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Finding the balance in program design

By Rebecca Meyer

Have you ever seen a youth program that tried to do too much in the time allotted? Or one that was all about engagement but lacked learning outcomes? Finding the balance between these is key to good program design.

Here are two relevant examples from my own family: My twin 3-year-old boys participated in a day camp experience focused on camping. Each session was 90 minutes in length. During the first session, the instructor involved the children in learning about: each other, the instructors, basic components of a camp pack, how to put up a tent, how to prepare camp snacks, and hiking in the woods. For the age of participants and the amount of time available, the program tried to cover too much ground. In contrast, my six-year-old son had ecstatic reviews about a class field trip to a new museum, could not describe a single thing he had learned, even though we probed.

In their book Understanding by design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe refer to these phenomena as the twin sins of program design. The first twin is "coverage;" an attempt to cover everything possible even though there is not enough time to effectively do so. The other is "activity-oriented;" a focus on building engaging experiences without enough emphasis on learning.

Finding balance between these two approaches is incredibly important in the development and design of non-formal programs. As Hui-Hui Wang mentioned in a recent blog post, it is paramount that we do all we can to provide engaging activities that lead to meaningful learning without trying to do too much and that is realistic with the amount of time available. The critical piece is to identify the top-priority "learning" - what ultimately do you hope youth will know and do once the experience is over? By starting with the end in mind, using a backwards planning process, we can focus on creating an effective program.

Here are some questions to help guide thinking as you plan:
  • What are participants doing?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • What will it help them know or do?
  • How does it fit with prior experiences?
  • How do you identify the learning of participants? How will participants demonstrate learning?
  • How much time is available?
In non-formal programs, we have great flexibility for what we are capable of offering but we also have an enormous challenge with the limited time often imposed on our programs. Identifying how we avoid the twin sins is crucial. What strategies do you utilize to keep the end in mind, and find the right balance?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

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  1. Rebecca hits on key elements of instructional design, often labeled as curriculum design. At Wolf Ridge we are always focused upon that critical balance, both within a specific activity but also on the entire experience, which at our facility is days of time.
    At Wolf Ridge we focus on the learning first and instruction second. Easy to say but hard to do. I'm not here to instruct, my role is to enable learning. Learning occurs best with high levels of engagement.
    Engagement occurs with emotional or intense connection to the subject matter. Sometimes very engaged learning occurs in a negative experience, e.g. burned by picking up the hot pot with out gloves. Engagement within a structured learning environment can be extremely effective when we focus on the experience as the teacher. The teacher is not the center of learning, the student is not, it is the experience around which teacher and students are participating. Imagine the experience is the hub, with spokes to the teacher and students.
    Nonformal setting learning excels in experiential education where the learning group experiences something concrete, e.g. a discovery and examination of what insects live in a stream, by actually collecting them. Then to reflect upon this they review the list, compare and contrast the findings. Now to the abstract, e.g. how do these interrelate within an ecosystem. Following a concrete experience that was taken to abstract, and reflection of that experience, a need exists to move the learning to application in the future, e.g if influencing factors change, what will happen in the ecosystem, perhaps by my own personal actions. Then it begins again, experience, reflect, abstract, future direction.
    A group of students gather around a bird feeder station, remove the feeder, put seeds on their heads and wait. As the chickadees land upon their head, they eyes are wide with astonishment and their heart is a bit touched by the experience. No content was shared, only emotion, but now with reflection, movement to the abstract and future application, the instructor is facilitating a great learning experience.
    We find it best that educators focus on the experience of the learning first, then from review of the experience they can extract the learning concepts and outcomes, outlining the content that fits and balances the experience. If new material is still needed to be covered, what learning experience can then be used to facilitate the new outcome.
    Thanks Rebecca for a great topic.
    Pete Smerud

  2. Becky, this is such a good reminder for me as I develop programming for adults and youth! I always think we can and should cover more content. We don't want anyone to get bored and my tendency is too often to pack in lots of new information and activities as well as new learning tools.
    But, as last week's blog by Nicole Pokorney reminds us, the power of reflection is beneficial to youth development. Far too often it is not included in the programming time, or squeezed in at the end.
    Reflecting on the meaning behind the activities takes time so that learning actually internalizes. Although sometimes the pace of reflecting is frustrating to participants the value of appreciating other viewpoints about what the learning might mean to someone else is an important life skills that we have the opportunity to cultivate!
    Thanks for the important reminder as I sit down to the task of improving my fall workshop content with reflection activities.

  3. Great point about balance in design. As I read your post it got me thinking about how the fields of youth development and education could earn a lot from each other. For instance, over the years, I have liked Allan Glatthorn’s work. At the time of his passing in 2007, Dr Glatthorn was emeritus distinguished research professor of education at East Carolina University. His scholarly contributions included quality curriculum development.
    Here is an excerpt from one of his books that has long resonated with me. In it, the word “student” could be easily substituted for “youth” to suit a youth development context. But also notice what is missing and how the learning across fields could be interesting.
    “The first step is to develop the big picture that enables you to think globally before thinking particularly. Think about what you really want for the students from that year’s work. Examine the texts and other learning materials as well as ... [the assessments]. Then think about the students, their needs, their interests, and their community. What are the rhythms of the year and what occurs in students’ lives: Apply your own knowledge of teaching and learning and your own values with respect to that subject. In the end, summarize the results of your data-gathering and reflection.” (Glatthorn, 1994, pp. 95-96).
    For me what is missing here is the value of youth (or students) to think about their big picture of learning as a first step. Youth can add their own their own knowledge, build up their experience of learning, and practice reflection.
    But the big take away from Glatthorn’s excerpt is his emphasis on the first step of thinking about the whole – in other words, in the end what will learners get from the learning experience? - and then use that as a guide throughout learning experience. That point coupled with your points about balance can help make the learning experience both manageable and meaningful.
    What are your thoughts?

  4. Thanks for joining and enriching the conversation Peter, Margo and Jennifer. I appreciate your insights.
    Peter and Jennifer, you both identify the importance of engagement in the learning experience. Peter, you also hint at the importance of reflection which Margo identifies as being a beneficial strategy that is often overlooked. The dynamic between the experience and making meaning through reflection are really important elements in the design process.
    Jennifer, your note regarding the omission of youth (or the learner) as active developer in Glatthorn's piece is very interesting. I agree that involving youth in crafting our sense of what we hope they learn and do is absolutely critical. Moreover, we need to acknowledge many of the things they will need to know and do as adults are not even on our radar. We need to be careful observers of the world around us, deep listeners and creative designers.
    Peter and Margo, I concur with both of your suggestions of program elements that are particularly instrumental in helping youth achieve deeper understanding through non-formal programming.
    Margo, I especially resonate with your example of the instinctive drive to engage in packing more density into our presentations. I think when we spend the time to develop a clear sense of our highest learning priorities and diligently follow the backward design process, we can find the balance that intentionally employs and makes the effective space for experience and reflection to play a role in learning.
    Peter, as you know I’ve experienced this first hand at Wolf Ridge. This organization has a very clear sense of learning priorities and a well-developed curriculum in an ideal setting that makes the most of experiential education.
    How do others resonate with the challenge of finding balance and strategies that work to define our highest learning priorities?


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