George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Use the Learning Funnel to Design Meaningful Work for Students (Washor and Mojkowski, Part 2 of 2)

Practical applications for the classroom

April 4, 2011

Editor's Note:This is the second in a two-part series by Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski, Elliot is co-founder of Big Picture Learning, a global leader in education innovation with 62 highly successful schools throughout America, Canada, The Netherlands, and Australia. Charles Mojkowski is a senior associate at Big Picture Learning. The majority of Big Picture Learning's schools are regular public schools, though some are in-district charters.

Elliot Washor Charles Mojkowski

Designing Meaningful Work for Students

The learning funnel is a useful way to think about designing learning experiences that constitute meaningful work for students. Schools need to take up the challenge of working the learning funnel and reap the benefits of engaging all of their students in the myriad and fascinating mysteries that surround them, most of which can be connected to the disciplines the students encounter in schools.

Many teachers try to engage students through problem- and project-based learning. Trapped in the silos of isolated subjects, six-period days, and multiple-choice tests, however, teachers are often forced to reduce project-based learning to identifying and applying algorithms. Often the projects are not ones selected by the students, and most of the mysteries and problems are already defined, leaving little opportunity for meaningful producing or performing.

Using the Learning Funnel to Make Connections

Working the whole learning funnel helps teachers address one of their biggest challenges: engaging all learners with meaningful work. Many students, even those with good grades, are bored and disconnected from what goes on in schools. They do not see schools as places where they can do the learning they want and need to do, when and where it makes sense to them. Schools treat students' minds as one big etch-a-sketch for memorizing huge chunks of algorithms and code for a test, then wiping the slate clean for more.

Some students can get quite good at this, but most are aware that they are not really understanding or creating. As a result, many youth throw in the towel and leave school to pursue their own mysteries and create their own heuristics and algorithms; others game the system and fake their way through to graduation. In our conversations with scores of highly successful people, many who dropped out of high school or college, we learned that they attributed their success and happiness to their fascination with some meaningful mysteries they were driven to solve and to their connections to people who helped them along the way.

Worse still is when schools relegate heavy doses of disconnected, algorithmic learning to poor and minority youth in the name of ensuring that they are competent in the "basics." This approach mistakenly conflates rote drilling and pathways to mastery. Making problems more mysterious, complex, and messy, rather than less, may actually enhance developing proficiency in literacy and numeracy by deepening engagement and motivation.

Examples of Student Progression in the Learning Funnel

The structure and culture of our Big Picture Learning schools support each student's progression through his or her learning funnel. Two examples illustrate how our students work their way through their own learning funnels.

As a child, Cory was always fascinated by the magic of photographs and photography. At one of our Big Picture Learning schools, he discovered the photography of Ansel Adams and encountered the mysteries of capturing shadows and light and composing stories with pictures. He took hundreds of pictures and began to figure out the physics and the aesthetics of light. He crafted his stories with pictures and narrative and developed his own signature as an artist.

Sam, another Big Picture student, was intrigued by the many ways in which members of Congress were connected to Wall Street. In particular, he was interested in understanding if there were any connections between the campaign contributions of Wall Street firms and their access to government bailout funds. Sam began to assemble publicly available data about those connections and developed ways to understand the patterns among them. He turned his pattern recognition into software -- algorithms and code -- that analyzed the data and visually displayed the connections.

While Sam's accomplishments are quite sophisticated for a high school senior, it is interesting to note that when he came to the Big Picture Learning school, he had failed the eighth grade with all Fs and one D. Our sense is that Sam had little patience for learning the algorithms the school wanted him to learn or, worse yet, for sitting period after period when he already knew the information. He needed to find his own mysteries and create his own heuristics and algorithms. Doing so drove him to learn whatever he needed, including the traditional academics, in order to follow his own path through the learning funnel.

Essentials for Learning

By helping their students navigate the funnel, schools can better address the essentials for learning that all learners seek. In Big Picture Learning schools, our students look for these essentials:

  • Relationships: Do my teachers care about me and my interests? Can I work with and learn from adults who share my interests?
  • Relevance: Do I find what the school is teaching to be relevant to my career interests?
  • Choice: Will I have real choices about what, when, and how I will learn?
  • Challenge: Do I feel sufficiently challenged in doing this learning and work?
  • Practice: Will I have an opportunity to engage in deep and sustained practice of those skills I wish to learn?
  • Play: Will I have opportunities to explore and to make mistakes without being chastised for failing?
  • Authenticity: Will the learning and work I do be regarded as significant outside of school?
  • Application: Will I have opportunities to apply what I am learning in real-world contexts?
  • Time: Will there be sufficient time for me to learn at my own pace?
  • Timing: Can I pursue my learning out of the standard sequence?
  • Unfortunately, few schools are designed to offer these essential conditions for learning that youth crave and that figure in nearly every student's decision to drop out, including those students who stay in school but drop out psychologically. Students must be allowed to take advantage of the world outside of school, where they can find adults who are addressing the mysteries and doing the work they wish to do as thoughtful, productive adults.

    To maximize the power of the learning funnel, schools need to start with every learner's interests. These are the rich sources of mystery that can motivate and challenge each student to apply academic knowledge and skills for discovering heuristics and creating algorithms. By navigating their own pathways through their own mysteries, students will be ready to investigate other mysteries they will encounter in their learning and work throughout their lives. When students learn inside the funnel, time is more abundant and flexible. Practice and play focused on relevant and authentic work come more naturally. Youth who achieve such success will reap rewards for themselves, their future employers, and their communities.

    If schools persist in a myopic focus on the algorithmic end of the learning funnel, they will fail in their goal of engaging each and every learner in meaningful learning and work. Only by seeing learning with new eyes and embracing the entire learning funnel will schools serve as vital resources for preparing our youth to create the world we adults will not see.

    Elliot Washor, Ed. D. is the co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, a global leader in education reform, research, and innovation, with highly successful schools throughout America, the European Union, the Middle East, and Australia. Elliot is also the co-founder of The Met Center in Providence, RI. Elliot has been involved in school reform for more than 35 years as a teacher, principal, administrator, consultant, producer and writer. His work encompasses school design, pedagogy, learning environments, and education reform. Charles Mojkowski is an independent consultant and Senior Associate at Big Picture Learning, which he helped form in 1995. A former English teacher, Mojkowski also served as an elementary school assistant principal and as an administrator in the RI Department of Education. He served for ten years (1984 to 1994) as the Executive Director of the RI Association of School Principals and in a similar position for ten years (1985 to 1995) at the RI Educational Leadership Academy.

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