Instructional Design for Independent Learning

September 26th, 2017 Uncategorized

Imagine authentic enrichment opportunities paired with a method to allow learners to work independently. How might we develop independent learning practices without compromising the quality of instruction? Could we engage and motivate our students grow their ability to think critically beyond the base expectation? Using gamification and badges will help keep our students motivated. Providing open access to a high number of learning opportunities to allow for choice is important. Yet it is a focus on Inquiry that tells the story of how Spark, Set.. Go! came to be.

To facilitate our goal of “Gamified PBL”, we needed a template for a learning experience that could be applied to a range of subjects, abilities, and age levels. What kind of activity would get 5 points? What merited a badge? What would learners be asked to do, and how would it be assessed? We wrestled with these and other questions to find some inspiration in our old friend, Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I have followed PBL pedagogy with great interest for the last decade and have found that many teachers are turned off by much of it. Some of the best examples of PBL are difficult to replicate in an average school. As a result, students are often asked to apply knowledge and comprehension without the goal of synthesizing original solutions. The purpose of the cards is to visualize a complete learning cycle grounded in knowledge and comprehension, mixes in experiments or events (application and analysis), and ends with evaluation of an authentic problem and synthesis of a solution. Yes, this sounds like what is or we may perceive as happening already in classrooms already. The beauty of the Spark Cards is how they are a visual aid to demonstrate a structure to an Inquiry Based Learning event every teacher and learner can immediately relate to.

Independent Learners Need Structure

Teachers are drawn to Spark, Set.. Go! by the simple and transparent structure of the instructional lesson. By isolating each lesson into a separate step with a defined goal, we provided pacing and focus. Inquiry itself is broad and open ended in nature. The cards allowed us to keep our end-goal pure while a predetermined path paced the learners progress.

Creating a Spark Deck takes a little strategy. If you are collaborating with a learner on a Passion Project, I suggest that you invest some time in conversation with your learner. If you are creating a lesson for your students, consult with an expert or colleague to talk through the topic.  Either way, use your research and conversion notes to create a open-ended GO guiding question in the this format:

“How might we” + Bloom’s Verb from Synthesis/Evaluation + The Topic of Inquiry

A question in this format places all of the ownership (and effort) of Inquiry on the learner, where it belongs.

With our end goal (GO Card) in place, turn your attention to the knowledge and comprehension (SET Cards) needed to tackle this challenge. In our experience, involving learners in this stage was not particularly helpful. Refer to your conversation notes for clues on how to make the content palatable. Inquiry is about exploration, so what good would the experience be if the SET cards don’t challenge or offer anything new to the learner. If the GO card belongs to the Learner, the SET cards belong to the teacher. Just as kids will eat their vegetables if served in a way they like, SET cards can be hoops to jump through if dressed in authenticity. Create a list of Subtopics and form your SET guiding questions in this format:

“Can we” + Bloom’s Verb from Knowledge/Comprehension + The Sub-Topic

Of the three cards, the SPARK card is certainly the most difficult. Essentially, they invite the learner to analyze or apply the knowledge and comprehension gained in the SET cards. I would invite educators who create Spark Decks to put 95% of their energy into the SPARK cards. Even though they are not the end goal, they set the tone of Inquiry for the learner.

Think back to the best experiments from science class, or your favorite novels from literature. Memorable educational experiences happen when the “lights are turned on”. Our favorite teachers surprised us with how relevant seemingly meaningless content was to our lives. A SPARK card could be simple application.. make this, do that.. or you see the SPARK card to be an opportunity to be that teacher who orchestrates learning experiences to last a lifetime. It could be a hand-on hoop to jump through, or it could be your chance to guide the inquiry by pointing out paradoxes or interesting twists in the topic. Formulate your SPARK guiding statements in this format:

“Let’s” + Bloom’s Verb from Application/Analysis + Activity, Twist, or Paradox

Assessment over Content

In a world where our students have access to a world of information in their pocket, all your Spark Deck needs is a series of Guiding Questions or Statements. However, scaffolding the experience with content is wise in many circumstances. The most independent learners probably need little or none, while young learners or those who do not learn well independently will need substantially more.

In either case, I believe it is a mistake to make the content the focus of a card. Technology has made content cheap and disposable. Education, at some level, has always been about what students do with content. What has changed is the amount of content our students have easy access to. This gives us the opportunity to focus on assessment and going beyond simply allowing voice and choice to feeding academic growth with feedback.

If the verb is “Defend”, focus your feedback on how they defended the sub-topic. Similarly if the verb is “Illustrate”, devote your feedback to how they illustrated an application or analysis. If the verb is “Select”, use your feedback to hone their voice to their process of evaluation. The verbs you choose will focus both teacher and learner on the goal. By being intentional with the verb, we can increase academic rigor while boosting authenticity and paving a path to Synthesis and Evaluation… a path to Inquiry.

I invite you to use these cards to explore your own practice. Whether or not you go “Full Spark” and launch a legion of Passion Projects powered by Spark Suite, we can begin to make subtle changes in our own practice by reflecting on how we handle content and assessment in our classrooms. Create opportunities for Inquiry and empower Independent Learning with structure. Consider SPARK card events your students will thank you for. If Anything, ask better questions and give meaningful feedback.

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