Which comes first: the what, the why, or the how?

Which comes first: the what, the why, or the how?

Learning happens all the time. I just finished watching the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. During the show and even after, I asked my friends and family questions, looked up information online, and just wanted to know as much as I could about the legal system and the specific case in the documentary. And I learned a lot. The show sparked my interest, I connected with others, and we all shared in the learning experience. This type of learning is part of the idea of connected learning.

Connected learning is the idea that learning thrives when a person’s interests are engaged in an environment where students work with their peers towards a shared purpose which can then lead to academic success. I love the idea that students can explore their interests and work with their friends and peers to actively engage in learning. But how does the learning connect to academic subjects and lead to academic success? And what does academic success look like in these environments?

In addition to rethinking the learning environments in academic settings, we should also reconsider how students can demonstrate their learning. Connected learning reexamines how students learn, but we can’t forget about what students learn. Considering what students learn, why they should learn it, and how they should learn it should be an iterative process that is always ongoing. And learning outcomes can be helpful with the what students learn and why. Learning outcomes don’t have to be restrictive; they can guide learning and specify a destination without specifying how that destination is reached. But then how do we know if students reach that destination?

For example, one student outcome for all undergraduate engineering students is the ability to function on interdisciplinary teams (for more info, click here). This outcome does not specify how students must demonstrate this or even what exactly it means to “function” on a team. It is an end goal and is up to educators and those in charge of the curriculum to interpret. This learning outcome can be addressed in connected learning environments where students work in teams to solve problems of interest to them. What we need to change is how we assess students. Instead of traditional multiple choice tests, we can use projects and presentations and student reflections to assess students on the teamwork learning outcome.

Connected learning environments can provide students with unique and meaningful learning environments. When rethinking the learning experiences students have, we should also reconsider how students can demonstrate that learning. Both educators and students should have a general idea of where we are trying to go (the what) and why we are trying to get there. Student outcomes can still be a destination, but the journey may be different with connected learning.

5 thoughts on “Which comes first: the what, the why, or the how?

  1. That documentary was as interesting as terrifying.

    I have heard what you bolded towards the end as “knowledge is in the journey”.

    I do not know what your research is, but phenomenology (scientific and systematic understanding of the world using our senses and experience) might be a interesting topic to explore in the context of this class and how it can be used for students in the classroom (humanistic teaching). This breaks outside of the normal sage-on-the-stage teaching mentality and asks students to be reflective on experience to gain knowledge (one of phenomenology’s core methods).

  2. I totally agree with you that the what, why and the how should be clearly defined in a learning setting although it is sometimes hard to do that. I believe in school based learning setting we have a clear definition of the what students should learn but I bet we don’t have a clear cut answer of why we are making them learning so and what is the best way of making them learning so (the how). Accordingly, a connected learning setting which is based on engagement and common interests can overcome this problem.

  3. I appreciate that you recognize “outcomes” are not necessarily a bad thing. I understand that “connected learning” seeks to create an education experience that extends beyond tests and check-sheets. However, setting objectives and goals to produce a certain outcome, such as a better understanding of the subject matter, is also an integral part of learning. As you discussed, learning outcomes do not need to be restrictive and should not boil down to exam statistics. I am totally on board with changing what those outcomes are and how we should reach them, but I do feel students should still work towards some form of accomplishment, or “outcome,” rather than simply an exploratory journey of the sights.

  4. I think that learning objectives are actually an opportunity for metacognition. By making students aware of what the overall objectives of a course are, we can help them be aware that they are learning it and help them invest more in the course. For the ABET example, if we tell students at the beginning of the course “in this class you’ll work on these ABET outcomes,” they will be able to help us evaluate the course effectiveness in teaching those things. Also, having to clarify objectives means that we have to know what the objectives are too!

  5. I teach this semester for undergraduate students in Econ department. I try to stimulate mutual and connected leaning in my class but for a theoretical course such as microeconomics, it is hard to apply such idea most of the time. Students need to learn concepts and models first and for doing that, I have no tools other than explaining ,defining and clarifying those models and theories for them. In this situation, connected learning is not applicable.

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