What Learners Want

Recently I spent a full day with learners talking about the kinds of learning environments and experiences that work best for them. Our group consisted of roughly 20 university learners from various disciplines and at different stages along their educational paths. With great candor and enthusiasm, the learners worked together to craft their vision of a contemporary learning environment. Their results are shown below.

Relationships

Relationships are the core and essential foundation of all learning. Accordingly, the learners began their process with a discussion about how best to promote and sustain relationships that enhance education. Here’s what they came up with (in the order they were written on the board, not in order of priority):

  • Interactive environments that promote greater collaboration between learners (and between learners and instructors)
  • Small class sizes
  • Recognition of the uniqueness of each educational institution (and ways of leveraging that uniqueness)
  • Mentorship of less-experienced learners by more seasoned learners
  • Promotion of a sense of community
  • Student collaboration, with instructor as facilitator (and the extended community as facilitator as well)
  • Recognition, by instructors, of the complex private and public relationships between learners and instructors (particularly with regard to mentorship)
  • Importance of learning from people who are different (not staying in the bubble)
  • Importance of creating interpersonal skill through small group activities and field trips
  • Importance of reciprocal respect and trust between instructors and learners
  • Openness and willingness to talk and to share with others with whom we are familiar or not (getting to know strangers)
  • Crucial role of mutually supportive relationships
  • Recognition of the importance of building rapport between instructors and learners
  • Recognition of the importance of experiences in nature (beyond the classroom)
  • Recognition of the importance of social skills, and greater integration of social skills into academic environments
  • Revision, questioning, and reinvention of the hierarchy of learners and instructors
  • Revision, questioning, and reinvention of divisions between the institution (administration, staff, etc.)
  • Recognition of learning as an ecosystem of interdependency
  • Foundational importance of ethics and self-awareness
  • Importance of a process for dealing with interpersonal conflicts through an ethical lens
  • Appropriate mechanisms for dealing with and using competition appropriately

Environment

The learning environment is the context in which relationships develop. Here is the list of important elements from the student point of view (again, in the order of transcription and not of priority):

  • Promotion of social interaction and mentorship (the layout of classroom affects this, especially the circle format)
  • Traditional environment encourages patterns of inclusion and exclusion for learners (especially tables and rows)
  • Create an environment that is inclusive to all learning styles and personalities
  • Importance of an open environment that is dynamic and capable of evolving with the direction of a course
  • Environment that fosters communication and discussion (flexible layouts)
  • Supportive, inclusive environment that fosters trust, respect, and equality
  • Facilitating learning outside of the classroom
  • An encouraging environment (learners are more likely to encourage peers when they are not evaluating peers or being evaluated by them)
  • An environment of emotional safety
  • Makerspaces and hackerspaces as alternatives to classrooms (use of the environment to influence states of mind)
  • Decentralized environments
  • Encouragement for learners to run with an idea beyond the classroom
  • Outside learning (outside the classroom): outside activities can be brought back and inform the classroom
  • Recognition that the learning environment is shaped by personal initiatives beyond the classroom
  • A holistic environment that promotes well-being (access to good and cheap food, for example)
  • The circular format promotes engaged learning
  • Reduction of arbitrary student fees and more involvement from learners in economic matters

Themes

The themes of learning emerge naturally from the crucible of relationships in the learning environment. Here is the list of themes that the learners found of interest (once again, not sorted by priority):

  • Importance of a holistic approach to education (without pre-determined limits, boundaries, and hierarchies)
  • Communication and social skills
  • Personal lifestyle management (eg time management, stress reduction)
  • Learning through creativity and play
  • Education as an approach to life, not just a path to a career
  • Identifying strengths and themes of individual learners
  • Narrative and meaning-making
  • The fusion of personal and educational development
  • Creative expression and creative development
  • "Real people things": applicable learning
  • The crucial importance of student initiatives and motivation
  • Self-guided processes with milestone check-ins
  • Self-awareness of personal strengths, challenges, and goals
  • Awareness of the artificiality of domains and importance of moving between and beyond domains
  • Awareness and support for stress reduction for instructors and learners (deadline pressure, for example)
  • Recognition that certain practices (such as citation) occupy too much time and are less important than engagement, commitment, and relevant content
  • Promotion of creative and critical thinking, not regurgitation
  • Topical, relevant themes for projects (culture, environment, economy, life skills, etc.)
  • Projects determined by class members
  • Emphasis of process over product
  • Permission for learners to move beyond perfectionism (learning by making mistakes)
  • Helping learners build skills for improvement (not just criticism)

Activities

The activities of a given course become obvious once the relationships have formed, the learning environment has been constructed, and the themes have emerged. Here is the list of activities that were appealing to the learners:

  • Self-guided assignments and projects
  • Open-ended projects (not fixed due dates)
  • Fewer projects, but more important projects with the opportunity to explore more deeply
  • Optional rather than required structures in order to make courses more inclusive and customizable to individual learners
  • Practice until mastery (vs. arbitrary time limits)
  • Reinforcement and re-purposing of learning across courses
  • Hands-on (tactile) learning and learning for different styles
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Physical activity
  • Team-building and other interactional activities (outdoor experience, movement practices, collaborative activities, etc.)
  • Field trips
  • Longer trips (weeks or months)
  • Conversations in a circle
  • Challenging experiences with an educational focus (chosen by learners)
  • Procedural learning (steps and stages)
  • Experiential learning activities with a focus on personal meaning
  • Experiential learning via presentations (on travel, for example)
  • Innovative activities
  • Interdisciplinary connections
  • Guest speakers and the curation of a “human library”
  • Group-led learning (learners responsible for teaching others)
  • Writing for an audience
  • Interesting activities: zip-lining, rafting, meditation, rock climbing, concerts, drumming, museum visits, movie attendance, bike maintenance and repair, martial arts, yoga, gliding, culinary sharing and other social practices, cultural experiences, farm visits, horseback riding, sewing, origami, spiritual explorations, experiential simulations (eg homeless night out), helping out at a community garden
  • Badges and signals of achievement
  • Experiences which contextualize knowledge
  • Intensive, short learning experiences
  • Inviting members of the wider community to be part of the learning community

Many of the items above can be found in classrooms in which instructors focus on relationships and the fusion of personal and professional development. And, as I have heard from many, many other learners, most of the learners who attended the day of educational visioning reported a strange, almost bi-polar experience: a few of their courses embody many of the above elements, whereas most of their courses contain few, if any, of these elements. It’s almost as if there are two educational streams at work: one stream is reaching back, toward the preservation of traditional modes and practices, while the other stream reaches forward, toward reinvention and transformation. And, as we move ever farther down the track of reconsidering what education is, and what it’s for, these two streams increasingly diverge. At some point, one of these streams will overflow its banks and subsume the other. I do hope that it’s the new stream, the one with fresh water. But, as I consider this metaphor, I realize that the new stream is, in fact, the ancient waterway of mentorship, creativity, and the blending together of personal development with social and cultural themes. The items above are, in many ways, descriptions of a holistic, integrative approach to humanity. And that approach, in turn, is vastly old indeed.

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