Learn It. Live It.

One of the most authentic learning opportunities I have had as an adult came from an embedded experience. It took place during the last day of a conference that was focused on advocacy. For the first two days of the conference we learned strategies and skills to serve as strong educational advocates, as well as talking points and advocacy basics to build our content base. But it was on the third day where we didn’t only learn it. We lived it.

This joining of content and skills is a great first step, and often, most of our learning opportunities end there. Even when we gather during future dates to continue the learning and build in some level of accountability to take action, we are still left, at least in part, on our own to actually apply what we’ve experienced. I strongly believe that rich learning only really happens when accompanied by change. Just because we’ve expanded our knowledge of content and skills, doesn’t mean we’ve actually learned. Because as far as I’m concerned, we only learn through action.

What was so powerful about this conference, is it added in an embedded element of the learning, where we were, for lack of a better word, “forced” to apply what we had spent the first two days focused on. During that third day we met with legislators and their aides to speak to the necessity of supporting a variety of educational policies. We were now advocating in the most authentic and relevant way possible, with people who had a say in policy and practices.

Embedded learning can look very different and serve different purposes. There are, though, a number of common ingredients present in embedded learning experiences (and similar design strategies) to help in making them real. Here are three ways to make embedded learning more fact than fiction in your school, district, or organization.

Consider what works. Our schools, districts, and organizations all have characteristics that make them special. In some cases it might be the inclusive nature of how math is taught. In others, it might be an advisory program that showcases how in the district, “all” really means “all.” It might be a student leadership program that grows learners to be school leaders. Regardless of what sets our buildings and communities apart, we should work to embed learning in ways that makes use of these exemplary experiences. This might mean opening up one of our math classes to be a laboratory for other teachers to visit, practice their craft, and reflect on strategies seen. Or, it might mean principals from surrounding districts joining the restorative circles in an advisory and taking part in the sharing or facilitating the conversation. Or, it might mean younger students joining the high school student leadership program to see how skills they are developing are realized by older learners in the district. Regardless, when we put learners in a position to take action and put ideas into action, we move closer to embedded learning that is as real as it feels.

Open doors. Embedding learning means showing successes and failures. We can’t provide authentic learning experiences if we aren’t willing to open our doors to show others what works and what doesn’t. And, if we aren’t willing to give others the chance to strengthen their skills through viewing and doing, then we are encouraging a system that only welcomes the status quo. Knowledge and skills in a vacuum is like eating food without being able to taste it; it can sometimes become too difficult to tell whether what appears good, is in fact, actually good.

Keep it real. We also have to make sure that the embedded opportunities we offer are not dog and pony shows. “Embedded” doesn’t have to mean “extraordinary.” In fact, it can mean ordinary, or even sub-ordinary. What makes embedded learning truly exceptional is the authenticity that goes along with it. The reality of embedded learning helps all of us recognize the value of continuous improvement and it helps us see that learning is never about coming in first. Rather, it is about shifting our actions so we can be just a bit better than we were the last time around.

Embedded learning works because it is the most realistic way to gain experience. After all, learning by doing is much better than learning by imagining. While our brains are forced to work in both cases, only in the former can we truly marry knowledge and skills through action. Otherwise, it is a bit like trying to drive a car by simply reading the manual. While no one could tell us that we hadn’t prepared, some might say that we hadn’t truly learned.

Fred Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks, is available from ASCD. Visit his website www.fredende.com. Find him on Twitter @fredende.

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