ethnographic research

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.