Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.
AS A STUDENT
Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.
Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.
Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.
AS A TEACHER
Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.
Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.
AS A DESIGNER
Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.
Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.
AS A STRATEGIST
Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.
Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.
As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.
Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?