Learning Tasks: Turning a Dry Subject into an Engaging Experience

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<ul><li><p>7/31/2019 Learning Tasks: Turning a Dry Subject into an Engaging Experience</p><p> 1/5</p><p>It is not the subject but the imagination ofthe teacher that has to be alive before theinterest can be felt.</p><p>Jacques Barzun</p><p>ow do you teach a dry subjecteffectively, particularly in the</p><p>workplace? In what ways can youengage your students when your con-</p><p>tent has a high level of abstraction?</p><p>What strategies are most effective tobring learning to task?</p><p>In the next pages, I provide somepractical tips and advice about the</p><p>design and use of learning tasksexperiential, hands-on activitiesbased</p><p>on my 15 years of experience as anadult educator and leaning heavily on</p><p>the contributions of Jane Vella in thisfield. In Taking Learning to Task: CreativeStrategies for Teaching Adults (Jossey-Bass,</p><p>2000),Vella describes a differentapproach, where teaching and learning</p><p>are integrated and where the learningtask is the overall design.These learn-</p><p>ing tasks introduce learners to theintricacies of applying what they havelearned to their daily work. Despite</p><p>some disadvantages (they can take a lit-tle longer than lectures and can be</p><p>messier to handle), I believe that learn-ing tasks are an effective way to teach</p><p>for results.This article will discuss:</p><p>1. What mind shift is necessary to</p><p>be able to teach with learning tasks;2. What is a learning task;</p><p>3. What are the four types of learningtasks that, properly sequenced, can gen-</p><p>erate engagement and fun, no matterwhat the content you teach;4. How to debrief a learning task to</p><p>maximize its learning potential foryour students.</p><p>Why Learning Tasks</p><p>I am biased! My personal way to trainin the workplace emphasizes results</p><p>through group work, learners auton-omy, and a new role for the trainer as afacilitator of learning rather than a</p><p>conveyer of content. My biases bringme to see collaboration/diversity and</p><p>hands-on experiences/action as necessaryconditions for learning to take place.</p><p>These biases come from my directobservation. So-called domain knowl-</p><p>edge (concepts, facts, and procedures),while often necessary, seems largelyinsufficient to empower people to</p><p>solve problems at work.Adult learnersgenerally are not interested in formal</p><p>knowledgethe knowing about theentire background behind what they</p><p>are learning. Rather, they are focusedon knowing how,knowing when,and knowing if in order to improve</p><p>their own ability to solve problems,</p><p>often with limited time and incom-</p><p>plete information, in the context oftheir day-to-day tasks.The result of this</p><p>focus is the creation of new meanings,new connections, and new expertise</p><p>with the qualities of immediate returnsclear transferability, and evident useful-ness. Learning tasks support this kind</p><p>of integration.In addition, I have noticed that by</p><p>using learning tasks, aside from helpingtrainees acquire the necessary skills on</p><p>the subject at hand, we build a trueorganizational ability to learn through</p><p>action and reflection.This kind oflearning involves the creation of knowl-edge rather than the consumption of</p><p>data. Learning tasks thus nurture stu-dents capacity for actively integrating</p><p>new concepts into their existing workpractice on a given subject.</p><p>Building Blocks for Creating</p><p>Expertise</p><p>Learning tasks are not just fun gamesand activities that supplement lectures</p><p>or exercises to practice the content.They are a different way to teach alto-gether, where the tasks themselves are</p><p>the whole shebang.According to Vella,A learning task is a way to structure</p><p>dialogue. It is an open question put tomembers of a small group who have</p><p>been given all the resources they needto respond. She also says,A learning</p><p>task is a way of ensuring engagementof learners with the new content.</p><p>Learning tasks are based on the</p><p>assumption that new expertise is builtthrough experiences.They expose learn-</p><p>ers to situations where they can safelypractice the content they are learning</p><p>and collaboratively nurture their ownability to solve problems with theirnew skills.The work of designing</p><p>learning tasks is turning content elements</p><p>T H E S Y S T E M S T H I N K E R V O L . 2 1 , N O . 2 w w w . p e g a s u s c o m . c o m 2 0 1 0 P E G A S U S C O M M U N I C A T I O N S2</p><p>H</p><p>F E A T U R E</p><p>LEARNING TASKS: TURNING A DRY SUBJECTINTO AN ENGAGING EXPERIENCE</p><p>B Y A D R I A N O P I A N E S I</p><p>TEAM TIPUse the learning tasks ideas outlinedin this article to design workplacetraining sessions that fostercollaborative learning and unlearning.</p><p>So-called domain knowledge</p><p>(concepts, facts, and procedures),</p><p>while often necessar y, seems</p><p>largely insufficient to empower</p><p>people to solve problems</p><p>at work.</p>http://www.pegasuscom.com/http://www.pegasuscom.com/</li><li><p>7/31/2019 Learning Tasks: Turning a Dry Subject into an Engaging Experience</p><p> 2/5</p><p> 2 01 0 P EG AS U S C OM MU NI C AT I ON S 7 81 .3 98 .9 70 0 T HE S Y S T EM S T HI NK ER M A R C H 2 0 1 0 3</p><p>into problem-solving experiences set to</p><p>resemble the learners work context. Threekey moments make up a learning task:</p><p>instructions, task, and debrief.</p><p>1. The Instructions (5 percent of</p><p>the total time for the lesson) are givenby the trainers to present the activity,</p><p>demonstrate its basic components, and</p><p>provide guidance on how to perform it(see Learning Task Instructions). So,for example, for a task I assign in myEmotional Intelligence of Team</p><p>Results workshop, I say to students: Introduction, Goal, and Reason:</p><p>Have you ever thought about what theone thing is that gets you going? Self-awareness is a key skill to build your</p><p>emotional intelligence. In the next task, weare focusing on your self-knowledge, which</p><p>the ancients Greeks considered the source of all wisdom. By doing this, we are gaining</p><p>the clarity required to start building youremotional IQ.</p><p> Instructions 1: I invite you to read thepoem on page 23 and individually write in</p><p>your learning journals the responses to thethree questions that you find there. I will</p><p>then ask you to share your thoughts with aperson you have never worked with before.</p><p> Instructions 2: Again, Step 1: Readthe poem on page 23. Step 2:Write down</p><p>your answers to the three questions in your</p><p>learning journals. Step 3:When I ring thebell, please turn to a person you normallydo not work with and share your answers.</p><p>You have 15 minutes for this task.</p><p> Question: Any questions?</p><p>There is an art in giving good,</p><p>specific, clear instructions. Instructorspresent the activity and the materials</p><p>and check peoples understanding of</p><p>how to proceed.They clearly state whythey selected the activity and what</p><p>they hope it will accomplish. It isimperative to provide clear goals forthe exercise (for example,We are</p><p>doing this task for these reasons ...),because the smallest omission or lack</p><p>of clarity will make people practice the</p><p>wrong way, will thwart their chances ofsuccess, and will undermine theirlearning.Trainers also need to statewhat the reward is for the activity, that</p><p>is, what positive outcome will comefrom doing it right.</p><p>2. The Task is the actual exercise (55</p><p>percent of the total time for the les-son). Participants work on solving aproblem to practice the content to be</p><p>learned.The task always comes withwritten resources and materials. For</p><p>instance, in the previous example, I askpeople to go to page 23 to read a</p><p>poem.The task is about reading,reflecting, and sharing as a way toexperientially build self-awareness.</p><p>3. The Debriefis the review/</p><p>debriefing phase (40 percent of thetotal time of the lesson).The instruc-</p><p>tors facilitate a conversation after theactivity has taken place that outlineskey questions to drive the groups</p><p>learning. For instance, in the same</p><p>example, we can ask students if theyliked the poem or not, whether theexercise came easy or not, if it holds</p><p>some meaning, what they discovered inconversations, and so on. I can share</p><p>my observations (I notice a kind ofrelief in the room, am I right?) or myexperience (I selected this poem</p><p>because . . .).The reflection is thecritical harvesting moment of the</p><p>learning; below, we will look atstrategies that can help maximize its</p><p>effectiveness.</p><p>Four Kinds of Tasks</p><p>JaneVella talks about four kinds oflearning tasks and how they should be</p><p>sequenced to build an effective learn-ing experience:</p><p>1. We start with an INDUCTIVElearning task.With this kind of task,</p><p>we invite learners to qualify where</p><p>they are at present in terms of the con-</p><p>tent, where they begin their study, andwhat the present conception of the</p><p>topic includes. An inductive learningtask can be used as a warm-up, but it isnever an icebreaker. My inductive</p><p>learning tasks start the work of learn-ing and demonstrate that I care about</p><p>how the learners backgrounds and</p><p>knowledge inform their work in theclass. By showing this interest rightfrom the startin the crucial firstthree minutes that shape peoples per-</p><p>ceptions of the entire programIestablish a level of respect for them and</p><p>for the rich experience they bring.For example, in a class on effective</p><p>time management, I opened the sessionby having participants fill out a formthat included the following questions:</p><p>What do you hope to learn from thisclass? What are your time wasters?</p><p>What situations do you hope toimprove with more effective time</p><p>management skills? In a customerservice workshop, I asked the trainees:Tell me about your experience with</p><p>bad customer service. In an onlinetrain-the-trainer course, I requested</p><p>that attendees send in advance thename of an instructor who made a</p><p>difference in their lives and why.Thisstep creates a climate that is conduciveto learning.</p><p>2. We create opportunities for learn-ers to experience the content with anINPUT learning task, in which they</p><p>meet the new materials hands-on. Forexample, I once taught a class on fed-</p><p>eral records management (talk about adry subject!). Rather than presentrecords management definitions and</p><p>concepts with a PowerPoint slideshow,I broke the group into teams and gave</p><p>each team a set of cards with 20 keyconcepts in federal records manage-</p><p>ment. I encouraged them to sort theones they were familiar with from theones that they didnt know. I told them</p><p>that in 15 minutes, we would hear theprovisional definition of the concepts</p><p>and asked them to pass the cards withconcepts they were not familiar with</p><p>to the other tables.We invited theagencys Records Management Officerto provide guidance.We only needed</p><p>his expertise for five key concepts, as</p><p>L E A R N I N G T A S K I N S T R U C T I O N S</p><p> INTRODUCTION, GOAL, REASON</p><p> INSTRUCTIONS 1 (what to do, how</p><p>much time, what happened in the end,and so on)</p><p> INSTRUCTIONS 2 (repeat)</p><p> QUESTIONS?</p></li><li><p>7/31/2019 Learning Tasks: Turning a Dry Subject into an Engaging Experience</p><p> 3/5</p><p>the groups pooled their knowledge and</p><p>managed to come up with the correctdefinitions for most of the terms on</p><p>their own.</p><p>3. With an IMPLEMENTATION</p><p>learning task, we invite participantsto do something with the new content.</p><p>This kind of task solicits the learners</p><p>participation, asking them to wearthe learning and run with it for theirown purposes, from their own perspec-tives. For learners, it is a great chance</p><p>to bring the content into their ownlives; for trainers, it is an opportunity to</p><p>verify that students have reallyabsorbed the material.</p><p>In my Dialogue as FacilitativeLeadership workshop, I ask trainees towrite their own list of possible ques-</p><p>tions to ask someone with whom theydisagree.The questions are based on</p><p>the concept of open versus closed; thechallenge is to ask open questions in</p><p>response to aggressive statements likeNo way or This is totally wrong!The simulation that follows requires</p><p>trainees to respond to interruptionsand defensive statements only with the</p><p>questions they have designed. In a classabout supervisory skills, I created five</p><p>brief stories that illustrated dilemmasfor the main characters similar to theones the learners were facing in super-</p><p>vising their own staffs. Each case</p><p>finished with key questions; partici-pants then chose either A or B as acourse of action.</p><p>4. With an INTEGRATION learn-</p><p>ing task, we move into the actual useof the skill in the workplace. In a classabout a new performance system, for</p><p>example, I encouraged learners towrite the three things they learned in</p><p>the class, their own plan with dates forimplementing it, and the factors they</p><p>anticipated could derail their efforts,including the potential for routine totake over and cause them to return to</p><p>their set ways.The conversation aboutimplementation also raised the idea of</p><p>enablers, such as 30- and 60-day fol-low-ups by web conference and plans</p><p>for involving the learners supervisorsin defining and ensuring the ongoinguse of the class content.</p><p>The Learning Task Debrief</p><p>There was a person constantly talking anddisrupting the class. Unfortunately, thatperson was the instructor.</p><p>From a real evaluation form</p><p>Task-based learning is grounded in the</p><p>assumption that the quality of thelearning process depends largely on the</p><p>quality of the questions we as trainers</p><p>ask during the dialogue that followsthe action. According to World Caf</p><p>founders Juanita Brown and DavidIsaacs, learning questions enable us to</p><p>challenge our underlying assumptionsin constructive ways.With a simple and</p><p>consistent focus on questions that mat-ter, casual conversations are trans-formed into collective inquiry. Indeed,</p><p>learning takes place even after the task</p><p>has been executed, through a dialogue</p><p>in which powerful questions unleash</p><p>the teams ability to reflect.The dialogue that follows a learn-</p><p>ing task allows people to talk thelearning out, to express it, to verbalize</p><p>it, to give it words, to reflect on it.Here we make learning visible through</p><p>several iterations in order to producean output, an actual sharable product.</p><p>No matter how imperfect or partialthis product is, it is nevertheless</p><p>owned and serves as a basis for fur-ther learning.</p><p>For example, in a class on systemsthinking, I introduce causal loop dia-grams through a learning dialogue.</p><p>Without explaining the concepts ofreinforcing and balancing loops, I dis-</p><p>tribute a document called PeterRussells Credit Report, explainingthat this fictional gentlemans poor</p><p>credit rating can be traced back to theinterplay of two variables: the amount</p><p>of debt and the number of credit-card</p><p>transactions. I draw a reinforcing loop of</p><p>those two variables and explain that thisis another way to describe his situation.</p><p>I then distribute other sample artifactsthat illustrate similar situations and askthem to read them at their tables (for</p><p>example,Jennys Diet is about theinterplay of variables in weight-loss</p><p>decisions;Mark Is Always Late!</p><p>focuses on the interplay between peo-ples perceptions of others and reality,and so on).After students have read thestories, I ask them to jot down the vari-</p><p>ables they see in action, identifying theloops similar to the one I have written</p><p>on the wall.The focus is on gettingthem to verbalize their understanding in</p><p>order to introduce the new ideas bal-ancing loop and reinforcing loop.</p><p>For each kind of task (inductive,</p><p>input, implementation, or integration),I have identified four partial sets of</p><p>questions (see Questions for Pr...</p></li></ul>

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