Saturday, November 30, 2019

Starting at the Heart of the Experience

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder's popular book on writing hit screenplays, he suggests testing a great movie idea by focusing on one key moment. But this won't be a key moment from the movie.

Instead, he says to imagine two people deciding which movie to watch. One of them (looking at all the options) pushes forth the title of the movie in question. The other says, "What's that about?"

That is the moment (just before the possible ticket sale) where blockbusters are born or where they flop. The screenwriter should craft the short sentence he or she would want to be used as the answer to that question. It should hint at the intriguing action, drama or comedy featured in the movie. It also has to make listener to wonder, "How will that turn out?"

Build the screenplay from that short answer, because that's the moment of truth.

I've heard similar suggestions from experts in game design, an area I know more about. It's common now to talk about early design goals based on what you want the players to experience. After more than 25 years of making games, I hadn't explicitly done that. It's so easy instead to get hooked on an appealing idea and never clearly state why anyone else would care to play it. Yet in reality, it was experience that I was really hoping for.

Educators can learn from these two examples as well. When I look back at the thousands of lessons I led in my classroom or for adults, I see a lot of ideas that excited me at the time. That energy helped me to deliver the lesson or activity with more enthusiasm, no doubt. But how often did I think of it from the learner's perspective?

What was happening in my students' minds? What did they come into the room with, from their recent conversation at home to all the previous years that shaped their expectations of school?

Derek Muller has an excellent video about how so many new, promising tools have failed to transform education over the years. At the end he points out, "What really matters is what happens inside the learner's head."

John Hattie, after his countless meta-studies involving hundreds of thousands of students, concludes teachers need to see learning through the eyes of their students.

I would guess most of us judge an effective lesson on the things we see in the moment. We look for students who are on-task, doing what we asked of them. We have a mental list of what we want to see and what we don't. That might include certain answers on a worksheet or test. It might be a minimum average we expect from the class on our quiz.

While those are important, necessary things, is it possible to see them and still miss the goal of helping all of our students learn? My own experience in the classroom requires me to answer with a resounding YES!

There's still so much I'm learning about this and I can't offer a lot of suggestions. I will say my own learning over the years has required deep thinking about a subject. I've needed time to grapple with problems and work through misconceptions. I'm not a fan of superficial activities that turn learning into a distracting game or that introduce complicated, time consuming tech tools and procedures.

Beyond that, I will just offer some questions to consider when designing a lesson:
  • Which lesson should I (re)design first with this focus on experience? A favorite? A weak lesson? A standard that is fundamental for many others or something that is not as important?
  • What experience would help my students learn what I want them to?
  • How can I increase the chances that they will experience that? Consider what happens before and during the lesson.
  • How will I assess whether the experience and the learning took place?
  • What reflection and discussion needs to take place after to solidify the learning?

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