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To Sink or Swim: Creating Effective Learning Systems

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Theresa Wiist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this article. I think that it is a great comparison. I am a special ed. teacher for a 3-5 autism class. I use a lot of visual and hands-on activities with my students. We always use KWL charts and graphic organizers in language arts. This really helps my students "see" the content and organize their thoughts. I have graphic organizers for every genre of writing and the students love them. I use manipulatives and games for math. The kids think that they are just playing, but games are great learning tools. I have games for elapsed time, fractions, decimals, and money. I look forward to hearing what other teachers use in their classrooms!

Natalie Kulcsar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it very true that children must set personal learning goals. As a teacher for the gifted program for 1st-4th graders, many of my students blossom at the idea of taking the responsibility for their own learning. We do this through individual AND partner progects. The students choose the topic and I facilitate the process. Student choice is sometimes overlooked when it comes to the content areas. I find that children who set learning goals work more efficiently.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Graphic organizers and KWL are good for all students, but especially useful for students facing extraordinary challenges. Games are perfect examples of learning systems that provide intrinsic rewards. It is not the teacher that is providing the rewards, but the game itself. Students play by the established rules and complete tasks at high levels and get rewarded by points or privileges as a consequence.

I was a Spanish teacher and the biggest challenge that I had was to help the students memorize the verb conjugations. So, I made a game out of it. This can work with any multi-step process. I place the student desks in rows or small circles. One student starts with a piece of paper. I give them the verb (or problem) then the first student does the first step of the verb conjugation (or problem). Then she passes the paper to the next student, who does the second step and so on until each student has participated and the verb (or problem) is solved. The last person to finish, raises her hand with the paper. The teacher quickly reviews the paper for correctness. If it is correct, then that team gets a point. If it has errors, then the teacher gives it back to the team to fix. The students enjoyed this game and truly gained skills because of it.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the previous posts. Students do need to set a personal goal for themselves, and then the teacher needs to stick with them and help them achieve that goal. If the student themself sets it, we as teachers know that they want to accomplish it and hopefully they will. Also making this goal visual for the student will encourage them to reach it. Of course, a reward at the end is always something that will push them even more.

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Beginning with the end in mind is the best place to start. Helping students to set individual learning goals allows the student to understand what he/she needs to do in order to be a successful learner. Having clear and simply stated goals makes it easier to figure out the steps they will take to keep themselves on track and most importantly reach their goal.Often I begin my lessons the same way. I start the lesson by explaining to my students what they will know by the end of each lesson. This allows my students to organize the information by making connections back to the previously stated goal for the lesson.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are so correct! If the students are accustomed to knowing the learning goals and the objectives at an early age, then they will develop the attitude of being a valued partner with the teacher rather than an unwilling product of the teacher. As they progress, they can also begin to design learning goals and the necessary steps to complete them on their own. This is the ultimate goal of education--For students to be independent learners.

Ben Johnson, Natalia, TX

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that games are a great intrinsic reward for students. Many times I will create a game to use on my white board at the end of a lesson and many students who normally hate to answer questions out loud are begging to go to the board to play the "game".

One other strategy I have tried recently is to plan my higher level thinking questions in advance. While I agree that many times higher level questions evolve throughout the lesson, I have found that if I pre-plan a couple of these questions, the students get really involved and dig deeper and come away with knowledge that sticks.

Cicely Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a kindergarten teacher and my students sometimes have difficulty recognizing left,right,front and back. I have often gotten the entire class on the carpet and we do the "Bus Stop Dance" some may know it as the "Electric Slide" but we do it to learn direction. There is a song that tells us where to go and what to do. The students have a blast dancing to the music and they are gaining a sense of direction at the same time.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this idea of the "bus stop dance!" Unfortuanlly, I have never heard of it...but I know the Electric Slide - Could you tell me how it goes, or where I could find it!


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