In a compelling video [no longer available], Connie Yowell challenged something at the heart of much modern eduction, the concept of standards and learning objectives as the starting point. As Connie stated in the video,
“We really think that what is wrong with the educational system and why people talk about it as broken is because it is fundamentally starting with the wrong questions. The educational system often now starts with the question of outcome. It starts with, ‘What do we want kids to learn? What are the goals? And what’s the content? What’s the material they need to cover? And everything else is defined by that. It doesn’t almost matter who the kid is so long as we’re going on pace through the content, and reaching those educational standards or those outcomes, cause that’s our starting point.”
It is a thought-provoking challenge to the system that we’ve built. What is the alternative? Yowell suggests that instead of staring with questions about standards and objectives, we begin with the student experience. She states, “Our course question is, ‘What’s the experience we want kids to have?’ So, the core question is around engagement.” As she explains, this requires starting with the individual learner and not a list of standards and objectives.
Contrast a typical lesson planning process with something different, perhaps we can call it a learning experience design, which, if you will humor me, has a wonderful double meaning because it creates the acronym of LED. In other words, a learning experience design is about learners being engaged and motivated to have those “light bulb” moments. That is less about meeting a specific objective and more about the drive to experiment and discover. After all, Thomas Edison, when driven to invent the light bulb, is know for that popular quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He was so engaged that he persevered through 10,000 failed attempts. Now that is engagement! If more learners left schools with that level of drive, tenacity and curiosity; we would not need to worry about gaps in their knowledge; as they would have what it takes to fill those gaps when and if needed in their lives.
Is it possible that we could reconsider the traditional lesson plan, which usually starts with goals and standards? Instead, what if we started with the learner and how she can be deeply engaged to explore the wonders of math, science, literature, music or the communication arts? In such a “learning experience design,” we might consider what sort of experiences would inspire and engage an individual to want to learn about geometry, how to write a persuasive essay, or what the beliefs and practices are in another part of the world. If students have a compelling enough reason to learn something, then educators will have student motivation as a powerful ally in learning and not a foe to be overcome and manipulated with inauthentic carrots and sticks.
As it stands, Yowell critiques that, “we decontextualize learning.” We teach discrete math facts apart from any authentic need to know it, often using a justification like, “you will need to know it for high school or the next level of education,” which essentially makes school a self-serving organization and not something that truly prepares and equips for life and learning beyond the confines of a school building.
What if we set aside the traditional approach to lesson planning that starts with a few learning objectives? We don’t have to ignore them…just not start with them. What if we instead started with a thoughtful learner analysis, including careful consideration about the learner’s motivation, interests, need to play and wonder, their drive to experience and experiment? What if we start our planning with questions about how to engage each learner in rich and authentic experiences?
The truth is that amazing teachers already do this, but it is despite the broader outcome and standard-based system. What would happen if we re-imagined the entire school with such a mindset? Imagine the possibilities!