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Pedagogy & Design

What are Real-World Learning Experiences?

Real-World Learning Experiences (RWLE) are designed in the spirit of Problem- and Project-Based Learning. Problem- and Project-Based Learning is a teaching and learning model that emphasizes self-directed and collaborative learning to construct knowledge, develop practical skills and reflect on attitudes. The real-world learning experiences are structured around concrete sustainability problems and, in upper levels, solution-oriented research and project work. We add a unique emphasis on actually getting students engaged in real-world environments outside of academic environments so that students can also learn from people and place about sustainability problems and potential solution pathways.

Our Design Aspirations

On this website, we compile a series of RWLEs drawn from sustainability and education research, our own experiences, and the work of many colleagues. Three design aspirations inform our approach: 1) Students’ exposure to place and experience matters, 2) Students’ ownership of their learning matters, and 3) Students’ responsibilities to society matters.

Place, exposure, immersion, and experience matter: knowledge is contextual! Consequently, we use a model – the staircase-model – that enlists the “real-world” as a teacher in a series of experiences that progressively build on each other and allow students to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes important for sustainability problem solving over the course of a degree program (e.g., four year undergraduate or two year graduate programs). Each level revolves around a type of RWLE: bringing the world into the classroom, visiting the world, simulating the world, and finally engaging the world to create change (Brundiers, Wiek, and Redman, 2010).

Ownership of learning matters: learning is iterative and collaborative! Consequently, we design the RWLE in the spirit of Problem- and Project-based Learning Approaches. In this approach, instructors become coaches, and students work in teams to develop potential solution pathways to a specific problem. Learning is self-directed, team-based, and revolves around a project, and formative evaluation helps students adjust performance and product development to meet class and project objectives. This approach lends itself to learning interpersonal skills like communication, teamwork, and project management (Brundiers and Wiek, 2013).

4 Step DiagramResponsibility to society matters: potential solution pathways are co-created! Consequently, we add a unique emphasis on actually getting students engaged in real-world environments outside of academia so that students can learn from people (experts, practitioners, and citizens) and places about sustainability problems and solution pathways. Engagements fall on an extractive – collaborative spectrum (Arnstein, 1969). In extractive engagements, partners provide one-time, one-way information and have minimal control over a project. In collaborative engagements, partners actually co-create knowledge; they are included in decision making for each step of the research process (Talwar, Wiek, and Robinson, 2011; Lang, et al., 2012). The RWLE model builds capacity in students for the challenging endeavor of co-creating knowledge by beginning with more extractive engagements in lower-level RWLEs and progressing to more collaborative engagements in higher ones.

When putting together the RWLEs we used two common educational design methods: “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2008) and “constructive alignment” (Biggs, 2001). The key is a step-based structure in which you start by identifying what you want students to get out of the RWLE in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (learning objectives), and then design the rest of the experience around those goals. The steps encourage you to check back frequently during the design to make sure that components align: that activities actually teach to your learning objectives, and assessment techniques are able to document and evaluate achievement of those learning objectives.

Advice for implementing RWLE in your classroom

In defining the learning objectives consider accounting for the following:

  • Framing for acquiring the sustainability competencies in terms of concepts, methods, skills and attitudes
  • Involving students with head, hands and hearts
  • Defining them as SMART objectives so that they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely
  • Reflecting the design aspirations of the New American University design so that students see their contributions to this institutional change process

Envisioning learning and teaching activities

  • Select the level of RWLE that affords working towards the objectives
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities between you and students

Assessing (documenting) and evaluating students’ learning

  • For documenting learning, consider outputs like written, visual, oral, physical performance, voice-capture or video
  • For evaluating learning consider the appropriate time for evaluation: throughout the activity (formative) or at the end (summative), or combinations of both; who will do the evaluation (you or the students)?

Lastly, find and use resources to support all of the above. In the appendix, we provide some initial resources such as templates and tutorials for students as well as websites that compile similar learning activities.