Friday, September 25, 2015

Life-long, life-deep and life-wide learning

In  a classroom, or within any group of learners, the reality is that each individual has a different learning experience, even while they all are instructed the same way. Fascinating, isn't it?!

We all bring into the learning situation our own learning history and cultural background, our life-long, life-wide and life-deep understanding what learning is. What we all need is support for our individual development, and empowering learning facilitation that helps us to learn even more.  This support is the basis of good learning experiences. In order to further strengthen learning we as teachers must have a strong communicative intent in our work, instead of emphasizing the code or doxa, which has different features in all educational institutions, depending their location and culture. Yet, regardless of the culture, the effort to communicate and support learning instead to reinforce and mandate compliance is what sets great schools and teachers apart from others!

Principles of life-long, life-deep and life-wide learning:

  1. Learning is situated in broad socio-economic and historical contexts and is mediated by local cultural practices and perspectives. 
  2. Learning takes place not only in school but also in the multiple contexts and valued practices of everyday lives across the life span
  3. All learners need multiple sources of support from a variety of institutions to promote their personal and intellectual development. 
  4. Learning is facilitated when learners are encouraged to use their home and community language resources as a basis for expanding their linguistic repertoires.

I am expanding these principles to apply to all learners, not just multicultural, because every student has their own diverse home- and family culture which sets them apart from the rest of the group and contributes to the learning experience.

Every student needs to know that all learning counts, both formal and informal. Invisible learning and measuring what we value (instead of trying to value what we measure) are what education should be about, because learning cannot be limited to schools and universities!


Read more about life-long, life-wide and life-deep learning:
Learning in and out of school in diverse environments: Life-long, life-wide, life-deep. LIFE Center, University of Washington, Stanford University, and SRI International, 2007. Retrieved from:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Wonderings about learning and intelligence

It seems that intelligence - or the way how we understand intelligence - is very much context dependent. In formal education those students who are able to reproduce the learning material delivered to them are often considered to be intelligent. This ability is evidenced by various exams, multiple choice tests, and other evaluations. The need to do well in exams is ingrained into students thinking very early on, and often students develop their (academic) self-concepts according to the grades they receive. To me this way of knowing (rule-based, or instrumental, see Kegan 1982, 2000; Drago-Severson 2004) is just a beginning of becoming a learner.

When you are invited to play a game, you most likely will want to follow the rules, in order to gain something from playing - whether it is winning a price like getting your diploma, or something else we perceive having value, like being accepted by your peers and other people. This certainly is socially intelligent behaviour, but how much does it really relate to the cognitive part of intelligence: the physiological effectiveness of out neural system in storing and retrieving data from the brain and the ways of knowing? Or understanding our own values and being willing and able to negotiate with those who have conflicting views?

IQ testing is an attempt to measure operational intelligence. The component behind our cognitive skills (language/math skills, logical reasoning, spatial sense, etc) is called the general intelligence factor. While I do recall going through reading speed testing at school, I never got the impression that intelligence would have been overly emphasized during my schooling. The message was more along the lines that everyone can learn and that we should engage in dialogue to better understand each other.

So, what about the meaning-oriented learning, and the intelligence that is much harder to measure by standardized IQ test? My own thinking about intelligence and learning is growing along the lines of the adult development and life-long learning, and I think that reproductive learning orientation is not sufficient.

Van Rossum & Hamer have a fascinating book "The Meaning of Learning and Knowing" that has influenced my thinking about how we learn.

Learning as understanding the connections between different theories or models is the way I see broad/general intelligence to be used best. This type of learning includes challenges and problem solving, but also requires lots of collaborative meaning-making and learner agency being a central part of each individual journey.

I think I am a lifelong learner -- there is so much to lean, and so little time to do it!


Drago-Severson, E. (2004). Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development. Teachers College Press.
Kegan, R. (2009). What” form” transforms. A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. Teoksessa K. Illeris (toim.) Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists in their own words. Abingdon: Routledge, 35-54.
Van Rossum, E. J., & Hamer, R. N. (2010). The meaning of learning and knowing. Sense Publishers.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Children - natural born learners

Every child has a deep, innate curiosity about the surrounding world. This is the first learning environment we face. We all are born with a need to survive and experience the life, and to make sense of what we see, hear and feel. This is the force behind all real learning, and the reason for us to engage in the fundamental learning processes of acquisition and elaboration  (Illeris, 2009).

We use the information we gather from out everyday lives to construct our understanding about ourselves, the life, universe and everything. Children are equipped with tools for learning to make sense of their surroundings - just think what all is accomplished during the first 2-3 years after birth! This informal learning is an enormous force the formal education has chosen not to use. 

I found the following image to illustrate the differences in formal and informal learning. 

Not only are children intelligent and gifted, but they are also motivated to learn.  They are expert learners, because through purposeful play children experience the thrill of genuine achievement -- have you seen a child succeed for the first time in something they have repeatedly tried to do? Recall that triumphant smile?

Here is a list of definitions for good learners: 
  1. Curiosity
  2. Pursuing understanding
  3. Recognizing that learning is not always fun (thinking of a two-year-old who wants to succeed, even if it is frustrating)
  4. Knowing failure is beneficial 
  5. Making their own knowledge 
  6. Always asking questions
  7. Sharing what they have learned

It looks pretty similar to the items in the image about learning, doesn't it? But this list was created for students in higher education.  You can find the original article here. I think good quality learning is universal and does not depend on the age of the learner.  To reverse the negative effects of schooling we should teach about the mindset to empower deeper learning. 

By the time children enter the formal education system they are already expert learners. Depending on the feedback children/students receive about their learning explorations, they will either continue to the direction they are headed, or venture into something else.  Why don't we use their curiosity and enthusiasm by providing meaningful learning experiences and encouraging their questions? Why does school have to promote compliance over critical thinking? 

Illeris, K. (2009). A comprehensive understanding of human learning.Contemporary theories of learning, 7-20.

#wfe2  Reflection post about intelligence and  expert learners. What future for education?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Growing Confident, Curious and Capable Learners

Choosing How to Teach and 3Cs are making a difference in the lives of teachers and students.  The feedback I have received from teachers taking the professional development courses about the philosophical and practical changes has been wonderful! 

Here is another 3Cs to think about: as teachers we should try our best to ensure that graduating students are confidentcurious and capable learners, who will continue to learn on their own. These are the outcomes for using the model explained in the Choosing How to Teach - book.

We cannot think about education as a fixed 12-year long period of learning that prepares students for living in 21st century world.  It is just the beginning of the journey. Lifelong learning belongs into a large scale paradigm change in education. The way we perceive the nature of knowledge and learning, and the role of a teacher are starting to change to reflect the 21st century and the needs of information/knowledge society, where lifelong learning is a must. Growth mindset is one part of lifelong learning.

Imagine what happens if students leave the formal education system hating learning: they will be trapped in many ways because not only is the world changing faster than ever before, also employers require their employees to be willing to learn throughout the career.

So, how to help our students to become confident, curious and capable in learning? 
  1. Use non-punitive assessment that emphasizes the value of learning from making mistakes and reconstructing one's own thinking.
  2. Make learning meaningful for students by embedding choices to pique students cognitive interest and curiosity.
  3. Lead students to understand the value of collaborative meaning-making by modeling it in the classroom.
The confidence and the positive academic self-concept grow from engaging in the learning process and refining one's own thinking. It is awesome to hear students to explain how they understood the misconceptions they had before! Using constructive practices in the classroom helps students to reflect their own thinking and learning.

Curiosity is very important for all learning, and an easy way to encourage the use of curiosity in the classroom is to embed informal learning to the formal curriculum. Does it really matter where students found the information if they can cite their source and justify using it?

Collaboration (both virtual and f2f) and being able to communicate about learned in writing or talking are big parts of being a capable learner. Students who engage in cooperative learning during their k-12 education learn to share their own ideas and pay attention to other students' ideas as well.   

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Learning Cycles

When talking about learning cycles we often refer to the processes that occur while  we perceive, choose, reflect, store and retrieve data and information that our surroundings provide. It is often displayed as a cycle, because the new information needs to become a part of the already existing knowledge in order for learning (i.e. acquisition and elaboration, Illeris, 2009) to be meaningful for student. There must be connections between the newly learned material and things we have already learned. If the contradiction is too big students get confused and/or disengaged. It is hard to be interested in something that doesn't make any sense, which is the main reason for me to always emphasize the importance of including choices for students in the basic design of instruction.

Instructional design aims to improve the teaching and learning processes and occurs before the actual teaching happens. Sometimes the design only focuses on individual lessons, but even then it is fairly easy to include optional activities and assignments for students, so that they can choose from a selection and find something that is personally meaningful for them.  In the teaching situation we as teachers use different strategies, teaching methods and techniques to enhance students progress in moving through these cycles of perceiving, choosing, reflecting, storing and retrieving. Some teaching methods emphasize reflection, others emotional input or maybe learning from trial and error. The cycle is still utilized either visibly or behind the scenes. My choice most often is to talk about metacognition and make the cycle visible for students, so that they have better grasp and control of their own learning process.

There are different  visuals available in the internet about the learning cycle. Most quoted or modified is probably the Kolb's (1984) experiential cycle, which has provided the prerequisites for my own thinking about learning process. 

No matter where is our preferred phase to start learning (Experiencing, Reviewing, Concluding or Planning), there are certain things to consider while we are setting the scene for learning, if we want the cycle to be rolling and support the learning process:
  1. What is the role of the learner? Are they included in decisions about what and how they learn?
  2. Are learners' perspectives taken into account while planning the learning experience?
  3. Are individual differences accommodated and valued so that we won't have 26 identical "experiments"? (Please note: an experiment, like research, cannot have a known result before starting the experiment!)
  4. Are learners co-creators of the learning process?

These questions are not new. They are based on learner-centered principles of APA Work Group in 1997. Designing instruction that supports learning is easier when we use these principles of learner-centered education, and empower students to engage in their own learning process. 

Learning is extremely individual, because what we each see/hear/think depends on our previous experiences and the unique filters we all have. Thus, while presented with the same information we process it in diverse ways. Even in a collective learning situation we all are engaged in our own personal learning process. Understanding that learning and teaching are not the two sides of the same coin is the beginning.  Students learn all the time, but they may not be learning things we wanted them to learn.

To further explore the way learning process is described within the experiential learning theory, you might want to look into the Honey and Mumford (2000) learning style questionnaire based on Kolb's cycle.

APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. WashingtonDC: American Psychological Association.
Honey, P., & Mumford, A. (2000). The learning styles helper's guide. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Peter Honey.
Illeris, K. (2009). A comprehensive understanding of human learning.Contemporary theories of learning, 7-20.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development.
Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles, 1, 227-247

The Future of Education?

I stumbled upon an interesting looking course in Coursera: What future for education?

Of course, I got instantly hooked on the question. Where is education going? How could we make education better? Where should it go??

The introduction is promising: In this course, our aim is to encourage you to start thinking and questioning ideas about education.

There are very few more intriguing questions than that! An invitation to think! I love open ended questions!

This is the first reflective piece, the assignment for week 1: 
Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education?

I certainly have lots of learning experiences, both formal and informal, and I would like to think that I am quite professional in learning. My own teaching philosophy relies on collaborative meaning-making, which makes it so crucially important for me to regularly take my own advice and reflect on my thinking, learning and knowing. I am sure this course will help me in doing this. 

My expectations are for learning new insights about education, new ways for empowering learners, and new ideas for connecting with like-minded educators. I am also looking for new tools for authoring and facilitating PD courses for teachers and faculty, and one of the best ways for keeping the fresh touch as a teacher is to walk in the shoes of students and engage in somewhat formal learning experiences.

My ideas about the future of education are plentiful and diverse. I strongly believe in learner-centered education and learner agency being the future of education. Students cannot be seen as automatons producing prescribed outcomes as a result of their engagement, like puppets spewing out factoids taught by the search machines. 

Learning happens in interactions, no matter what technology we use (or don't use).  In today's interconnected world the need for students to be able to choose the information they use is clearly becoming a very pressing issue for formal education: the teacher (or the university or school) cannot be seen as the main source of information or knowledge, because information and misinformation are freely available for anyone who has access to the internet. The premise of learning and measuring learning has already changed. We as teachers must know how to ask non-googlable questions - which is good, because these questions focus on understanding connections, instead of just memorizing a bunch of facts.

My big question is: we already have the necessary technology to personalize education to meet the needs of each and every student. Why don't we use technology for that?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Learning and teaching philosophy

Every teacher has a teaching (and learning) philosophy they follow, either knowingly or being unaware of the beliefs that have an impact on the daily practice. I tried to trace back the steps to the most influential points in the development of my teaching philosophy.  

It all began when I had to read Berger & Luckmann’s book about social construction of reality for my M.Ed. studies in late 1990’s. It was the hardest book I ever read – when I got to the end I couldn’t understand what I had just read, so I reread it. And then again. But, that book taught me how we actually do construct knowledge in everyday life situation (and while studying, too, of course, but learning is NOT limited to the classroom).  And as I don’t actually believe in unlearning, I became very conscious of what my kids and students are exposed to, and very, very curious to hear how they interpret what they see and hear.

Well, then there is the Hidden Curriculum (Broady, 1987).  What a gem!  What all lies behind our curricula? All our traditions and practices and words carry a huge load of unnecessary items (i.e. unnecessary or even harmful for learning) – and especially our words do that (Bernstein, 1971) because they can so easily be used to wield unnecessary power over others. And words can be interpreted in so very many ways! I should know, as a non-native speaker I have sometimes weird connotations for words… not to talk about pronouncing them weirdly!

I learned about the theories of Ziehe in nineties as well, and in 2008 he talks about normal learning problems in youth. I am so very opposed to the deficit-based educational model, because it labels and categorizes students, and at worst makes them believe in these tags attached to them. Schooling, or formal education, is just a continuation and specification of already initiated “natural” learning process.  Students should be empowered to become life-long learners! This is why I think agency is such an important thing while discussing or thinking about curriculum. 

Students' agency is seen as students intentionally influencing their own learning behaviours. Much of our self-regulation is based on the positive learning outcomes during the early childhood experiences of self-efficacy (Bandura 2006).   Students’ agency, according to Bandura (2006, p.164-165) is a construct of four different components: intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. In the classroom these components apply straightforwardly to students’ learning and academic performance. It really is a shame is a curriculum is so prescripted that there is no room for students to learn how to make good choices! This is also where my current work on my doctoral dissertation focuses: Students' perceptions of their learner agency. Very exciting!

Of course I have assimilated and accommodated all wonderful theories from Bruner, Engestrom, Ericson,,  Illeris, Kegan, Kolb, Mahler, Mezirov, Piaget, Vygotsky, Wiggins and beyond… but my core belief is in cognitive approach being combined with constructive and cooperative practices to enable effective lifelong learning.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. T.(1966). The social construction of reality.
Bernstein, B. (1971). On the classification and framing of educational knowledge. Knowledge and control3, 245-270.
Broady, D. (1987). Den dolda laroplanen [The hidden curriculum] (5th ed). Lund: Acupress.
Ziehe, T. (2008). ‘Normal learning problems’ in youth. Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists... in their own words, 184.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Knowledge as collaborative meaning-making

What is contemporary learning like? Is it just memorizing and regurgitating unrelated facts or constructing understanding?

It is crucially important for every educator to think about their own epistemological beliefs about knowledge, because it has such a huge impact in instruction. How exactly does data become information? And is it enough for an educator to transmit information or is it necessary to support students' knowledge creation and meaning-making processes?

The amount of information in the internet was in April 2014 about 4,4 trillion gigabytes, and it doubles every year (according to this LibraryJournal article). With all this information being freely at everyone's fingertips there are far too many details and facts for anyone to memorize.  And if we just aim to memorize the data, how can we connect those details into the main concepts or general idea? (See the previous post about visuals in learning process.)

Data (or a collection of facts) is just a building block of knowledge, and we need to move past both emphasizing the recollection of some data and information and thinking that transmitting it is teaching. We must support collaborative meaning-making in the classroom, because this provides the opportunities for students to learn from each other. Scardamalia & Bereiter (2006) express it very well:  "(in knowledge creating organizations) People are not honored for what is in their minds but for the contributions they make to the organization’s or the community’s knowledge" (p.101). Why should students' experience in classroom context be any different? Aren't schools and universities supposed to be exactly that: knowledge creating organizations??

Teaching as transmitting information is very unproductive, because it doesn't engage students or stimulate their need to learn, or feed their curiosity to understand and know more.  We must stop focusing on  this ineffective practice as the goal of instruction and focus instead in knowledge creation and management of collaborative meaning-making. This requires the acknowledgement of students' existing competencies, acquired either at school or outside of the formal education.

Does it really matter where and how my student learned something, if s/he is competent? I am aware that this will make textbook publishers to go out of business at some point, but I think it is far more important for students to learn how to find the relevant data and information, and make well informed choices about using it to guide their thinking, than regurgitating a chapter from a text book.

Furthermore, in learner-centered learning environment teachers should change the focus from universal delivery of information (i.e. traditional teacher-centered educational model) to learner-centered or personalized learning approach (i.e. learning facilitation) and:

(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed
(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives
(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and
(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.

These  learner-centered principles (APA task group, 1997) are very applicable for collaborative meaning-making and supporting students' knowledge creation.  After all, in order have students to contribute to the discussion, and to bring some external information to the learning situation, they must be empowered to do so and encouraged to think outside of the box.

Also, the learner-centered principles are very applicable for various e-learning environments (McCombs & Vakili, 2005). Technology should be used as means for promoting collaborative meaning-making - not as a tool to make student jump hoops and do busywork in regurgitating content provided by the instructors, or means for spying on students whether they have checked all the boxes and taken all the quizzes.

I know the interactions for learning take more instructors' time than simply checking boxes to verify that students have finished all their activities, but think how different contemporary learning could be:

Imagine what kind of learning occurs in a learning environment (virtual or classroom) where students are deeply interested about the subject matter and curious to learn more, because it is so applicable for their life or profession -- and the instructor is encouraging the discussions and has built room for innovation into the syllabus in order to learn with the students! Imagine the knowledge gained from this interaction!

It seems to me that we still have a loooooong way to go....

- - - - - - - - - -

APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs. (1997). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

McCombs, B., & Vakili, D. (2005). A learner-centered framework for e-learning.The Teachers College Record107(8), 1582-1600.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology (pp. 97-115). 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Supporting learning process with visual organizers

I was re-re-re-reading about concept-based design for learning and decided to create an image for my students - and anybody else - to use in their teaching and design.

One important part of teachers' work is to show the interrelations of topics in their subject matter, or in the elementary classroom to provide an inclusive view for students and make learning more meaningful. It often seems self clear for us as education professionals how different things  are related to each other, but at that point we forget that we have studied the phenomenon for years, and our students may be exposed to it for the first time in their lives.

Sometimes students struggle because they try to start learning from facts and details - and often their chosen learning strategy for this is memorizing. It is really hard to build your way up to the general idea or theory, when you don't know what is the main concept, and how to chunk all details together. Visual organizers like mindmaps and concept maps are very handy tools for this. Sometime students find them hard, because there is not one correct answer for building a mindmap, as it is a visual representation of one's own thoughts, and thus a very open-ended task. For this reason I would not grade students' mindmaps even if creating one was an assignment. Applying unnecessary power over learning process can be detrimental for good learning quality.

More about engaging students in their learning process can be read at NotesFromNina.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Engagement in learning - or just in schooling?

One main problem n contemporary education is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.
Schooling engagement is more typical in educational setting with prescripted instructional design, where students' learning outcomes are defined as an observable change in their behaviour.  Students may perceive these learning objectives as "an external imposition"[2], and use a strategic learning approach to complete the task.  In learning experiences like this students' main concern is to jump the hoop, and memorize (not understand) the content, because they know there will be questions asked about the content.  (I would like to remind that the prescriptive ID models were born in army and corporate training settings, NOT in a pedagogically or andragogically driven systems, but where top-down management implements learning objectives in order to produce desired learning products that benefit the system and/or corporation.)
In qualitatively different learning environment that supports personally meaningful learning learning engagement is more predominant, and the learning outcomes are significantly better. When students attempt to understand the learning content and make sense of it, this deep learning approach engages students in their own learning process, and often results in change in students' thinking. This is how life-long learners are born - students being allowed to engage in their learning, and pursue their interests, within the boundaries of the topic to be learned. 
It is extremely important to remember that "every student is capable of both deep and surface approaches, from early childhood onwards" [2].  The easiest way I have found to support engagement in deep learning is to provide students with choices in their assignments and assessments.  It is important to actively choose HOW you teach! 

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.
2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer (quotes from pages 42 and 45).