Mini Lesson 10

Creating Learning Opportunities

IN THIS MINI LESSON

TEXT SUMMARY OF MINI LESSON 10

In this mini lesson we are going to explore some strategies for creating your own Learning Opportunities. If the world is your classroom and you recognize that learning happens all of the time, you will also recognize that the possibilities for Learning Opportunities are almost unlimited.

It is a little bit of a good news/bad news situation. The good news is obviously that there are so many Learning Opportunities for you to participate in. The bad news is that there are so many Learning Opportunities for you to participating in that you might have trouble deciding where to start.

At u.school we refer to this as a Blank Page Problem. A Blank Page Problem is the frozen feeling you get when you are given a completely open-ended choice. When you have the option of doing anything, sometimes it is hard to decide what you want to do.

As an example, if I give a blank sheet of paper to a group of teenagers and say, "Draw whatever you want"

A few people will relish the blank page and draw something they are comfortable drawing.

A few will doodle squiggles in the upper right corner trying to look like they are drawing until I walk away and leave them alone, then they will stare at the page.

Many will look at me and shrug, "I don't know how to draw," they will say. "I don't like to draw." They will look over at the person next to them and see what they are drawing. "Maybe I will just do what they are doing," they will think. Even though the instructions were simple, "Draw whatever you want" the lack of rules and directions and ways to measure success made it tough.

Blank Page Problems are hard.

Blank Page Problems are especially hard for teenagers.

"You mean I am going to be judged not only on how I draw but also on what I choose to draw? Ugh."

You have been led to assume by society, by the media, by schools that there are right answers and wrong answers. Your job is to figure out the right answer, do that, and you will be fine.

Blank Page Problems challenge those assumptions.

Blank Page Problems say, "the world is much bigger than right and wrong answers", "the world is open-ended with without many instructions."

If, instead of saying "Draw whatever you want," I were to say, "Draw a cat." It would be a little bit easy for most people.

Some will still groan but at least they have a starting point. Some will draw a quick cartoon cat. Proud of their speed. Some will sketch a life like cat. Proud of their skill. Some will write the words, "A Cat". Proud of their cleverness.

Some will look at their neighbor and share. "What did you draw? I drew this." Trying to get any kind of positive feedback.

Some will hunch over their drawing so on one can see it, convinced that they drew the wrong kind of cat.

For many, "Draw a Cat" is much easier than "Draw whatever you want." It is still hard but at least it gets you drawing something.

The reality is that life is a Blank Page Problem.

And Blank Page Problems are hard.

But we just learned a strategy to deal with Blank Page Problems. If "draw a cat" is easier to tackle than "draw whatever you want" we can apply this to other Blank Page Problems.

"Draw a cat" is a useful limitation. It allowed you to get started because it limited your thinking to drawing a cat. We can think of it as an Intentional Constraint.

You might not have needed Intentional Constraints when you were in kindergarten. At five years old, "draw whatever you want" isn't really a problem. Five year olds just start drawing.

But you are older and you are more aware of the social world out there. You have learned that your choices have consequences. Your choices will be judged. You aren't as carefree as you used to be.

While it might seem a little bit sad to realize you are a little bit more anxious about how the world might see you. It is also a good thing. You think more deeply and are more intentional about your choices. That is what we mean by being a self-directed learner. A self-directed learner is autonomous and acts out of their own volition.

There is a difference between being "independent" which means to be or act alone and being "autonomous" which means being or acting of your own volition or free will.

Blank Page problems can be hard because they ask us to be autonomous and to use our own free will to decide where and how to start. Blank Page Problems challenge us to be autonomous.

The good news is that autonomous regulation is correlated with increased: persistance, positive affect, performance, psychological well-being, conceptual understand, creativity, productivity, and a healthier lifestyle (see the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci.)

So ... creating your own Learning Opportunity is a Blank Page Problem.

Blank Page Problems are hard.

Intentional Constraints is one strategy to tackle Blank Page Problems, as in, "Draw a cat" vs "Draw whatever you want."

We can use Intentional Constraints to tackle Create Your Own Learning Opportunity.

Being able to tackle Blank Page Problems, like Create Your Own Learning Opportunity is an indicator that you are growing into a self-directed learner and of your developing autonomy.

Three Strategies for Creating New Learning Opportunity

If you are stuck. If you just don't know what to do next. You are staring at the blank page of all the infinite possibilities of what to learn next and you don't know where to start. Here are three strategies you can employ.

Be Inspired by Examples

The first strategy is pretty simple. You don't have to re-invent the wheel. There have been learners before you. Take a look at what they did and see if it might be something that you want to do, too.

There is nothing wrong with duplicating or cloning someone else's Learning Opportunity. We are developing a list of Learning Opportunity ideas that you can use for inspiration. Some were done by u.school students, some are ideas we have developed, some are borrowed from projects we have seen elsewhere.

Feel free to browse through our list and see if anything looks interesting to you. Even if you clone a Learning Opportunity it will still be unique to you. No two people learn the same lesson the same way. We all bring our personal prior experience, our unique perspectives, our individual signature strengths to each Learning Opportunity.

With that said, don't be afraid to adapt, remix, and change these examples.

Maybe reading through the examples will inspire you to develop a skill (WHAT) but you will develop that skill in your own way (HOW). Maybe a Learning Opportunity where a learner is going to learn Knitting from their grandmother inspires you to learn knitting but you do it by watching YouTube tutorials. Or maybe you decide you want to learn something from your Grandmother but she can't knit but she can teach you how to change the oil in a car.

The examples are meant to inspire you. To get you past the Blank Page and get started. That can mean cloning or it can mean adapting.

Design from Scratch using WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, or HOW

Another strategy when developing a new Learning Opportunity is to start with one of the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW questions and work your way backward.

Instead of using those questions to describe a Learning Opportunity that you already completed, you are going to use those questions to develop a new Learning Opportunity.

As an example, let's start with WHO.

Let's imagine that you can't answer any of the questions except for WHO. You know that you want to work with your friend on something.

We can answer WHO. You want to learn with your friend.

At that point you probably want to sit down with your friend and brainstorm some ideas.

Is there a WHAT (content, skill, habit, or mindset) that you both are interested in? Do you both like a topic like sports, history, gaming, music? Do you both have a skill that you want to develop like writing, juggling, exercise, cooking? Do you both want to work on a habit like giving back to your local community or developing healthy sleep habits? If you sit down with the list of WHATs, does anything jump out at you?

Perhaps the next best question for you to answer is WHEN. Neither of you drive and you can only get together once a week for a couple of hours because you have to wait on someone to drive you to their house. That is a limitation that you are going to have to consider. If WHEN or WHERE is going to be a limitation, you want to make sure you take that into account.

How about HOW? Do you want to Create something together? Maybe you are both excited to create a comic book. Fill that in under HOW. Now that you have decided you are going to Learn by Creating you can think about filling in the WHAT. What will your comic book be about? Telling an original story? Recreating a story from literature or history? Explaining a concept in environmental biology? Visualizing the lyrics of a song or a poem? Creating a comic book will be a good way to leave Evidence of Learning. No matter what the content of the finished product, the process of creating a comic book will require skills and habits like writing, drawing, graphic design, managing a project, working as a team, accepting responsibility, patience and persistance, self-control and self-discipline, embracing an open-ended problem. But you can also combine the project of "creating a comic book" with a content area that you are both intersted in exploring and learning about.

And please remember, you don't have to turn every project into an "educational" version of something cool. If you just want to make a comic with original characters and original stories without turning it into a "history" or "science" assignment. That is perfectly ok. If, on the other hand, you want to explore African Folk Tales and turn them into comics. That is perfectly ok, too.


So that project started with WHO.

Let's imagine starting with WHAT. In particular, WHAT (Content). WHAT (Content) has to do with the subject or topic of what you are learning about. It could be a broad category like Science or it could be very specific like the impact of radiation on the human body.

Remember the trick to this technique is to just start somewhere. Start adding in Intentional Constraints to limit your blank page and trigger ideas.

So when we think of WHAT we could start with, "I want to learn more science" or "what happens to the human body when it is exposed to radiation." Both are starting points. One is a more specific and probably gets us closer to an idea. But, truthfully, both are fine starting points.

If you said, "I want to learn more science" we can take a look at a list science topics and start getting more specific.

We could also combine science with a different WHAT (Content) and see what happens.

What if you combined "Science" with "Current Events" and explored what are some of the latest news stories in science. Or we combined "Science" with "Computers" and we tried to understand the scientific under pinnings of the computer you are using right now.

What if you combined "Science" with "Literature" and looked for a book or movie or poetry that explored science through a literary lens.

What if you combined "Science" with "Feminism", "Science" with "LGBQTI+", "Science" with "Dance", "Science" with "Entrepreneurship", "Science" with "Dessert". There are all kinds of ways to narrow down to get to a topic that excites you.

But what if you already have a specific topic? Like, "The impact of radiation on the human body." You probably don't need to narrow that down by combining it with other WHAT (Content). Instead, we are going to combine it with HOW.

Using HOW (Create), HOW (Do), HOW (Discover)

HOW can refer to the manner or method in which you are learning something as in teacher-directed, student-driven, self-paced, as a project, in a classroom, synchronous, asynchronous, etc. (see HOW :: METHODS).

At u.school we refer to three special HOWs that we think are valuable ways to learn something. They are learn by creating something or HOW (Create), learn by doing something or HOW (Do), and learn by discovering something or HOW (Discover).

Let's examine a way we can design a Learning Opportunity around "the impact of radiation on the human body" by combining it with one of these three special HOWs.

HOW (Create) has to do with creating something. In the end you will have a product that can be shared. HOW (Create) is a great way to end up with Evidence of Learning because at the end of the Learning Opportunity you have something tangible. There are a lot of things you could create (see HOW :: Create) but lets imagine a few for this Learning Opportunity.

You could explore "the impact of radiation on the human body" by creating an infographic, an animation, a documentary, a comic book, a Post Apocalyptic Field Guide, a song, a musical, a play, a podcast episode, a wiki page, an invention, a 3D model, a game. I could go on with dozens more. But each one will require you to research "the impact of radiation on the human body" and then apply that research to your final product. It will require understanding your audience, communicating your message, and being accurate with what you say. In the end, you will not only learn a lot about "the impact of radiation on the human body" but you will have Evidence of Learning to demonstrate what you have learned.


HOW (Do) has to do with learning by doing. Internships, shadowing, interviewing, projects, developing hands-on skills, practicing. teaching, performing, and working for a cause are all types of learning by doing.

Now, we don't want you to explore "the impact of radiation on the human body" by exposing yourself to radiation. That's a bad idea. And for this particular topic, it might limit the types of "learn by doing" activities that are safe. But perhaps you could explore places that use radiation and see what they do to protect the people who work or visit there. Dentists offices, doctor's offices, hospitals, universities are places that use radiation. Perhaps you could arrange a visit to see what precautions and technologies they use to protect the human body. You could interview the technicians about what they do and why they do it.

Maybe you could shadow dental and medical technicians for a day and see what steps they take to protect themselves and others from radiation.

Maybe you could find other businesses and institutions in your area who use radiation and visit their facilities.

Maybe you could reach out to professors and professionals who study radiation safety and interview them in person or remotely and ask about their work.

If we explore other HOW (do) or Learn by Doing methods we can find even more ways to explore "the impact of radiation on the human body". One method of Learn by Doing is to teach or deliver a presentation. Perhaps you could learn about the impact of radiation and deliver a presentation to an interested audience.

Another method in the Learn by Doing arsenal is to get involved in a cause. You could find an organization that deals with radiation and its impact and join, volunteer, or help raise money. Maybe the organization you are interested in doesn't exist or doesn't have a chapter in your community and you could lead the process of starting one.


Finally, HOW (Discover) involves learning through the process of discovery. Learning isn't only collecting existing knowledge. Sometimes it can involve creating new knowledge. It can involve doing actual science, uncovering problems, finding solutions to problems, conducting historical research, investigating mysteries, collecting data, curating and organizing information to give new insights, conducting polls and surveys, travelling somewhere new, or trying something new.

Some ways you might include HOW (Discover) or Learning by Discovery into learning about "the impact of radiation on the human body" could include:

Borrow or buy a consumer-level geiger counter and test the base level of radiation around your home and your community.

Do a historical review of the use of medical and commercial radiation in your community

Research old news reports and documents related to building nuclear power plants in your community. Were there protests or concerns at the time? Perhaps you could follow up with the people involved and conduct an oral history of the events.

Conduct a survey to research patient's attitudes towards the use of x-rays or radiation or towards nuclear power or nuclear weapons.

Gather data about illness and death due to radiation exposure and develop an infographic, presentation, database to communicate the statistics to a specific audience.


As you can see, there are many ways to use the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW framework to design a unique Learning Opportunity. Even if you start with a Blank Page, you can use a few simple techniques to start the process of narrowing down ideas and building a Learning Opportunity that makes sense for you.

Feel free to use the Field Guide for examples, worksheets, and ideas to trigger the creation of new Learning Opportunities.


Previous Mini Lesson .......... Field Guide Home