Designing Learning Landscapes

The problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert, is the central problem of all education. (Whitehead, 1967).

medium_8287407440-1Great expectations exist for educational systems to shift to meet the needs of today’s learner. Educational organizations, around the globe, are navigating the necessity of educational reforms (or new forms). Recently, I read an article that argues that even with our best intentions and actions, a prevailing assumption abounds in education that negates our best efforts. Without a fundamental shift in our mindset of teaching and learning, and how we approach curriculum, we are continually faced with the same flaw: the notion of knowledge as isolated bits. But even currently held practices demonstrate how prevalent, and often hidden, this thinking is in education.

Thanks to Ken Robinson, most of all are all too aware of the caricatures of traditional education. But to understand where recent educational reform gets stuck (and how deeply routed our assumptions to this thinking is), we need to revisit the industrial movement and Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Fredrick Taylor (1856-1915) is the father of the ‘efficiency movement’; born out of preparing efficient factory workers to meet the demands of industrialization. Basically, the tenants of the efficiency movement are:

  • breaking down of tasks into little component parts, that when sequenced properly, can be efficiently organized
  • standardization, sequencing and surveillance are fundamental
  • assessment of any inefficiencies in the factory line can be easily identified to locate errors
  • workers learn one task by rote and repetition, until efficient
  • any work aside the task at hand is extraneous to that work
  • workers are focused, uncomplicated and compliant

Though I would argue that good teachers have not followed this in practice – and have taken on the challenge of making content meaningful, relevant and rich. Yet systems in education tend to hamper our best designs and intentions.

Dr. Sharon Friesen points to how prevalent this model exists in our educational system today – not merely the ‘factory’ structures in education- but in our deeply held assumptions of how we ‘reform’ education. Currently, education is seen as ‘getting’ through a curriculum that is based in isolated bits, organized sequentially from K-12. Assessment occurs with a standardized test that measures how many bits have successfully been acquired. This view of knowledge, and curriculum design, has lead to what she coins ‘de-skilling’ of the teaching profession.

bits of starsWhat I found particularly interesting is even relevantly recent movements in education are based in assumptions of the efficiency movement; particularly the notion of knowledge as isolated bits. For example, Sharon Friesen would argue that the constructivist movement (based on the work of Jean Piaget) is based on the same premise of knowledge as isolated bits; waiting to be arranged and organized by the learner to ‘create’ understandings. Students have the onus to construct their own knowledge from discerning meaning and patterns from isolated bits of knowledge. If the presumption of curriculum as constituted by isolated fragments is left in place, without being contextualized in ‘living’ disciplines; efforts at constructivist learning, though well intentioned, are doomed to fail.

Similarly, the prevalent conversation about the acquisition of generic skills, such as 21st Century skills (many lists of these necessary skills can be found today) fall into this assumption. Competences for the 21 Century learner being organized as isolated ‘skill’ sets to be employed as separate entities, to different contexts. What is being learned – in employing these skill sets – is pivotal to the character of the skill set at hand. For example, to ‘think critically’ has a different character based on the ‘living’ discipline to which it is being used. To ‘think critically’ about a poem is different than to ‘think critically’ about geometry. Lists of 21 Century skills as ‘isolated’ bits to be taught to students, does not take into account the living disciplines in which they are applied. This practice reflects the basic assumptions of the efficiency model.

landsc2Indeed, the efficiency model worked for the time and context in which it was derived. But today’s students require learning that is rich, relevant, and authentic (reflective of the ‘living’ disciplines of a topic). Thus, the Galileo Network discusses curriculum integration in terms of ‘topics’ and ‘landscapes.’ The landscape of a topic refers to the various living disciplines that need to be explored and understood to authentically know about a topic. Curriculum integration is not done by artificially blending together curriculum areas in a way that is not authentic to the real world for the topic being studied. Task design that supports “learning the landscape” of a topic creates learning opportunities that are authentic, relevant, and vigorous, by inviting ‘living’ disciplines as a way to explore and navigate the ‘landscape’ of the topic. Examples of learning through inquiry, by exploring the ‘living’ landscapes of a topic can be found here. Good task design asks us to create these rich contexts to help weave strong connections between knowledge domains for our students to explore. Learning landscapes provide the contexts for students to view and participate in the real world.

I would love to hear ideas of how best to design learning landscapes that provide rich and relevant exploration of a topic through the living disciplines. What kind of design/considerations does ‘Genuis Hour’ require to create a rich learning landscape? Is there a way to leverage, or modify, 8ways of Thinking to design rich inquiry based learning landscapes for students? What resources exist to support teachers in design learning landscapes that provide authentic exploration into the ‘living’ disciplines of their topic? What structures as administrators do we need to put in place to facilitate the design of successful learning landscapes?

photo credit: finchlake2000 via photopin cc
photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor via photopin cc
photo credit: Skiwalker79 via photopin cc

Friesen, Sharon, & Jardine, David. “21st Century Learning and Learners.” Western and Northern Canadian Curriculum Protocol; no date.

About Julie Milligan

I am a Canadian School Administrator on a professional learning journey around the world! I am passionate about instructional design and intention. I am learning, leading and laughing from both sides of the world. Follow me @milliganjulie.
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3 Responses to Designing Learning Landscapes

  1. Jane Nordli Jessep says:

    Hi, Julie,
    I’m a retired teacher but I coach and instruct for an online outfit called WIDE World of Online Learning. It arose from the research work being done at Project Zero. You must know of the work of Howard Gardner and David Perkins. Dr. Perkins has been directly involved with the courses we offer at WIDE. One of them might be of great interest to you, actually two of the courses. One is called Teaching for Understanding and we invite teachers to consider discipline based learning, we explore inquiry and a performance based model to demonstrate understanding. You might want to visit or even take one or more of our courses. One of the most interesting courses that seems to be attracting a lot of attention is called “Making Thinking Visible”. It is designed to maximize an understanding of how best to use Thinking Routines and underscores the importance of creating cultures of thinking built around not just the routines but also Cultural Forces and Thinking Ideals. Here is a link to the Visible Thinking site, part of the Project Zero site.
    I hope you get chance to visit us.
    Enjoyed your piece.


  2. Mr. Samm says:

    Well, there’s certainly some spam comments on this posting. I have been getting these on my WordPress blog too.

    I love what you have written, and the sheer depth of your research. Progressive educators are continually coming up against systems, and systems being used as reasons not to try a different approach. I some cases, the very purpose of systems is to ensure consistency. In some of those cases, it is only really mediocrity that is ensured!

    A rich learning/inquiry environment involves flexibility and adaptation… scary ideas for those of us who depend on systems in our teaching methods. Many teachers need to know they are doing their job as well as they can and, by adhering to systems and evaluating themselves according to how well they can deliver those systems, they are able to keep track of how well they are doing their job. When flexibility and adaptation creep into practice… it becomes much harder to track! Indeed, a teacher needs to go through a fairly substantial shift in thinking with regard to what their job is.

    There are so many mixed messages about what a teacher’s job actually is, it is no surprise that many prefer the most simple, systems-based version. After all, effectiveness needs to be measurable in order to be effective. Or does it? Sadly our methods of measuring are also stuck in time warps along with many of our notions of what constitutes an effective teacher.


  3. Pingback: #MustRead Shares (weekly) | it's about learning

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