Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Why we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation)

This blog post might end up with a nice title like “Why Collaboration is Key.” But really, it is about why as educators, we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation).

Imagine that you are a student and that the information on this infographic represents a student’s experience in school.



Some students will be able to transfer from one subject area to another on their own. For instance, a grade 7 student might be able to connect setting and character in Language and literature and then connect these concepts to geography and how geography shapes the thinking and behavior of people.

What are the chances of most students being able to transfer understanding without guidance?

We need to collaborate

Collaboration, and guaranteed time spent doing it, is key to a coherent experience for our students. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing.

The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study used semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews to form a picture of teacher and classroom learning. The purposive participant sample in the study was chosen based on teacher’s individual traits, experiences in the teaching career, and a reputation as an effective teacher. As the investigator gathered data, he examined the narratives for themes that emerged and coded them for analysis. What he found teaches us about how teacher knowledge and practice is influenced by available opportunities for collegial discourse.

Teachers participating in the study classified professional knowledge into four types. Practical knowledge, or knowing the ‘what’ of teaching came in the form of teaching strategies. Pedagogical knowledge, or knowing how to teach, formed the basis of how teachers planned and carried out instruction. Curriculum knowledge consisted of currency with a field of expertise such as subject content knowledge. A fourth type of knowledge was relational knowledge, which was social in nature and addressed, for instance, how to deal with student behavior.

The teachers interviewed in the study found that they experimented with creative ways of delivering content, but received no feedback and so fell back to lecture as the preferred lesson method. Often as they used the lecture method, teachers used questioning, but the questions were found to resemble a script. Teachers asked questions about content, and students quoted facts and descriptions from texts. There was also a reported lack of classroom management knowledge since the only pedagogy teachers used was content transmission. Students were observed to be apathetic, showing no love for learning, and they also lacked self-management, often showing up late to class and not submitting work.

The study also found that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

In interpreting the study, the researcher pointed out that part of practical knowledge is reflective, consisting of knowledge of a teacher’s own efficacy and agency in their professional identity.

Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

From a personal standpoint, teacher isolation impacts teacher growth. More often than not, teachers tend to use curriculum materials that work in their classrooms. If an activity works one time or more, teachers file this away in their repertoire and are more likely to use the activity again. Over years of experience, the piles of activities grow into binders of ‘tried and tested’ activities. As student needs shift, or contextual circumstances shift, the binder of activities may not address learning needs. Rather than a repertoire of engaging activities, the teacher may find that what worked in the past is no longer working to engage students. In this century, when factual and topical knowledge is literally at a student’s fingertips and readily available to Google searches, what worked in the past may no longer be engaging to students. The isolated teacher, although experienced, may need professional revitalization to address current student learning needs. If the school is full of isolated teachers experiencing a dearth of collaborative professional learning, how might professional revitalization occur?

Removing teachers from isolation and providing them with opportunities for collaboration and reflection is not just a way to sustain professional learning. It is also a way to build a culture around inspiring practice.

Providing teachers opportunities, time and space for discourse is a way of putting collaboration into the structure of a school. As teachers transfer knowledge and understanding across groups, several things may happen.

One result of collaboration is better alignment across the board. Because people talk about curriculum, there are more chances to examine how it aligns, for instance. As teachers talk about aligning the taught curriculum, the written curriculum might begin to reflect this coherence. There may even be discussions about assessment and how this needs to be coherent.

Marzano (2006) has pointed out that a “coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum” (p. 15) is necessary to improve student achievement. Discussions between teachers, which center the development of teaching around student learning is a start to guarantee a viable learning pathway for each student in a school.

But again, we cannot leave this phenomenon to chance. Just because we institute new staff rooms doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

As we end another school year, we might reflect on these essential questions:

  • How will we guarantee a coherent experience for our students?
  • How might we use collaboration to guarantee that coherence?




Marzano, R. (2006). What works in schools; Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo credit: Red arrows radom by via Wikimedia Commons.


‘Thinking Things Anew’

The other day I had a badly-designed experience in a restaurant. The food came about 50 minutes after we ordered it, which was bad enough. But the real clunker was, they failed to serve the drinks, which was water for two and an orange fizz for the third. That we had to wait for 50 minutes for at least the water was unacceptable. Then when my friend complained after the food was served, the waiter said, “It’s your fault. We could not serve until your soup was ready.”


What I took away aside from the decision never to go back to that restaurant again was that a badly-designed experience could be made better by ‘thinking things anew(Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 40).

Two things stand out. First is that an experience can be designed. Second is that fresh thinking about the design can improve experience.

When we think about the experiences students have as they go through school, it’s a worthy inquiry to explore how we might better design experiences and put some fresh thinking into what we do, how we do, and why we do what we do in the ways we do.

The big question is, How do we design school holistically?

Wiggins and McTighe suggest some facets for designing the experience of school (2007, p. 41):

  • “ The goal of curriculum is not to take a tour of the content but to learn to use and investigate the content, right from the start. Curriculum is thus inseparable from the design of valid, recurring performance tasks.

  • “If autonomous transfer and meaning making is the goal, then the curriculum must be designed from the start to give students practice in autonomous transfer and meaning making, and make clear via assessments that this is the goal

  • “An academic curriculum must be more like the curriculum in law, design, medicine, music, athletics and early literacy: focused from the start on masterful performance as the goal.”

The first implication is the centrality of the assessments we use to frame the experience. If assessments are the experiences of success for students, what considerations might we take in designing experiences students will have so they are able to use content, investigate content, rehearse knowledge, skills and understanding, until tasked with a performance of these in the assessment? And how do we align the plans and instruction to the assessments?

The second implication is that transfer and meaning making or understanding must be rehearsed deliberately. This means that the formative experiences we give our students must be intentionally crafted. Understanding is not gained by chance but by purposeful behaviors toward the goals of transfer and meaning making.

The authors also provide a set of learning principles, a few of which are quoted below.

Engaged and sustained learning, a prerequisite of understanding, requires that learners constantly see the value of their work and feel a growing sense of efficacy when facing worthy challenges” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

This principle suggests that in planning learning experiences, we need to draw upon authentic connections to the students’ prior learning and to their lives and the world. Drawing upon these contexts helps the learning experiences to gain meaningful connections to the students’ own experiences and hastens the cementing of relationships between school and scholar and life.

An understanding is a learner realization about the power of an idea. Understandings cannot be given; they have to be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

An inquiry makes sense with authentic connections, and part of the design is the anchoring of learning experiences to large, significant ideas, such as our common humanity, what constitutes a personally-relevant and responsible action as a response to what is being learned. These connections provide opportunities to link classroom experiences to the world, breaking the boundaries between real-life and school in ways wherein students can realize the power of ideas at work in their lives and the world.

The capacity to deeply understand depends greatly on the capacity to think things anew (and other related habits of mind), because any insight typically requires the refining of earlier ideas. Becoming willing and able to rethink requires a safe and supportive environment for questioning assumptions and habits (of mind)” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

The above principle is loaded with program implications.

First, the design of learning must provide experiences wherein students must draw upon habits of mind, those attitudes and approaches to learning, which must be rehearsed while rethinking ideas afresh.

Second, how a school or classroom provides a ‘safe and supporting environment’ asks of schools to design its culture – for example, how is risk-taking and failure viewed in the school? What are the attitudes toward failure? How does a school honor its students’ interests, strengths, prior learning? These are but a few considerations when we think of how safe and supportive a school might be.

Third, how students learn how to construct and use questions is a key part of design.

Fourth, how students are explicitly taught to use a repertoire of learning approaches is important in creating a culture of confident inquirers who feel safe to take intellectual risks and pursue personally- significant inquiries.

Some design considerations

To sum up the ideas above, we find that the design of learning experiences needs to consider:

  • How assessment aligns with instruction and instructional intentions.
  • How learning engagements provide authentic contexts for learning.
  • How students gain meaning from their learning experiences.
  • How to create learning experiences so that students arrive at large, powerful ideas (such as concepts and statements of inquiry).
  • How learning experiences are designed to draw out dispositions and approaches to learning and how these become visible to students in those experiences.
  • How to design a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • How to honor prior learning, interests, strengths of students.
  • How students learn how to use questions to pursue their own learning.
  • How to explicitly teach approaches to learning and build a confident self-directed learner.

If we take the patterns within these considerations, we find that these correspond to principles we must turn into practice so that our students experience a coherent, relevant, and challenging program in which each one grows and achieves.

We find that the systems of curriculum and instruction link to systems for assessment. We discover that social emotional learning is built in to the structures that support academic goals. We might also realize that collaboration and reflection are keys to this holistic implementation of a well-designed learning experience.

Making connections between systems

In their book about Coca ColaDesign to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility” (2015, p. 27), Butler and Tischler write, “Problems don’t exist in isolation. You can’t solve one without affecting another. This is where design creates value that’s hard to see or quantify, in that, by connecting things more smoothly, the entire experience improves.”

Essential takeaways seem to be that design is about making connections and that effective design makes for a coherent and meaningful experience.

From this we arrive at some essential questions in our program design. A few might be:

  • What connections can we make explicit between how we plan, how we learn and teach, and how we assess?
  • What connections can we make explicit between the soft skills and the academic ones?
  • What connections can we create between the resources in our environment and the perceptions of safety and support?
  • What connections can we facilitate between the students’ lives, the world and the classroom inquiries?

The fresh thinking that we need as we design learning experiences is mirrored by the fresh thinking we would like our students to do as they experience these.

What connections are you making between your learning and your students’? How might both these experiences gain meaning and transfer?

Just as a restaurant must make connections to make the dining experience a pleasant one, we are tasked with making connections between systems in our schools to make the experience one that our students will savor.



Butler, D. and Tischler, L. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility; (And how you can too). USA: Penguin.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design; Mission, action and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Learner in Charge

Learning is scalable.

The fractal of how we learn transfers into smaller versions of the full design—such as the specific process of learning how to write from personal significance, with a personalized process, seeking our own audiences and feedback to get better at writing. These patterns also transfer into larger-scale systems predicated on assumptions that people have the capacity for self-directedness. Approaches to learning, for example, could be a system-wide approach to using metacognitive strategies.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because learning is scalable, we can infer patterns in the larger expression of a fractal, say a culture of self-directedness, from the iterations of behavior in smaller sections of the fractal, like individual self-directedness. In other words, individuals together behaving in certain ways make up the concerted behavior of a whole community.

So how do we enact a culture of self-directed learning?

We might begin with what’s happening with the individual learner.

In their collaborative work The Art and Science of Portraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis (1997) engage in a dialog on the value of a self-portrait as a form of learning process and product.

They suggest that the creation of a self-portrait “is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections.” If we ask ‘what is good?’ we are “likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The generosity of this developmental self-portrait hinges, it seems, upon the assumptions that people want to seek what is good and start this inquiry from a stance of positive intentions and aspirations. Considering assumptions about self-development consider that “Not only do portraits seek to capture the origins and expression of goodness, they are also concerned with documenting how the subjects or actors in the setting define goodness” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The process might be more concrete if we thought about the self-portrait as a portfolio.

In developing a documentation of learning and achievement, which is the basis for a portfolio, the learner becomes participant in this inquiry and dialog on What is good, how do we find it, and what expressions might be exemplars of this search and its discoveries?

The portfolio becomes an ever-transforming map of growth. As the learner curates his or her own documentation of growth, the reflective nature of constructing this self-portrait facilitates and sustains the inquiry. This is a pattern of the self-directness that we consider a significant cornerstone of transformational learning.

How does this individual pattern influence the larger patterns in the places where we facilitate learning?

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) suggest that the self-portrait is a conversation. In this sense they are also “acts of intervention” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11) in that within the process of creating self-portraits we engage others in conversations about what is good; we engage in acts of transformation; we provoke thinking and reflection. “This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

In her book The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) suggests that the actors within a school context “create conversations and find shared meanings, the significance of the voice of teachers, and the crucial importance of local context as well as the commitment of a scholar to truth and solidarity” (in Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

The conversations about what is good propels our inquiries into constructions of criteria for best practice within the contexts of our schools. In these co-constructions; we seek our mentors and teachers in our peers and in our networks; and we revisit again and again a common ownership of learning.

We influence the story of our school’s focus on learning.

From conversations and patterns of self-directedness emerges a narrative. The resulting narrative tells the story of the landscape of transformation for the individual as well as the group. Together, our portraits of growth collectively “document the human behavior and experience in context.” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

So it may follow that culture is influenced by individuals creating portraits of best practice.

In the conversation between practitioners, we find a similar idea to Eudora Welty’s distinction between the storyteller and the one who listens to a story. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997, p. 12) suggest that “The latter is a much more active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central to its creation.”

In this inductive inquiry, we may recognize the “persistent irony” that “as one moves closer to the unique characteristic of a person or a place, one discovers the universal” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 1997, p. 14).

Discoveries of the universal within the personal suggest that learning is scalable. Individuals in self-directedness make up the human landscape of a self-directed organization. By putting the learner in charge of his or her learning, we cultivate resonance within our selves and our organizations.



Lawrence-Lightfoot S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture. NY: Basic Books.

Photo By Becks – Windvane, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Summative Season and the Self-Directed Learner

It is summative season once again. IB Exams are in progress. Summative teacher evaluations are due. Report cards are on the horizon, and schools are scrambling to get the last bits of data that will inform the next academic year’s instructional goals, both for children and adults.

During this summative season, when we are reflecting on the actions that have been enacted and continue to be until the last day of school, do we ever consider how much of what we do actually builds a culture of self-directedness?

In the Twitter chat on self-directed learning, collaborating minds raised the following points.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.21.13 Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.21.35 Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.22.36

The views from the Twitterchat on Self-Directed Learning suggest what Costa, Garmston and Zimmerman pose as a guiding principle of self-directed learning, that “the gates of learning are only opened from within and that motivation to learn or change cannot be externally coerced” (2014, p. xvi in Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2015).

I left the Twitterchat with more questions.

If schools want self-directed individuals, how do we reconcile the reliance on external assessments of learning with our aim to promote self-directed learning? When the assessments of learning are significantly anchored to someone outside of the self, how do we shift learners toward internal motivation?

Asking these questions in their latest book Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it (John Catt, 2015), Powell and Kusuma-Powell present schools with the task of examining our assumptions about self-directedness and how the adult learning structures as they exist might use a lot more reflection.

Assumptions guiding teacher evaluation

Powell and Kusuma-Powell (2015) suggest the following assumptions guiding current practices in teacher evaluation:

  1. External feedback systems gives teachers ways to improve instruction and hence student learning.
  2. Student learning is like an algebraic algorithm and deficits can be addressed technically as in the equation, if x then y must follow.
  3. Schools can be operated like factories.
  4. Relationships, especially trusting relationships, are not significant aspects of schools as learning organizations.
  5. External rewards and punishments are necessary to coerce teachers to be better at facilitating learning.
  6. Teachers need to be praised and affirmed by someone else all the time.
  7. Principals and supervisors are the best source of knowledge about teaching and learning.
  8. One principal can mentor 40 or 50 teachers at a time and be effective at it.
  9. Compliance is more important than personal investment.
  10. If you cannot reduce something to an algorithm or a quantity, it does not exist.

The above assumptions, if they guide teacher evaluation, direct us to a culture wherein:

  • Teachers are infantilized.
  • Internal motivation is not a resource for school development.
  • We waste a lot of time, and we do not guarantee that teachers learn how to facilitate learning better for our students.

Patterns are the best teacher, suggests Wellman (2013). If school patterns of behavior hinge upon the premise that the adults in the school learn best with external coercion, how will those adults facilitate self-directedness in themselves and in their students?

We need a new set of assumptions if our schools are to create cultures of self-directedness. What if we created our schools based on these assumptions?

  • That each person, including teachers, learn best when they are motivated internally.
  • That each person has the capacity to self-assess, self-monitor and self-modify.

And what if we created systems in our schools, which honor and respect the learner within each individual?


Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2015). Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.

Photo Credit: Toutes direction By Dyon Joël (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Polarity: Rigor and Inclusion

There are some ‘problems’ that surface every year in schools. One of these is the tug-of-war between being rigorous and inclusive. Sometimes, we think that the solution to every issue is to become more rigorous: raise the standards and the engagement and achievement will follow. Other times, we think that the solution to every issue is to be inclusive; if we offer enough personalized learning, everyone is happy and the issues disappear.

But with many of these ‘problems,’ we realize that one-sided solutions do not work very well. If we are too inclusive in the sense that we offer personalized solutions for everyone, we begin to question whether our criteria for success are relative and hence not able to be guaranteed in a consistent way. If we are too rigorous, we could potentially alienate so many students that we end up with an unhappy school.

The problem is that we treat these ‘problems’ as problems even though they are not. Barry Johnson (1996) suggests that there are tensions in organizations, which are not actually problems, but polarities. Polarities are conditions that co-exist, which cannot be solved by focusing on one to the detriment of focusing on the other. Rigor and inclusion for instance, must co-exist in a school in order for the school to guarantee the leaving credential but also to allow each individual to have access to the learning and the capacity to successfully learn.

By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson suggests that polarities are unsolvable, and that they are better off managed in their co-existence. “Polarities to be managed are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently; they require both-and thinking. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other,” writes Carolyn McKanders (in Garmston and Wellman, 2013).

A faculty mapped the polarity between rigor and inclusion and learned the upsides and downsides of focusing on one to the neglect of the other.


Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved.

Here is an application.

While reviewing the assessment policy this year, the group dialogued on the goal to be both inclusive and rigorous. The faculty wanted students to have multiple access points to learning and multiple ways to show they had learned. They also wanted students to engage in the rigorous program and to achieve at the highest levels for which they possessed the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes to do so. The school wanted to be both rigorous and inclusive.

One of the solutions to become more rigorous was to revise the policy so that students:
• Invested in their own learning every day
• Became conversant in the criteria for success
• Used approaches to learning they had learned to perform well on each summative assessment

In order to foster rigor, teachers decided that students had to:
• Show up every day ready to learn
• Learned and used self-management skills to keep track of their learning
• Reflected on approaches to learning—how ATL skills worked, how to get better at them, and how to evaluate them so they might decide which to use for what tasks

The faculty also had to provide action plans for how to become more inclusive. Being inclusive meant finding approaches for students to have personal entry points to learning. It also meant designing assessments, which had personal significance to the student; had multiple ways to express understanding; and called upon a repertoire of skill sets which may differ from student to student.

Solutions to become more rigorous and inclusive at the same time meant that teachers had to inquire into powerful questions such as:
• How do we motivate students to invest personally in the learning?
• How do we empower students to follow personal trajectories into units of inquiry?
• How do we inspire students to make connections?

Questions such as these fueled teachers’ reflective practices. They began to ask, what needs to happen, to inspire personal investment and self-directedness in the students? What needs to happen to provide an environment where risk-taking and inquiry are at the heart of learning? And what can we do to encourage students to unlearn unproductive habits like coming to school late and being absent, and to learn ways to become curious, inspired and motivated to be better at who they are? How do we create the belief that we are here for important reasons and that the learning we do is relevant?

The inquiry goes on. The value of the polarity mapping for this faculty was not in finding answers that stop inquiry, but in providing the spark that allowed the adults in the school to find relevance in the inquiry process itself. By deciding to map the polarity between rigor and inclusion, the teachers began an inquiry, which has launched a journey of school improvement with leadership from the classroom.

When polarities are present, as they are in every organization, they can become resources instead of problems. Harnessing the cognitive conflict, which resides in polarity management is an adaptive response to the recurrent issues that revisit a school unceasingly. Through inquiry and collaboration, these issues can become inquiries that can revitalize a community of learners.

To learn more about polarities and managing them, visit these resources:
Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups, 2nd Ed. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Johnson, B. (1996). Polarity Management. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, Inc.

Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved. For more information on resources, please see

Photo Credit: Photo of Child By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Thank you for reading The Learner’s Toolbox. We are passionate about self-directed learning. Join us on Twitter for a chat on Self-Directed Learning on May 12 1600 UTC by following the hashtag #sdlchat. Co-hosted by @alohalavina and @EricDemore.SDL_graphic_small

An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from on May 6, 2016.

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Fractals by Aloha Lavina 2012

Finding patterns

Recently at an Adaptive Schools® Seminar, the cohort was invited to think about fractals, which represent the patterns of being and behaving that construct the organizational behaviors of a group.

These invisible fractals are the calculus of the architecture in and through which we build our relationships and collaboration in organizations. Fractals are repeating patterns, wherein the resulting geometry is composed of the repeating patterns of the original pattern, but in more pronounced complexity.

When we think of the invisible fractals forming the patterns of an organization, we might find that as these patterns are constructed:

  • We add things that we value
  • We multiply the things we believe and that we assume are good for ourselves and our organization

Our beliefs, values and assumptions are the woof and warp of the organizational identity we weave.

We always weigh our actions and decisions against the assumptions we hold about learning and relationships in which learning is undertaken.

We may not do this deliberately. We may not do this by design.

If we did cultivate a deliberate architecture for the relationships that hold up learning in our schools, we would see…

  • That we value relationships in how they support learning and meaning-making around learning.
  • That we continually seek to improve the ways we communicate – listen and speak both verbally and nonverbally – so that our communication respects and values all perspectives and allows a balanced participation within our community, not just of the extroverts and those who process by talking
  • That we presume positive intentions and seek to understand the contexts and personal learning trajectories of all individuals
  • That we are open to the examination of our assumptions, beliefs and values as they pertain to and impact the ways we learn and teach.

The analogy in schools’ work

Each iteration of the ways we communicate and treat one another becomes a part of the patterns of our community.

When we have a pattern of talking over each other, we begin to groove this unproductive way of communicating into the very expression of our organization. When we allow ourselves to hold meetings in which advocacy rather than inquiry is the default stance, we create a culture of debate, of winners and losers, of one-upmanship instead of creating a culture where all ideas are valued and there is a healthy, balanced cognitive discourse where ideas may be shared, tweaked, challenged, evolved, co-constructed.

Patterns of being are great teachers. Wellman (2013) suggests that “Patterns are the ultimate teacher.” When we are not mindful of the ways in which we create the invisible fractals of our organization, what might we be teaching those who are members of our organization?

When we have a pattern of talking over each other, we might be teaching any or all of these:

  • That only some ideas are valuable
  • That idea generation is competitive
  • That you, my colleague, have to try to beat me by talking over my talking, to be heard
  • That this is a place where the loudest person can triumph
  • Introverts need not apply

Imagine the new person who comes into this situation. How long before they begin to either withdraw from the conversations, or begin to compete for air time? How long before they experience frustration with this dynamic of communication? The answer might be: immediately.

What an exhausting and unproductive fractal. Repeat this pattern over and over, and the results might be a tangle of ideas and communication wherein few ideas reach shared understanding, few ideas evolve beyond the initial expression by whomever is loudest. There might have been other iterations of the ideas, more effective iterations, but these are already lost in the silence of those who are drowned by the loud. There might have been intended shared understanding, and perhaps there might be resulting coherent practices among the group, but this potential for coherence and consistency has not had the opportunities to emerge because members are busy competing to be heard, but the listening is missing. Perhaps one take-away we might have from this illustration is the importance of examining our intentions in the collaborative work we do, and choosing congruent behaviors to make that intention happen through the actions we choose. Perhaps to communicate well, we must seek to understand the fractals of our communication.

Why patterns are important

Although we have evolved to be social beings, we are not naturally able to get in a group and collaborate effectively without learning, without rehearsal, and without feedback. Just like all learning, we need design and planning, design and instruction, feedback from assessment.

If we are mindful that the architecture of our small meetings affect the overall patterns in our organization, we might find that deliberate study of the ways we talk and form relationships ultimately teach our community the ways we become.

And if we are the adults, what might we be teaching the children?