On a voyage of discovery

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Here's the proposition. What if a lesson were like a mystery box? What if, instead of knowing what they were going to learn, your learners embarked on a journey of discovery, surprised at the outcome?

It's not the way we do it, I know. We explain what we're going to achieve and how we're going to achieve it. If lessons seem like a mystery box to learners, it's because their lecturer has lost the plot somewhere.

Further education has always been innovative. Technology has enabled us to make huge strides in fitting learning to an individual's needs in terms of pace and learning styles. We appreciate learners are sophisticated; we appreciate the need to offer edutainment, to motivate, and inspire. We're always on the look-out for new ideas.

There's been useful research on human-computer interaction which may have implications for us. The design of applications has always been centred on efficiency and effectiveness. Like education. Designers have discovered that, however efficient and effective their mobile phone applications were, they weren't doing what the customer wanted them to do. Like education? There was a difference in designing for efficiency, and designing for the human experience. Attention now in the computer industry is focused on "experience design".

For anyone who has ever taught a class, or written a programme, experience design makes absolute sense. There's the product, and then there's the way that it is received - the way that it works, or doesn't work, in practice. We're good at adapting our applications to fit the user. But we still "deliver" the lesson, following set learning stages.

What if we turned that on its head and, instead of setting out learning goals, we simply set the learners on a voyage of discovery and asked the learners themselves to identify the goals achieved at the end of the lesson?

Do our planned lesson goals always work? Whatever the planned outcomes, learners take what they want from it. As the researchers discovered, customers are resourceful and creative in thinking up uses for applications that were unintended at the design stage. Similarly, a lesson plan can turn into a mystery box before your eyes.

My group was analysing a theatre programme. They weren't familiar with the word "tantalising". That led to a discussion of the Greek myth. They were horrified and intrigued, and I noticed that the computer engineer who had come to fix a machine had also stopped working and looked engaged. The class, it appeared, knew nothing of Tantalus, and nothing of any of the other Greek myths. Sensing a gruesome myth would go down well, I helped them explore the one about Prometheus. We then returned to our analysis and the engineer to his machine.

I discovered later that they had been so impressed with the myths that some were using the Tantalus story in their video class, and others were explaining Prometheus's fate in a presentation class. Greek myths were sprouting all over. What did you do in class today? Oh, we learned about a guy getting his liver ripped out.

We know that learners learn by doing, by discovering, and that we want them to take responsibility for their learning, to feel empowered. So should we present lessons not with predicted milestones outlined at the start, but with milestones to be uncovered and identified by learners at the end? Less "you will learn" and more "I have discovered".

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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