Demystifying Nuance: Designing for Learning Outcomes

By Dr. Tyler S. Thigpen

In education today, more and more individuals and organizations are committing themselves to designing learning environments that cultivate a broader, more holistic set of student outcomes. Luckily, an array of high-quality outcome frameworks are available to help educators and leaders make sense of today’s expanded definition of learner success.  

In 2017, our team at Transcend put forward our own perspective on the types of knowledge, skills, and habits necessary for learners to thrive in–and transform–the 21st century. Our brief, Defining Graduate Aims, is based on a review of 30+ existing frameworks, our own experience with school design, and conversations with experts. The following diagram describes four distinct but reinforcing categories that make up our framework (see Figure 1):

Figure 1. — Types of learning outcomes critical to 21st-century success

This and other frameworks are helpful, but identifying the outcomes isn’t enough. The complexity of cultivating and shaping human brains means that each goal has critical nuances and challenges that impact each outcome in unintended ways. Without room for free-form creative expression in a program that focuses on global competencies, for example, a school may inadvertently set a student up for failure when navigating a world that relies on innovation.

To help our partners think through their learning outcomes and strategies, we created the Graduate Aims Database, a resource that more deeply examines the intricate layers beyond schools’ desired learning outcomes. Each entry includes:

  • information to help define and measure the outcome;
  • insights into how the outcome develops; and
  • potential design implications; and
  • debates or nuances related to the outcome that often have critical equity implications.

To date, we’ve published five outcomes—empathy, agency, critical consciousness, sense of purpose, and self-regulation. We will publish more mid-summer.

In addition to working at Transcend (which admittedly makes me bullish about the database), I’ve had first-hand experience drawing from the database to help with school design. This August, Joy Thigpen, a team, and I are launching The Forest School: An Acton Academy at Pinewood Forest in south metro Atlanta. Our mission is that “each person who enters our doors will find a calling that will change the world.” The Acton model combines learning methods that blend Socratic guiding, core-skills building, and self-directed real-world projects in an intentionally diverse and character-forging community. Acton affiliates are a network of like-minded educational entrepreneurs who are constantly experimenting; no one owner speaks for the network.

Members of our founding team were keen to use Transcend’s database to improve our learning design. Specifically, we weighed insights from each database entry against our learning design to make important tweaks, some of which had ripple effects on other aspects of our model. Of the five graduate aims currently available in the database, “sense of purpose” was most poignant for us.

Here are five ways that the “sense of purpose” entry helped The Forest School.

1. It affirmed certain parts of our learning design and encouraged us to keep what we had and press onward.

For example, in a section called “Look Fors,” the database suggests that people with purpose will: (a) articulate an interest and the “why” behind the interest; (b) demonstrate sustained passion and commitment to a certain goal; (c) engage in deep conceptual thinking and understanding; and (d) reflect on how their efforts benefit others.

Reading these “Look Fors” affirmed the criteria we built to assess the self-directed project our high schoolers will pitch and undertake during their time at The Forest School. It also affirmed specific language decisions we made.

In addition, a major theme of the entry is that purpose 1) develops at a different rate for each individual based on life experiences and 2) usually doesn’t firm up until young adulthood—meaning mid-20s and early 30s. This theme affirmed our efforts to include learning experiences such as Dream Teams (a team of mentors that support student goal setting) and Purpose Match (a tool for reflecting on purpose) to help our learners build ”purpose seeking skills” rather than a fixed purpose statement by the time they graduate.

2. It encouraged us to make some adjustments to our existing plans.

One recommendation in the entry is to “allocate funding to support strong arts programs, which allow learners to ‘connect with others through self-expression…relate through sharing ideas, emotions, and observations of the world…build community through personally meaningful interactions’ (Malin, 2015).”

After reading this, we took stock both of our dedicated arts budget as well as the planned balance of art lessons aimed at self-expression vs. art lessons aimed at function and persuasion (i.e., “pragmatic” art). We subsequently reallocated more funding and time to art (not easy decisions!) and apportioned even more time for artistic self-expression.

3. It caused us to add nuanced experiences we had yet to consider.

One section showed research indicating that adults should model dedication to a purposeful goal. The advice reminded us that one of the few requirements for being a parent or caregiver at The Forest School is to create and share a Family Plan every year.

We hear from other Acton families that this is one of the single most powerful takeaways from the Acton Academy experience, where parents and caregivers model the pursuit of their life purpose. Simultaneously, the advice provoked us to consider how other caring adults on our founding team—our guides, co-founders, board, etc.—can model dedication to a purposeful goal as well.

4. It called into question some of our existing plans that might threaten a particular outcome being cultivated.

As I mentioned earlier, the “Look Fors” section suggests people with purpose will articulate their interests and the “why” behind them. We’re wondering whether and how this will play out when our learners use e-learning platforms during their “Core Skills” block each morning. How will our learners make explicit connections to a purpose when they’re jamming on, for example, Khan Academy, Newsela, and Lexia Core 5?

E-learning platforms are exciting for multiple reasons, but the topics generated therein are given to students, as opposed to students’ curiosity being the driver. So how will we help our learners connect the dots between the value of the learning on these platforms and their sense of purpose? These are questions we will need to keep in the forefront as we navigate our first years with The Forest School

5. It unearthed tensions that our team should be aware of, wrestle with, and communicate to parents.

In a helpful pop-up section, it is explained that having purpose does not always improve traditional academic performance. “Some students,” it says, “may find purpose in activities outside of school, which might actually detract from academic performance. It is possible for purpose and interest in school activities to improve academics, but it would depend upon the contextual conditions for purpose at the school.”

Thanks to this guidance, we’ve realized to an even greater degree how important it is that our team—and families and caregivers—work to connect the dots between students’ senses of purpose and how that feeds into their academic work.

From an equity perspective, there are cautions in the entry about understanding how purpose might develop in an individualist culture versus a collectivist culture, as well as how self-oriented purpose can differ from other-oriented purpose. Those cautions raised reflections on how important it will be for us to guide our learners not only to Learn to Do, Learn to Learn and Learn to Be but also to Learn to Live Together.

The layered nuances of skill-building and developing human beings has never had, and will never have, a one-size-fits-all ease about it, which is why we as parents, educators, and school designers continue to be curious and adaptable to a constantly changing universe. With the Graduate Aims Database, we have a rich, ever-evolving tool to help us stay focused on our own sense of purpose—to do our very best for kids.

Dr. Tyler S. Thigpen is Partner at Transcend, co-founder at The Forest School: An Acton Academy, and Advisor at Purpose Match. Connect with him on Twitter: @TylerThigpen

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