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Designing Meaningful Adult Learning Experiences

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This post is by Ratha Kelly, High Tech High Graduate School of Education Resident at High Tech Elementary North County


The Toy Story: The Power of Play project slice was planned and facilitated by Ratha Kelly, Paul North, Stacey Lopaz, Melissa Daniels, and Lillian Hsu.

At 8:00 a.m., 25 staff members slowly enter a room. They are greeted with smiles from four adults, the facilitators of the journey they are about to take. Some of the staff are new to the teaching profession while some have been teaching for years. Some of them are student support staff and others are interested in school leadership. All of them are here to grow their practice in project-based learning (PBL) structures through an immersive experience called the Odyssey Slice.

Our project title was Toy Story: The Power of Play. We were adapting a second grade project that explored the question: What is the power of play? for an adult audience. In this Slice, participants design toys and learn about different aspects of play, such as therapeutic play, and learning through play. The Slice is meant to be just that--a slice of what PBL practices look and feel like. With such a diverse group of participants in our Slice, we had to be mindful of how we designed the experience to best meet everyone's needs. How can we design professional development that is purposeful, practice-oriented, and meets the needs of diverse participants?


Building a Community of Learners

Our first step was to develop a community of learners. Just as we develop community with our students, it is important to develop community with adult learners. All learners need to feel safe and included in order to participate fully. At the beginning of our group's two day journey together, we opened with a name-game activity: Pass the Pilloji. This was a way to have all of our community members know each other's names, roles, and learn something interesting about each other. The facilitator, Paul, started us out by sharing first. This set the tone by demonstrating openness, vulnerability, and humor. The comments that followed might have taken longer than our scheduled plan, but it allowed all of the members of our community to feel open with each other, laugh together, and share about themselves. The comments that were shared were honored, and even referenced throughout our two days together, evidence of attentive and active listening, which are great traits of a community of caring learners! Afterward we built norms and discussed what kind of learning community we would like to be. Even though the Slice would only last a few days, we felt it was important to create norms so that we could continue to learn and grow from each other. Some of the norms that our group brainstormed were to be accountable, responsible, respectful and present. We sought to acknowledge voices and opinions, and to be open to viewing things from a different perspective. Throughout the two days, we came back and reflected on our norms as a group to continue to hold each other accountable.

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Taking a Meta-moment

In order to best teach PBL practices, we made sure to encourage our participants to fully engage in the professional development process. We designed an experience that allowed them to be actively engaged in each part of the project process. From the project launch to developing the criteria for the products, the participants experienced what each component of PBL feels like. We brought in an expert Toymaker, who was able to guide the participants through the process of making a toy, giving tips and advice and hands-on expertise. To explore our essential questions, participants also talked to play therapists at the preschool we were partnered with. We also brainstormed other experts that could help enhance the project.

We incorporated "meta-moments" throughout the day--moments where we stepped aside and took off our learner hats and put on our teacher hats. What is the purpose of this activity? What were some facilitator moves you noticed that you could apply to your practice? In these discussions, we took a break from being a learner and really thought about what was at the heart of the activity and the learning. This was an important time for reflection and connection for our participants because it allowed them to really look at not only the what and how, but also the why. For example, after meeting the experts, we discussed the purpose of bringing in experts and how they add value to a project. Oftentimes, we participate in amazing professional development, but hardly have time to process the entire experience. We receive so much information, but are left wondering how the information is applicable to our situation. In carving out the time to process the experience immediately, we were able to identify and then reinforce connections to our own practice.  Furthermore, participants were able to establish connections with each other, build on each other's ideas, and really take a moment to step back and see the forest through the trees.

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One of the most important moments for me was a literature discussion using the Final Word Protocol from The National School Reform Faculty to ensure an equitable discussion. We had the participants read an article that was connected to the project. Afterward, our meta-moment was not about the process, or the choosing of the article, but rather about how protocols can be a tool for equity in our classrooms. As resources, we also provided additional protocols that our participants could use as a tool for ensuring equitable practices with their staff as well as their students. This immediate connection encouraged the participants to be thoughtful in how they might incorporate this into their practice throughout the year.

Teachers also had the opportunity to use their meta-moments to reflect on the core High Tech High design principles of having an authentic audience and real-world connections. The participants were making toys for preschool students who were victims of domestic violence. Our learning of therapeutic play, building relationships, and the power of toys and toy-making design helped guide their experiential learning. One participant, Charlene, reflected on the process, "I understand the importance of extending our learning out of the classroom and into the real world. The opportunity for authentic audiences is so priceless that I can't imagine doing a project without considering our external impacts on the community in addition to my learning goals for students."

It is important to design purposeful learning experiences for adults. We want educators to understand the what and the how, which is often touched upon in professional development, but we must also connect the what and the how to the why. Providing meaningful authentic examples of teaching and creating space for educators to reflect on their experiences helps ensure a successful professional development experience.

Photo credit: All photos by Paul North



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