Cultivating to Connect

Creating Significant Learning Environments in the New Culture of Learning

What if we could transform the landscape of education so that students would be driven to learn, and feel successful and empowered? What if we could teach the necessary standards while still honoring students’ imagination and passion for their interests? 

In The New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown propose that the possibility exists if we reflect upon how learning naturally occurs outside of school. The authors also describe how access to technology has shifted the need for teachers to be less content experts, to become learning facilitators. 

In this TEDx video, Douglas Thomas describes ideas about A New Culture of Learning

The New Culture of Learning combines passionimagination and constraint to build learning opportunities. Students are naturally curious and have a drive to explore their surroundings and learn new skills. The naturalistic perspective of learning explains that a learner finds something they are naturally curious about and then explores it from many angles until it makes sense or the new skill becomes comes easy.

  • These new skills can be learning how to:
    • walk
    • understand a new unknown natural object
    • ride a bike
    • drive a car
    • speak a new word or language 
    • play an instrument
    • or fix a broken household item

Frequently, that natural passion and curiosity is squelched in school. The current design of the American public school system is still somewhat based on an antiquated model, where students receive all of their standardized knowledge from the teacher. Add to that the pressure of assessments, which create focus on small, disconnected pieces of information or skills, rather than how they fit into the larger picture of life. 

This Sprouts video, Experiential Learning: How We All Learn Naturally describes the experiential and more natural method of learning.

That is not to say the entire system is broken, but there is room for improvement. In a Washington Post article, Valerie Strauss states, “Engaging students in deep learning requires the cultivation of environments of trust and care. It means finding adequate space for play and for hard work. It means nudging and cajoling students, pestering and praising them. It means uncovering puzzles and conjuring mysteries. It means drawing connections to student interests, engaging with the real world, and cracking the occasional joke. Masterful teachers know this. And their classrooms are places of wonder.”

One key might be to find what students are curious and passionate about. The teacher can then make connections by using inquiry strategies to guide them through the prescribed curriculum. The learning deepens when teachers provide opportunities to explore those passions with constraints. In this TeachThought blog post, Irena Nayfeld provides some strategies for building inquiry into learning. Allowing students to profoundly explore their “What if…” questions will reveal their passions. Where there is a passion and drive, learning will occur

Now that we essentially have ubiquitous access to technology, and the availability of information is virtually limitless, and constantly changing, there needs to be a shift to the more natural form of learning. Teachers no longer need to be the expert in content because information is so readily available. Students can access anything they need on the internet. Rather, teachers need to facilitate and support learners in determining which of those sources of information are more reliable and relevant. 

There needs to be a shift to the more natural form of learning.

Beyond the ability to access information from websites, research databases, and sources such as YouTube and Wikipedia, there is the collective. Collectives are defined as groups of people connecting to build upon similar interests. Students have access to networks around the world that have the goal of learning about any particular passion. With each connection, the collective becomes stronger, and so does the learning. This is evident in discussion groups, gaming communities, social media networks and more. The latest form of collectives is an iPhone app called Clubhouse, that allows people to gather for planned or impromptu audio conversations. 

Instead of delivering information directly to students and spoon-feeding them content, teachers have the power to design their learning environments such that students discover the information while following their interests. This does not mean a free-for-all of discovery learning. Teachers should create a context where learners can connect their passions to the things they need to learn. They can provide guidance and constraints to fit the needs of the curriculum and students. 

According to Dr. Harpnuik’s CSLE video, the goal is to transfer this method of learning to our students and create significant learning environments based on the New Culture of Learning.  If students are given opportunities to solve questions and problems based on their passions or something they are naturally curious about, they cannot help but learn.

If students are given opportunities to solve questions and problems based on their passions or something they are naturally curious about, they cannot help but learn.

In the book COVA: Choice, Ownership and Voice through Authentic Learning, the authors state that teachers have the ability to cultivate the learning. “Like the farmer, we must create significant learning environments that will help to support and nurture the learner as they take responsibility for their own learning. We can create the context for learning and guide and direct our learners to make the choices that will help them achieve their learning goals but the choice in their focus and how they learn must be up to them.” (Harapnuik, 2018). The farmer plants the seeds, or feeds and waters his animals but the plants and animals must grow on their own.

Fundamentals of the COVA method and CSLE approach include:

  • Choice – allowing students to have a choice of what they will learn. This goes beyond a selection of activities designated by the teacher.
  • Ownership – enabling students to own their work. That can be true ownership such as in owning a website domain or taking pride in something they have created.
  • Voice – creating an environment where students feel comfortable to share their ideas and feelings about where the learning should be headed
  • Authentic learning opportunities – empowering students to solve real-world problems that affect them directly 

These concepts are directly intertwined with the fundamentals of the New Culture of Learning:

  • Play – tacit learning which are strengthened by:
    • Imagination
    • Exploration
  • Collectives – learning communities, networks
  • Constraints – the boundaries of a learning opportunity

Another goal is that the shift to creating significant learning environments, or CSLE, will have benefits beyond students gaining knowledge. When students are exploring their interests, the motivation and desire to succeed should be increased. They will also develop greater skills in discerning useful information from relevant resources, as they have practiced accessing and synthesizing more information. Another benefit will be that they will have the ability to think holistically, and connect how information fits into the big picture, rather than one bit of information at a time. Finally, because cooperation and collaboration is emphasized in the COVA and CSLE approach, students will be more inclined to seek information from and contribute to collectives, or learning communities.  

Creating significant learning environments will not happen overnight. But teachers do have the power to change the learning environment one step at time. I believe that a few keys to this are:

  • Discover what the learners are passionate about
  • Give them chances to play to construct their learning
  • Allow students build a collective where they support each other while taking learning risks.

There will be challenges associated with created significant learning environments. Time is always the biggest barrier in schools as the curriculums are tightly designed and packed with requirements for preparing for standardized assessments. Another potential challenge could be resistance from colleagues. It’s very easy to slip back into old methods because of their comfort of familiarity. Also it can be scary to change or challenge the status quo.

When teachers experience as learners specific methods of teaching, it can create a ripple effect and transfer into their teaching. I hope to be able to create an impact in my district by positively implementing and modeling significant learning environments and the concepts of the new culture of learning  in a few ways: 

  • During the planning of the summer library STREAM camp
  • With teachers during professional learning sessions
  • With campus support staff such as curriculum specialists, librarians, and campus technologists

The STREAM camp in my innovation plan fits in very well with the concepts of significant learning environments and a new culture of learning. STREAM camp is all about having fun and exploring passions. Students have a choice of activities and get to play rather than complete assignments. The nature of a camp is different than a classroom. My biggest hope for STREAM camp is that it will spark some interest in STEM topics, and get kids exploring ideas that they may not have previously considered. Some STREAM camp participants might even find a new passion that could eventually turn into a career.

While designing professional learning sessions for teachers this summer, my colleague and I are taking steps in right direction to work toward creating significant learning environments. Some steps are:

  • Surveying teachings to ascertain what they are most interested in for voluntary professional learning opportunities 
  • Planning extended sessions of professional learning to cohorts (collectives) of teachers, so that they have time to design lessons or units based on the new learning, collaborate with peers and make connections about how it could be used in their classroom to benefit students.
  • Designing learning opportunities that are less tool-focused and more pedagogy focused, particularly inquiry and project based learning in digital environments for our virtual teachers
  • Sending pre-communication regarding the nature of the training, with thoughts to consider beforehand
  • If the professional learning involves a new digital tool, there are two possibilities to support the learning in a CSLE fashion:
    • Send login directions and guidance to begin exploring the tool ahead of the session 
    • Incorporate session play time

While designing materials and training for support staff to model CSLE, I would follow similar strategies. Often our teaching opportunities with these groups become truncated, so this is challenging, but not impossible. For next school year, when we are likely to have face to face PLCs, I have a goal of incorporating this with one topic for each group. For each of these topics, I intend to facilitate rather than teach. The participants will design their own projects throughout the year based on the needs of their teachers and learners.

  • Curriculum specialists – Transferring great classroom teaching to the digital environment 
  • Librarians – Building effective and flexible maker spaces in the library.
  • Campus Techs – Empowering teachers with digital skills

In my role, I have the opportunity to effect change in many arenas. These are lofty goals, but what if I am able to cultivate connections among each of these groups of learners? What if I am able to empower these learners to grow, just as a farmer does for his crops and beloved animals?

Farm as classroom significant learning environment – Just for fun I made this little video metaphor.

  • Farmhouse – school district providing resources & safety
  • Fence – constraints
  • Spade & trowel – tools, textbooks, technology devices
  • Water – feedback
  • Sun – encouragement, energy
  • Seeds – questioning strategies & seeds of knowledge
  • Food – access to knowledge
  • Animals – collective
  • Rainbow – hope to inspire learners & colleagues


One Comment on “Cultivating to Connect

  1. Pingback: Creating Significant Learning Environments – A Reflection | Holly D. Landez ePortfolio

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