Tip 5: Gradually hand over control of learning

In our particular Web Design course, we have lots of learners who attend full-time, a handful who attend two-days per week (depending on their availability), a mum of two who can only attend one day per week and others whose attendance is unpredictable for health and/or family reasons. Some learners start with excellent technical skills, others are learning basic computing skills as part of the course and some just need more time to digest certain concepts. We want to support anyone who is keen to learn.

Delivering your
contentWhen you find yourself with such varied learners (and I'm sure anyone working in public education will), if you 'teach' this class in the traditional sense I reckon you can expect around 15-20% of your class to be able to "keep up" with your delivery of the content. The rest will be either frustrated or bored and lose motivation.

So what do you do? Set up "flexible delivery" options? (I sometimes cringe at the term because it can be used to mean "no preparation necessary") The danger there is that, even if you have the best individualised e-learning interactive web2 [insert your own jargon] solution in the world, people can easily become socially isolated in the class and lose their motivation for turning up. Sure, there's the 10-15% of your class who are highly motivated and would have learned the skills anyway had you just shut them up in a closed room with an Internet connection for 6 months, who come through fine, but the rest?

So what do you do? How do you:

  • meet the individual learning needs of a diverse bunch of learners, and
  • provide a social learning environment where people see the inherent benefit of turning up to learn together, and
  • assess individuals in their mix of individual and group learning in a fair, valid, sustainable way?

I wish I knew a complete answer, or a system which would do this (if you have an idea...) All I can do is reflect on the successes and failures of the things that we've tried. The biggest success, in my opinion, has been gradually handing over control for individual learning and assessment to the learners themselves enabling us facilitators to focus on (1) providing social, relevant, engaging learning experiences that can suite a diverse range of skills and knowledge, while all the time (2) supporting/coaching learners in their individual learning and assessment skills (goal setting, evidence collection and evaluation etc). In fact, I reckon this second point is more important than the content itself.

As an example of this gradual handing over of control, when a new bunch of learners for our Web Design class begin, we initially provide them with some limited control over the learning activities they begin with (too much choice early on can be overwhelming.) See Welcome class of 2007 for an example of the choices we provide.

As learners progress and begin demonstrating skills, we begin the process of coaching our learners in how they can match their activities against the official national competencies that they need to demonstrate (probably the hardest task to learn.) I think we currently do this a little too quickly, but the aim is to nurture the learning skills of our learners so that they can:

  • understand exactly what they are expected to be able to do for each unit of competency (and therefore hold their facilitators accountable to some degree),
  • choose the resources and/or projects that they will use to learn the required skills (including classroom activities provided by a facilitator)
  • plan milestones and execute their learning,
  • gather and record evidence of their skills as they learn,
  • demonstrate the required skills using a combination of their own projects and relevant assessment items where necessary, but most importantly
  • begin a lifelong process of learning to plan, manage, assess and evaluate their own learning goals.

(for more details about how we try to achieve this and the obstacles we face, see a vision for learning in the 21st Century)

Gradually handing over control of much of the learning and assessment for individuals, in addition to the obvious benefit to the learner, allows us to focus more on providing fun, relevant, engaging activities that accommodate all levels of interaction and help nurture the all-important social learning environment (or 'learning 2.0 ecology' if you're into that. For an example of a recent social learning activity see our 3Hr Full Code Press - something that we're going to do monthly for a while.) Helping people learn is after all the main reason why we love working in education, right?

It needs to be said that some students - not many, but some - don't want to control their own learning. Often these are the same students who aren't interested in learning how to do X, they just want to know “What do I need to hand in to pass”, but not always. Sometimes some of us have had unfortunate schooling experiences where we're drilled so hard in how to be dependant on the person standing up the front that we're not willing to let go of that control over our learning. After a few frustrating experiences for learners, we've gotten to the point now where we simply explain upfront that if that's what you're after, you're in the wrong course.

So there you have it. For what it's worth, my 5 Top tips for new teachers:

  1. Model learning not teaching
  2. Act on the needs of your learners
  3. Provide relevant and practical activities to learn through doing
  4. Become a filter (not creator) of relevant content for your learners, and
  5. Gradually hand over control of learning to your learners

If they help just one new teacher at some point in the future, I'll be very happy!

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