Designing active learning sessions

I’m trying to document some of my thinking around active constructivist learning for adults.  In my experience everyone appreciates the idea of learning by doing but many find it hard to imagine the range of sessions that can be designed.  

Many learning designers fall back on talking and telling, and relegate making and reflection to only a few components of a course.  I want to argue that exploring, making and constructing should form part of the majority of sessions and that the same components can be adapted to sessions of varying lengths and levels.

This diagram highlights the typical parts of a “learning by doing” session experienced by a learner: preparation, challenge, team work, sharing and reflection, and follow-up.

Preparation may take place before the programme and involves reading, exploring, watching and experimenting.  It might be experienced alone, might be predominantly online and will be guided with questions and activities.  The goal of this step is to help the learner explore sufficient ideas to be able to contribute to group activities and discussions.

Providing focus for our session is a challenge that will be tackled by a group of prepared learners.  This may take many forms including client problems to solve, imagining future products, tackling a pressing customer need or taking an adventure into a new unfamiliar topic together.  From a design perspective there are four steps identified: setting the scene, getting teams ready to explore, briefing them clearly on what will happen and the resources and tools available to them, and clarifying the deliverables that will be expected.  The briefing should not take long and should not seen as an opportunity to teach.  

Team work to tackle the challenge is the heart of the session and may last an hour or several days. This is where the teams make, experiment, research and test their ideas.  The role for the educator is to support and sometimes intervene with resources, suggestions, examples, tools; encouragement and nudging.  Again the goal is not to teach or take over but provide learners with guidance, structure and support.  The most powerful sessions will happen face to face to maximise the social components of constructivist learning.

The fourth stage is sharing and reflection and involves capturing what has been experienced and what has been learned (by individual learners).  Learnings will be related to the topic and the challenge but also to how the team performed and self reflections about each learner’s contributions and experience. Many sessions will involve presentations by all or some of the teams and may include discussions around how the ideas can be applied to their own contexts, businesses and lives.  The skilled facilitator will draw out connections, expose different perspectives and challenge learners to extract meaning from the experience.  While reflection can be 30-45 mins, in many cases much longer will be needed to surface all that happened during the experience.  Consider sharing and reflection to be similar to both the review and retrospective aspects of an Agile sprint.

It is important to add a final step to maximise the whole learning journey and this takes place beyond the session.  It may consist of activities that allow the learner to test their ideas in their own setting, continue their reflections, evaluate impact or provide them with resources to go further and deeper.

Designing individual components

There are many choices to be made in each of these steps.  Here are some ideas for each of them. Some are more suitable for longer sessions and experiences.

Preparation: get ready to exploreSetting: the theatre of the sessionTeaming: build the team for the exercise Briefing: share the challengeDeliverables: what has to be delivered
ResearchTime based challengeIce breaker Client presents challenge (or video)App prototype
ReadingsIndividual rolesCheck-in to focus attentionChallenge statement Posters
Video briefingsSolve a mysteryTeam formationGoal settingPitches
Surveys of their own settingScenario settingLive audience pollingCo-creation of problemBudgets
Tool introduction, sign-up and practice HackathonSummarise preparation in words or picturesChoices of brief, client or approachPodcasts
Current assumptionsGame showSmall group share back with key lessons identifiedPlanningFilms
Work shadowingSite visit. Change locationQuestion gatheringRecent newsPlans
Data collectionTreasure huntReminder of modelsProblem identification and immersionModels
Opposing perspectivesClient/expert visitTour/Map of a topic or locationDataDiagrams
Find evidenceCompany wide jamSuggested resources and tools Business contextPictures
Pair collaborationDecision point – board meeting/crisisTeam agreementsClarification of expectationsDesign a game

Simulation
Learners Q&AVisualisations

Groupwork: learning through making

This is the core of the session and should involve the learners iteratively researching, designing, creating and testing a solution to the posed challenge.  The team will keep a focus on the expected deliverables but interim versions may be in other formats including notes, diagrams, sketches, storyboards or models.  They will use insights from their preparation and from their own existing perspectives (and prior learning). 

Interventions: keeping the team engagedPlenary: sharing back ideasApplication to work: extracting lessons for your businessReflections: identifying impact on work and on yourselfFollow-up: taking the ideas further
ProgressShow and tellPresentations to work teamCampfire Q&AEvaluation of the experience
Disruption – change of briefGalleryRecognising similarity between the challenge and their own contexts Focus on teamworkFurther reading
ScaffoldingDot votingIdentification of lessonsHelpful & harmful behavioursExtension activities to deepen their understanding
FeedbackClient FeedbackComparison with current solutionsPersonal commitmentsPass-it on (repeat with others in your team)
Check-pointsPeer FeedbackPlanning testingAppreciationPostcards from the future
Change teamsSummarise LearningsUser interviewsPersonal diaryQuestion generation
StimuliiDiscussionsSituation analysisCrowdsourcing key lessonsTest in a work context
SummariseDebateCreate a hit squadTesting understandingReflect again (after some time has passed)
New or clarified deliverablesAwardsScenario PlanningWhat made you most uncomfortable?Researching their own
New dataPitching to clients Identification and removal of barriers

Meet customers



I hope this is useful to a few learning designers out there and would love comments and suggestions for improvement.

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