II. Designed to Learn: Finding Inspirational Learning Loops


On my design-thinking journey (introduced in part 1), I’ve been digesting the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. The PDF is quite thorough and extensive (94 pages), and while this blog series would be even longer if I detailed our entire process for applying its methodology in designing personalized instruction models, I do plan to write about some of my ah-ha moments.

The DT for Ed Toolkit divides its process into five phases: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution. In each phase, I noticed a recurring them of continuous feedback. As we design new ways of teaching, learning, collaborating, and leading in education, how do we know what methods truly benefit students, teachers, parents, and the learning community as a whole?

In thinking about the intersections of personalized instruction, design thinking, and lean principles, I’ve started thinking more deeply about how to design learning loops like:

- Helping students learn what works for them – encouraging lifelong, active, independent learners.

- Building supports to assist teachers in learning what works for which students under what circumstances.

- Schools understanding what structures (e.g., schedules, instructional tools, curriculum, collaboration opportunities, family-school connections, community partnerships) are working and what improvements are desired.

One of the toolkit recommendations is to seek inspiration in new places, so I’ve begun looking for learning loops in non-education spaces. Thus far, my favorite examples include the miles per gallon display on my hybrid car, my childhood ballet experiences, and biological feedback systems.

I love my Honda Civic hybrid, but when I first got my car what I loved most was how the dashboard would light up green and show how many miles per gallon I was getting at a given moment. Over time, I learned what rate of acceleration or deceleration would maximize my gas savings. Now, I barely look at the display, but I instinctually know what it feels like to drive with maximum miles per gallon efficiency.

Growing up as a budding ballerina, I came to see feedback as an individualized yet very public experience. Receiving individualized, immediate feedback had a much more profound connection to learning than when an instructor gave a blanket comment to the whole class. When a generalized statement like “everyone needs to point their toes” was given, one could assume, “she’s not talking about me.” But when the teacher touches your foot and shows you how far it should be pointed, you feel the lesson.

Another learning loop that inspires me is the human body. I remember being in the hospital after delivering my daughter, and the nurse taking my temperature kept whispering, “This can’t be right.” I tried to tell her, “I feel so cold…” but my blood pressure was dropping, and apparently speech was not my body’s priority. Neither was staying awake. As I started to fade, I could hear the machines alarming. Thankfully when I woke up, all was well; my body stabilized and proceeded on the road to recovery.

Reflecting on these three non-education examples (okay, the second blurs the lines a bit), I’ve gathered a few key takeaways:

Feedback is often multisensory. In driving my hybrid, I could see the feedback and immediately adjust. In dance, we were shown examples to strive for. Even if the teacher was beyond her prime for a particular movement, she made another student demonstrate. We were taught what a correct position should feel like. Then we digested the feedback and practiced over and over, until the feeling or the vision or the sound became second nature. Should we look to incorporate a more multisensory approach to deliberate practice when designing learning loops in education?

Effective learning loops lead to the strategic use of resources. When my blood pressure dropped, my body prioritized its resources. In dance, we learned how to use which muscles for the maximum effect. My trips to the gas station were cut in half. Unfortunately, I also see what happens in education when the learning loops are broken. Sometimes it’s akin to an allergic response, like a body misinterpreting a substance and reacting inappropriately. I think back to my experience as a summer school principal recognizing how incongruous it was to respond to an eighth grader who is still struggling with addition and subtraction by giving him drill-and-kill worksheets. Clearly we need to design learning loops that sensibly use resources to support and build up rather than beat down.

Individualized feedback and deep learning can change habits and trajectories. Even when I am not in my hybrid car, I still drive in the same manner (easy on the accelerator, coasting whenever possible). As a young dancer when a new teacher recognized my potential and relentlessly gave me feedback, I moved from the corps de ballet to principal as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty. My entire trajectory as a performer changed. I am reminded of the Lao Tzu quote:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Thoughtfully designed learning loops can craft new habits and trail-blaze new pathways. Inspiration by design.

Somewhere in the design process we need to remove the stigma of getting feedback, the embarrassment of learning from mistakes. How do we uncover the constructivism in constructive feedback? By seeking inspiration in unrelated spaces, I’m moved to think about incorporating multisensory approaches, designing loops that inform the use of resources, and recognizing the potential for learning to help individuals find their trajectory and shape destiny. After all, according to Lao Tzu, it starts with a thought.

About the author

Nicole (@MsTuckerSmith) is CEO of Lessoncast Learning. Currently residing in Baltimore, Maryland, she's been an assistant principal, district-level leader, professional developer, consultant, adjunct professor, supervisor of parent support services, and - most importantly - a teacher. In founding Lessoncast, she believes the future of student learning depends on our ability to merge innovative best practices with classroom realities. Mother of two, she holds with utmost respect the awesome responsibility of educating someone's child. | Favorite Quote: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mohandas Gandhi


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