Signature Experiences: The Moments We Fall in Love With Learning

Signature Experiences: The Moments We Fall in Love With Learning

What are the moments in your PK-12 education that were transformative, or had the most lasting impact on you? It’s fascinating to hear people describe these powerful learning moments, which we refer to here as “signature experiences.”

For Jeff, he was deeply inspired as an 11th and 12th grader by teaching hands-on science lessons to local elementary students; the program was organized by his chemistry teacher, Mr. Ron Perkins.

In the 9th grade, Alex spent hours in his local library researching and preparing for an extra-curricular debate tournament on whether the government should legislate morality.

We have a hypothesis that signature experiences contain a vital set of insights for those of us who are designing “schools” and learning environments. Signature experiences motivate students to keep learning, to take initiative, and to carve out a future path for themselves and the world around them.

But among the friends we informally polled, most of whom are college educated, they reported having remarkably few signature experiences throughout their K-12 education. Some reported having none at all. Even more interesting, few of the signature experiences cited actually occurred inside the formal classroom.

This leads us to ask, how can we design signature experiences more intentionally in our schools, so they are not simply serendipitous occurrences that some students are lucky enough to have?

Here are a few responses from our informal poll of Jeff’s Facebook network:

  • Massie Ritsch, Communications Executive: “One that sticks with me was at summer camp when I was 14 or 15. Two professional photographers were shooting the camp viewbook (yes, it was printed then), and I got to pal around with them for a week, seeing how they set up shots. Almost everything I know about ad staging and photography came from that experience, which was made possible by a camp director who recognized I would have more fun doing that than paddling a river.”
  • Tony Vargas, School Board Member: “When I was 16 I attended a blitz build for habitat for humanity in Anniston, Alabama. For the first time, I experienced life in the South. We built a house from scratch in two and a half weeks alongside local volunteers and 20 other youth from across the county. We slept in a neighborhood rec center on cots, we cooked our own food, spent nights going to community churches, meeting people and hearing their stories. I learned a tremendous amount about humility, my own identity, service to others, and a tremendous amount about racism and segregation. The experience I had working with strangers from all walks of life to build a home from scratch with my own two hands, especially in a community that simultaneously welcomed me and pushed me was great. I'll never forget putting up drywall with the family who eventually lived in the house...they were so grateful.”
  • Corinne Hammons, Non-Profit CEO: “In 5th grade, we had an author, Bruce Brooks, come speak to our class when he won the Newbery award for “The Moves Make the Man.” This was the first time I'd met an actual author, and connected the world of books to the world of book analysis. It was really a foundational moment for much of what has interested me since.”

Others cited acting in a school play, editing the school newspaper, making the varsity basketball team, working in summer internships, an interesting class project, or a powerful service project.

A few interesting trends emerged as we looked across dozens of examples of signature experiences:

First, signature experiences tend to stand out because they fill unmet needs. Respondents cited deeper relationships, opportunities to take more responsibility, and exposure to new ideas. People recalled experiences where they were challenged to do more, rose up to the challenge, and experienced the euphoria and increased confidence associated with their newfound agency.

Second, people report having remarkably few signature experiences throughout their K-12 education. Some reported having none at all.

Third, when signature experiences did occur, they infrequently took place during regular class time, which is where students spend the majority of their time in school (and where the majority of the school budget goes). They tend to take place after school, during “specials” time, in places of employment (for those who have jobs), or over the summer (for those who can afford summer experiences). Interestingly, few of the signature experiences that were reported involved 1:1 use of technology; they were largely social.

As such, we believe the phenomenon of signature learning experiences likely highlights a particularly pernicious dimension of the “opportunity gap” between those who come from socioeconomic experiences that can afford a wide range of such experiences—often after-school and during the summer—and those who do not.

So why don’t signature experiences occur more often?

Turning Scarcity Into Opportunity

The good news is signature experiences do not seem to take a lot of time. They can occur in a single class period, over the course of a week, or over a six-week, half-day summer program. In most cases their time footprint is 100 hours or less, which is less than a half-day a week on average, over the course of the year. To put this in perspective, students spend over 1,000 hours per year in school and over 13,000 hours during their K-12 careers—plenty of time for transformative experiences and enduring memories.

But this may also explain why signature experiences are so scarce in schools. When a decentralized school system is responsible for 13,000 hours of programming for thousands of students, it is difficult to think of optimizing even 10 percent of that time to create transformative experiences for children.

We don’t mean to suggest or to conclude that “non-signature” learning experiences are unimportant or undeserving of time or resources. For example, the student whose signature learning experience was editing the school newspaper would not have been able to do this if she hadn’t first learned to read and write. But we also wonder how frequently students are having “negative signature experiences,” ones that are memorable but for the wrong reasons—in some cases, making students hate subjects, tune out to educators and, worse, themselves.

As our field enters the next generation of learning design, it’s essential that efforts to personalize or make learning more efficient do not lose sight of the importance of signature learning experiences for children. Rather than offering a tidy list of the “Top 10 Things Schools Should to do Transform Learning,” we would like to explore the following questions with other interested educators:

  • Are signature experiences serendipitous in nature, or can we create schools where many more students can experience them? What would these schools or learning environments look like?
  • Taking this even further, what might a school look like if it were comprised largely of signature experiences?
  • What do we know about adult teachers and other leaders who create magic moments for students?
  • What type of investments do school systems need to make to provide signature experiences to lots of students, not just a few?

Let us know your answers to these question in the comments below. Specifically: Did you have signature experiences in K-12? How many? What were they? How can we design learning environments where students don’t have to proverbially strike gold to be turned on to learning.

Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is an EdSurge columnist and a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools. Jeff Wetzler (@jeffreywetzler) is co-founder of Transcend, a nonprofit organization that fuels innovation in school design in close partnership with visionary school operators around the country.

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