Saturday, April 19, 2008

What does it really mean to "engage the learner"?

For a number of years now, I start my courses with the following activity (stated differently for different contexts):
1) Describe your best learning experience. Think about your most valuable, effective learning experience and in at least 250 but no more than 500 words share your learning story. When you write your "Best Learning Experience" story, don’t editorialize or try to explain why you think it was your best learning experience, just tell the story. After everyone shares her or his story, we will analyze the stories.

2) Analyze each person's "Best Learning Experience" story. Take time to dig deep to discover why each particular learning experience was so special. This will probably require you to ask probing questions of each person. The goal of this analysis is to uncover a set of underlying strategies or strategic themes that seem to be at work behind the scenes in these stories.

3) Compile strategies and themes into a list of Common Instructional Values. When you design learning experiences and opportunities for others it is very important to consider what you instructionally value as a learner and educator. Your values -- based on your experience in the world and on what you know about how people think and learn (from the study of conceptual, theoretical, and empirical literature) -- should be reflected in your design and selection of instructional approaches and strategies. For example, if you believe that people learn best in collaborative settings, then your instructional design should include opportunities for collaborative learning. So, let's get our values about these things out on the table -- they will provide us with a foundation for the rest of the work we do in this course.

Using the story analyses that you did last week, work together to derive a list of common instructional values that seem to be in use throughout most of the learning experiences. For example, do each (or most) of the stories involve a hands-on component? If so, it is a common instructional value...part of the learning experience that made that experience so valuable and effective. Note: assessment of your instructional design projects throughout the course and program will include an examination of the effective incorporation of these values.

What I have found interesting is how consistent the types of stories are, and the resulting lists are. Here is an example of a "common instructional values" list:

Learner-centered --

Learning activities: are relevant, meaningful, personal, and motivating; require learners to be self-directed, self-regulating, autonomous, intentional, and metacognitively aware; and develop skills and disposition needed for lifelong learning.

Educators: facilitate and guide learning; support students in taking ownership, responsibility, and control over their learning; help students with prior knowledge activation, goal setting, action planning, and reflection; and are culturally-responsive, honoring diversity.

Learning environments include: flexible physical structures, access to a variety of resources, and tools and rubrics that encourage self-assessment and process/goal-achievement monitoring.

Contextual --
Learning activities are: authentic, real world, challenging, relevant, context-specific, complex, ill-structured, project-based, problem-based, enculturation, situated, and anchored.

Educators are: focused on professional preparation and identity; and attentive to the development of students’ confidence and self-efficacy to participate in the professional community of practice.

Learning environments include: simulations, immersion, problems, projects, case studies, service, communities of practice, enculturation.

Active --
Learning activities: are hands-on, generative, dynamic, exploratory, experiential, engaging; involve students in inquiry, discovery, problem solving, decision making, and expression; and culminate in the creation, construction, and building of products, or a performance.

Educators: provide opportunities for questioning, knowledge building, practice, and experimentation; conduct demonstrations; model performance; and engage in think-alouds.

Learning environments include: materials, labs, simulations, case studies, role-playing, and projects.

Social --

Learning activities involve: collaboration, teamwork, group work, cooperation, discourse, discussion, negotiation, debate, conversation, communication, sharing, storytelling, working together, reciprocal teaching, peer teaching/mentoring/coaching, peer review, and co-creation.

Educators: establish teacher and social presence, participate, facilitate discussions and community building, provide coaching and mentoring, and cultivate the social context.

Learning environments include: space for small group work, communication and collaboration tools, rubrics that encourage balanced voices and contributions, and access to external communities.

Supportive --

Learning activities are: culturally responsive, differentiated, fun, entertaining, and scaffolded.

Educators: are humanistic, caring, non-judgmental, competent, credible, well-organized, passionate, inspirational, enthusiastic, and attentive; minimize frustration; provide clear and complete directions/information, constructive feedback, coaching, and mentoring; and honor diversity and creativity.

Learning environments are: safe, non-threatening, celebratory, accommodating, flexible, equitable, resource rich, and multimodal.

So, my thinking is that an "engaging" learning experience requires the experience to be learner-centered, contextual, active, social, and supportive. However, I think you can have all of those things going on and still not create an engaging learning experience (although you have a better chance of it). I think about all of the students' stories over the years, and there is something more that just doesn't seem to be completely captured in the resulting lists of common instructional values. The students' learning experiences (which they might describe as "engaging") seem to be comprised of happenings/occurrences that reflect both an episodic uniqueness and a structured order...there is an ineffable qualitative character that is enjoyed, providing the basis for experienced value and aesthetic appreciation. [Note: My digital story describing my best learning experience is an example of this sort of experience.]

So, how do we engage the learner? A learning experience should be learner-centered, contextual, active, social, and supportive...but we (educators, instructional designers) also need to look at what is experienced by learners and think about how to enhance that (and I can't help but think that we can be helped a lot in this quest by considering what we know about the experience of art, music, theatre, and literature...the emotional and cognitive journey those experiences can take us on).

For a much more in-depth exploration and explanation of these ideas, please visit Pat Parrish's website -- I consider him to be an expert in the area of aesthetic principles for instructional design, and you will be able to access some of his writings via his site. (Or Google him...he has articles published on this topic.)

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