Creating a Learning Element… ‘The Migrant Experience’

In 2009, Jo Larkin and I wrote the learning element ‘The Migrant Experience’ for the Australian Government Quality Teacher Program.   The project  involved developing an Australian History unit of work which integrated the use ICT’s (Information and Communication Technologies).   We were given funded planning days and support to write and document our curriculum and then share it with our colleagues from other schools in the ACT.

Of course, Learning by Design was the perfect vehicle for us to do this.   Not only does the Learning by Design framework ensure that we develop curriculum with a focus on diversity and intellectual quality, but it also gives  us access to the CG learner web interface, where we documented and  published our work.   We were very proud of our final product, which is a publicly available learning element, that documents our learner objectives, the learning activities, resources, assessment tools and tips for any teachers who might want to teach the unit.

Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to teach this unit, but Jo Larkin (my coauthor) taught it as part of the Modern History elective course in 2009.   She  reported that her students were really engaged in the learning and were able to show transformation through the unit’s assessment activities.     This year,  we embedded the unit in our new compulsory SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment course) course.  This meant that we had to share it with a new team of teachers, in what our school now fondly refers to as a LEO  or Learning Element Orientation.    We met as a group to discuss the activities in the unit, the principles behind our design and the way in which they related to the learning objectives and assessment.   Jo and I are very proud of the learning element, and we knew that it would start our new team off with an excellent example of quality teaching, that provided deep intellectual quality whilst still catering for diversity.     It also gave the team valuable time, which they could use to plan the learning elements that need to be written for the remainder of the course.

Writing the unit

Collaborating to write curriculum is one of the best parts of teaching.   I just love having that creative discussion, thinking of what we can do and how we can do it…  especially when I am working with someone who has similar expectations, beliefs and ideas to my own.   Fortunately working with Jo was very easy, she was clear about what she had to teach, and was building on student learning that had taken place in a unit  about WWII.     We wanted the students to understand a period of history that was crucial to shaping of our modern nation.   We wanted them to understand the issues that the nation faced, the policies and attitudes that existed at the time, and above all, we wanted our students to develop a sense of empathy for the people who immigrated and continue to immigrate to Australia.

Having such clear objectives certainly helped us with the planning process.  Using an LBD placemat to plan a draft, kept us focussed on the knowledge processes.   Just as in the other learning elements I have written, a familiar pattern begins to take shape.    Initially experiential learning establishes connections between the learning and student life worlds.   This is then built on by conceptual learning in which students typically learn the metalanguage or the underlying concepts behind the learning.   Only then can they engage in analytical learning.  As in other learning elements, this cycle takes place several times before students apply their learning.

Once we had the placemat filled in, I typed up the learning element in the  CG learner website.   We assigned modes of learning  and the learning objectives to the learning activities, an exercise which made our assessment purposes clearer and explicitly documented what it was that we wanted to achieve.  As Jo began to teach the learning element, she added in links to resources, primary sources and teaching tools.   We added tips to the teacher side, hoping to make our plan explicit and make things clear for anyone else who might teach the unit.    Ongoing reflection meant that Jo was able to identify learner gaps and modify the learning element by adding and changing some of the activities, to better suit the needs of her learners.    She made these changes as she went along, and after teaching the learning element, changed them on the website.

Learner Diversity

Supporting learner diversity was an important part of the learning element, the Learning by Design framework really enables teachers to design learning that supports learner diversity.  Initially in the experiential leaning activities, we draw on students own prior knowledge and lifeworld experiences to build common understandings.   Opportunities for reflection and learner responses also support and value diversity throughout the learning element.  Using a class wiki is another way that this learning element builds on opportunities for  students to respond to the issues and topics being discussed in class. This enables them to become knowledge creators, part of a learning community in which all student input is valued and counted.   Learner diversity is also supported through student agency,  with the construction of a wiki and use of cooperative learning activities such as gallery tours, think/pair/shares and placemats  valuing and enabling the contribution of all students.

The way forward – converting new believers
Having seen the learning element being taught for the second time by a team who were not involved in writing it, was an interesting experience.   Although we spent a lot of time discussing the why and how of our design, not all members of our team implemented it in the way that we had planned.
Those who were familiar with the LbD process, persevered, only changing things slightly to suit their own classes,  and despite feeling nervous about teaching a subject, seemed to grow in confidence about implementing new strategies in their classrooms.  This is particularly evident in the way that they have enthusiastically approached designing the next new learning element for the course.    This was in contrast to the team members who used the same learning materials but implemented them in a more didactic manner.   Supposedly the same learning took place, but the learner diversity was not supported to the same degree and learner agency was not as evident.

I find myself saying this over and over again, a Learning Element is a purposeful design for learning, pulling parts out and not following the entire design undermines its integrity and reduces the effectiveness of the design.    Using a learning element effectively really relies on a teacher’s understanding of and belief in the way it has been constructed and the way in which the knowledge processes build on each other to support diversity, create agency and deep understanding.

Teachers themselves have to be ready to see these things.  They have to question their practice, change the way that they see their role, be prepared to work and think hard in order to design better ways for their students to learn.