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Make a Specific Plan of Action

By Disan Davis

Translating your goals into discrete, measurable steps can seem challenging, but with the right approach and mindset, you can create a strategy to hit your target.

Photograph by Mario Morgado

When doing outreach, we are often engaging with others to increase understanding and/or trust in scientific ideas and values in our communities. Sometimes we want to mobilize people as informed voters, or raise awareness around a particular issue. By articulating these actions, we can work backwards to outline what we can do to best support these actions as outcomes of our work. This process of working backwards is known as backwards design—a strategy developed to promote clear, effective planning with the end-goal in center focus.

This may feel like a challenging exercise when the actions we want are not traditionally science actions. Do we want our audience to learn something about climate change science for the sake of knowing data or so that they can take part in community and political discussions, and even to take direction themselves to mitigate this problem? The actions we desire might be political, interpersonal, or future-career driven and that is okay—even great! Clarity in how we want science outreach messages to create relevance and action for our audience is a big first step for effective experiences.

Once you know the outcomes and actions you want to achieve, you can articulate learning objectives as more specific, actionable statements that provide the framework for an individual session. They are a great, straightforward check that the students have learned what you wanted them to. Learning is a process of building on students’ existing knowledge toward a new goal, as you previously articulated.

Using the SWBAT Method to Create Learning Objectives

Learning objectives can be written in various ways. I like the clarity of the SWBAT method: Students Will Be Able To …. [filled in with an action verb, and possibly more details to qualify the outcome].

For example, you wouldn’t say “SWBAT know the climate is warming” because how do you know that they know? It is vague and risks treating students like receptacles for information (what Freire called the Bank Model as students were like empty accounts waiting to be filled). Instead, think in terms of what you want the students to do, for example, “SWBAT identify charts consistent with warming climate over time” or “SWBAT explain the difference between warming climate and warm temperature.”

While the SWBAT objective structure may sound specific to the classroom setting, I argue that this lens can be applied broadly to any action you hope your outreach community will undertake based on your interactions. Keep in mind that learning objectives can be content focused, skill focused, or context focused. There is/are no right one/s. You may even want to articulate objectives in two of these three dimensions, but probably limit yourself before trying to address all three at one time.

You may not always reach your target learning objective, and on rare occasions you throw it out the window when things are very unexpected, but this objective should act as a guide to keep focus on the desired outcomes you hope to reach with your audience. By making the end goal clear to the learner, they can have agency in working to achieve this goal with you. If the end goal isn’t exciting to them, then maybe reconsider your end goal.

You’re not done just yet… Once you’ve written an objective or two, think about what you do in the course of your lesson or activity to scaffold learners’ ability to perform the desired action. Are you demonstrating this type of action in your lesson? Are you asking learners to explore parts of the action or parts of the topic in clear ways? As you think about these pieces, you are going deeper into backwards design. This can be very effective for deciding what components are the best uses of your limited time with your learners. Remember, you still must get to know the learners and build trust in order to build on their knowledge and experiences. So, think about whether the content you deliver can be streamlined (e.g. unnecessary vocabulary, rabbit holes, or soapbox speeches) to cut out some pieces that might distract from the main idea(s) you want the learners to take away, remember, and act upon. Maybe even take some advice from William Faulkner and “kill your darlings” to focus on what’s best for your audience and save a few things you enjoy for another time or place.

Strategies to Help Achieve Goals and Objectives

  1. To find out where your learners are at (at any point in your time together)
    • Do Now (asking an initial question of students while settling into the session, usually written or projected on the board)
    • Pre-test (especially helpful if you want to collect data on changes between pre- and post- tests)
    • Interactive survey tools (clickers, poll everywhere, etc.) that allow you to ask questions and collect learners’ responses in real time, etc.
    • Think-pair-share questions to encourage sharing between learners
    • Museum walk with post-its to collect ideas in quiet, non-verbal ways
    • Jigsaw activities to get individuals to draw on expertise from others in the group (great when you’re bringing together lots of people with different backgrounds and experiences)
    • Photo association can help to engage on more emotional or abstract levels e.g. what do you think of when you see this image or choose an image that represents how you feel about an idea
  2. To encourage skill building and taking action
    • Initiate individual projects (such as experiments or community projects) and bring back their results and questions for clarification, validation, and optimization
    • Inquiry-based learning, which primarily emphasizes scientific skills of experimental design, data analysis, articulation of hypotheses, etc.
  3. To help your audience process new information
    • Wait time (my personal favorite) — what you’re saying and asking is likely very new, so give the students time to think; 10 sec is nothing in thinking time, but feels like forever when you’re waiting, so count to 10 or look around at something so you don’t rush or steamroll past good-ideas-in-progress
    • Reflection — asking students to reflect on their experiences, new knowledge, and perspectives on a science outreach experience can help to strengthen the connections to existing knowledge and experience, while asking students to reflect on what to share of their experience with their family or community can help them to think about why they learned what they did and how they can take agency
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