Some Initial Thoughts on the Well-Designed Learning Experience

Note: I am currently engaged in a line of coursework required for the development and delivery of another online course. While I have taught an online course for the last five years, there are still certain prerequisites for the new work in which I am engaged. Regardless, I like learning and reading about a lot of aspects related to online learning. Here are some  thoughts about the first round of readings that we were were served. The readings included Characteristics of Best Learning Designs from Jay McTighe, a handful of research publications from iNACOL’s National Standards of Quality for Online Courses, and Overcoming Doubts About Online Learning, a report from the Southern Regional Education Board.

Whenever I read documents like those provided in the lesson, I am always reminded of just how overwrought education can sometimes become. I know there exists an always pressing desire make the invisible of teaching visible, to somehow capture all of the complex detail of what happens in a learning environment, where teacher and learner are engaged in a kind of metaphorical, and sometimes literal, dance. For me, it includes some strange alchemy, which means that the ever present urge to break every instructional moment down into its component parts often grows tedious for me.

These readings all contain a certain brand of educationalese that unfortunately pervades so much of our profession. The late Professor Ken Macrorie called it “Engfish,” because it looks deceptively like English but isn’t. While I wouldn’t say that any one of these readings is a terrible purveyor of Engfish, it is certainly sprinkled around a bit. Phrases like, “The online teacher is able to use communication technologies in a variety of mediums and contexts for teaching and learning,” in iNACOL’s National Standards for Quality Online Teaching reads a bit like Engfish to me.

Also, I was struck by how many things I thought were missing, or at least not as explicit as I would have liked, in the readings. Things like, the experience includes the gradual release of teacher presence, fosters a greater sense of self-efficacy, focuses on mastery and not grades, and inherently requires trust. What’s more, I think the best learning experiences are, in some ways, sneaky, packed with learning that is not always clearly articulated or framed at the beginning and sometimes not even completely understood until much later. Lastly, I think the best learning experiences include teachers that gradually grow transparent, and not in that they lay everything bare but how they seem to almost disappear, leaving the student to possibly believe that they did almost everything themselves.

Yet, when I consider the well-designed learning experience from the readings, a few things resonated with me, once I peeled back some of the language. Perhaps chief amongst the criteria is that design is slightly overrated when it comes to teaching and learning. This is also where the roguish part of me would suggest that the truly best teaching and learning experiences always involve more workmanship than design, the kind of handcraftedness that technology is not always readily good at replicating, an openness to the fluid nature of circumstances, material, and student. While the word craftsmanship could be adequately used here, I will invoke word “workmanship” as a kind of homage to David Pye’s collection of essays The Nature And Art of Workmanship. Workmanship, as Pye explains it, is what is required by the teacher in that space between where interaction and exchange happens. It is what we can best hope to impart on any student.

Sadly, I wonder if it is one of the first things to get thrown to the wayside. Quite simply, gaining and refining workmanship is truly difficult, challenging, and requires a firmness of will and resolve that design can disguise.  Too often I hear or read things intended to make us all believe that if something doesn’t work, it is probably the teacher, execution, or material, rarely is it the design.

Still great learning experiences create environments for discovery to happen, which McTighe indirectly suggests across an array of bullet points. As teachers, I am not sure if crafting environments rich in opportunity and discovery is not the single most important thing we can do. It certainly seems right up there with other contenders.

I have often said that it is hard to believe a student will ever find their voice if they are not given some choice. This is another idea that McTighe references directly in one point, under Learning Activites, but also indirectly references in a number of other bullet points. If the environments are truly rich some limited choices are built-in to allow students to do a little wayfinding themselves. However, I have found limiting choice is good. Too many options is just as debilitating as none.

More than any recent insight that I have had recently, I have grown more steadfast in the notion that the best learning experiences involve lots of rehearsal opportunities. I choose the word rehearsal selectively here. I am not talking about practice, although that too has merit. Rehearsal is more focused and preparatory than practice, in my mind. Its connotation is more akin to performance and seems more target-focused. McTighe kind of gets at this with phrases like “trial and error” and “timely feedback,” which is pretty similar to what I am suggesting. However, I like the nuance of rehearsal a lot more.

Both McTighe and the iNACAL document allude to modeling in some fashion, the latter with a more technology use focus. I sometimes think that we human beings have never found a better way of teaching and learning than the master-apprentice model. It is what we mirror in the parent-child relationship, but it was the model used by guilds of all kinds for centuries and continues to be used by craftsman. It is even at the core of tutoring, that supplemental activity used to strengthen student learning and performance. A great teacher I know has said, “You are only ever really teaching when you are one-on-one with a student. The rest of the time you’re just fooling yourself.”

Arguably the most important facet of the best learning experiences, one which I feel like I have written around in the previous paragraphs is flexibility. Both McTighe and iNACOL mention it, but I feel like it never gets enough emphasis. Moreover, it is not an attribute that is typical in design, great design yes, but here in is some of the gap between concepts of design and workmanship, I was on about earlier. As teachers we are always engaged in an effort to hit moving targets while moving ourselves. That alone requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the parts of both teacher and student. As in the dancing metaphor I mentioned at the onset, we should always be trying to bend deeper, stretch further, and, ultimately, reach a little higher.


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