Looking Closely at Children

The Learning Frame

A one page chart represents the fundamental structure of natural learning as a reference guide for creating learning opportunities for other people, irrespective of their age.

If we dropped the idea of teaching as being in control, could we organize for learning based upon what learners naturally do when invited to explore and figure things out?

Could we consider what happens each day in school as an experiment based on the best ideas that emerge from a reciprocal process where both learner and facilitator are learning at the same time?

Could we outline a protocol for facilitators that was based on careful listening, discussion of documentation by the team, and an evolution of ever more challenging opportunities designed for transformation?

Could we think of education as a profession dedicated to the facilitation of learning in the participant’s best interests (not a procedure or a prescription), and those who are employed as educators view themselves as experienced learners enthusiastically engaged in a parallel activity, evolving their practice in cooperation with their colleagues?


We all have the experience of changing from not knowing or not being able to do, having experiences over time, and finding ourselves one day at ease with that knowledge or skill being an ordinary part of ourselves. Most of us have encountered confusing phone apps becoming tools we use everyday. Many of us have had to learn to drive a car where fearful inability somehow changes to comfort. We find our brains acquire capabilities mysteriously, as biology and chemistry smoothly enable us to do what we keep doing, without awareness of the changes silently evolving in the background.

This change, we call learning, seems divorced from the idea that we need teachers to teach us. If we pursue an understanding of teaching and focus on what teachers ought to do—that is, follow a given plan when you teach—it’s easy to lose sight of the experience of learners. If we seek guidelines for an employee we call a teacher, we become flooded with eager prescriptions! We get lots of advice: “Here you go. Hold this ideal, adhere to this theory, and employ these methods. It’s essential, too, to write plans for lessons.”

Disappointingly, most of this guidance seems unrelated to how this somewhat flawed human employee, me, might enhance other people’s experiences, maintain integrity, sustain creativity, and create joy and well-being for a constant flow of unique learners in unique circumstances.


Something profound is amiss when we describe teaching. On the one hand we have learning that we see in ourselves and slow changes we see in others. On the other hand, when we try to describe how to teach, it is confusing to know what to do. I have been working at figuring this out.

Creating Learning Opportunities

I wanted to create a one page chart that diagramed the role of the facilitator or leader of learning in relation to the learning group. In two columns, The Learning Frame displays the passages of a learner’s evolution from zero to deep capability and the actions and intentions of facilitators acting in enhancing ways at each stage along a parallel path.

I assume you are reading this because you care about creating learning opportunities for others, so I invite you to print The Learning Frame and see if it helps. I found this simple chart refined my work as an educator. I could see more clearly how to remove obstacles, remind myself of my role, and focus on new opportunities.

The Learning Frame

Image view and Public Domain PDF: Learning Frame CC0

Passages Follow Neurology

The Learning Frame is a display of a structure for human learning, where documentation and group interaction create and sustain a strong learning culture. My colleague and mentor Rita Smilkstein calls it brain-based natural learning. Natural learning recognizes passages ordered by biology. Life forms learn biochemically. This natural learning progression is represented in the boxes down the left column, each of which identifies a passage to a new state. The metaphor might be wandering in an unfamiliar neighborhood where the place where you find yourself offers openings to other paths, visible only when you achieve this position to see them.

First, of course, we begin with the learner’s interest. They have to start walking in their neighborhood, their own zone of proximal development. Standing still won’t do. Often learners become aware of Initiative when they take action, usually impulsively—as a whim, a stab in the dark. Once they are doing, they choose to go in a direction that is new to them. Now we have Engagement. They, themselves, make the walk interesting by trying to cause something to happen or figure something out. With extended playing around the Intentionality passage opens with an idea, some kind of organized action to an end or thinking of a conception to try out. If that intention seems satisfying, and especially if others join in, a fire lights that provides energy to carry that intention through inevitable times of struggle to make it right. Most of the work of learning happens in the first three passages. That is why the background of the boxes remains white.

At some point, often unexpectedly, the next passage, with a black background, opens. Ideally, a facilitator provides the means and skills for Representation of what they are beginning to understand or do. This is where people learn to use what we broadly call the Arts, all the means of conveying something that provide a way to express-and-comprehend what is happening. The act of representation establishes connections in their brain’s neurological networks. When those connections are made, a new understanding becomes theirs, forever. In their representation and explanation we have a glimpse of deep understanding.

Eager to do more, the next passage invites them to take responsibility by sharing their story with others, both as closure and as opportunity. The challenge here is to convey this journey to others in a form that they might enjoy receiving. Wrapped up with paper and bows, a presentation or performance becomes a gift, a Benefaction.

When they have documentation available, gathered by facilitators along the way, they can review the whole deal—from engagement to gift; they can re-examine their choices; they can begin to appreciate the energy of their own inquiry; they can revisit the essential effects of personal connections and their contributions to others; they can describe the way they learn and what they might look for as they approach something new in the future. Upon Reflection they co-construct their concept of themselves and their dispositions to learn.

Passages Energize

It has flow, as Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi calls it, a state of effortless concentration and enjoyment from start to completion. To create spaces for learners to experience that flow educators offer opportunities outlined in the right column corresponding to each learner’s passage. Afterward, the facilitators analyze their role in the process, looking at what they did and what they thought and constructing new pedagogical understanding.

Thus the educational team improves as they live it together, using action research enabled by their continuous documentation. As the actors on stage and playwrights who know the ultimate goal, they value different perspectives and trust group wisdom. Being directed to examine the rushes, traces of the past, provides an opportunity for a co-construction of meaning and an invention of new directions to pursue: What happened there? Why did that work? How could we make it better? The Learning Frame is their guide: it is the agenda for their actions along an uncertain journey, dedicated to the people whose lives they aspire to enhance.

Passages Transform

I have been working on this chart for many years gradually synthesizing not only the relationship of natural learning to the environing conditions but also to define the way natural learning becomes transformation. I see transformation as acknowledging oneself as standing on a higher stair. I got there; I see things differently from here.

I use the LearningFrame whenever I need guidance. I can see the whole all at once, which I find remarkably useful. I first acknowledge where the learners are, I then see where I am, and then I can figure out how to proceed. Usually that means I have to invent something new for these people and prepare what is needed to try out. If it’s new, it may or may not work out. So? I learn something, too.

The Learning Frame aligns planning with learning.

A Paradigm Challenge

Propaganda is everywhere. As illustrated in this cartoon, indoctrination is a generally accepted practice in our culture: “Listening helps me learn.” Really? Or is this about sitting still and being quiet?

Most educators, having been students themselves, are quite familiar with authoritarian and coercive teachers. Most of us were expected to listen and appear attentive as the teacher talked on and on, to drudge through unpleasant homework, and to submit to being judged by tests and critics. It’s the water we swam in for years and years, so today it seems natural to keep doing it, to be authoritarian and coercive to one’s own children and students, and to disregard their individual desires and volition.

It seems there is no easy way to step out of that norm. Without experience as a learner living in The Learning Frame, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to imagine how education can happen without teacher control and lesson plans. How do you engender learner excitement and engagement? How can a classroom simply flow with its own energy?

Those boxes on one sheet of paper contain huge chunks of understanding and personal experience that one may have to acquire bit by bit. I invite you to explore what is here; if it works you will see it, because you know when something is right.

The Journey

We know something is right when we find joy and satisfaction. We see curiosity begin to explore paths of inquiry, ours and the student’s. We feel energized to try things. We recognize how those who become hooked through the passages—participants, facilitators, and observers—are happy and laughing. You probably remember such times in your life and agree that they were experiences to treasure.

When I first began teaching I had no models and didn’t understand conditions that optimized learning for others. I feared that if I lifted my control, children would go crazy, which John Dewey called “either-or” thinking: either we have control or we have chaos. That dichotomy—a two headed arrow—doesn’t apply here.

This is a circle, or more accurately, a spiral. Structure is tangibly present and behavior is orderly, without the necessity to continue those old power relationships. What happens each day is an experiment based on the best ideas that emerge from a reciprocal process where both learner and facilitator are learning at the same time. It’s all open and real, like life.

Yes, at first it may be chaotic, especially when you have a group of learners that is used to pushing back on controls. One can expect them to immediately get a bit wild. If so, wild push-back has to run its course. All groups I have seen tire of chaos pretty fast; it’s boring. They may continue for a day, but they usually become interested in exploring what is available to do. As the days pass, a new culture evolves. With clever-as-a-fox leadership and facilitation, school gradually runs on enthusiasm.

The key tools are offering, listening, and documentation. As the top row of boxes indicates, the learning group has to take the initiative to start the sequence of passages. One has to stifle the urge to push the string. We simply rely on a prepared environment and invitations. “I invite you to check this out.” Invitations, like “Come to my birthday party,” actually have attractiveness when genuine. Once learners discover that their own inquiry is shared by others and together a group energizes each other, the fire begins, fueled by natural intelligence, wisdom, and creativity—the power of a learning group.

Yes, mistakes happen. We work it through. We fix as we go. That’s how we learn to build spaces where natural learning thrives. In a way, leadership has to step off a cliff and find one can float in the joy of a democratic learning community.

Disarming Power: the Learner as Protagonist

You may notice there is no “teacher.” Rather, learning happens through gradually more challenging experiences, the same way most of us learn things we care about outside of school—cooking—smart phones—growing vegetables—where we choose our challenges motivated by our own intentions and curiosity. No one is imparting understanding to anyone else.

The Learning Frame trusts learners, especially when they get to participate in groups: “You, here today, are human beings with wisdom and altruism to take us further. I invite you to start.”

When each of us learns something new and learns it deeply enough for it to become an integral part of ourselves, we recognize we have changed. Others can recognize our change, too. We feel the joy of living. With care and time, schools can build a community of students, families, and educators who can flourish in relational spaces for learning.

Passages for Learners

Passages are hallways and way stations along the journey toward transformation. Each passage is action—praxis—engagement in the unknown to explore without regard for a product. I think it helps to visit examples of the passages on the Examples of Learning Stories page.

The first passage, initiative, is honored in Henry’s Bus. The subsequent passages of engagement and group intentionality appear in Joy with the Marble Run. A shared intention with another person energizes their effort in solving the problems they encounter.

All the passages are present in  The Stuffed Animals and Fragile People PlayI know of no better way to summarize The Learning Frame than the example of that single story. It illustrates what happens to children and the families when the facilitator offers, listens, and documents its natural evolution. The community reflection is there, too. So is a concrete example of children’s transformational learningI think most people would agree that these girls were changed forever: they began to view themselves as playwrights. They took one step up toward that temple pictured above.


The Learning Frame applies to all education, no matter how old the students or the kind of school. Here in the USA, we have a tradition of thinking of learners as independent individuals and of expecting the energy to arise inside the smart people. It’s the learner versus the content, the attentive listener struggling through the text in the late night hours in competition with their classmates. It is normal to think about teaching instead of think about learning. That’s why The Learning Frame becomes essential because it ignites the energy of cooperation and care for each other. People learn more from their peers than anyone else.

I invite you to explore the emotional complexities of interdependence at times of confusion and uncertainty to discover where the energy lies. I recommend the Mathematics and Design opening set of slides guiding a sequence of experiences for pairs or trios of adults using containers, string, and sand. I realize it’s a bother to get all that out and follow the directions. If you were in my class, I’d have all that ready and you would willingly try it.

I can’t do that for you now. I can only say that this one 30-minute experience, with a partner, around other partners, opens a window in your life you will never forget. I say that confidently, because hundreds of participants in that simple sequence have led me to certainty: in order to learn to be a professional educator, you have to discover for yourself the forces of group learning. Nothing is as powerful as your personal experience.

I also invite you to click on A Structure for Openness for a list of what one can present during school time—the activities one can offer. It’s short: another single page chart depicts alternatives one has as an educator to alternate investigation and representation cycles, the left and right pedals, so to speak. It’s a bicycle. Riding a bicycle is exactly what it feels like as a leader.

Now a few words from our heritage:

“A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worth while.”

— John Dewey, Education and Experience, p. 40

rinaldiCreating a listening context where one learns to listen and narrate, where individuals feel legitimated to represent their theories and offer their own interpretations of a particular question, Carlina Rinaldi calls “a pedagogy of listening”.

“Listening is sensitivity to patterns that connect, to that which connects us to others; abandoning ourselves to the conviction that our understanding and our own being are but small parts of a broader, integrated knowledge that holds the universe together. Listening is not easy. It requires a deep awareness and at the same time a suspension of our judgments and above all our prejudices; it requires openness to change. It demands that we have clearly in mind the value of the unknown and that we are able to overcome the sense of emptiness and precariousness that we experience whenever our certainties are questioned.”

— Carlina Rinaldi, In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia, p. 65.

Documentation happens in a myriad of ways. In general, it involves handwritten notes as well as audio or visual recordings, transcriptions of the learner’s dialogues with each other and group discussions, collections of products or constructions, and the educator’s discussions, insights, and logs.

“Throughout a project the teachers act as the group’s “memory” and discuss with the children the results of the documentation. This systematically allows the children to revisit their own and other’s feelings, perceptions, observations, and reflections, and then to reconstruct and reinterpret them in deeper ways. In reliving earlier moments via photography and tape recording, children are deeply reinforced and validated for their efforts and provided a boost to memory. Likewise, systematic documentation allows each teacher to become a producer of research — that is, someone who generates new ideas about curriculum and learning, rather than being merely a consumer of certainty and tradition.”

— Carolyn Edwards, “Teacher and Learner, Partner and Guide” in The Hundred Languages of Children, p. 154

Teaching well is revolutionary and requires courage.

“To learn the art and craft of teaching in revolutionary mode is all at the same time, exhilarating and dangerous; meaningful and exhausting; fulfilling and unfinishable. … As is true of the practice of all arts, to practice the art of teaching is necessarily to make mistakes, to be confronted with difficult, at times seemingly impossible choices, with marginalization, with setbacks, with oppression at the hands of those who wield power. I don’t need to tell a single person in this room how teachers who buck the oppressive mandates, the Tyrannical Truth of those currently wielding power, are turned on, ostracized, investigated, threatened, driven from their jobs. Yet that said, here you are and here, still vital, still strong, in a program dedicated to educating teachers to be seers of children, to teach in revolutionary mode – even now. Here is a program that has earned the right to speak of teaching as an art. And yes, even now, even as Tyrannical Truth rules with an iron fist, aspiring teachers do still choose this revolutionary path.

Is this easy? No. Where then is courage found? Where is courage found to hold firm to the conviction that education and schools can be revolutionized, that teaching can be an art, that minds and hearts and heads can be turned around? Where is courage found to stand firm against the degradation of teaching, of education? Where is courage found to hold firm to relatedness to children in the knowledge that absent that relatedness, teaching degrades to empty busy work? Where is courage found to accept … that forced compromises, like mistakes, are not the end of the story – that it is possible to continue, to stand firm, to remain even so a seer of children, alert to every opportunity for choice, for play, for story telling, for pursuit of passions?”

— Patricia Carini, Starting Strong

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