Discovering Learning Journeys
What was the first thing you thought about on the last day of school? I bet I can guess? Vacation time! Where would you go? Who would you go with? What would you do while you were there? I bet you even daydreamed about what you would eat. There are few things teachers enjoy doing more in their off-time than traveling. Whether we travel alone or in packs, we love to get away. But so do our students. You know that glassy look they get when your instruction goes on a smidge too long? They’re thinking about being anywhere else but in the classroom. And who can blame them? Most of the time, we are, too! So rather than having your kiddos daydream about taking a vacation from school, bring the vacation to them with learning journeys. In fact, bringing students on a learning journey has become my first Plus One strategy of the upcoming school year.
Why all this talk about classroom instruction when we’re supposed to be on summer break? Well, my family and I recently returned from a dream vacation in Italy—one that was over three years in the making: thanks, COVID.
We spent ages planning the trip, digitally exploring each city we would visit, checking out the top sites in those cities, and scheduling tours and activities for the must-do events. We also made sure to budget time to wander, to take little journeys into unexpected nooks and crannies of the city based on wherever we found ourselves at that time The combination of advanced planning coupled with spur-of-the-moment explorations meant that we were able to see all the “you-can’t-go-to-Italy-without-seeing-x" locations while still venturing off the beaten path to get to know the country in a way that was unique and meaningful just to us. Along the way, we learned new things about our destination and ourselves. I learned that Italy’s hills look prettier to your eyes than they feel to your legs. I tried new dishes. I learned how to toss pizza dough (well, my family learned how to toss pizza dough; I learned how to make a mess.)
For a woman who’s been called “the most structured person I’ve ever met” (which, in context, I’m not sure was meant as a compliment . . .), traveling to Italy pulled me outside of myself and pushed me to experience life in ways unlike anything I’ve experienced back home.
And that’s the magic of a vacation. Vacations pull us away from our everyday world, challenging us to see new things, to try new things, to experiment with life in ways we generally avoid when we’re in “the real world.” We love the freedom that a new adventure brings us. What if we could bring that same “sure, why not?” willingness to take risks, try something new, and push the boundaries to our students? How much better would the school year be if students experienced our instructional units not as curriculum to slog through, but as learning journeys to travel along? What if, instead of traveling outside of ourselves to discover something new, we brought the sense of adventure to our classrooms?
Travel Towards Discovery
It strikes me that planning a vacation is a lot like planning an instructional unit plan. There are the cities you will be visiting (your key unit materials), the top sites you “must see” (the learning objectives), and the unplanned little journeys you will take into the nooks and crannies of their learning (the surprising instructional detours students take when they start asking questions and engaging in the material—those unscripted micro-explorations that vary from class to class and that usually end with some amazing new insights).
But “unit plan” has a branding problem—it sounds boring. Worse. It sounds like work.
Can you imagine if you broke up a multi-city dream vacation into “units” and developed a plan for each one? Yuck! No traveler wants to journey along a unit plan. We want to journey along a travel itinerary.
And so do our students.
As teachers, we know that learning is a journey full of exciting sites, pitstops, bathroom breaks, and even some occasional boredom as we transition from one experience to the next. But our students often fail to see the journey, mired as they are in the hum drum of unit after unit of forced instruction.
Our unit plans are in need of an update. And what better way to capture students’ travels towards discovery than to rebrand our unit plans as “learning journeys?”
How to Transition to Learning Journeys
Transitioning to learning journeys can be as simple as changing up your existing terminology. Consider the positive emotional effect you can have on students just by changing the following terms:
Daily Lesson Plan
How much more engaging would it be for students to learn about the next journey they will be taking rather than the next unit they will be studying? Simple changes to our language can make that a reality.
And while we’re at it. . . you know those stamps you get in your passport when you successfully travel to a new land? Consider building those into your instruction as checkpoints for learning. Here’s how:
- At the beginning of the school year, create a “Passport to Learning” for each student. Each destination represents a core learning target.
- Every time a student successfully completes a learning target, they get a "stamp" in their passport with the goal being to acquire every required stamp before the school year ends.
This is a great way to embrace (and monitor progress for) Standards Based Learning while still keeping student learning fun. And because the stamp for each destination looks the same for every student, you eliminate grade competition. It no longer matters who earns the highest grade for that destination—all that matters is that everyone arrives at each destination before the year ends!
Souvenirs (a/k/a Key Takeaways)
Does anything functionally change by swapping out the language we use? Of course not. We’re still designing units of instruction with clear learning targets in mind. We’re planning daily activities to facilitate learning, differentiating for our students, and addressing any challenge areas as we go. But we’re doing it in a way that not only sounds like fun (who wouldn’t want to go on a learning journey, after all?) but also uses language that takes some of the connotative sting out of instruction.
“Reteaching” for example, is loaded with negative meaning, signaling to students that something went wrong. But “detour” is connotatively neutral. Everyone is familiar with being detoured from their original travel path, and because of that, we all recognize that detours are both normal and easy to address. With one simple switch, any potential stigma of being “retaught” goes away.
Why Make the Change?
Learning Journeys are an easy way to transform your unit plans from a chore to an adventure because:
- Swapping the language from unit-based instruction to journey-based instruction is super easy
- Arriving at “destinations” are a simple way to track individual learning targets
- Passport stamps make it both fun and easy to monitor yearly progress
- Updated language minimizes competition and reduces stigmas
- Students are more engaged when completing a Learning Journey than a Unit Plan
Begin Your Journey With Us
Want to take the stress out of planning your first learning journey? Enroll in Hidden Gems by clicking below and you'll gain access to an editable Learning Journey Template, lesson plans, activities, and other educator supports absolutely FREE! What are you waiting for? Enroll now!