Category Archives: Shared Vision for Learning

What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

The Process

learn-939239_960_720Gather a group of stakeholders: student, teachers, administrators, parents, community members. 

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.

 

Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.

 

I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, parents, and community members. Only a few participants have ever stated that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two and a half decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what has made your own good learning experiences good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to ensure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?

 

(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students, teachers, or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)

A Plain English Instructional Model

We’ve been working hard to help Maine’s schools adopt a “More Verbs, Fewer Nouns” stance when thinking about the technology in our schools. We want schools to be sure they are focused more on what they want to do with the devices than with the devices themselves. There is no doubt that there is a lot of “noun” work that needs to happen to make the learning (the “verb” work) happen, but we want to make sure that when we talk about tools and devices that it is in service to the kinds of learning experiences we provide for students.

One way we’re trying to further that conversation is by introducing what we call a plain English instructional model. That model includes the following components:

  • Tech for Foundational Knowledge: How can we help students learn the basics?
  • Tech for Practice and Deepening Understanding: What tools and resources help students develop some fluency with those basics?
  • Tech for Using Knowledge: How can we contextualize learning and make learning engaging and meaningful? How can students use their knowledge? What is the role for creating and creativity, and for project-based learning.
  • Tech for Assessment, Evidence of Learning & Feedback: How can technology help us capture what students know and can do, and provide feedback to help drive continuous improvement?
  • Student Motivation & Engagement: How do teachers ensure that students are mentally and physically engaged? How can teachers create the conditions for student self-motivation?

This instructional model is not intended to replace any general or content specific instructional model that a school has already adopted. In fact, it is quick work to do a crosswalk between those models and this one.

The goal of this Plain English Instructional Model it to provide a framework around which educators and school leaders can have a conversation (a plain English conversation!) about teaching and learning and the role of technology in pedagogy and instruction.

 

In the next post, we describe the advantages of a Plain English Instructional Model.