The Practice of Learning – Part 1

Associate Professor Stephen Smith, Sydney College of Divinity Discipline Coordinator for Christian Life and Ministry, introduces some current areas for experimentation by instructional designers. Further areas for experimentation are shared in part 2 of this two part reflection.

The Practice of Learning

M. Forster (1927) once commented,[1] “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Regardless of the technology, effective learning will be able to cut through the noise of modern life and engage students in a rigorous learning experience. This is usually powered by the student’s curiosity and shaped by their context. Some current areas for experimentation by instructional designers are:

  1. Breaking learning into bite-size “chunks”—using small parcels of learning that require a shorter attention span, are easier to remember, and when integrated with one another, knit together to build a larger, comprehensive picture and increased understanding.
  2. Providing students with opportunities to plan their own development—choosing pathways based on their own curiosity and discovery, and granting ways to shape their own assessments based on what they care about and find relevant.
  3. Using action-oriented assessments that cannot be undertaken online—focused mini-research projects that cannot be done through googling and hypertext links (e.g. review this specific journal article, review this book and use the books in the library to…). These activities force the learner to focus on one source and go deeper into one primary source. Metacognition, the process of thinking about thinking, occurs when learners reflect on what they have learned, identify their own gaps in theory and practice, and initiate their own plans to improve their practice. This is an essential element of learning how to learn.
  4. Creating wisdom opportunities—Zeleny differentiates the layers of knowledge as information (know what), knowledge (know how) and wisdom (know why).[2] Wisdom adds human values to knowledge, requiring soul, discernment and judgement. Whereas knowledge involves understanding and communicating patterns––wisdom involves understanding principles.[3] Wisdom contextualises “know how” to include the deeper understandings of culture, history, social interaction and spirituality. This happens through communication and relationship: the connection between various types and sources of information; comparison: contrasting information with other situations; implications: the consequences of this knowledge for decisions and actions; and feedback: the involvement of others in evaluating the quality and usefulness of the information.
  5. Creating “disorienting dilemmas” for deep transformational change[4] requires safe emotional engagement enabling the learner to unattach from the known and face the discomfort of the unknown. This safe or held tension creates a climate for students to examine self, test taken-for-granted assumptions, create an awareness of a gap in knowledge and/or behaviour, and integrate new knowledge (cognitive, behavioural and affective) into their whole-of-life. Immersive simulations, real-life on-the-job situations and interactive case studies are useful tools that can utilise disorienting dilemmas.
  6. Using peer learning—in peer learning, students are required to self-organise in processes that enhance collaborative learning. This could take on a variety of forms: perhaps students write their own questions and then, in discussion, select the best one for their individual assessment; or perhaps an experienced student coaches an inexperienced cohort of learners through a series of group gatherings as a catalyst, helping them engage with new ideas, challenge case problems, ask provocative questions, and support successful completion of group assessments.



[1] E. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold Publishing, 1927).

[2] M. Zeleny, “Management Support Systems: Toward Integrated Knowledge Management,” Human Systems Management 7.1 (1987): 59–70.

[3] J. Rowley, “The Wisdom Hierarchy: Representations of the DIKW Hierarchy,” Journal of Information Science 33.2 (2007): 163–80.

[4] J. Mezirow and E. Taylor, Learning as Transformation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 19.

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