Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


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Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Context

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In my preceding two posts, I’ve described the levels of two facets of a multidimensional learning model comprised of three: content, community, and context.  If you haven’t yet seen those previous posts, you might want to review them before continuing here.

However, even though I’ve split this discussion across three posts, this model does not describe three elements that function independently; all three combine to create a single “cubic” learning experience. They’re parts of the same basic entity, facets of a single prism. Splitting them apart, as some learning models do, ignores the influences each dimension has on the others and elides the important ways they cocreate an environment for learning.

In this final post examining each facet’s structural progression, I’ll explore the levels associated with context. Then, in my next post, I’ll map specific teaching approaches onto these three dimensions, offering examples of how this “cubic” model can be used to assess and rate the efficacy of particular learning constructs. Finally, I’ll conclude this series by connecting our “cubic” model to other existing learning models and taxonomies.

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From an educational standpoint, context is at once both a simple and an incredibly complex concept. It’s simple because we’re very used to seeing our classrooms and their equipment as the “theaters” where learning happens. We even have a standard minimum expectation for such spaces: seating and work surfaces for learners, special demonstration equipment for teachers — including chalkboards or white boards, projection screens, and so forth. We know that if we want to do something special — display 3D models, organize work groups, conduct lab demonstrations or explorations, connect in real-time to far-away experts, or stage a performance — we might either need special equipment or we might need to move into some sort of special facility that makes these activities possible. But why would we want to do any of these special activities? The answer is simple: we know that they’ll amplify some portion of content or will enable some form of collaboration that we think will benefit our learners — or both.

And this is where context becomes complex. We instinctively realize that even relatively minor changes in the learning context — introducing new tools, a new space, or even a new classroom “culture” — can powerfully impact learning within our schools. But if that’s true for the few changes or additions we can make inside of a school facility, how many more contexts from outside the world of school could we leverage for learning? And what could we expect from our learners if we could integrate those contexts and opportunities every day and not just once in a while? Continue reading


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Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Community

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My previous post described the increasing levels of engagement and interaction in the content dimension of our “cubic” learning model. In this post, we’ll examine another facet — the levels of the community dimension — considering the different kinds of relationships learners can form as they learn.

Community is a dimension many of us think about very narrowly, if at all. We might understand that there are various people associated with the learning process — teacher, learner, co-learners — but we rarely move beyond our classrooms to consider community more broadly. True, from time to time, we might feel compelled to organize “group work” with the notion that students could benefit from working with peers. Others might feel some sort of social or institutional pressure to prepare students for the collaboration they’ll be expected to manifest “out in the real world.” But as teachers, our embracing of community often doesn’t go much beyond these limited rationales and practices.

However, as Lev Vygotsky and generations of later theorists and neuroscientists have shown, collaborators and colleagues can enhance learners’ levels of engagement, their attainment of expertise, and their resilience within a field of study. As Vygotsky argued, in contrast to Piaget, all learning is fundamentally social, and working in collaboration with others can enable learners to make important cognitive and functional leaps beyond what we might expect if they were working on their own. More recently, Henry Jenkins‘ research on “participatory culture,” extended by danah boyd, Mizuko (Mimi) Itō, and others, has shown the ways that digital communities drive engagement, learning, and expertise, fueled by new technologies and new participatory forms of media. That we should treat this critical dimension of learning so superficially is therefore surprising and unfortunate. Community deserves a more thoughtful and thorough consideration.

But where should we look as we explore the community dimension more deeply? After all, students can work with all sorts of people — those within the classroom or school, learners and teachers in other schools, interested parties in local or distant communities, experts and practitioners from around the world, and people who broadly constitute an “audience” of outsiders to whom learners can demonstrate their learning and growth. The diversity of people we might have to consider in evaluating this dimension seems so large and complex as to be completely unmanageable. However, it’s less important to consider who these others are than to explore how intensively and productively they collaborate with learners, how their collaboration impacts the agency of learners, and how that collaboration fuels learners’ discovery, internalization, and growth.

Once again, the last thing I’m trying to do by focusing on the role of these others in learning is to diminish the need for teachers. Teachers’ productive work and relationship with learners is even more necessary in this model. However, just as we saw with the content dimension, this model necessitates that teachers move beyond delivery of data and information (where many of us are most comfortable) to a construction of knowledge and wisdom that is inherently social and frequently connected beyond our classrooms. Having to adopt this uncomfortable new role can be intimidating or disorienting for some teachers, and that discomfort can discourage them from embracing community. But ignoring this vital learning dimension robs their classrooms of enormous opportunities for discovery, engagement, and growth — and often makes the work of those teachers less likely to persist and less relevant for their learners. What we really need are teachers who can not only design productive engagements with content, but also productive communities for learning both within and far beyond their classrooms. In a world where the ability to connect productively across many kinds of boundaries is an increasingly valued skill, teachers have to function as connectors and social designers, helping learners develop the network of collaborators, promoters, critics, and spectators who will undergird and extend their learning and prepare them for the world outside of school. Continue reading


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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. Continue reading


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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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