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teachable moments

Around the country, university faculty are wrapping up the syllabus for January.

We may be selecting each week’s readings and wondering just how to have students do the assignments. But ironically, a fixed syllabus of readings and assignments for open-ended project-based learning courses may prevent us from capitalizing on “teachable moments.”

In the learning sciences, teachable moments go by many names: impasse-driven learning, preparation of future learning, desirable difficulties, or productive failure. In each case, the teachable moment occurs when the student realizes that his or her knowledge and skills are insufficient to achieve a desired goal.

But in project-based learning courses where students tackle open-ended problems, teachable moments do not occur on schedule. Plotting a fixed schedule of assignments and readings far in advance risks giving the right information at the wrong time. With good intentions, we may plan teachable moments right out of the course.

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For teaching open-ended problem-solving, we must instead rely on coaching. Rather than use the instructor’s time to deliver content that is easily provided online, coaches spend their time meeting with teams to help them analyze obstacles, plan next steps and find resources to help them make progress.

In coaching, rather than try to teach a certain idea to all students at same time before they need it, the coach waits until students are stuck on a problem and require new knowledge.  When new information is provided at that teachable moment, it’s more likely to stick.

To be sure, recognizing teachable moments faces several challenges.  Our research on coaching in Design for America Northwestern’s Summer Studio shows that students often don’t describe problems to their coaches, either because they have trouble recognizing the problem they face, they are embarrassed to admit what feels like failure or they incorrectly believe that the coach can’t help.

Fortunately, we’ve found a number of techniques that coaches can use to create teachable moments. Here are some.

Libraries of design goals:  Like the Girl and Boy Scouts, rather than create a fixed set of assignments, coaches can provide a set of project milestone “badges” that teams select when planning the next step of their projects.  This provides teams with the flexibility to choose goals they believe will be relevant to their project and allows them to practice planning.  More importantly, commitment to a clear and challenging goal later creates teachable moments.

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Process guides:  Along with each goal, design guides teach teams new techniques for achieving the goal.  Rather than provide a fixed set of schedule readings, guides linked to goals link teams to the right content at the right time, ensuring that students see the relevance and have a need for the new information.  It is especially powerful if guide content includes examples of previous student work and common mistakes, which are concrete and easier for students to link to their immediate experience.

 “To take advantage of teachable moments, start coaching.”

Project Planning:  Asking teams to plan the steps for reaching their goal accomplishes several purposes. It helps teams learn new techniques by explicitly applying them their project; it communicates expectations to team members and coaches; and it increases accountability to reaching goals.

Communication routines: Communication routines provide an important vehicle for surfacing obstacles.  For example, professional software development teams often conduct 10-minute daily stand-up meetings where each team member briefly states what they are working on, whether they are on track and what obstacles are in their way.  This helps the team identify challenges and, when posted online, can help coaches monitor team progress and initiate help-seeking.

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Regular coaching meetings:  In face-to-face meetings, coaches respond to student challenges by providing feedback and help in setting and achieving project goals.  These meetings also give coaches a chance to size up teams’ motivation and teamwork and provide emotional support and mediation when needed.  It is in these conversations that coaches are best able to recognize and respond to teachable moments.

Large group critique:  Coaches can also facilitate feedback to multiple teams at once through large group sessions where teams share work and give critiques.  “Crits” provide another venue for coaching where coaches can speak to multiple groups at once, teams can learn from others’ examples, and, most importantly, can learn criteria for judging work.  During the crit, the coach often “critiques the critique” so that teams learn to generate feedback independently.

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As many faculty around the country prepare for the first semester or quarter of 2017, they can perhaps consider moving away from traditional fixed syllabus timelines — even though they are familiar and easy to implement, often just requiring cutting and pasting from earlier courses.

Certainly, switching from a fixed syllabus to a coaching model may be scary for students and instructor, but if we want to promote learning, the potential to capitalize on teachable moments is too great to ignore while new technologies make classroom coaching increasingly feasible.

While it may be hard to imagine a life without syllabi, giving students the right information at the wrong time often leads to students who don’t want to read and learning that doesn’t stick. To take advantage of teachable moments, start coaching.

Matt Easterday is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, learning advisor for Design for America and an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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