Out with Lesson Plans & In with Learning Experience Designs!

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.

LEDContrast 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!

2 Replies to “Out with Lesson Plans & In with Learning Experience Designs!”

  1. Michelle

    I think that this is a natural part of what teachers do. (As I type that I realize that I hate when people say ‘I already do that’) But in this case I sense that a majority of teachers first consider the experience of the student. At times to a detriment of the students learning for fear of the student being pushed out of their comfort zone in a number of ways. The focus on an objective or standard requires more intention and therefore is less of a habit of mind. This focus, however, helps to ensure that at the end of the day we have headed somewhere. I will have multiple pathways for my learners to take and I engage them along the way. I plan my lessons with their needs in mind. It is up to the system to ensure that the standards I am using are authentic and will support students long term.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the reply, Michelle. Your reply seems to accurately represent the dominant viewpoint in education today. I do, however, want to take another attempt at articulating the distinction between what you are describing and a student-engagement approach. You note that this is a natural part of what teachers do. Yes, a learner analysis is often a part of good lesson planning. Also, I agree that many teachers do use a hook or introduction, which is supposed to be an attempt to gain the attention of the learner. However, as I understand the video clip (and my reflections in the post), both represent a significantly and qualitatively different perspective. First, hooks at the beginning of lessons are often planned after having the the learning objectives developed or identified. So, it is still and “objectives” first focus. Second, the alternate focus represented in the video and my post is truly about engagement first, not about a specific learning objective. To get a sense of the distinction, it may be helpful to think about school’s that embrace this alternative on a school-wide basis. Examples of engagement-first contexts that I’ve seen in person or read about include places like High Tech High School, Montessori schools, a number of project-based learning schools, some of the schools in the democratic and free school environments, as well as as some of the emerging game-based learning schools. In some project-based learning schools, for example, objectives and standards are not even discussed until there is a learner-developed project. A learning coach might then work with the student to make sure that their project also aligns with certain standards (so as to ensure that they eventually meet graduation requirements). This is also evident in much of the informal learning of people. For example, consider the person that learns about soil and insects amid the goal of having a rich and fruitful home garden. It did not start with a stated learning objective about insects, apart from an authentic context. It started with an interest in gardening and a desire to try it out for oneself. This authentic activity then suddenly required this new knowledge about insects in order to address a problem in the context of that activity. That distinction between contextualized objectived and decontextualized objectives may also be a helpful way to consider the distinction between what I am representing as a lesson plan approach and a LED approach.

      A traditional lesson-based class typically starts with the assumption that students need to be able to use the quadratic equation, for example, whether student truly have a deep desire to learn or or even have sense of why one would need to learn it. When first learning it, they may not ever be exposed to authentic contexts in which knowing and using the quadratic equation is necessary. In that sense, it is a decontextualized objective-first approach. The teacher proceeds to devote energy to helping students be able to use the quadratic equation. This alternative does not start at this same place. It instead starts with immersive experiences that may eventually lead students to solve a problem that happens to require learning the quadratic equation. At that point, the learner seeks out help from peers, online resources, a teacher, other experts or someone else in order to learn the quadratic equation and solve whatever immersive problem is driving their new interest in the quadratic equation. This is an approach that is often less systematic and leaves ample room for “gaps in learning.” It is less about making sure students meet a list of objectives and standards, and more identifying ways for the learners to be deeply engaged in something, and about cultivating a deep desire to learn and skills in how to learn something when they want or need it.

      This is not an approach that is likely to be embraced be the majority of teachers and learning organizations.

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