Educators as Learning Architects

Teaching is both an art and a science. Teachers design learning just as architects design structures. A structure stands firm and sturdy because architects and their teams thoughtfully designed it for both form and function. They purposefully chose materials to support the ultimate design and functional goals of the structure. They methodically constructed the building, beginning with the foundation and working their way up to the roof. And then they inspected every inch of the building to make sure it met all requirements and codes. To inhabit a functional space in which we can move around and live, work, or play is magical. Yet, it’s the result of the deliberate, time-tested design process of an accomplished architect. 

Intentional Instructional Design: A Blueprint for Successful Outcomes 

As teachers, our process is not much different. We begin with learning goals—our foundation. We then provide a frame by identifying a real-world issue for students to address. From there, we choose the appropriate learning tools to construct knowledge and skills. And once our lesson is built, we assess the experience to see how well it compelled students toward achieving the learning goals.

In instruction, intentional design can yield impressive gains in student achievement. The secret to realizing these gains is to front-load the lesson design portion of the teaching and learning process. Just as an architect uses a blueprint to know what the actual building will look like, when you are intentional about designing your instruction specifically for student achievement, then you know what the end result will look like. Architects design and oversee the creation of buildings. As learning architects, we design instruction and oversee the creation of futures.

One of the first steps toward gaining an architect’s perspective is to understand the difference between deep learning and surface learning. Preparing students to be future-ready requires us to focus on deep learning. Let’s consider the differences between the two (see Table 1). Surface learners tend to concentrate on facts and memorization. They tend to be more anxious and disengaged as they rush to retain information for a test. Conversely, deep learners use knowledge and skills to interact with content. They create arguments, solve real-world problems, and think critically about information. Deep learners tend to be more engaged with their subject matter, which leads to increased long-term retention. The table below compares the two types of learning.

Problem-Solving Teaching 

Let’s take a look at what future graduates need to succeed in school, work, and life. Notice in Table 2 (below) that the highest priority skill is complex problem solving, and by 2020, critical thinking and creativity will round out the top three. For learning architects, the process of designing blueprints to drive deeper learning incorporates all of these important, future-oriented instructional facets and defines the transformation we need to make as educators to best prepare our students for their careers and lives beyond school. Providing students with real-world, complex problem-based tasks creates opportunities for them to experience and learn 21st-century competencies. And in doing so, we as educators begin a practice of problem-solving teaching.

John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, defines problem-solving teaching as, “The act of defining or determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; or using multiple perspectives to uncover issues related to a particular problem, designing an intervention plan, and then evaluating the outcome.” His recent research ranked problem-solving teaching No. 21 out of 195 influences on student achievement, with an effect size of .63. A synthesis of research by Robert Marzano—an education researcher, speaker, and trainer—also revealed a significant effect size (.54) on student understanding and application of knowledge. Both Hattie and Marzano believe problem solving should require students to apply previously learned knowledge and skills. When problem solving is intended to stimulate discovery or used as inquiry-based learning without intentional instruction, the effect size decreases to .15. As Hattie emphasizes, it is the intentional teaching of how to solve problems that is essential for accelerating student learning and preparing students for their future.

Blueprint for Deeper Learning

I am a firm believer in the benefits of having a well thought-out plan—one with concrete steps to accomplish clear goals and a vivid picture of the final outcome. To achieve such a plan, a blueprint for deeper learning should be organized into four successive parts:

1. Foundation for learning:  Identify focus standards to inform learning targets and success criteria. Understanding the level of both student thinking and working is required to achieve desired learning outcomes. 

2. Framing the problem: Develop a real-world problem, challenge, or issue for which students must provide a solution by the end of the learning experience—typically four tasks scaffold the learning that enables them to achieve a final product, presentation, or performance. 

3. Construction of knowledge: Design intentional instruction that includes a driving question and a task opening to hook students and ignite curiosity. Provide direct instruction to guide thinking, along with guided and independent practice with evidence-based strategies that will promote deeper learning for all students.

4. Inspection of results:  Define criteria for proficient work that informs our teaching and provides students with feedback to help inform their learning.  Clarifying learning goals and outcomes while providing feedback during learning is essential for success with more rigorous learning experiences.   

These four parts, taken together, represent a learning experience designed to engage students in work that is purposeful, challenging, and motivational. 

Being an architect of deeper learning is a way of bringing back the joy of teaching. It’s about fostering more profound, more meaningful learning. And maybe most importantly, it’s about honoring the abilities of professional educators to design and create learning opportunities that invigorate our classrooms, our schools, and our districts.

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Lissa Pijanowski’s new book, Architects of Deeper Learning: Intentional Design for High-Impact Instruction, is available on Amazon and will be launched at the 2018 Model Schools Conference on June 24–27. Join us this month in Orlando to learn more about becoming an architect of deeper learning and become part of the #AODL community.