When Great Lessons Fail…

“Best if Used By…” – An Activity’s Shelf Life

We have all experienced the process of teaching a lesson semester after semester and one day realize that lesson is losing its value. What happened? Did the examples become less relevant? Is the content not as exciting to students anymore? Are the techniques used to teach the content less effective? Did the characteristics of the audience change? These are just a few of the many questions that arise in a situation like this.

In this article, I discuss how to address those situations in which a lesson seems to be less effective than it once was. Many educators are constantly in the process of refining and adjusting lessons based on observations and testing. We may find an assignment’s description needs more clarity, or a new resource is available. Great educators are always adapting; however, these same educators are faced with the question of, “If I change something, will it be better or worse than the current iteration?” This process of improving a lesson highlights the importance of creativity and innovation in the teaching and learning process.

When educators look to refresh lessons, it becomes important to first examine the various pieces and components that make up the lesson. This means thinking about the lesson as a “learning environment,” made up of multiple connected elements that create the space where learning happens.

The Innovation of Learning Environments

Innovation is not only about change for the sake of change. Innovation is about creating and optimizing the value created for students through learning experiences. When lessons “fail,” it’s important to first identify what specifically needs to be adjusted to achieve a desired result. Furthermore, we may need to re-define what the desired result is.

Changes in learning environments can be classified by the resulting enhancement of efficiency and/or effectiveness. The combination of these two factors often drive the type of innovation that will be most successful.

The following diagram illustrates nine common drivers of innovation in learning environments. For example, if a lesson “fails” because there are not enough learners participating, the innovation priority will most likely emphasize efficiency as a way of increasing learner participation. This doesn’t mean that effectiveness is not important. It means that efficiency is the primary driver of the lesson refresh.

Learning Environment Innovation Taxonomy graphic

Source: The Innovation of Learning: Visualizing Transformative Learning Environments

The Learning Environment Innovation Taxonomy helps to identify why and how change happens in learning environments. It also provides a framework for planning strategic innovation efforts to enhance learning experiences.

The Taxonomy is a quadrant model displaying two vectors: the drive toward learning effectiveness (along the top of the chart) and the drive toward learning efficiency (along the right side of the chart). Results that fall in uppermost regions of the graph indicate a high drive toward effectiveness while those that fall in the lower sections indicate a low drive toward effectiveness. Results that correspond to the right quadrants signal a high drive toward efficiency while those on the left signal a low drive toward efficiency.

A drive toward learning effectiveness or toward learning efficiency does not equate to valuing the specific driver. That is, the fact that a learning environment reflects a low drive toward learning effectiveness does not mean learner success is not valued in the environment. It means only that learning effectiveness is not a primary driver for change in the setting. It could be that there is a perception that learner success is already high and that attention to that particular criteria is, therefore, not critical when we assess drivers in the environment. Or, there may simply be other goals for change that are more prevalent or critical at the time. (Dodd, 2019)

From Instruction to Transformation

At the core of learning environment innovation is the goal of student transformative learning, which involves both creating environments for transformation and ensuring learners’ engagement in that environment. This fact brings up two questions: How do we create learning experiences that live on after a course or lesson? How do you design for transformation? The answers to both of these questions involves engaging in an ongoing innovation process.

A transformation-focused learning environment begins by shifting from an instruction-centered approach to a learning-centered approach. In referencing the taxonomy above, innovation of transformative learning environments most likely are emphasized on the left side of the diagram. By design, they are inefficient. Educators must create the conditions for a dilemma to occur through engagement with an experience or ideas.  This means encouraging positive curiosity and discovery, not through student frustration to the point of disengagement, but through disorientation along with a supportive instructor and peers to expand their perspectives in the area of study. For this reason, transformative learning environments can be created and setup with prior design and innovation.

Prioritizing Learning Innovation

When the inevitable happens, how can educators use innovation strategies to transform learning experiences?

  1. Collect data. Begin by collecting as much data as possible about the learning experience. This can range from how learners experience the environment to how they perform on lesson assessments.
  2. Create an “as-is” picture of the learning experience. This helps to build an in-depth understanding of the learning experiences and the influencing issues.
  3. Identify strategic points of focused transformation. Don’t feel that you have to change the entire learning environment. Identify the areas that will have the greatest influence on improving the lesson.

What are some assignments or class activities that used to work well, but may need some innovation and design to turn them back into the transformative experiences you desire for your students?  Comment below with your examples.

Leave a Reply