Why do we need a new approach to learning?
For centuries, educators have developed methods, techniques, frameworks, orthodoxies and so on to help others learn. Learning is a key part of life, and a lifelong process.
But some might say this has never been more true. In recent decades, major shifts in the way that we live and do business have put extra emphasis on the need to navigate change and to make sure we never stop learning.
Research points to a number of influences: technological disruption, growing populations in developing countries, aging populations in more developed countries and migrating workforces – to name just a few. And there’s no time to waste: according to the World Economic Forum, “by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.”
In short, with an ever-increasing global interest in how to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, investing in learning is no longer an option – it’s an imperative.
So what is being done about this? In 2015, the OECD reported that billions are being spent globally on educational technology in schools; and major multinational companies are investing their time and money along the same lines. Gartner reported in August 2019, for example, that Amazon was launching an initiative to retrain 100,000 employees by 2025. That’s nearly a sixth of its entire workforce.
And yet, despite such huge investments of time, effort and money, especially where digital tools and resources are involved, there is still very little research in some areas and a disproportionate interest in others. In both mainstream education and in edtech marketing, bold claims are often made and huge sums invested without much evidence or planning.
It’s time to take a step back.
Whatever the subject, whoever the learners, whatever the budget – as learning designers, we need to be able to answer some key questions, including:
- What is truly critical in designing an effective learning experience? How do we know this?
- How can we ensure that research-informed best practice underpins everything we do?
- How can we use new digital tools to best advantage, and not merely use technology for its own sake?
Context, response, practice: 3 key principles for effective learning
The word “learning” feels intuitively meaningful, but it is actually a surprisingly slippery term to define. Studies in learning science tend to focus on a particular type of learning in a particular context, such as a specific age group or educational setting. And there simply isn’t one single definition or explanation of “learning” that is totally unambiguous or that experts universally and consistently agree on.
For example: are facts, figures, rules, principles, theories, etc. learned in the same way as skills, methods / techniques, strategies or self-knowledge? And is it really possible to directly compare learning ‘lower-order’ cognitive skills like describing or calculating to ‘higher-order’ ones like analysing or evaluating? Do adults and children learn in the same ways?
There have been mountains of research from a wide variety of perspectives into what really works in different areas of learning. But despite the range of different tools, methods and environments studied over the years, three key insights consistently emerge loud and clear.
Ultimately, to design an effective adult learning experience, it’s essential to:
- understand the learner’s context (past, present and future);
- establish and respond to the learner’s existing level of knowledge; and
- provide adequate and appropriate practice over time.
Some of the finer points within each of these principles may be more or less within the control of a learning experience designer – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of their importance to the success of the overall learning process, since every element will certainly matter to the learner.
So let’s take a closer look.
Principle 1: Design for the learner and their context
‘Context’ is another one of those things that is more complicated than it seems. It has a physical or environmental dimension, but also cognitive, emotional, social and cultural dimensions; and all of these relate to and affect each other in different ways.
From the concrete, environmental perspective, learning can happen in many contexts, both formal and informal – it’s certainly not restricted to traditional classroom or teacher-led settings. People can learn something by themselves or in a group, at home or at work, online or face-to-face, etc. And physically, any learner on any given day may be tired, hungry, alert, excited, and so on. All of these will affect and interact with their effort, engagement and experience in terms of learning.
From another perspective, a given learner’s ‘context’ includes not only their goals and motivations, but their attentional capacity, their memory and their emotional state. Learners need to be focused when studying and to see the value in what they’re learning. Some researchers even argue that motivation is the most important factor for success, regardless of any inherent aptitude.
And finally, of course, learning is not a purely mental activity: all learning is embedded in its social, cultural and historical context. For example, learners can benefit when peers support and learn from one another; and ideas and methods which seem appropriate and useful might actually turn out to be culturally unacceptable to some learners.
In short, the whole person and the whole environment are relevant to effective learning. It’s not just a question of transmitting information from expert to novice; learners themselves need to understand how the process works and how it relates to their own goals, experiences and identities.
Principle 2: Respond to what the learner already knows
An effective learning journey generally has both a clear destination and a clear origin. How can you plot the best route from A to B if you haven’t defined either one?
Unfortunately, even with a clear starting point and a clear end point, many domains of learning are not linear and do not just involve adding one new ‘piece’ of knowledge to another step by step. The reality is that we’re likely to get a little lost on the way, backtracking occasionally, checking the map and retracing our steps. We’ll meet challenges and we’ll have to overcome them in order to keep moving. It won’t always be easy, but we’ll get there in the end.
So how can we effectively guide learners through uncharted territory?
Research suggests that we should:
- Establish early on what the learner already knows (if anything) about the topic. Their existing knowledge (or prior mastery of a skill) will affect the focus of their attention and can help with both memory and recall.
- Design learning tasks which get gradually more cognitively demanding. That means starting with more support and direct instruction for learners who are starting with less existing knowledge; then, as the learner’s knowledge improves, helping them deepen this by giving more chances for independent discovery and practice.
- Let learners themselves make meaningful connections between what they already know and what they are learning – support them, especially at lower ability levels, but don’t just give them all the answers.
- Help learners to know themselves, not just to know the content. This means raising their awareness of what they already know and can do, of how the learning process works, and of their own attention, motivations and emotions – as well as how to monitor and regulate these.
Self-awareness in particular is critical for adult learners, who are often learning outside formal education structures. In a world where re-skilling and up-skilling are among employers’ top priorities and where ever more adult learning experiences are taking place in online or distance contexts, it’s absolutely critical that learners can manage their own learning effectively.
Principle 3: Provide effective practice over time
Learning and memory are inextricably linked. To encode and store new ideas in long-term memory, learners need to meet them and use them many times, ideally in real-life conditions.
Once things are assimilated into long-term memory, they can be retrieved and potentially connected to more new content, contexts or problems – and this continues the process of learning. Having a store of knowledge in long-term memory means that working memory capacity and attention can be freed up to process new things, which is extremely important for managing cognitive load and not becoming quickly overwhelmed.
But why do we sometimes feel that, no matter how much we study something, it simply doesn’t stick? Well, research shows that testing our memory is more effective than simply studying the content again and again. What’s critical is that learners actively try to remember what they’ve learned.
Again, there are some problems of definition. The type of ‘learning’ people are often referring to is declarative knowledge (what to do); but there is also procedural knowledge (how to do something). And in combination, these types of knowledge contribute to the development of more complex skills.
This distinction matters because different types of practice are suited to different types of content. Research shows, for example, that studying and practising little and often (known as ‘spaced repetition’) is ideal for declarative knowledge – facts, figures, dates, rules, etc – where the goal is essentially one of memorisation. But more complex skills, like learning to knead dough or to use a handheld gaming device, require a combination of declarative and procedural knowledge. In this case, spaced practice will help at first for remembering the elements or steps involved; a more experiential learning process (a.k.a. ‘learning by doing’), involving intensive practice sessions, will help make these new skills more automatic.
So for an effective adult learning experience, it’s important to know what exactly is the focus of learning and to choose appropriate learning methods and tasks accordingly.
* * *
In an ideal world, learners would have the necessary motivation, skills, support and self-awareness to direct their own learning effectively, as well as enough time and minimal pressure or other constraints. But in the real world, adults often find themselves needing to learn something fast because of some kind of pressure from external factors. Maybe their employer is starting a new initiative to upskill the workforce, or perhaps a change in their life circumstances has suddenly prompted a need for new skills or qualifications.
And given the fact that learners nowadays are often not schoolchildren but adults, with plenty of other priorities and other demands on their time, we have to be confident that the learning experiences we design will actually work.
Of course, just as every problem is different, so are the solutions. There’s no such thing as an educational panacea and learning designers will always have to tailor and apply these principles to suit the the needs and constraints of particular learners in particular contexts.
And remember: as these needs and constraints may themselves change over time, it’s important for learning designers to continually evaluate the effectiveness of a learning experience, along with feedback loops to modify the design in an iterative way.
Laura Patsko is a freelance language and pedagogy consultant, maker, speaker, writer, walker and traveller – not necessarily in that order. Laura has been working closely with LearnJam for a while now, bringing her expertise to our clients’ projects and developing our learning design principles.
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