Looking Closely at Children

Learning Frame

A one page chart represents the fundamental structure of natural learning—and its vocabulary—as a reference for facilitating learning opportunities for others, no matter how big those people are. The rhetorical question for everyone: Would you call this teaching?

Once I had this chart, my work as an educator changed. I could see better how to remove the obstacles and open the doors.

Larger view and PDF download: LearningFrame

Its Natural

I offer The Learning Frame as a picture of a structure for humans to learn, where documentation and group learning create and sustain a strong learning culture. My colleague and mentor Rita Smilkstein calls it brain-based natural learning.

Natural learning has passages ordered by biology. Life forms learn biochemically. We human beings get to think about how learning works, even if we have trouble organizing schools. This natural learning progression is represented in the boxes down the left column, each of which forms a passage. The metaphor in my mind is a cave or an unfamiliar neighborhood where a path leads to openings to other paths that emerge once you are in a position to see them.

At the top, we begin with the learner’s interest, which they become aware of as they act, usually impulsively, trying something that comes first to mind, a whim, a stab in the dark. Then, once they are doing, they make it interesting by trying to cause something to happen. This next passage opens when they have an idea, some kind of organized theme or conception to try. 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 here.

At some point, often unexpectedly, the next passage opens. Ideally, a facilitator provides the means and skills to represent 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, its theirs, forever. We usually call that learning: 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.

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. They co-construct their concept of themselves and their dispositions to learn.

It Flows

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 as well as playwrights, they value their different perspectives and trust their group wisdom. Looking at traces of the past with others provides an opportunity for the co-construction of meaning and the invention of new opportunities: 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.

It Transforms

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 use the learningframe.pdf whenever I need guidance. It acknowledges where the learners are, reminds me of where I am, and defines my current task. The Learning Frame aligns planning with the learner’s experience.

Understanding How to Educate

One of the problems I have faced in my professional life has been trying to help other college faculty and early childhood educators to first understand and then apply a natural learning pedagogy that fosters the energy of a community of learners. One reason for the difficulty may be that most educators have been students of authoritarian and coercive teachers. Like the cartoon, most of us were expected to be passive in class, expected to listen as the teacher told us things, expected to complete the homework, and judged by tests or teacher opinions. Those who acquiesced to the system survived.

Often we don’t see we are inhabiting a system of coercion; we accept it as normal to not have a voice in how things work. When we step back, especially when we encounter another way, we can see our community having been willing to acquiesce to authority without regard for individual desire or volition. Although schools are probably run by nice people, they continue the traditions of coercing their students despite a wealth of evidence that these traditions have little to do with how brains work and learners learn.

Those who have experienced the activities and relationships in The Learning Frame may see the chart as a natural way of life. I didn’t see the structure to it until I was a participant experiencing my own energy flow. Those with traditional do-as-you-are-required-to-do-for-your-future-success experiences may find it difficult to grasp what is happening when curriculum methods and lesson plans are gone. How can learners learn anything in spaces with that kind of openness and uncertainty?

I can empathize with the problem of how to start creating these non-traditional spaces and intentions. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to see the journey from current practice to the place The Learning Frame describes. The sequence is hard to apprehend without seeing the evolution over time. It has been helpful to me to have in hand a way to see how the flow of learner’s passages alters the attentiveness of facilitators, because my brain is unable to hold the whole thing in my mind at once.

The Journey

I am here to say that no matter what your past experiences have been, The Learning Frame is right. We know something is “right” when we experience our own curiosity, energy, and generativeness and recognize how all involved—participants, facilitators, and observers—are energized by the joy that is present. Those are the experiences we treasure for a lifetime.

This was totally foreign to me at one time. I liked the idea but knew no way to do it. I imagined lifting my control would lead to chaos, which John Dewey called “either-or” thinking: either we have control or we have confusion. That two headed arrow doesn’t apply here; this is a circle. Structure is tangibly present and behavior is orderly, without reliance on traditional 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.

Yes, at first it may be chaotic, especially when the group of learners is used to pushing back on controls. If so, push-back has to run its course; it’s pretty boring after a while, actually. As the culture evolves, school gradually runs on its own enthusiasm.

As the top row of boxes indicates, the learning group has to take the initiative to start the sequence of passages. Invitations, like “Come to my birthday party,” actually have attractiveness when genuine. Expectations then change once learners discover that their own inquiry allows their natural intelligence, wisdom, and creativity to emerge.

Yes, mistakes happen. We fix them 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 survive to discover the richness of a democratic learning community.

Disarming Power: the Learner as Protagonist

You may notice that The Learning Frame avoids the word teacher. No one is imparting understanding to anyone else. 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. The challenge for educators is to create those same kinds of opportunities in school where people can work together over time on a wide range of understandings and abilities.

The Learning Frame is the guide. It actualizes the message, “You are human beings with the inherent wisdom to plan and shape all of our understanding. I invite you to check it out.”

The validity of The Learning Frame is 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 can recognize our change, too. We experience the joy of living a life well-lived. With care and time, schools can build a community of students, families, and educators working together in relational spaces for living. To me, that’s the heart of what we are about.

Passages for Learners

I liken passages to hallways and way stations along the journey toward transformation. Each passage is action—praxis—engagement in something unknown to be explored 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 Play. I 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 how I define the word transformation. I 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. Stamina. Discipline. Sheep and goats. The big sort. That’s academics. That’s what the dominant discourse pushes down upon toddlers, too.

Most faculty I have encountered look askance at cooperative group learning; I often hear about the unfairness of a few stars doing the work and the slugs slipping through: the heritage of academic competition. That’s thinking about teaching instead of thinking about learning. That’s why The Learning Frame seems essential. I don’t think lectures and readings can open the lid for most people. One has to experience the emotional complexities of interdependence to discover where the energy lies. I invite you to spend some time with the Mathematics and Design sequence of pages, especially the 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 lot of bother to get all that stuff out and follow the directions. (If you were in my class, I’d have all that ready for you.) Hundreds of participants have led me to be certain that if one wants to learn to be a professional educator, you have to discover the forces of group learning as an assigned group task. Afterward, the rest of pedagogy more easily falls into place.

I also invite you to look at A Structure for Openness for clues about what to present during school time no matter the content area. It’s short: a single page chart depicts choices for investigation and representation in a sharing cycle, the left and right pedals, so to speak. That’s exactly what it feels like when you are the 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

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