Recall, if you can, a time when you had a powerful learning experience, an experience in which the way you thought, assumptions you made, and perspectives you held were challenged and changed, or became more nuanced. You may recall problems you confronted, struggles in which you engaged, and new learning that emerged.
If you can recall experiences such as these, you’re a fortunate learner. These special learning experiences can have a life-long impact. They can ignite life passions, define driving missions, and create new clarity and commitment for learning and life.
Unfortunately, too few of these learning experiences happen within the context of the school curriculum. When they occur, they often emerge by coincidence, or they may happen in response to an incident or experience that cannot be ignored or set aside. Yet it seems the mission and context of school should be the place where life-changing learning happens often and with intent.
An important recent research review at the University of Pennsylvania distilled five decades of research involving over 7000 studies on learning to define a set of characteristics associated with learning that has a lasting impact. The defining characteristics of life-changing learning are more closely related to the experience than to its duration or even its specific content. In fact, life-changing learning experiences can be the result of a project, extended engagement over the course of weeks and months, or in some cases the experience may span the course of a full year and beyond.
Interestingly, for students to experience a profound, life-changing learning experience, not all these characteristics must be present. Depending on the situation, as few as two or three can be enough to drive the learning experience to new depth and breadth and create a life-long memory. Let’s explore these characteristics and how we might use them to design learning experiences that can have a life-changing impact.
The first is a supportive environment in which mistakes are accepted, even expected. Students need to be free to explore, examine, experiment, and take risks. Learners need to experience a level of trust and autonomy that invites them to take ownership and invest in their learning.
Second, life-changing learning experiences often result from learning that involves service to others, especially people who have a particular need. Teaching, tutoring, mentoring of others who need support are examples. The key is for the learning activity to extend beyond oneself and provide a meaningful benefit to others.
Third, these learning experiences may include exposure to ideas, beliefs, or perspectives that are different from those held by the student. However, the experience must be more than something minor that might be ignored or something so overwhelming that it may be rejected. The key is to open the door to a broader perspective and deeper understanding. The goal is for the student to gain a more complex understanding of something significant and the ability to differentiate among things that previously may have seemed indistinguishable.
Third, profound learning comes from active engagement, giving energy, and making a commitment. Life-changing learning requires an investment, features a level of learning risk, and presents a meaningful challenge. The greater the commitment and involvement, the greater the return in learning.
Fourth, life-changing learning almost always involves real problems, or at least simulations that are sophisticated enough for students to take them seriously and engage authentically. These learning experiences often come without clear answers and existing solutions. As a result, the experience promotes critical thinking, evidence examination, generation of novel ideas, and tolerance for ambiguity.
Fifth, powerful learning experiences typically benefit from collaboration with peers, educators, mentors, or others. Profound learning experiences can occur in isolation and with the engagement of a single student. But more often, the thinking, assumptions, approaches, questions, and perspectives of others add richness and depth to the experience. The dialogue, support, and even conflict can move learning forward and generate new insights.
Sixth, life-changing learning experiences benefit from opportunities for reflection and meaning making. Reflection can support examination, testing of insights, and adjustment of thinking. Reflection opportunities during these learning experiences can help students to clarify and assign meaning to what they’re thinking and feeling. Discussion, debate, and dialogue with others can provide opportunities to test new assumptions, try out new perspectives, and explore new beliefs.
The range of topics, issues, and phenomena that might be the focus of life-changing learning is almost limitless. Of course, we must take into consideration the maturity and readiness of our students and the extent to which we’re prepared to support the learning experiences we design. However, the opportunity to make a life-long impact on the learning of our students is a special privilege and shouldn’t be ignored.