12 Authentic Starting Points For Learning
by Terry Heick
Learning–real, informal, authentic, and lifelong learning–can ‘begin’ with just about anything.
In that way, this is obviously not an exhaustive list. Nor am I implying that these are ‘the best’ starting points or that they would be in every case effective in your classroom. There are simply too many variables.
What I hope to accomplish with this post is to help you begin to think about what ’causes’ learning–and more specifically, where and how that happens.
What Causes Learning?
In the real world, learning never stops but it’s not always clear that it’s happening.
Or at least we think of it differently than we think of classroom learning. Consider an observation or event–a young child watching older children play a sport, for example. This modeling of a physical behavior by the older children serves as both motivation (the why) and information (the how) to promote learning in the younger child.
Similarly, anything from an ‘event’ (touching a hot stove) to a conversation to reflecting on something that recently happened can act as a ‘starting point’ for learning. Metaphorically and literally, failure is a wonderful starting point for learning framed properly in the mind of the person ‘failing.’
At a granular lesson and activity level, the starting point is usually an academic standard that is used to form a lesson objective sometimes called a learning target or goal. Collectively, these terms all function as intended learning outcomes.
See also What Is A Thematic Unit?
In the above teacher-driven, ‘top down’ approach there is still significant flexibility. Such an approach can still be student-centered, differentiated, open-ended, and driven (in part) by student inquiry. That said, ‘bottom up’ learning approaches like self-directed learning, inquiry-based learning, personalized learning, and (done well), project-based learning all offer new opportunities–new ‘starting points’ for the learning process itself.
And with new starting points come new roles for all the ‘parts’ of the learning process including teachers, students, questions, assessment, learning feedback, purpose and audience, grading, standards for quality, and more. For example, learning often ‘starts’ with an activity created by a teacher based on a learning standard (itself embedded in an intentional sequence). In the beginning, the role of the student is passive as they receive direction and try to make sense of the given task or activity.
Depending on the design of the lesson, they then may or may not become more active and engaged in the learning process but even if this occurs, they are often ‘engaged’ in completing the task or activity ‘well’–that is, they, in the best-case scenario, and trying to do a ‘good job’ according to the quality terms and criteria offered by the assignment (usually created by the teacher).
If instead, the learning process started with an authentic problem that the student earnestly wanted to solve but lacked the knowledge or skills to do so, it’s immediately clear how everything changes from the roles of the teacher and student to activity design, knowledge demands, procedural sequence, and more. Note, not all of the alternatives to traditional lesson planning below are feasible in every classroom or for every ‘lesson’ or ‘unit.’ The hope is to provide you with a few ideas to begin thinking on your own about how you plan lessons and units and how the design embedded into them matters–how much even a simple starting point can affect everything.
Also, the potential really opens up when you consider the form of how you are planning in addition to the starting point of the learning process itself. For example, any of the starting points below can be used in a traditional lesson planning model. It’s not necessary to use inquiry-driven learning in a project-based learning model to promote personalized learning in an open-ended, student-centered model. The ‘with a question’ starting point, for example, can be used in a brainstorming session at the beginning of a lesson that helps students frame their understanding of a concept–immigration factors, economic models, understanding cognitive biases, and so on.
Note, just because learning begins with a person or place or question doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to promote mastery of academic content in the same way project-based learning can lead to improved academic outcomes (rather than just ‘cool projects’).
1. With a person
This can be a student–a personal need of theirs, for example. Something from home or the classroom. It could be an academic need as well–a knowledge or skill deficit or the opportunity to improve on an existing gift or talent. But learning that starts with a person doesn’t have to be the student at all. It could be their friends or families. It could also be a historical figure, a person of interest today, etc.
Learning that starts with a person–a specific person with specific knowledge demands and affections and needs and opportunities–is inherently human, student-centered, and authentic.
2. With a place
Everywhere is a place.
And by place, I don’t mean a big city or famous landmark. The places I mean are smaller–less about geography or topography and more about meaning and scale. It could be a creek with litter that needs cleaning or a garden being planned and planted.
Or it could be more of a metaphorical place–still a physical location but one whose meaning depends on an experience or event–a place where a husband and wife met or where a baby took its first steps. Or it could be larger–a family home or community with unique needs, opportunities, affections, stories, legacies, and past, present, and future.
3. With a question
These can be academic or authentic, knowledge-based or wisdom-based (as age-appropriate), likely open-ended by closed can be effective at times (see Types Of Questions For Critical Thinking), teacher-created or student-created, important or trivial, etc.
4. With a circumstance (historical, current, future possibility, etc.)
Any real or fictional circumstance or scenario can provide an authentic starting point for learning. Examples? Climate change, population growth, the dissemination of propaganda, and war are all possibilities. This doesn’t have to be ‘negative,’ either. A circumstance could simply be a family with a new baby or a student who just received their driver’s license and thus have new knowledge and skill needs.
5. With a family or community need
This one overlaps quite a bit with person and place but gives you the opportunity to really emphasize family and/or community–to become more granular in your brainstorming and lesson planning by considering the unique nature of specific families and communities and how learning can support them and how they can support and nurture learning in a child.
6. With a research study (its citations, conclusions, premises, methodology, etc.)
Research is a wonderful starting point for learning if for no other reason than, as a product or body of knowledge, it was initiated by a need to know or understand. A reason to study something in a formal way with formal methodologies and unique premises and conclusions.
7. With a problem
This is the idea behind challenge-based learning which often manifests as a form of project-based learning.
8. With a model
Any thing can function as a model. A book, a building, a river, a person, a movie, a game, an idea or concept–these all are things with characteristics that be studied and learned from–‘stolen from’ in the sense that you can take ideas, lessons, characteristics, etc., from here and apply them there. I wrote a bit more about this in The Definition Of Combination Learning.
To be clear, I don’t mean anything close to plagiarism. In the same way that so many modern hero stories borrow–wittingly or not–from Homer’s Oddysey or the Epic Of Gilgamesh, a building or rural landscape can be studied and used as inspiration to understand, know, and do.
Birds were studied for their method of flight and eventually, airplanes were invented. There have been many bad video games that had one interesting facet–a character or gameplay mechanic, for example, and often these ‘wins’ were carried over as lessons and used ‘better’ in future video games. The idea of pixels inspired Minecraft and so many Minecraft-like games.
Concepts like the water cycle or food chain or our system for animal classification has within it ideas that are obviously effective and so make wonderful starting points for learning.
9. With technology
This one is similar to number 8 but is more focused on specific technologies–solar panels or computer microchips or iPads or power plants can be used as models for study. In that way, students are learning from the genius in each.
10. With previous work, projects, writing, ideas, etc.
A student can revisit past projects, writing, activities, etc., and use them–whether they were poor or sterling–as opportunities to learn. Reboot, revisit, refine, revise, and improve.
11. With a specific skill or knowledge deficit
If a student has a specific skill or knowledge deficit–something that they need to know or be able to do–this makes for a very obvious and practical starting point for the learning process and is one of the most commonly used in education. It’s also a catalyst for much informal learning. If a child wants to be able to ride a bike or hit a baseball, these each begin with deficits of skill and are overcome through the creation of new knowledge (knowledge acquisition) and practice (skill acquisition).
12. With a specific skill or knowledge strength or talent
Like number 11, the learning process here begins with a specific student but instead of correct deficits, a strength, talent, or ‘gift’ is used. This might/often will result in the improvement of that strength but it may also require the application or transfer of that strength. This could be a student who can sing using that gift to create art/music, serve a community (e.g., sing to the elderly in a nursing home), or make new friends.
*previously published at TeachThought.com