Thinking about Learning Part 2: Designing for Learning

In the first post, I reflected on what learning is and what it means as an individual to be a life-long learner.  In this post, I tackle what learning might mean for us as instructors and instructional designers. 

Defining learning seems like an insurmountable task.  Ultimately, we’re trying to find a definition for what is an extremely personal and contextual experience.  To me, a self-defined life-long learner, it’s like trying to define love.  There are generic definitions out there that can easily be thrown into the ring and fit some people, but I am doubtful of their ability to capture what it actually means to each and every person.

It’s worth starting with the very basics of learning in order to tackle this challenge.  Learning at its most simple and watered down form, is change.  This change can be internal (e.g. thoughts) or external (actions).  This change can be intentional such as acquiring a foreign language or unintentional such as acquiring your first language (at least early on, it is not necessarily conscious).  The change can be proactive such as training your body to endure a marathon or it can be reactive, instinctively retracting your hand when something gets too hot.  The changes can be multiple or singular in nature.  The changes could also be temporary or permanent.  When learning occurs, a change has occurred in the learner that may or may not be permanent.  The change can be formal (classroom), informal (looking something up), and coincidental (occurring without intention).  And there isn't always direct correlation between setting and experience.  That is, seeking purposeful change (going to class) could easily result in coincidental change (learning about something entirely unrelated to what you set out to learn, e.g. how much gum is under the desk you sit at).

Despite that all kinds of learning occurs in groups, learning is largely situated in the individual and the context which he or she brings to a given moment.  Learning is still an individual experience made meaningful by the individual's own frame(s).  Two people may be able to learn the same thing, but that speaks more to the common experiences (and learning) of the two humans that help them learn something new.  That is, two people in a graduate class have many shared similar experiences and are able to both learn something—not necessarily because they are part of a group per se, but because their experiences may have led them down similar paths.  For instance, they have both assimilated (to varying degrees) the skills required to show they are competent to pass high school (or acquire their GED)—which doesn’t mean they know the same skills since there is still a lot of variation of experience and learning that goes on in elementary, middle, and high school.  They have also acquired the skill sets (again, which could be very different) to acquire a bachelor’s degree.  Within all those experiences, even if they are extremely different, lie many overlapping experiences.  They have a fair share of tacit knowledge about how the system works (or rather, how they as individuals work the particular system).   Thus when they both learn something, they may have learned it and assimilate different things.  That learning experience (change) exists individually in both of them, not mutually.  Another way to think of this is the following.  If John and Jane both learn that 2+2=4, they each hold that model in their own head, able to reproduce it without the other person present or invovled.  They learned it individually in their minds, even if they were both physically present.  Actual group knowledge would seem to only be capable of existing if telepathy were possible. 

This is where teaching gets tricky.  Because we're teaching to many individuals, but we're often referring to them and thinking of them as a group.  We refer to them in their entirety instead (the class, the course, "them") instead of individually.  While inevitably some reader will say, "that's not true, I think of my students as individuals," our means of referring to them are as a group and we often shape the class around managing, guiding, and facilitating the group.  Occasionally, we defer to the individual (e.g. student-teacher conferences) but that's the exception to the semester engagement, not the rule (unless it's an independent study).  

Given the multiple facets of learning--some which are objective and some of which are subjective--it remains a challenge to capture it and to plan for it in any legitimate sense, but only superficially.  It reminds me of what a Professor Michael Drout, said about writing and audience.  One cannot really write for his or her "audience," if the audience is more than a handful of people because it is impossible to hold those individuals within the mind while crafting.  Crafting learning experiences tend to be the same way.  We can try to craft for the group, but ultimately, we can't craft a learning experience that fits right with all the nuances of any individual (This is part of why adaptive learning programs are all the hype because they--in very limited capacities right now--hone into the individual learner, recognizing--or at least trying to--that he or she has a specific context and experience).  

Shaping learning experiences beyond the individual is extremely limiting and complicated.  And yes, many instructors are successful at it, but nearly all of them can pinpoint or identify a class that it just didn't work out.  Something didn't click.  

All of this is posited even before opening the Pandora’s box of learning styles, types, modes, modalities or whatever other buzz word we want to throw in there.  Therefore, all elements of learning can affect the instructional process, but in all likelihood, only a  fraction of said elements are going to be acknowledged, never mind addressed in teaching.  That learning still occurs speaks more to the adaptability and learning dynamics of the learners more than the purposeful practice of the instructors.  That may sound like a harsh judgment of instructors and instructional designers but it has more to do with the systems in which they are placed to create the best learning experience, despite a range of variables that must contend with, making them akin to meteorologists, accountable for the weather when all they are trying to do is predict outcomes when there is so much to account for.  Because in the end, instructors and instructional designers are assigned to create or help create learning experiences that are for a large audience (bigger than a handful of people) and not a singular person. 

This is not to say it's a lost cause, but it is one that I think we're currently flailing with.  At the college level, we complicate an individual's learning in many unnecessary ways.  For example, many of us dictate the terms of learning to the student without taking into consideration who the students are (except at a very superficial level).  We often say that it is the student's responsibility and if things don't match up, then it's the student's responsibility to change classes.  Of course, we ignore that most instructors wait until the last possible moment (the first day of class) to share anything more about the course than the generic course description.  Thus, after the student has arranged his or her schedule to make sense, the student is left either trying to re-arrange his or her schedule again at the last minute or deal with the class even if it doesn't fit.  That doesn't sound like we're setting the student up for learning but for failure.  Why put such unnecessary obstacles in students way?

There are ways we can find to individualize the course without detracting the from the quality.  In the end, this is probably going to mean a bit more work in terms of how we craft our courses, but it's also going to mean a better reward in terms of student success.  If we continue to craft for the group and not for the individual learning, we're going to continue to be challenged by other nontraditional forms of education that have recognized this and are impacting education.  

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