Why do we call them lessons? Or units? Or trainings? Or PD sessions? When what they really are is learning experiences. And we, as teachers, are designers of those learning experiences.

Connecting Learning Experiences

I love learning (hence the name of this blog) and designing learning experiences (or opportunities) for others is, in my opinion, one of the most fun ways to really geek out about learning. Over the past few months, I have been very fortunate to facilitate learning in a really wide variety of contexts: from admin teams for private, local schools in Singapore, to college-level keynotes, to large and small groups of international school teachers during weekday inservice, weekend and after school PD, to large and small groups of parents, to international school students, and long term admin and teacher professional development in the US.

It has been very interesting for me to see how many connections there are between all of these different groups, and how my experiences with each one prepare me for the next. Even when I think there’s no possible overlap or relationship between the two sessions, they are actually much more similar than I would have anticipated. And not only is the content interconnected (for example creativity is a big theme), but the process for building understanding is fairly consistent.

The First “Aha” Moment

I have to admit, when I plan these sessions I don’t always think about why I’m doing what I’m doing. Writing that sounds negligent or lazy, but it’s not, it just feels like a natural process, perhaps since I’ve been doing it for a while that it’s just become habit… However, last month, while working with Marysville teachers, while were talking about growth mindset and making learning fun with teachers, I realized that I tend to follow a very similar structure when I design learning experiences – for teachers, for parents, for students, for admin, for everyone!

It was one of those “aha” moments where I went back over the elements of the lesson and realized that there was a purposeful structure to how it was designed, and that although it ended up being organized in the order we used, it certainly wasn’t planned that way!

Designing Learning Experiences: A 9-Step Process

Since the teachers were interested, I made an overview slide within our presentation so they could see all of the pieces of the lesson they just experienced at a glance:

So here’s the lesson outline:

1. Share a teaser or inspirational item (in this case it was a video) to get participants thinking about the big ideas for the session.

A little background on this particular video: the one we used could work for lots of different topics (case and point the slide pictured above is actually for the admin training day, where their focus was on student centered learning, but the teachers watched the same video and followed the same structure to focus on growth mindset). The topics are very similar, for sure, but I like the idea of not re-inventing the wheel every time. A good video can be used in lots of different ways and places.

2. Connect the big ideas from the teaser to personal experience.

In this case, our video was about learning (specifically how to get better at it), so we asked participants to think about an experience they are having being a learner – in particular something they are really excited and passionate about.

3. Model the process of connecting to personal experience for the participants.

For this session I shared a favorite lifting story (that I need to write a blog post about soon!), inspired by this post (which, in the awesomeness of the way the internet works, I heard about on a podcast, on the treadmill in a tiny hotel gym in Addis Ababa, when I was there for the first Learning2 Africa conference in 2015).

4. Provide an opportunity to participants to document their thinking at this point in time, as an entry to the actual content to come next.

For this activity we did a T-chart. We asked participants to think about their current learning for fun on one side (part 2 above) and current learning that is forced on the other side.

5. Content

In this case we used the same structure for both teachers and admin. Teachers were focused on growth mindset, so they watched this video. Admin were focused on student-centered learning so they read this article and followed this text protocol. This is the “meat” of our session. All of the content we want to deliver comes here, in less than 10 minutes. The rest of the hour is devoted to connecting to the idea, building individual understanding, reflecting on the learning, and bridging to the next activity topic.

6. Connecting personal experience to content

For this section, we asked participants to reflect on the content from part 5 and connect back to their own learning experience. One of my favorite things I overheard was one teacher saying: “When I’m working on my hobby I always want to improve so I keep at it, nut when I’m forced to learn I give up easily and get frustrated. I think all I need to do is change my mindset when it comes learning with technology and I will enjoy it more and learn more.” Um… YES!

7. Personalize the content so participants have ownership over their learning

For the teachers, we had them search for a growth mindset infographic that resonated with them, and that they could post in their classroom (side note, my favorite image that I always use in presentations is from COETAIL-graduate, Learning2 Leader for the 2015 Asia conference, and my current NIST colleague, Reid Wilson, which, bizarrely enough, I didn’t realize until I facilitated this session). For the admin, we asked them to brainstorm the elements of a student-centered classroom, calling on best practice from both their experience and the content we shared with them. We actually did this in two layers, the first focusing on a “traditional” student-centered classroom (no tech) and then going back to the same brainstorm and looking at it with a “tech-rich” lens, to see if there is any difference (check out the results here).

8. Highlight practical connections to everyday work

For the teachers, we had them brainstorm phrases or strategies that they can use to bring a growth mindset into their classroom (using this perfect infographic from Sylvia Duckworth as our inspiration). We also took all of those ideas and put them up on chart paper so we could collect and reference them throughout the week’s worth of trainings and then share back at the end. For the admin we highlighted a great quote (naturally from the Great Quotes About Learning and Change Flickr pool) that connects us right back to our students.

9. Summarize the content and bridge to the next activity

In the final stage of the lesson, we take a few minutes to really summarize all of the learning, and highlight how it connects to the next activity. For the teachers, we used a Google Draw template for them to sort some key ideas because they would be learning about Google Draw later in the day and this was their chance to see a “finished product”. For the admin we highlighted another great Sylvia Duckworth infographic that focuses on student engagement which was a key theme later in the day.

The Second “Aha” Moment

But wait, there’s more!

Realizing that this was a process (and it’s not “officially” always 9 steps, these examples just worked out that way) was just the first realization. As Chrissy and I were planning the admin training day, and then reviewing it on Google Hangout with Jeff and Ben who would actually facilitate the training (this is how a global company operates when we can’t all be in the same room at the same time!), I realized that just because these steps line up for both trainings, we don’t actually develop the learning experiences in that order.

Developing Learning Experiences: The Process Behind the Design

Actually the development process looks more like this:

1. Start with the goals

As anyone who’s ever planned with the UbD or backwards design model, we always start with what we want participants to know and be able to do. This is our goal, or in the graphic above, our content.

2. Bring it into the participants’ ZPD

Once we know our content goals, we can think about how participants may be personally connected to that idea. How can we make it approachable for them? What connections can they make? How can they have a personal introduction to a big idea, so that when the big idea comes, they aren’t blindsided, they’re prepped and almost waiting to hear it because it’s so close in their zone of proximal development.

3. Document

Once we recognize the entry point for participants, we think about how we can solidify this connection to the big ideas through documentation. We always try to make this a hands-on experience so that participants are actively doing something with their current understanding.

4. Approach

Then we think about how we might lead up to the big idea. What resources or inspirations do we have that will immediately engage participants in thinking about our big idea? I use videos or images a lot, but of course these can be all sorts of things, anything from mini-activities to short articles, too.

5. Consolidate

Now we have the real meat of the lesson complete, but we need to make sure we are really confident and sure that the big ideas from the content are clear, so we want to plan something that consolidates the thinking. This is our chance to connect the personal experiences with the content.

6. Personalize

At this point, we’re feeling like participants have had a chance to really work through the content, but we want to make sure that participants are feeling ownership over the idea, so we plan an element of the lesson that highlights personalized documentation or appropriation of the big idea. Again, we like this to be an active experience.

7. Practicalities

Next we want to plan an experience that helps participants make a practical connection to the content so that it’s something that makes sense in their context.

8. Role model

This is when we usually realize that we need to role model the first activity!

9. Summarize & Bridge

The last thing we think about is how this big idea connects to the next activity. In writing this, I’m thinking that we actually probably are thinking about this right at the beginning along with the goals for this session, but we might not actually take the time to plan this section until the very end when we feel like this lesson is in good shape and we’re ready to start planning the next.

Final Thoughts

So, maybe this is all super obvious. It’s not anything more than I would do as a classroom teacher on a regular basis, but I guess I never thought about it in quite this way before.

As a very type-a, liner thinker, I may have surprised myself a bit in recognizing that I don’t actually plan these learning experiences in order. When I plan for students, I always start with the end in mind, identifying the learning goals and standards as the first step, but I don’t know if I jump around quite as much as I have in this example. This shows me that as long as I have a concrete understanding of what I want participants to know and be able to do at the end of the session, and an expectation for a variety of learning activities and experiences throughout the session, I can get there in a variety of ways.

I also appreciate that this was just a one-hour session, and we follow the same type of process for all sections of the day. It’s a lot of work, even though it’s tons of fun, and it’s good to appreciate how much effort goes into designing every learning experience for your participants, whether they be students, parents, teachers, admin or anyone else!

One of the things I really like that we’re doing with these slides, now that we recognized that it is a process, is we’re giving them to the teacher and the admin as a planning process format to think about their classroom lessons and their staff meetings. Perhaps if teachers or admin haven’t thought about this process this deeply before, it could be a good opportunity to reflect on why we do what we do.

And quite possibly, to recognize that learning isn’t the delivery of content. It’s the experience of content-rich ideas, activities, processing time and reflection.

We need to be creating signature learning experiences for our students:

We have a hypothesis that signature experiences contain a vital set of insights for those of us who are designing “schools” and learning environments. Signature experiences motivate students to keep learning, to take initiative, and to carve out a future path for themselves and the world around them.

But among the friends we informally polled, most of whom are college educated, they reported having remarkably few signature experiences throughout their K-12 education. Some reported having none at all. Even more interesting, few of the signature experiences cited actually occurred inside the formal classroom.

How are you a designer of learning experiences for your students, teachers, admin or parents? Does your process look like this? Do you jump around as much as I’ve explained here or are you more linear?

Image Credits

Designing Learning Experiences by Kim Cofino, Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr

9 thoughts on “Designing Learning Experiences

  1. This is a great design process. Love the fact that it ties in with UbD since our entire curriculum is built around that. The teaser video is great! I’ve seen success with similar videos through 3 Act Math. @polonerd

  2. I absolutely love your quote, “Recognize that learning isn’t the delivery of content, it’s the experience of content – rich ideas, activities, processing time and reflection.” My school has had a big push the past couple of years, as we prepared to move into Common Core and follow more AVID and project based lesson planning strategies, in exactly that methodology of teaching. So often the teacher is no longer only the delivery system for information but a personal coach for students in discovering the information for themselves in a variety of ways using various technologies, peer groupings, the scores of information now at their fingertips throughout the internet, and more hands-on type projects that many educational institutions are moving toward. It is such an exciting time to be an educator – and a student as well for that matter (even if our students don’t always understand or recognize that)! For so many decades both work and school often produced outcomes in which one’s responsibilities were usually very routine, outcomes often only had one possibility, and thinking was very much a “left brain” dominate activity. However, the world is rapidly changing and what teachers, professors, and employers alike often want now is innovation, creativity, and multiple outcomes – a very “right brain” type of thinking. Making learning an “experience with content” and not just a “delivery of content” can make all of the difference in the world to today’s students. Students need engagement, challenge, creativity, and uncharted territory offered to them on a regular basis to help prepare them for our ever-changing work place. In discussing your typical 9 steps in presenting a lesson/unit, I often found myself smiling as I read your thoughts because I realized that your break down is exactly what many of my lessons/units often look like. As a teacher putting together a lesson/unit plan has become such second nature in so many ways I guess I haven’t stopped to think about the steps I am actually trying to get the students through. Your steps in involving connection I feel as a Social Studies teacher are especially important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered the question, “Why does this dead dude matter to me today?”. I agree with you that the steps are often interchangeable as long as by the completion of the lesson/unit you have accomplished all of them. I often find myself in Social Studies revisiting the “connection steps” and constantly trying to personalize content to my students. Excellent article, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I agree with you that a teacher should have a concrete understanding of what he or she wants participants to know and be able to do at the end of the session. One should always have a goal and stay focused. That’s what many teachers are lacking. Thank you very much for your article.

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