Change Your Days by Designing Your Own Learning Experience

by John Zeratsky

My friend Erik Skogsberg is an expert in the design of learning experiences. As a former high-school English teacher, he became obsessed with questions about how educational growth and transformation happen. This led him to get a PhD in curriculum and instruction, and he brings this expertise to the re-imagining of learning experiences at Michigan State University.

Wait—what does this have to do with Make Time? Well, there are two important connections…

First, as you’ll read below, every transformation is a learning experience. Any change to you want to make—to your health, relationships, or yeah, even the way you spend your time—is fundamentally a process of learning new skills, processes, and mindsets. If you’re thinking about making a change in your daily life, this is a helpful perspective. (You’ll see lots more about this below.)

Second, Erik helped us design The Highlight Course. If we want to be successful in our mission of helping people make time for what matters, we realized we needed to go below the surface with this course. We couldn’t just slap together some videos and put them online. We had to design a course experience that walks through a deliberate process of learning the tactics, practicing on your own, getting feedback in real time, and being supported by a community of your peers as well and Jake and me. Erik helped us do exactly that.

The more we worked with Erik, the more I came to appreciate his depth of his knowledge. And it goes way beyond traditional classroom education. Erik helped me see that life itself is a learning experience—and when we view it that way, we gain a perspective that helps us design our own personal transformations.

Here’s the partial transcript of an interview I recorded with Erik recently. Anywhere you see bold text, that’s me calling your attention to something that I think is interesting.

A complete, unabridged audio recording of our conversation is available as part of the Make Time Bonus Pack.

JZ: Hey Erik! Would you mind talking a little bit about your role and the kind of work that you do and how you got into it?

Erik: I’m the Associate Director here at the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology and in that role I guide a lot of our overall organizational strategy, help with our professional development, and supporting our teams as we execute really what is large-scale learning experience design work for the University.

The hub is an internal design consultancy for the University. But if I were to distill it down, a lot of what we do is we help people redesign existing programs. We help people stand up new programs. We help people move existing programs in the online space.

A lot of what we do is focused on designing a more valuable student experience; making Michigan State the place that students want to come.

And we really believe as an organization that that starts with being student focused, so we use a lot of human-centered design approaches in our work. As the Associate Director, I guide a lot of that overall strategy for where we’re going as an organization.

I got into this work after multiple years involved in education. I started out as a high school educator; I was a high school English teacher for three years back out in Washington State.

I grew up in a family that was in education. My dad was a public school teacher and I went and did the same and got to a point where there were questions that were coming up for me in my work that I wanted to further pursue in graduate school and really carve out some space for research.

So that led me into doing a PhD in curriculum instruction and teacher education. And had me both taking up those questions about the classroom and practice and best ways to support students in learning and also to help others grow and being teachers or facilitators. 

After completing my PhD work, that was about the time that the Hub was opening and opportunities intersected and right place, right time. This was the place that I jumped into and wanted to go to further realize what work I had been doing in the past.

JZ: That’s really cool. When we first met, I remember being intrigued by the perspective that you bring to learning—the sense of designing an educational experience. When I think about being in school, you know, I don’t always think of that experience as having been designed. It just sort of seems like, well, the classes are the way classes are. And I wonder… the challenges or issues or questions you wanted to tackle in your research, had those always been there, or were those things that had changed over time as our world and our technology and our institutions have changed?

Erik: It’s a really interesting question. I think it’s a bit of “both and”. You know, growing up as a son of a public school teacher, I saw one side of that designed experience, if you will, because my dad often times talked about what he was doing in the classroom, how it was working, how it could be better, how students were taking it up.

And so that was certainly something that was in my mind as I was deciding to pursue education. I was asking similar questions: how could I create the best or design the best sort of experiences to ultimately get both me and my students in the directions that we hoped we could go?

To your point about new technologies… as computers and laptops were more available, and as students began bringing smartphones and other devices into the classroom…

How can we integrate those technologies in a way that best supports where I want to go in a class and is also most responsive to what students value? A lot of what has driven me in education is creating the best and most valuable experiences with students and starting with where they are versus what I think would be best for them.

They bring their hopes, dreams, and valuable practices from outside of the classroom. I was hoping, you know, across any classroom that I’ve been a teacher in or facilitated, we could co-design a learning experience together based on what they valued and ultimately the direction that we collectively where we’re hoping to go.

So, I’ve always been interested in how to best design those experiences, but as new technologies came to be, it added another layer to that question and that’s what I’ve always loved to do is to figure that puzzle out. 

JZ: When you talk about where a student wants to go, that seems like a very progressive idea. Again, just thinking back to many of my educational experiences, it seems like it’s all about where the teacher wants to go.

And it seems like, in its worst form, it’s about what tests we’re required to pass and what assessments we need to reach or whatever it might be.

So when you think about the work you do now: What do students want? I mean, what is the goal? In the ideal state, what are the students trying to get out of the learning experiences that you design and how do you figure out what that is?

Erik: It really is a new set of questions and answers each time because it’s so contextual to that group of students or that class or experience. But in large part, what I’ve learned over the years is that students want fruitful paths for their lives, a fulfilling life after that educational experience, to make enough money to be comfortable, hopes for self-actualization, whether they would use those terms or not; these common themes always come up. And I hear more and more about really wanting to make a positive impact in local communities and the world at large.

I hear less and less about, “I want to make sure I know this content right, or I want to make sure I’ve secured, you know, X class or X book.” It’s more focused on what we could do out in the world.

So that’s oftentimes what comes up as I’m talking with folks, regardless of discipline. And to your point about starting with where the student is, I mean, you’re right. That’s pretty radical.

And that has always been a motivator for me in my work in education. Too often, unfortunately, education has been watered down into performance on a test or schooling systems have been used to just sort students out.

And we end up missing out on the awesome potential of students from across a variety of communities and backgrounds based on how our school systems and tax structures are set up. This oftentimes falls down across racial lines that the schooling system has oftentimes been a part of sorting against.

Really starting with where the students are and valuing who they are… building from there is a radical, but for me, an essential starting point. It’s a lot more fun to teach from that vantage point because then it’s always a surprise as to where we go, and then I’m also learning in the process.

JZ: When you talk about life skills and self-actualization and the ability to have an impact and the ability to provide for oneself, these sound like really universal goals.

How much of this approach is spreading outside the educational system and outside of formal educational institutions?

Because when I think about people trying to be better about managing their money or be healthier or make good use of their time… to what extent are these ideas spreading beyond the educational world? How can people they use these principles in their overall lives?

Erik: It makes me wonder how organizations might do a better job supporting their employees or the clients they work with. Really starting from what they bring into that space and a focus on that self-actualization and goal setting and looking for ways to connect to what people want and where they want to go versus forcing what the organization wants them to do. 

JZ: So you mean in a sort of employee/personal-development sense? Treating that process and that relationship as more of a learning experience and less of a management experience. 

Erik: Yes. And what that does is sees each person in the organization as a human being in process and their growth as integrally linked to the growth of the organization.

JZ: And sees them as a learner and not just an employee or a cog in the machine.

Erik: Exactly. And what an awesome and much more dynamic way to see people and then the growth of an organization.

Transformation at its core is very much about learning. Learning and growth. Starting at one place, hoping to get to another, and that process through which we get there.

And I think if we saw the people that we worked with as in process, as learners, as in this process of transformation, we’d see some really awesome outcomes in the directions that we can individually and collectively go.

JZ: When you approach a learning design project, are there a set of criteria you try to hit to make that student experience as great as it can be?

Erik: Yeah. The first is self-assessment. Or what we call metacognition—thinking about your thinking. This is really important because it has you providing some “self feedback,” if you will.

Based on where I’m hoping to go, here’s where I am, and here’s what I need to shift or adjust. And that’s a key process, whether it’s inside or outside of a classroom.

JZ: As you know, a key part of the Make Time framework is the daily Reflect step. A big revelation for me was that people are used to being very analytical and critical about their work and about what they’re doing at their jobs, but most people, it seems, are not in the habit of doing that reflection or that self-assessment about their time, which is something that obviously is so important to everybody. 

Erik: Totally.

JZ: So, what’s the rest of the “checklist” of those elements you try to design into a great learning experience?

Erik: When I’m going into the design of an experience, I’m thinking about something that has clear outcomes and something that is very much about how that experience will help students actualize whatever knowledge, habits, skills, values would come out of that course and into the world.

I spend a lot of time thinking through: On the last day of the course, or if you ran into a student six months later, what do you hope will still be there? Cause that ultimately helps us keep the design of that experience focused on realizing those objectives and outcomes there.

JZ: It sounds very tangible. Like the outcomes are not just knowledge, not just a couple new pages in your personal encyclopedia. It’s skills or values or mindsets or perspectives.

Erik: That’s a key thing.

We were talking earlier about self-assessment. But I also do a lot of work making sure that instructors are clear on how they will know students reached the desired outcomes.

What does that look like? What did they do? Or what did they produce? Or what comes out of this in terms of a project or a new outlook or something that has been done?

And then embedding little checks along the way. Little assessments along the way that help the educator/facilitator see where students are and then also for students to see where they are too.

So that’s another key piece. 

The next one is regular feedback. And that can come in a variety of forms. When it comes down to it, a lot of feedback distills down to: How’s it going? And what do I need to do next?

So when I’m working with folks on the design of any experience, we’ve got to embed both those assessments and those feedback points so that folks can adjust and practice.

JZ: And does that feedback come from the instructor or does it come from peers? Where does that come from ideally?

Erik: Ideally both. Because having multiple perspectives on your practice is really important. There are points at which it’s better to have some peer feedback. It can sometimes be more helpful or would resonate more with folks in their learning journey.

So I’d say having it from both angles and in ways that align back to the overall objectives for the course are ideal.

JZ: That makes me think of one of the positive benefits of all the digital and networked technologies that we have, which the opportunities for peer feedback and peer validation that they provide.

You know, the ability for a nerdy kid growing up in a rural area, as I was, to go online and discover a community of people who are into what you’re into. It’s just a different paradigm than the traditional top down model, whether it’s in media or education. It seems like there’s a connection there between how our world has changed and what that means for the educational experiences that we have.

Erik: Agreed. And that’s given rise to a variety of what folks call communities of practice that can sometimes be organized top down, but are oftentimes more self organizing based on just what folks want to learn to do better. And in fact, they find each other based on what they want to practice together and then create these more informal communities that provide the space through which that growth happens.

Erik has been working with us on developing The Highlight Course, which is the 4-week program that Jake and I have created to help people establish sustainable and durable habits around making time for what matters to them. And one of the elements of that course—one of the really essential components of it—is that peer group, that community.

JZ: Can you talk about the other benefits of community? Are elements of support or accountability that maybe don’t stem from structured feedback but really are important benefits of learning and building new skills and habits in the company of your peers?

Erik: The two things that you mentioned—support and accountability—are key benefits of being part of a cohort or a community that’s embedded in this course. You know when you have a community of folks that are counting on you and you’re counting on them as you’re committed to realizing the outcomes of a course. There’s some built-in motivation for doing the work and sticking to the work. We as human beings are social animals.

When it comes to support, that cohort also offers a space for folks to share their successes and challenges in both learning and practicing new approaches. And because they have a relationship you can celebrate in those successes and then lean on each other when it comes to the challenges that come up.

Another big thing that happens when folks learn in groups is that you really have the opportunity to benefit from multiple perspectives on course material or on that learning experience. You know there’s a lot more out now about the importance of a diversity of perspectives when it comes to an organization and when it comes to the strength of teams, when it comes to the strength of a learning experience.

It also gives you a window into new ideas or new approaches that you might not have thought about. You’re listening to folks who may be excelling in areas that you’re struggling in, and vice versa.

JZ: What have we not covered?

Erik: The final thing I look for in great learning experiences is an opportunity to practice in ways that map closest to the real world.

For example, in The Highlight Course, folks can read the book and learn about the strategies there. But, it really comes down to being able to apply those strategies in their lives. When it comes to skill building, practice and feedback are key. You really need that opportunity to actually do this in the most authentic way possible. You’re in that learning experience for it to be a success after that experience is done.

JZ: In the workshops that I teach—the Design Sprint workshop and the Make Time workshop—I have a mantra that I use for myself and sometimes with the participants, which is “Do it for real.” There is a tendency when in a classroom-type environment to operate in this sort of fake, artificial headspace. And I’m always trying to push people and always trying to push myself to do it for real. Actually apply the activities, the things you’re learning, practice it in as realistic of an environment as possible.

JZ: Most of the people listening to this probably are not designing learning experiences and most of them are probably not participating in The Highlight Course (although obviously I hope that we will reach as many people as possible with it).

But for everybody else, is there a way to apply this stuff to individual life?

Erik: Definitely. I think it comes back to, again, being clear with yourself about where you’re ultimately hoping to go. And that takes some really important self-work, but being real clear on that is key.

And then, how you as an individual would know if you got there. Right? What does that mean? Is that the book being done, is that the race that you finished, is that whatever tells you that you’ve ultimately reached that point?

And then chunking that out in a way that helps you slowly build to that and gather feedback, both the self-assessment pieces, the assessment of peers, the assessment of experts.

One of the most powerful pieces in the Make Time framework, amongst the landscape of powerful things there is, is that daily reflection. The way that we embed reflection across our lives is a really helpful gathering point for us to step back and get a sense of: Here’s where I’m hoping to go, here’s what I’m planning to do to get there, and here’s how I know if I’m making progress.

Those reflections are really powerful–simple and powerful things that we can do across a variety of spaces in our lives.