Looking Closely at Children

Learning Frame

A one page chart represents the fundamental structure and the vocabulary for designing experiences that are conducive to learning. Is this teaching?

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 fall.

PDF download: Learningframe

The Facilitation of Human Learning

I offer The Learning Frame as a picture of a structure for openness, as I call it, 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 the biology in our heads, represented by the course of challenges moving down the left column of the chart. Passages begin 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 way, share their study with others and, after all is done, take time to reflect on the process from the beginning to this moment.

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..

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.

The Learning Frame chart is its own stairway. I climb it as I lead my workshops and classes. Even though I am the one who put it together, I continue to open this same file learningframe.pdf whenever I need a bit of guidance. It helps me acknowledge where the learners are, helps remind myself of where I stand, and helps me focus on my current task. The Learning Frame keeps my planning aligned with their experience.

Understanding a Structure for Openness

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 this conceptualization of pedagogy and trust in the energy of learners. One reason for the difficulty may be that most educators have been students of authoritarian and coercive teachers. 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 we can work together over time. 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 a life well-lived. With care and time, schools build a community of students, families, and educators working together in relational spaces for living. To me, that’s the heart of learning.

Passages for Learners

I liken passages to hallways and way stations constituting the journey toward transformation. Each passage is action—praxis—engagement in 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.

I 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. The passages of engagement leading to shared 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 understand The Learning Frame than studying that single story. It illustrates what happens to children and the families when the facilitator offers, listens, and documents its natural evolution. The family comments for me define the word transformation: their girl’s lives were changed forever: they view themselves as playwrights.


Missing, of course, is a way to think about content and activities.

Content is not included, because The Learning Frame applies to all education, no matter how big the students are or the kind of school. For an example of preschool content—and the way I first began to understand the idea—I invite you to spend some time with the Mathematics and Design sequence of pages. I wish to emphasize, redundantly, to do the work described in the opening set of experiences for pairs or trios of adults using containers, string, and sand. If you want to learn to be a professional educator, you have to experience the forces of group learning. The rest then more easily falls into place.

For activities, I 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.

“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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