Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching


Dimensions of ‘Cubic’ Learning: Community

Cube Sketch red

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


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

Article in the new Global Insights

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I hope you’ll take a second to read the brief article I’ve written for Global Insights, the periodical of the Educational Collaborative for Independent schools (ECIS). “Building for Friction: How Obstructing the Path can Help Learning” (pages 2–4) argues that constructivism and making can be an antidote for the central challenge of information’s third age: how do we know what’s real and what’s false? Without mentioning any recent political or cultural situations arising from this challenge (*ahem*), I briefly consider how the methodologies and teaching practices of information’s second age — the “age of books” — often fail to serve learners in the “age of data,” keeping them from real engagement with today’s informational challenges and adding to the cacophony of competing sources. Making offers learners an opportunity to test what they’re learning and to iterate and refine those ideas as they grow and discover.

My thanks to ECIS  for the opportunity to explore these ideas, and look for an expanded treatment of them soon right here….

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When Tweeting Is for the Birds…

Twitter mirror[Here’s another important new post by Bea Leiderman. Bea is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Goochland, Virginia. Bea has been a Twitter user since the very beginning, and she’s spent much time thinking about effective teaching and effective professional development. As always, I’m grateful that she contributed this article.]

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a weekly Twitter chat in progress. A local educator I had recently started to follow was extolling the importance of teacher-led professional development. He was claiming great success at his school but was not providing any examples. I was very curious, so I tagged a couple of tweets with the chat hashtag and very explicitly asked for an example.

I never got one.

I was determined to get to the bottom of this since I knew several teachers at the school. I found it interesting that in all our conversations, we had never run into the topic of teacher-led PD. Continue reading

Danmarks Læringsfestival 2017


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.

Thanks, EdTechRVA 2017

EdTechRVA2017 39

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.

Scrum Soup: A Metaphor for Classroom Projects

[I’m grateful to be able to include a new post by Bea Leiderman, who is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Goochland, Virginia. Bea has been working with Scrum at her school and she and her colleagues are having incredible success with it!]

Alt Wiener Erdäpfelsuppe

Photo by Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last year, our team has adapted the Scrum framework to help our students work through class projects. In the classrooms where Scrum is used regularly, students have a deep understanding of what it means to collaborate and be part of a learning community. Teachers can plan complex projects, confident that students will rise to the challenge and present outstanding products to their classmates at the end of a few weeks. To us, Scrum makes perfect sense. And it is not too hard to implement with some guidance and coaching. However, getting started on your own can be tough, especially because most of us have never tried anything like it.

When talking about Scrum, we bandy about lots of unusual words to refer to the roles, artifacts, and ceremonies involved. Even those three make Scrum sound like a strange cult. Instead of suggesting books and articles, It might be useful to walk through an everyday, non-educational project in Scrum to give interested teachers a frame of reference. It might also be a good way to introduce Scrum to students in classrooms.

Let’s make a vegetable soup following an everyday workflow (the procedure we use to accomplish things in Scrum). Everyone knows how to make soup, right? What are the steps?

  1. Gather all your ingredients
  2. Clean, peel, and chop all veggies and maybe some meat
  3. Cook all ingredients in a pot of water with salt and seasonings
  4. Serve and eat

Generally, that’s how soup works. Of course, the stuff I put in my vegetable soup might not be exactly the same that you put in yours. How long the process takes depends on how many different ingredients I have to prepare before adding them to the soup. If I had to plan this down to the smallest detail, I’d have to expand the above steps to include everything. Continue reading