Monday, September 24, 2012

Design Patterns for Learning

A common mistake in education reform is to focus on what seems innovative about a new platform, solution, or content, rather than on the learning process used and how results vary based on use. I was reminded of this when reading a blog post by John Merrow that gives Khan Academy as an example of 'blended learning' ( I am an advocate of Khan Academy; it's a great platform, a game changer; my kids use it daily as a key part blended learning model adopted by their school. However, the platform is not in itself 'blended learning.' Blended learning is the learner-centric process that includes a blend of interactions between the learner, technology platforms(s), and the teacher in a classroom setting.

Yes, Khan Academy is an enabling technology platform with a critical mass of content that can support a range of blended learning methodologies. However, it also can support NON-blended, online only, learning. The 'blend' can happen, when students and educational "coaches" (including classroom teachers) interact with the system and with each other via the system.  The details of the blended model used, and even decisions/actions made by and for students using Khan Academy, can result in very successful or very disappointing results.

I suspect this tendency to focus on the platform is largely because we don't know what we don't know. Well-established disciplines such as architecture and software have matured to a point in which they recognize "design patterns," engineering approaches that are proven effective to meet reoccurring challenges. Unlike design patterns for software that are implemented as code, design patterns for learning would describe learner experiences, which may or may not involve technology. We don't yet have a catalog of "design patterns" for learning to support emerging innovations.

It would be fair to say that there are well established instructor-centric 'design patterns' that are recognized in the field of curriculum development. Moreover, there are pedagogical 'patterns' applied in the field of instruction. There are also higher-level models defined, like the classification of blended learning models by the Innosight Institute.  However, the kinds of interactions now available for individualized and blended learning call for a new discipline that looks at interactions on a deeper level, and beyond the constraints of the traditional classroom-only, teacher-student, fixed-time interactions.

Learning happens based on the right mix of interactions for each learner, which may include a blend of technology and human interactions. We know from cognitive science what conditions lead to learning, and even what it takes for a person to become becoming an expert in an area of cognitive development. For example, we know that new learning builds on background knowledge and works when the new concept or skill is within a zone of proximal development. We also know the value of feedback loops, scaffolding, and practice over time.

The next breakthrough in  in education may be to establish/mature a professional specialty in the area of  "learning interactions engineering," in development of design patterns for learning interactions, and in optimizing the application of those patterns for individual learners.