January 13, 2015
We all have an incredible opportunity presented to us each and every day — that is, to learn what we need to learn to evolve toward the fulfillment of our potential as individuals, organizations, and communities. The resources are vast and readily available, yet often we get stuck in this process. In the age of self-directed development we can break through the tangled web of information overload, overwhelm, and disorientation with insights from the learning sciences and instructional design.
An influential thinker in the field of instructional design was Robert M. Gagné, who amassed a large body of work on learning and development in the 20th century. In this article we will take a look at one of the frameworks he created on the sequencing of learning tasks, called the “9 Events of Instruction.” Sequencing refers to the order in which elements of instruction should be implemented to best facilitate the learning process. By applying this framework in the context of self-directed development, we can align our pathways with the science behind how human beings best learn and create new knowledge.
1) Gain attention (the hook)
This is an important challenge for a teacher providing instruction to a classroom of students. How does it apply when we are our own teachers? You might begin by asking yourself: what already has my attention? What is the gravitational center of my passions? What problems am I most interested in helping to solve? Let what matters to you most remain at the center of your development pathway. Things will begin to branch out from there and link up in unexpected ways. We are far more susceptible to burning out and giving up if we are doing things for the wrong reasons — start with what you are most passionate about and you will find the motivation and perseverance to push through when challenges emerge.
2) Orient the learner (prep and objectives)
It is all too often that we skip this critical step. Visualize yourself in the future working on the problems that matter most to you. If you’re not sure about the specifics, think about the general aspects of the work you will find most fulfilling and meaningful. What kinds of interactions will you have with others? In what basic ways will help them? Try to articulate these visions by doing some writing or mind mapping. Come up with some specific objectives that you want to accomplish.
3) Stimulate recall of prior knowledge
Building on existing experience is essential for effectively creating new knowledge. A good way to do this is to take stock of your existing skills in a chart or map. Identify the levels of proficiency you have attained for each skill (you could use color coding, numbering 1-10, etc.). This will allow you to identify gaps in your knowledge base and areas that you need to develop further to help you realize your vision. It is also important at this step to review some of the areas you have studied before — it could be as simple as scanning through Wikipedia pages. This type of recall is important as you prepare to build on it with new information.
I would add here that this is a good time to highlight specific skills or knowledge that you want to focus on developing for the next x amount of time (this week, this month, this project etc.). What existing skills do you want to improve? What new skills do you want to add? Consider making SMART goals to add to your broader learning objectives.
4) Present content material
Another common pattern is to haphazardly float from resource to resource. We may be learning, but we’re not maximizing the efficiency of our process by focusing in on what we need to be learning most in order to fulfill our vision. With so much information out there, it is more important than ever to select materials carefully and make sure they are aligned to the goals and objectives we have set for ourselves. A good way to do this is by simply creating a plan. Again this could be done with a chart or map — books, bookmarked articles, films, etc. can be arranged in a similar fashion to a traditional course syllabus. Experiment to find a balance between challenging yourself too much and too little.
It is worth mentioning that there is also a danger of falling victim to tunnel vision if you’re not careful. There is value in interacting with materials that may not be explicitly tied to your learning goals — and in many cases, cross-pollinations and insights can emerge that shine light on your topics of interest. Try setting aside a specific amount of time for free-reading, web browsing, etc. Use this time to explore topics that you are less familiar with and look for connections to your interests.
5) Provide learner guidance
This can be a challenge for the self-directed learner, and often where we start to feel isolated in our development pathways. Part of the focus of Wired Roots is addressing this problem by creating opportunities for us to support one another in our pathways. The key is that it requires a degree of proactivity on the part of the learner — reaching out, joining groups (or, starting a group!), writing in forums, requesting to talk with others on Skype, etc. In general, people are more willing to provide this type of guidance than you might think (as it is a two-way street — you can likewise offer them guidance). While we develop new ways to facilitate this process, new tools are always emerging to help us communicate and support each other.
6) Elicit performance (practice)
Creating knowledge is about more than just consuming information. Real knowledge creation only happens once information is applied within the specific context of the environment in which you are living and working. By continually reading/watching videos etc. without getting out, acting on and experimenting with what we are learning, we’re not really advancing our skills. So it is critical that we create opportunities to practice — this is where the real learning takes place. The active learning process can also be built into to the way that we interact with content materials — see this page on mind mapping for one example.
A couple of theories to consider here are constructivist theory — which states that knowledge is created from within the individual as a result of personal interpretation of experience, and social constructivist theory, which states that knowledge is co-created within groups of individuals and emphasizes collaborative learning environments and the exploration of multiple perspectives.
7) Provide informative feedback
This is another edge we are working on for this site. Feedback is a very important aspect of learning and the lack of it is a major contributing factor to the feeling of isolation in self-direct learning. To facilitate feedback some form of documentation of the learning taking place is needed. Inspired by the model being used at Gaia University, we are looking at how we can encourage our users to capture their learning experiences and use the evidence to create feedback loops. This might come in the form of peer reviews, project consultations, badge submissions, etc. As an independent learner it is important to build relationships with others that can provide useful feedback — again, proactively reaching out is essential in this regard. At the very least focus on creating something that you can pass off to a friend, colleague or family member and ask “do you mind having a look?”
8) Assess performance
This should begin with a self-assessment. Every so often (this may be a set amount of time or based on the project) it is useful to take a look at what you have done and if it has either met or not met your original goals and objectives. If not, why not? Were the goals unrealistic? Did something unexpected come up and you didn’t have enough flexibility designed into the process? It’s important to see that you are not just learning about the subject you are focusing on — you are also learning how to become a better self-directed learner. Look to continually fine-tune your process and approach to skill building and knowledge creation. When possible, you should look for opportunities for someone with more experience to assess your work (again, we are working to facilitate this process on this site).
9) Enhance retention and transfer
Reflect on your work and your pathway as a whole post-feedback/assessment. Create a blog and share what you’re learning about (like I’m doing now). Find other opportunities to teach others. This will force you to go back and review the material and your notes/maps — as well as to do your best to really know what you’re talking about as you articulate it. Try to avoid the common tendency (at least for me) to jump too quickly from one thing to the next without properly cementing the new knowledge in your being, which often results in forgetting what we have learned. This is where mind maps can really work well as they are easy to scan after the fact and to remind us of patterns/relationships, terms and areas where we want to follow up with additional research.
It is useful to think of this process as being cyclical rather than linear — and the cycle should be more rapid than it is slow-churning. With each turn you have opportunities to make adjustments and fine-tune your continuously evolving process of development. This sequence of learning events has been shown to be effective for long-term retention of information and forming the ability to use the information appropriately. By aligning our pathways with the science of learning, our self-directed learning becomes more efficient and empowering.