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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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To Sink or Swim: Creating Effective Learning Systems

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In an earlier post, I introduced the idea of instilling a sense of urgency in our classrooms. One of the elements to this is designing the learning system to engage students at the application level and higher of Bloom's Taxonomy.

You've heard enough about Benjamin Bloom and his taxonomy, and it is well understood that we must work our way up it in order to more effectively cement knowledge or skills in students' memories. The main reason to use higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) is because students learn better, retaining the knowledge and skills, when they are more fully engaged. In terms of learning that's at the application level or higher, I can think of several instances in which we create engaging learning systems as parents.

Immersive Learning

Two examples are when our children are learning how to ride a bike or how to swim. Instinctively, in the first case, we set them on the bike and start pushing them around until they get the hang of steering and stopping, and then we give them a big push and they do it on their own.

In the swimming example, we get in the pool with them, and we let them get used to the water. (I don't know of any parents who just throw their children into the pool.) We show them how to use their arms and feet. We get them used to putting their face in the water, and then we let them have at it. In both cases, we know they have learned the skill when they have achieved mastery over gravity or water.

Those are examples of learning systems. I call them systems because all the elements of the environment naturally promote the learning and provide immediate feedback through discovery, practice, and trial and error. The feedback then starts the learning cycle again. Systems are self-sustaining and cyclical.

Within these systems, both the bicycle and the water are essential elements, and they indiscriminately impose consequences for learning -- or, for that matter, not learning. This new knowledge then affects the whole cycle. As an illustration of this model, can you imagine trying to teach a child how to ride a bike or swim without using a bike or getting in the water? The water and the bicycle provide the relevance, the urgent need to learn.

The Elements of Education

The true magic or art or science of being a professional educator is having the ability to create these learning systems and, in essence, let them loose on the students. We should be deliberate in designing our own classroom learning systems. Any true system must have a few elements:

  • It needs a personal learning goal.
  • It must have direct instruction, modeling, and guided practice in a realistic medium (thanks, Madeline Hunter).
  • It requires a performance method that demonstrates immediately the level of acquisition of knowledge or skills.
  • It must provide an opportunity for the learners to repeat the step until they get it right (which is the cyclical nature of systems).

Because I have fond memories of many hours spent in the swimming pool both as a swimmer and a coach, I would like to illustrate this idea of learning systems using a pool as the classroom.

In the pool, the personal goal is to navigate through the water successfully and not sink. Direct instruction, modeling, and guided practice occur when the parent shows the child how to kick and pull the water to provide propulsion. The performance method is the act of attempting to navigate the water. The level of learning is immediately apparent to both the parent and (especially) the struggling and gasping swimmer. The swimmer is naturally motivated by the relative success of being able to swim to some degree and not drown, and is therefore further encouraged to use those skills every time he or she gets in the pool.

Although learning systems are most typically employed in more hands-on subjects such as the visual or performing arts, physical education, and the laboratory sciences, you can employ them effectively in any classroom. For example, a geometry class can set up a rubric for proofs that gives immediate feedback to the students regarding their thinking when other students grade them. They then make the corrections and resubmit the proof.

In an English class, the process of inner and outer circles establishes a system whereby students can discuss issues and delve more deeply into what they really mean. A creative teacher can make these resources available to the students and can develop learning systems within the classroom that automatically promote the kind of learning that engages students in HOTS.

As educators in these exciting times, where so much information and technology is available to engage students, it is critical that we keep the momentum going and continue to create learning systems that intrinsically motivate students to want to learn, do their best, and succeed. Creative teachers use learning systems to promote valuable and urgent learning in order to keep our students swimming successfully instead of sinking.

I am interested in hearing about some of the effective learning systems you have created. Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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