As we begin a new year, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned during my first calendar year at General Assembly. Ultimately, I came to GA because I am excited about how instructors, curriculum designers, career coaches, and support teams work with passion and creativity to create truly human learning experiences for learners embarking on the journey of reskilling. Although this journey is exciting, it can be scary. And this is always top of mind.
I’m also excited about the opportunity to build on the work already done at General Assembly to create learning experiences that prepare individuals for the future of work. That said, the question I always find myself asking is, “What makes good learning for adults?”
In this quest to continually understand, improve, and scale the active ingredients of good learning and career preparation, we’ll be sharing some of our thoughts and actionable steps through a series of blog posts.
So, let’s get to it!
Through my experiences in EdTech product development, I find that the best ways to most regularly and predictably impact learning is to:
- Start with clear learning goals.
- Understand your learners’ contexts, including their goals, prior experiences, and the assets they bring with them.
- Spell out your hypothetical theory of change that will get you success based on learning principles from the science of learning.
- Connect everything through a description of how you are intentionally designing, aligning, and engineering the instructional strategies, tools, curricula, content, and activities in your learning experience.
- Observe the learner and instructor behaviors you expect to see in diverse work and learning contexts.
- Measure impact against your learning goals.
- Iterate and continuously improve through experiments — large and small — as you continue to refine your understanding of learners, their goals, contexts, and learning experiences.
- Rinse and repeat.
Through this blog series, we’ll walk through each of these steps. In this first post, we’ll describe what we believe are the key goals our adult learners have when they turn to us for help in their career progressions. These goals are at the heart of GA’s philosophy of learning. That philosophy embeds into each component of our GA mission.
Understanding Your Goals for Learning
At the heart of every GA learning experience is a learner seeking to improve their life opportunities. While adults embark on learning journeys for many reasons (curiosity, to unlock career or financial opportunities, to gain credentials, because of someone else’s expectations, etc.), I want to focus on the tangible benefits of reskilling to enter a new, high-paying career field.
GA has done a tremendous job defining the fast track to reskilling in tech careers over the past ten years. In fact, 40,000+ have gained entry-level jobs in tech, data science, UX design, product management, and marketing. And we’re proud of our ability to help students get jobs within 180 days of graduation.
We believe we can do more to help our graduates not only land their first jobs but thrive throughout their careers. When you dig more deeply into what is behind reskilling, you see this includes more than supporting learners to get further degrees or credentials, portfolios, or interviewing skills. Successful reskilling requires understanding what motivates learners to begin that journey, how novices become experts, which competencies are required to perform job tasks successfully, and what strategies help learners continue developing through their whole careers long after they leave GA. While many of these goals have driven our learning design and instructional practices, we are setting a vision for a future GA learning environment built more on clear alignment to these in-depth goals.
Let’s break down the details.
1. Find belonging in a field or community of practice. Learners stick through the challenge of learning in an accelerated program or in a new field when they are motivated and interested through a desire to be a part of that community. For that reason, motivation is highly social. When learners feel connected to the field and have strong relationships with people in the community, they want to be a part of it. When they feel safe to take risks, they try new things (which is what learning is, after all), and are more receptive to feedback. They are more interested in learning for learning’s sake than proving their knowledge or abilities.
When learners feel disconnected, unwelcome, or out of place, they spend too much of their cognitive resources on validating their sense of non-belonging, which blocks them from developing new skills or knowledge. They are less likely to persist when things get hard, and they don’t explore career tracks or see themselves in roles. Under the stress of stereotype threat, they often enact self-fulfilling prophecies of low performance.
The best learning environments help learners explore new careers, including the day-to-day life and job tasks and the values and norms of people in those communities. Well-designed learning environments help learners build strong connections with people further along in the journey, giving them space to reflect on and internalize the values and norms of the community, helping them gain confidence through repeated successes. Good learning design also helps them understand the structures of communities and how to navigate from their periphery to their center. Learners gain the power to help shape, influence, or change the values or norms in that community (or even help start new communities).
Ultimately, well-designed learning environments empower the people within them.
2. Begin on a path to expertise. Once a learner decides to become a part of a field or community of practice, they embark on a route from novice to expert in that field. Ultimately, the goal of adult learning is the development of expertise. As novices, they don’t just know less than experts (though experts do have a MUCH bigger knowledge base to draw from); they actually think differently than experts. Novices have limited experiences to draw from, so they haven’t seen concepts, processes, or tools applied in a variety of settings or seen their flexibility and limits. They often break problems into smaller segments that require more mental effort to process rather than chunk together whole concepts as experts can. Novices also haven’t developed a lot of automaticity of knowledge or process, having performed tasks only a few times. As they get more experience, their thinking gets faster, more fluent, and more adept at detecting underlying patterns. So, to refine the adage, practice makes automatic!
On the other hand, many experts struggle to communicate what they know to novices since much of their knowledge is based on experiences that novices may not share. They also have difficulty verbalizing processes or concepts that have become automatic and subconscious. Defining and navigating the path to expertise takes more than just an expert trying to explain what they do; it takes good instructional design to break down learning into a pathway from novice to expert, allowing learners to practice and receive feedback in increasingly complex situations. Novices must also receive the kind of instruction that benefits them rather than experts (the “expertise reversal effect”).
3. Develop competencies to excel in job tasks. When the pathway to expertise is mapped out, it should be built on the tasks needed to function — and succeed — at different job levels. For learning to be most efficient, the tasks required for success in any job and job level should be broken down to competencies — See chapter 13 in this great book for more.
Unfortunately, this job task-oriented step is often overlooked when defining competencies. I’ve seen many training programs or job postings list general skills (i.e., Python, data visualization, communication). When I see those posts, I’m left wondering what does it mean to know Python, when has someone mastered that skill, in what contexts can they use it independently, or at what level of complexity do they have proficiency?
In other cases, training programs are built around theoretical learning objectives that don’t have clear connections to job performance. Students spend months or years learning things not directly applicable in a specific job. This theory/practice gap has plagued many academic programs and degrees.
Learners, employers, and instructors should be aligned on what exactly a learner will learn and be able to do, with which tools, and in which context. Then employers will clearly know what tasks a new employee can do independently now, where knowledge can transfer to new settings, what support they need during their first few years on a job, where they’ll need additional help, and what feedback or stretch assignments they might need next. Job training experiences such as apprenticeship programs, employer academies, or other employer-led programs do a great job at connecting formal learning with opportunities to practice, receive feedback, and expand complexity in clear job contexts. (We’ll explain more on how to design for this complex learning in future posts.)
4. Build self-directed learning skills. Good training programs help students understand what is needed to do job tasks. They also help students confidently communicate what they know and how they can succeed in future jobs through resumes, interviews, presentations, portfolios, or other means. Training programs help learners gain access to a broader network and connections with more communities of practice, where they can develop the relationships and gain the experiences that will move them to the center of a community.
That said, no matter how well any learning program prepares you to do a job, it can never equip learners for all the contexts they will encounter. Learners need to develop adaptive expertise to tackle new contexts, technologies, or problems through time, experience, and high-quality feedback. One of the key differentiators of adult learning is that adult learners usually direct what step is next. For this reason, adult learners need to develop self-directed learning skills, including how to define their own learning goals and figure out what learning opportunities will best get them there and how to make sense of how communities share information. For example, how to read the documentation for a new library or API, which blogs to follow to gain new strategies, or how to find and use helpful online tutorials. They also need to strengthen their support networks — peers, mentors, or other teachers they will turn to when they need help. Since technologies, procedures, and languages are always changing, adult learners need to continually refine their skills at being able to learn, ask for help, and apply good feedback.
While learning is complex, the most efficient and effective way we’ll be able to meaningly open more pathways to middle-class jobs for more global learners is to focus on building learning experiences that:
- Foster community, belonging, and tools to navigate new disciplines and fields,
- Support learners on the pathway from novice to expert with just-right experiences for the stage they’re in
- Design opportunities for learners to develop — and repeatedly apply — job-related competencies with increased independence and confidence, and
- Explicitly teach learners skills to support their path toward self-directed learning.
In our next post, we’ll talk about what employers are looking for as they hire, onboard, train and deploy employees in hard-to-fill roles. (Spoiler Alert: The goals will look very familiar!)