Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


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Danmarks Læringsfestival 2017

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One of my favorite aspects of the Danish National Learning Festival was not the amazing speakers and presenters — though there were many — nor was it the sheer quantity of innovative teaching tools and materials displayed in engaging booths staffed by energetic, earnest demonstrators — though an entire hall was filled with them. What was best was that everyone I met really wanted to make a difference in the lives of learners and was willing to make whatever choices they needed to make that happen. And what this appeared to mean most often for those in Denmark (like the other Nordics) was relinquishing the centering of the teacher and the teacher’s authority in favor of building around the learners’ identities, needs, and interests.

Those of us in the rest of the world hear much about what’s happening around learning in the Nordics, and in my visits, I’ve found much to admire. Municipalities, schools, and educational organizations are recognizing the need to try new approaches and engage learners in ways that take advantage not only of emerging technologies, but also emerging neurological and social understandings. Play, challenge-based and service learning, civic engagement, and the integration of new social and creation tools offer learners a path for discovery while also making a difference in their lives and communities. Sometimes those differences are grand and laudable; sometimes, they’re small — like creating a learning environment where kids can have fun. But what is most admirable and what I think the rest of the world needs to learn from these teachers and school leaders is that they are designed: intentionally built and intentionally executed to use particular approaches to deliver particular ends. Design is absolutely not something the Danes take lightly, and it showed in every conversation I had during my recent visit: how can we design a learning environment to produce capable, flexible, thoughtful, civically engaged citizens? Sadly, many schools and governments are far more concerned about other things: test scores, funding, compliance, bureaucratic service, preservation of established structures and patterns.

One of the best aspects of the Danmarks Læaringsfestival this year was that every person had to walk past the area pictured above, typically occupied by playing children. It’s amazing to me how many educational conferences are filled with experts and teachers but no learners. If nothing else, this was a great way to remind everyone at the conference what their work should really be about. And it was a great way to observe how many critical skills people at play have to exercise: communication, collaboration, strategy, knowledge, skill, awareness, and teamwork.

Traveling around the world and learning from so many people and approaches is a rare gift, and I’m grateful for my time learning in Denmark. Their focus on making — and making a positive difference — is something I’ll carry with me for a long time.


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Thanks, EdTechRVA 2017

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One of the best things about this week’s EdTechRVA conference, organized by GRAETC, was the number of sessions dedicated to practical approaches teachers and technology coaches could use to transform the experiences of learners. Sessions in movie-making, animation, and Scratch — among many others — offered accessible tools and recommendations supported by practical stories of incorporating these tools into classes. As “making” becomes increasingly recognized as a means for deeper learning, giving learners the opportunity to assess the materials and ideas they’re discovering, such practical approaches become increasingly important. It was great to share a day with a group of educators who valued making so much.


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iLearn 2017

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I’m looking forward to sharing today with the iLearn 2017 conference in Belfast, Ireland. Associated with the iTeach community, the conference brings school leaders together to consider the future of teaching and learning, to connect with other teachers and schools, and to think practically and pragmatically about how to institute productive change in their schools. It should be a spectacular day!


Hello, mobility

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The original iPhone, introduced January 9, 2007.

Ten years ago today, I was unable to watch Steve Jobs’ keynote live, something I still view with a tinge of regret. I was serving as a faculty chaperone for ACU’s skiing class in Red River, New Mexico, and I spent the day out on the slopes with our students. But that night starting around 11pm, in the 20˚ F weather, my laptop perched on the edge of a large metal dumpster behind our lodgings — the only place where I could snag an open wifi signal — I watched the entire 2-hour presentation. To this day, it is still the most amazing, masterful, world-changing introduction of a technology I’ve ever seen.

The fall before, our technology team at Abilene Christian University had been working to imagine what our school might look like in the year 2011 — then, five years in our future. The reason was an interesting one: in 2011, the first generation of college students who had never known a world without the internet would be entering the academy. What, we were wondering, would this new cohort of students do in our schools, what would they expect, and what technologies would empower them?  Continue reading


MiTE 2017

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I’m excited once again to be keynoting the amazing MiTE conference: MiTE 2017 — one of the preeminent conferences for technology- and mobile-enhanced teacher education in the world. This year, it will be leaving its Irish birthplace for the first time and will take place in Los Angeles on January 12–14. If you’re interested in great research about how technology can impact both teaching and teacher education, if you’d like to rub shoulders with thoughtful practitioners from around the world, and if you’d like to invest some productive time thinking about ways to transform your own teaching praxis, this is the place to be. Plus, there will be a dance contest! I can’t wait to see everyone there soon…


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“Formal” Learning

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A tri-lobed sassafras leaf from Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Photo by W. Rankin, 2016.

Last week, I published a model of natural learning that explores the cyclical structures of the informal or “personal” learning we do outside of school and professional settings. Thanks for the comments and ideas you’ve sent me — and I hope you’ll send even more. Refining these models and getting them right is important to me, and I know they’ll more accurately represent the complexity of the learning process with your input and insight.

This week, I’d like to enlist your help with another model: my model for formal learning — the sort of learning we do in schools and formal training sessions. Again, my goal here is to begin a discussion around a work in progress rather than to present something fully formed — though this is, like my “natural” model from last week, something I’ve been thinking about and working on for several years. I’d love to hear what you think so please leave me comments or send me a message. What do you like? What seems off? What parts seem overblown or underemphasized? What’s missing?

You can download the complete model in PDF form here: dimensions-of-formal-learning. The second page defines the terms I’m using and discusses some of my rationale for understanding the structure the way I do and for including the particular elements I include. In this post, therefore, I won’t go into any detail about the overall structure of this model. Instead, I’d like to focus on a substructure of this model — a process of moving between and among the elements that I call the “propeller of learning.”

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“Natural” Learning

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Prehistoric stone with cultic pictograms from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo by W. Rankin, 2016.

For several years now — certainly since our team began to explore the implications of mobility back at ACU — I’ve been thinking about learning and trying to understand its structures. It’s my conviction that the way we conceive of and practice learning in schools is largely the product of a series of technological challenges that once constrained the movement of information and people — challenges that have now been superseded or solved. Understanding “school” from inside the structures we’ve invented for schools thus leads to a kind of echo-chamber problem that tells us more about the institution than about learning itself. So for some time, I’ve been working to understand other sorts of learning — specifically, the self-motivated learning that dominates so much of our lives: the learning of hobbies and pastimes for our own edification and enrichment, the learning we do around our homes from parents and grandparents, and the learning that we do to survive and navigate our everyday lives.

What I’m going to present here today is a work in progress. Though it’s based on a synthesis of research and experience, I’m not going to present that research here today. What I’m interested in instead are your comments and feedback about the overall model. Does this model seem plausible? Where is it flawed? Where are its strong and weak points? What exceptions to it can you suggest? Where do you see it applying? Though I’ve been working on it and thinking about it for half a decade, I need your help to test its soundness and make it stronger before I take the next steps with it. By the way, if you’re interested in another model based on this one’s structure, please see my post about “formal” learning here.

Here’s the the complete model in PDF form: structures-of-personal-learning. Because this PDF is able to connect all of the elements in a more complex way, it has some features that I don’t discuss below, but here’s a quick overview of most of what appears in it.

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