The Learning Frame
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 client’s best interests (not a procedure nor standardizable), and we, who are employed as educators, consider ourselves more experienced learners enthusiastically engaged on a parallel track, evolving practices in concert with 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: hold high ideals, adhere to this abstract theory, employ these methods, and be sure to write plans for lessons.
Dissapointingly, 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 in how we talk about teaching and learning. We know well the existence of a disconnect between discussions about teaching and how we have learned, how we have acquired skills and understanding in our own lives. For example, I had to learn how to build this site in WordPress. People helped me, but they didn’t teach me. My learning was a journey toward what I chose; my abilities evolved as I evolved. Resources I needed became available at the time I was ready for them. 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.
My quest has been to simply represent the facilitation of learning in others in a one-page chart. The Learning Frame is my attempt to display the relationship of a learner’s evolution from zero to deep capability and the actions and intentions of facilitators acting in enhancing ways along a parallel path.
I assume you are reading this because you care about creating learning opportunities for others. I invite you to print out The Learning Frame and give it a try. Once I could refer to a simple chart that mapped these relationships, my work as an educator changed. I could see more clearly how to remove obstacles, remind myself of my role, and focus on new opportunities.
The Learning Frame
Larger view and PDF download: LearningFrame
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.
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.
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.
A Paradigm Challenge
Education shouldn’t require indoctrination, as depicted in this image “Listening helps me learn.” Yet most educators are quite familiar with authoritarian and coercive teachers. Most of us were expected to be passive in class, expected to listen as the teacher talked on and on, expected to drudge through unnecessary homework, and expected being unpleasantly judged by tests and arbitrary opinions.
It’s understandable to forget we inhabit a system of coercion and control. We accept the normality of doing the same to children and students, so the tradition of disregard for individual desire or volition lives on.
I can relate to those who find it difficult to grasp how education happens when curriculum methods and lesson plans are gone and excited engagement simply flows forward. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to see the journey charted in The Learning Frame without the experience of seeing the evolution in people that happens over time.
Even though I wrote it, I continue to open this pdf file when I design learning experiences. I often need a map to find my place. You, too, can have it handy to remind yourself of the flow of learner’s passages and at each opportunity keep your intentions clear. The Learning Frame works.
We know something is “right” when we experience the joy and satisfaction it brings. We can see how our own curiosity, feel our own energy, and recognize how everyone who is involved—participants, facilitators, and observers—become energized and happy. You may remember such times in your life and agree that they are the experiences we treasure for a lifetime.
When I first began teaching I feared lifting my control would lead to chaos, which John Dewey called “either-or” thinking: either we have control or we have confusion. I know I am not alone, but 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 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 build responsibility once learners discover that their own inquiry energizes their natural intelligence, wisdom, and creativity of a learning group.
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. From what I have learned, the job for educators is to create those same kinds of opportunities in school. School is a big deal. School offers young people both chance and opportunity to be together with a wide range of peers, to encounter all what humans know, so far, and explore in their own way, through art, curiousity, and reflection.
The Learning Frame basically says, “You, here today, are human beings with wisdom and altruism to take us further. I invite you to start.”
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 who inhabit relational spaces for living. That’s the beating heart.
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 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. It is normal to think about teaching instead of think about learning. That’s why The Learning Frame seems essential.
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 for you.
Hundreds of participants in that simple sequence have led me to be certain that in order to learn to be a professional educator, you have to discover for yourself the forces of group learning. No one can tell you as powerfully as your personal experience. This opens with a simple, prescribed group task. Afterward, I believe, the rest of pedagogy can be viewed through new glasses.
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: a single page chart depicts choices for investigation and representation in a sharing cycle, the left and right pedals, so to speak. A bicycle. That’s 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
Creating 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