Is learning a by-product of experience or can it be intentionally designed?
“So, what did you learn in school today?” When I was a kid, I froze every time my parents asked me this question; I was never sure how to answer it. Should I talk about specific details, or my general experience with the day’s lessons? I could’ve said that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”, or how knowing biology makes us learn about our body’s functions. Sometimes I didn’t even remember specifics! I wrote down all of my notes without paying any attention to what was being said (an issue for another time), so I barely experienced the lesson or learned anything that day.
Danny Seals, an Experience Design Architect, tells us in his featured episode on The Learning and Development Podcast how creating meaningful, emotional, and hands-on experiences leads to better learning. The biology lessons I remember the most are the ones in which I got to use a microscope, play with 3D anatomy models, or dissect specimens. Someone like Danny would design these experiences so I could interact and be immersed in the subject matter, a practice called Experience Design. But was my learning designed, or just my experience?
Learning: a by-product of experience?
Danny notes that “learning experience [design] is not a thing”. He says, “experience is a thing and learning is a by-product of that experience”. Let’s dissect that.
Think about going through a museum. Is a museum designed for experience, learning, or both? We all get to experience the exhibits, get immersed into the flora and fauna of the Mesozoic era, but are we all learning the same thing? Can our own learning be described as the by-product of the museum experience? It’s possible the museum curators didn’t design the exhibits with specific learning goals in mind, but they probably hoped the experience within the museum would lead to some learning.
I was recently at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver, BC, taking a break from a conference on Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Together with my friends, we decided to try the “Treetops Adventure”, known for being able to venture from one Douglas fir tree to another on a series of elevated suspension bridges and explore multiple park sites. We saw the park employees hand out “adventure challenge” booklets to the kids. Naturally, we asked for some booklets as well. What we didn’t expect from the Treetops Adventure experience was to learn so much about the park, its fauna, and even what it means to be an ecologist. While the many plaques throughout the adventure taught me plenty, it was the booklet’s questions and the answers I had to find that focused my learning and gave me measurable goals. Aside from getting an “Explorer” awards badge, and second place in the “biggest found maple leaf” contest, I experienced concrete learning outcomes. As an educational psychologist, I wondered if my learning would’ve been as rich and meaningful without that booklet.
Aim for Experiences; Design for Learning.
In Experience Design, involving our senses and adding an emotional connection to an experience leads to a higher chance of remembering that experience. By adding intentionality and learning goals to Experience Design, we get Learning Experience Design. While we can still have unique experiences based on our varied backgrounds, we can also create common learning outcomes by guiding our experiences.
In a corporate setting, a common fallacy is forgetting that new employees don’t know what they don’t know yet. They can all experience an onboarding process that is meaningful, relatable, and has unique takeaways, but trainees don’t know yet what information will be the most useful for doing their job. So how does the company make sure that the main messages are memorable for all trainees? How can we intentionally design learning experiences that stick?
Share your thoughts in the comments.
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