Unfold Learning

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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


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