Future of Learning (is design): Creating the ‘need-to-know’

How might we design meaningful engagement and authentic learning experiences?

Stanley Park High School in the UK

In every educational jurisdiction there are curriculum guidelines that frame the content to teach, outcomes to achieve and standards to reach. But what comes first, the content or the learner?  This question is at the heart of engaging the disconnected learner, the content of the curriculum needs to be meaningful to them. 

Central to the idea of learning engagement and providing real-world experiences is empathy for the learner, not getting through the content, as the primary focus. As Connie Yowell, Director of Education at the The Macarthur Foundation explains in the short video Connected Learning: Real-world engagement:

“Content is just the context for participating, solving broader problems, being engaged with peers. Content isn’t an outcome of learning but the context of learning.”

If engagement is our goal, then we need to ask ourselves: What is the experience we want learners to have? Reframing the learning in the context of the learner, igniting their curiosity to learn is the priority.

Curiosity creates the need-to-know, it puts required learning outcomes in a context that is meaningful for the student. Yowell asks, “How do we create a need to know in a kid?”. Curiosity not curriculum documents have led to the great discoveries of the world.

    • Coloumbus’ curiosity changed the way human’s understand the world’s geography
    • Curiosity about uranuim and radiatation saw Marie Curie awarded two Nobel prizes in both chemistry and physics
  • Nobel prize winner Mohammad Yunnis’ curiosity led to the creation of loan system for the poor, those with no funds, to start their businesses.

And as Einstein remarked, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”.

Providing time and space to explore curiosity is at the heart of creating the need-to-know, and it taps into an individual’s emotions, intellect and identity , which are core elements of empathy. Understanding this is central to engagement and critical to designing learning experiences that matter to the learner. When empathy is authentically sought, the content then becomes important for the learner , they are more likely to engage on a deeper and purposeful level.

“What if I really wanted to design an experience that would make a nine year old want to know what a fraction is?”

Yowell suggests a paradigm shift, not thinking about content as an outcome of learning but as the context of learning. Content can become disconnected from what learners are actually doing – the role of the teacher in learning design is to connect the content to the context of learning.

Create-the-need-to-know: How might we design for engagement and meaningful learning experiences?

XP school1
Asking the learner at XP. School in the UK
    1. Know thy learner – always first!
    1. Begin with the end in mind – Authentic problems, outputs and products that mean something to the learner (How would do you know? Ask them!)
    1. Present a problem or idea that creates the need-to-know: Identify how the content is critical to the learner’s curiosity
  1. Identify how the environment and adult expertise is able to support the learner in their quest.


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