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Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Content


Cube sketch blue

In my previous posts about “natural” learning and “formal” learning, I sketched out a multidimensional learning model comprised of three facets: content, community, and context.  In this post and the next several, I’ll move from overall structural considerations (posts on the community and context dimensions) to some of the pragmatics for applying and deploying this multidimensional model. How does this “cubic” learning approach apply systematically to various learning situations? How can we measure particular pedagogical approaches in light of these three constituent dimensions? How does this model integrate with other existing learning models and taxonomies?

For most of us who have worked as teachers — and this is certainly true of those in secondary and higher education — the majority of our training has come in a particular content area: math, language, science, art…. For those of us outside of primary education, it’s far more likely that we’ve been trained to serve as content experts than to serve as creators of learning opportunities. I think this is the reason so many academics are distrustful both of emerging technologies and the emerging collection of more collaborative teaching practices. Their resistance is understandable. In both cases, teachers can feel they’re being forced to embrace elements that they see as undermining or even antithetical to their very existence. As one former colleague put it when we were discussing how mobile technologies and student-led discovery could redefine the learning environment: “you’re trying to put me out of a job.”

It’s true that many emerging learning models challenge some of the learning constructions teachers have traditionally known and used, but the last thing I’m trying to do is get rid of teachers. In fact, if anything, my model requires teachers even more — but also even more from teachers. It necessitates a move up the DIKW pyramid from data and information (where many of us are most comfortable) to knowledge and wisdom. Of course, moving up the pyramid can be intimidating and even disorienting for some. Rather than focusing on the transfer data and information, this move toward wisdom requires teachers whose knowledge of their subject allows them to see (and often to generate) chances for exploration and application and to exercise and demonstrate how wise practitioners evaluate both opportunities and products within a discipline. So teachers are absolutely necessary, but less as “conduits” and more as designers.

But designers of what? How do we design within these three dimensions and what does such a “cubic” learning environment look like? To begin, let’s consider each of the dimensions separately, starting with content.

Content (“N”)

When we talk about “content,” we very often focus on the material itself — data, examples, theories, information, and so forth. However, I’d like to focus not on the different kinds of material we might work with in a discipline, but rather the ways we access that material — our relationship with it. Seen from this vantage, what emerges is a series of increasingly complex and mature interactions that move responsibility and agency from outside of the learner increasingly inside. The four levels of content, which we’ll represent with an “N” to distinguish it from the other dimensions, look something like this:

Content Dimensions


• Content level 1 (“N1”): At the most basic level, material is delivered to learners — compiled, sorted, curated, and packaged by someone else (for example, an expert or a teacher) and provided to support the learning experience. The learner has effectively no responsibility at this level other than to process the material; she doesn’t need to make any judgments or decisions but is simply meant to consume and internalize. This corresponds to the two lowest levels of Anderson and Krathwohl’s revision of Bloom’s taxonomy — “remember” and “understand” — or to the lowest level of Webb’s “depth of knowledge” (DOK) — “recall.” Material that is delivered, it’s important to note, is also the most “abstract” or “distanced.” Learners do not need to understand why it was chosen, have not expended any effort in discovering or assembling it (and thus can feel little ownership or sense of value), and experience no particular agency in processing it. It is the content of another, chosen by another, and delivered for the purposes of another. For this reason, learners can feel detached from this material, and that separation can create challenges when it comes to engagement. At its most extreme, learners at this level can manifest their sense of detachment and disengagement as rejection.

• Content level 2 (“N2”): At the second level, learners are directed toward material rather than having it delivered to them. Material is still curated by a teacher or expert, who provides a “map” to help learners locate it. However, at this level, the learner has to exercise discretion, choosing from among the materials to find what is most relevant for his project or intent. Such participation in the process of locating and choosing material  produces an elementary level of ownership and an initial sense of the value of what’s being located, which can generate more robust learner engagement than “delivery.” Further, this level begins to familiarize learners with the research skills and tools necessary for more advanced explorations, opening them to new options, including the possibility for “discovery” (content level 3). Their interaction with material at this level requires the “understand” and “apply” levels of the revised Bloom’s taxonomy or the “skill/concept” level of Webb’s DOK. Learners at this level have to move beyond recognizing and repeating to comparing, classifying, and interpreting, and this requires a higher, more rigorous set of skills and abilities. Learners at the “directed” dimension thus demonstrate a more mature relationship to content than those at “delivery.”

• Content level 3 (“N3”): A significant shift in agency occurs at the third level, where material is discovered by the learner rather than being found and organized by someone else. In this case, the discovery of content is inextricably linked to the learning experience, driven by the needs of the project and situated firmly in the learner’s own interests and abilities. Because of the learner’s role in researching, discovering, choosing, and compiling the material, she typically demonstrates a high level of engagement and ownership and a considerably more mature interaction with the content than at the preceding two levels. At “discovery,” we see a strong correspondence to the third level of Webb’s DOK — “strategic thinking” — which includes such activities as “investigating,” “assessing,” “apprising,” “formulating,” “hypothesizing,” “constructing,” “developing a logical argument,” and “citing sources.” This level also corresponds to the “analyze” and “evaluate” levels of the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. Learners at this level may still engage content experts or teachers, but they do so here to serve their own purposes and projects. In other words, the learner is the agent here rather than the expert, who becomes simply another content resource.

• Content level 4 (“N4”): At its deepest level, material is created by the learner, who now participates not in the mere consumption and processing of material but in the creation of new material that extends or contributes to the particular content area. Producing a presentation, paper, or project that simply reconstitutes or recapitulates the works of others is not what we’re talking about here. Rather, “creation” here consists of new research, new production, new insights, or never before conceived syntheses; it is truly new material. Such creation is the apex of the revised Bloom’s taxonomy and corresponds to level four of Webb’s DOK — “extended thinking.” In Webb’s terms, it comprises activities such as “designing,” “critiquing,” and “proving.” At this level, learners demonstrate the maximum level of engagement and ownership. By contributing to the material in a particular field, they’re shaping that field’s future trajectory, and such a role is born of and requires a thoroughgoing understanding both of the field’s materials and of the skills and processes necessary for discovering, processing, and producing them. At this level, learners demonstrate the entire spectrum of abilities associated with content: research, compilation, curation, discernment, internalization, and creation. Learners at this level also demonstrate a level of mastery that enables them to serve others by preparing or modeling the three preceding levels of content dimensionality: they can organize materials for delivery, direct other learners to relevant materials, and participate in the ongoing discovery of materials previously unfamiliar to them.

I often hear people defend delivery-oriented pedagogical approaches by saying “content is king” or “you can’t get rid of content.” In many important ways, I agree with them. Content is a central dimensions of any learning experience. However, those pedagogical approaches they see as defending content typically engage learners at only the most rudimentary level. In such circumstances, content isn’t “king”; at best, it’s a viceroy, subservient too often to those teachers’ own need to be deliverers. In defending the centrality of content, what they’re often defending is a vision of the centrality of their authority and expertise. With that, I disagree profoundly. As learners, our need for delivery diminishes as we develop more mature relationships with content — as we move deeper into its dimensionality. And moving deeper is the way we engage with and serve a content area as both learners and practitioners. For content truly to be “king,” we must engage with it at levels far deeper than mere reception, and we therefore need teaching and learning practices that support our exploration and experience of those deeper levels.

Cubic Learning Dimensions

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You can download a PDF summary of the entire “cubic” model here.

In my next two posts, I’ll explore the other two dimensions of our “cubic” learning model: community and context. Then in some following posts, I’ll map particular teaching practices onto the model and will integrate it with learning models and paradigms from other researchers and theorists. Stay tuned!




©2017 William Rankin

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist