at the 25th Model Schools Conference in Nashville, TN, on June 25–28, to learn more about becoming a Learning Designer.

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