Looking Closely at Children

The Learning Frame

A one page representation of the fundamental structure for providing experiences that are conducive to growth.

Once I understood this chart, my work as an educator changed. Instead of rolling the rock uphill, I nudge the rock where it naturally wants to go.
Here’s a copy for you to download: The Learning Frame PDF


The Facilitation of Human Learning

I offer The Learning Frame as a picture of a structure for openness, where documentation and group learning create and sustain a strong learning culture. My colleague Rita Smilkstein calls it brain-based natural learning. Natural learning has passages ordered in the left column of the chart. It begins with the learner’s interest, learners then work, cooperatively if possible, on their own chosen intentions, express what they understand and can do in another form, share what they have newly acquired with others, and then take time to reflect on the process. 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 appropriate for each room, depicted on the right half of the chart. In the final passage, learners reflect upon their experiences in the passages and, correspondingly, the facilitators analyze their role in the process and co-construct new pedagogical understanding. Both parties, the learner and the educator, are changed by these ordered intentions and reflective practices.

It is way beyond the scope this site to define and elaborate on what the words mean, but I think they are widely agreed upon concepts, with the possible exception of benefaction, which I offer as a more precise word for the learner’s activities in that fifth passage. The essential forces at work are documentation and reflection, enabling the educators themselves to discover the way as they live it, trusting in their shared wisdom and mindfulness.

Once I finally found the words that seemed precise, I printed a copy to refer to whenever I had to plan my own workshops or classes. I found it surprisingly useful, apparently because I can’t seem to hold the content of twelve boxes in my head at once.

Willingness to Understand a Structure for Openness

The most difficult problem I have faced in my professional life has been helping faculty and early childhood educators learn to lead it. One reason might be that it’s uncomfortable learning a new way to behave. Another might be that it’s unfathomable to educators who have grown up under authoritarian and coercive practices, which is the way most of us experienced school. As students, we remained mostly passive, expected to listen as the teacher told us things, assigned things, and graded things. We had little choice but to acquiesce. That’s how most schools are organized in this culture, despite the obvious fact that the traditions of school have little to do with how brains work and learners learn.

The depth of the interrelated ideas represented by The Learning Frame cannot be conveyed in words very easily, since the understandings are constructed not given. Those who have been participants in learner-centered, constructivist experiences may understand more easily. Others may find it difficult to trust that learners will learn best in amiable spaces that are structured for openness and uncertainty. Sometimes I think it is essential to experience the curiosity, energy, and generativeness oneself in order to understand how all involved — participants, facilitators, and observers — are energized by the joy that is present.

Maybe people are afraid. They may see the lifting of control, prescription, and authority as leading to chaos — dualistic thinking — which John Dewey called “either-or” thinking: either have control or face confusion. That continuum doesn’t apply here, structure is tangibly present and behavior is orderly, without reliance on traditional power relationships. What happens each day is essentially an experiment based on the best ideas that emerge from a reciprocal process where both learner and facilitator are learning at the same time. Gradually classrooms run more smoothly as a cooperative culture of inquiry allows natural intelligence, wisdom, and openness to emerge. Those who build spaces for learners as depicted in The Learning Frame have to let go of fear, step into uncertainty, survive, and experience for themselves the emerging richness of a democratic learning community.

Disarming Power: the Learner as Protagonist

The Learning Frame drops coercion, disarms power, and avoids the word teacher. No one is imparting understanding to anyone else. Learners learn through gradually more challenging experiences, the same way most people learn most things outside of school— cooking — smart phones — growing vegetables — where the learner chooses challenges motivated by their own intentions and curiosity. The challenge for educators is to create opportunities in the life of the school where the learners are actors and the school is a stage. The structure for openness is a way to create cooperative spaces for brains to work, as if to say, “You are human beings with the inherent wisdom to plan and shape all of our understanding. Let’s get started.” The opportunities provided and the skills and thoughtfulness of the facilitators will, over time, adjust and evolve towards an aesthetic ideal.

The validity of The Learning Frame can be found in its resonance with everyday experience. 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 do, too. We know from wearing a new vision prescription that brains somehow make sense of what is around us, which we must believe also applies to our changing phenomenological, cultural, interpersonal experiences. Schools evolve when a community of students, families and educators work together at creating relational spaces for learning. The Learning Frame attempts to convey how to guide that into existence.

I can empathize with the problem of how to start creating these non-traditional spaces and intentions. It is difficult — and some think impossible — to see how to get from current practice to the place the Learning Frame describes. I know it has been helpful for me to see on one page how the flow of learner’s passages alters the attentiveness of facilitators.

Passages for Learners

I liken passages to hallways or pathways which dominate a learner’s attention along the journey to transformation. Each passageway leads to something unknown to be explored. The first three passages are a cycle that goes round and round again. Eventually the work evolves to a place where passage 4 opens up. The black background on the icon for passages 4, 5 and 6 is intended to mark that transition.

passagesI think it helps to visit examples of the passages on the Examples of Learning Stories page. The first passage is initiative shown in Henry’s Bus. Engagement and intentionality are exemplified by Joy with the Marble Run. You can see how having a shared intention with another person energizes their effort in solving the problems they encounter.

The Stuffed Animals and Fragile People Play presents all passages in one story. I know of no better way to illustrate the flow. It seems so natural, doesn’t it? The children’s dolls from home start it off. Then, passage by passage, open into new rooms of adventure, culminating in a gift to others. Finally, because of the documentation, the experience can be reflected upon by the community that cares. The Learning Frame emerges as the story of what happens to children and the families when the facilitator offers, listens, and documents at every stage. The thoughts of the families give meaning to the word transformation as their girl’s lives were changed forever. They became, in their own minds, playwrights with the language of theater at hand.

Attentiveness by Facilitators

Offer opportunities or experiences in prepared environments.

John-Dewey“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


Listen deeply to what is happening in the moment.

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 Renaldi 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.

Document: record in any way possible the traces of what has transpired.

This happens in a myriad of ways. In general, documentation 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.

Carolyn Pope Edwards, Willa Cather Professor in Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. 2005 file photo by University Communications

“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
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