Friday, December 18, 2009

Learning as story-telling

I listened to a great talk this week by Patrick Parrish, an instructional designer with the COMET project.  His topic was "engagement" and he presented a model of layered engagement.  For me, the most interesting part of the talk was Parrish's remarks about the "aesthetics of engagement" and the need for instructional designers, faculty members, and anyone who cares about learning to consider the aspects of learning associated with emotion, passion, and love.  Parrish suggests that we see learning through the lens of story or narrative.  That idea resonated with me and I got to thinking about what elements of good story-telling could apply to creating meaningful learning experiences.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell identified a pattern that all good stories seem to follow in some way or another.  When we read, watch, or hear these stories we like them because they take us on a journey that we can relate to and that creates an emotional response for us.  This has some interesting implications for learning.  What would a learning experience based on some of these same principles look like?

1.  Learning would be built around a challenge, problem, or key question.  The best kind of learning engages learners in a quest of sorts in which they become immersed in developing a solution to a problem, answering a fundamental question, or creating some sort of meaningful learning artifact.  This practice would also engage faculty members in the meaningful activity of distilling their course down to key questions, issues, or objectives and help them connect the often disparate parts of their course (week 1's lecture, next week's exam, the final project, etc.).  
Campbell described this part of a narrative as the "call to adventure" implying that some sort of invitation is extended to the hero.  It would be interesting for educators to think about this principle and ask themselves "How can I invite or entice students to engage in meaningful learning this semester?" or "What do I do when learners resist the initial invitation?".  It also occurred to me that this call to action might occasionally include creating some sort of discomfort or cognitive dissonance for the learner that nudges them into action.  

2.  Great Mentoring.  Good stories usually include some sort of mentor or guide (think Yoda or Rocky's trainer Mickey).  Meaningful learning experiences, while shifting the responsibility for learning on to the student, don't leave them helpless.  The mentor could be a faculty member, but not in every case.  Mentoring could also be provided by other students with particular skill sets or expertise or learners could also be connected with mentors outside of the class (either face-to-face or electronically) that could help drive deeper learning.  I have seen this done extremely well in a Microcomputer Design course on my campus where students each select a project to work on at the beginning of the semester and then spend the next 15 weeks building a network of mentors including classmates, faculty from the department, and outside consultants.  This group becomes like a learning team that helps the student address challenges in their design, learn new skills along the way, and test their ideas.

3.  Discomfort, trials, or "ordeals."  This shouldn't be misconstrued to mean ridiculously challenging exams or any of the other sadistic things that sometimes happen in higher education.  But, if learning is a narrative and good stories involve pain or discomfort then some of our attempts to "satisfy" or "please" (think about the last student rating evaluation you looked at) learners could be misguided (see this article on learning styles that suggests that enjoyment doesn't always mean that the best learning has occurred).  While learning should be fulfilling and meaingful, it may not always be entertaining or pain-free.  Allowing learners to struggle with concepts, work through initial failures, or having high expecations isn't a bad thing as long as students feel supported and can see that their "ordeal" will eventually lead them somewhere they want to be.

4.  Reward or "Elixir."  In a story this might be some sort of tangible object or symbol.  In education these might be the solutions or artifacts.  Even more importantly it could be the lessons learned or knowledge gained.  The key is creating opportunities that allow students to figure out what they have gained through their learning experience.  This could be a portfolio, a personal reflection about what they have learned or how they have changed, or an opportunity to showcase or highlight their learning.  Campbell argues that this "elixir" is generally something with use or benefit either to the individual hero or to the community at large.  That idea suggests that part of our role as educators is helping students step back from their learning and consider how what they have learned matters or what use it may have in the future.  A week ago I would have suggested a final presentation as one way of doing this, but my friend Gary Dayne's recent blog posting on the problems with final presentations has made me rethink that.  As Gary points out the problem with presentations is that they don't allow students to demonstrate their learning in a meaningful context.  Good learning journeys will end with contextual demonstrations of learning.  This could be as simple as Q & A sessions or something more complex.  But, the point is to find a way for (1) learners to demonstrate to themselves that they have learned something (which a 5 minute presentation generally doesn't do) and (2) to provide the rest of the class with a showcase of good learning.  In some cases this might mean a final challenge or trial that asks students to bring what they've learned to bear on a new problem or situation.  

I saw a lot of these principles at work in a class that was taught in my department this semester.  The course was a freshman seminar (UNIV 101) course, but it was unique in a fundamental way.  Rather than a traditional student success course where students have a lecture each week on time management, test preparation, working in groups, etc. the course attempted to help students learn useful skills and principles by working on a project--building a set of loudspeakers.  The challenge was pretty clear, build a functioning set of loudspeakers from scratch, but I saw the other principles demonstrated as well.  There was a great mentor (the faculty member) who spent significant amounts of time consulting with teams on their design and helping them work through problems that arose.  Students talked about the pain and frustration that came with the project.  And, the last day of class was a tradeshow of sorts where they demo'd their speakers, answered questions about their design, and shared the "lessons learned" from the project.   It was a little messy, frustrating for students & the instructor at times, and probably didn't address all of the transitional issues that some freshman seminars might.  But, as I listened to and watched the students on the last day it was obvious that they had the sort of "aesthetic" experience Parrish describes.  They had accomplished something challenging and meaningful, had learned lessons that could be applied across their university experience, and they were smiling at the end of it all.  Those all seemed like good things to me.

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