Self-Selecting, Real-World Learning Communities

ImageImagine in your mind, a map of your community. Nothing detailed; just the boundaries and general lay of the land. Got it? Now add in the major areas in your community where people live and work and play. You know, to give yourself some bearings with a few landmarks. Still with me? Good! Now convert this mental image into a heat map. You know, where the hot spots flare up in bright yellows, oranges and reds? Picture in your mind hot spots that indicate places people go to learn new things and practice skills that are important to them. Where are those heat surges? Athletic fields? Dance studios? Book stores? Parks and beaches? Art galleries? Theaters? How about school buildings? No? Why aren’t school building hot spots on anyone’s heat map?

Karen Pittman discussed this this at the recent ASCD Whole Child Symposium Live Event: “Learning communities need to be grounded where children live, being able to learn in all kinds of places within their community. Let’s let go of the idea that there are buildings where learning happens and help children find their own learning communities based on their interests and abilities and pace of learning. Such learning communities do not provide just more learning time, but better learning experiences by being able to learn and practice skills in their authentic contexts. We need to allow young people to create their own heat maps based on their learning needs and interests. And then we need to go to those places where children identify their learning hot spots and find ways to replicate learning experiences there on the ground within the community. You can bet schools are not going to show up very warm on heat maps.”

This isn’t a big conceptual stretch. We already have virtual learning communities that connect people of common interests and skills. Students meet online with content matter experts, skilled professionals and learning partners as a way to push beyond the four walls of the classroom. But as we continue to transform education from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, why settle pushing the boundaries when we can literally open up the doors and let students out to seek meaning and understanding and practical application of the skills they will need to be successful contributors to their community?


Children are past the point of needing to master content. They can find the information they need on the fly in real time from anywhere. Instead, they need the skills and understandings of how to

  • collaborate,
  • problem solve,
  • create products of value,
  • practice conflict resolution,
  • self-monitor their work performance, and
  • learn from risk-taking regardless of the outcome.

If students can learn and practice these kinds of skills, they will be ready for whatever their adult world looks like, regardless of the information at hand.

“Right now,” Charles Haynes pointed out at the live Whole Child Symposium, “there is an emphasis on student interest and choice in preschool and in college, but nowhere in between.” Why is that? In a world where agility with skills and concepts is key, why are our elementary, middle and high schools focused on prescribed content and contrived outcomes? Because for the last century the ideals of the industrial age were reflected in public education: alignment, standardization, consistency of behavior, ability to follow directions. These things produced a more homogeneous citizenry, a trainable pool of prospective soldiers and responsible stewards of business. We accomplished this to an impressively high degree. But society has continued to grow and morph, and being able to master a set scope and sequence of memorized facts, rote vocabulary and basic heuristics no longer meets the needs in a collaborative, competitive global economy. If we continue training bean counters, they will serve those who can ask important questions, find valuable answers, and deliver innovative breakthroughs in ways our generation cannot even imagine.

School buildings are brick-and-mortar monuments to a bygone age. They have served their purpose well, delivering us from being an agricultural start-up to a world super power. But we no longer need brain factories dispensing knowledge into empty heads. There’s little value in inspecting graduates with one-size-fits-all assembly-line standards. A century ago we enacted labor laws to free children from inappropriate working conditions. Today we must enact education laws that free children from inappropriate learning conditions. Learners participating in self-selected learning communities. Teachers participating as facilitators, coaches and mentors. Learning taking place across the community: libraries, museums, laboratories, businesses, public offices, virtual spaces. Anywhere students are engaged and motivated to learn, allow them to do so. Sure there can still be standards and assessments, but let them be as practical and authentic as the real-world environments where learning takes place.


For the last thirty-five years, the reforms that have been imposed on public education have cited the cost of everything but lost sight of the value education delivered. The solution is not further reform of the outdated model, but to fully transform education to where it needs to be today. It won’t happen quickly, but it will happen. How do we start? Educators committed to children need to band together and take risks, creating environments where learners can acquire and practice the skills they need. It will be our legacy; our gift to the future. What a transcendent way to give back to our profession, and make the world a better place for the next generation.

This blog has been cross-posted on the Whole Child Blog:

What’s Testing Season?


Reposted from ASCD EDge:

“I have no ideas that can replace a billion dollar a year idea. Portfolios, individual conferences, and authentic learning projects would all be improvements over standardized testing for student assessment, but they do not provide easily calculated data. We as a society have allowed business and politicians to corrupt an assessment tool in order to use it as a money-making device for a select few companies. Education needs to be more transparent, but certainly the best people to administer education should be the educators and not business people or politicians. We need to realign education’s goals on learning and not testing. We do not need a season of testing, but a life of learning.”

Read More…


Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem

Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem

Since we cannot be certain that a world of learning will emerge, examining possible future scenarios can help us prepare for whatever future does come to pass. Picture the entirety of society as a rich learning ecosystem in which learners grow and thrive, and teachers serving as Learning Agents, coaching students through their individual learning journeys. The communal context in place to sustain personalized learning! The KnowledgeWorks Forecast 3.0 identifies five dynamics that will help transform education between now and 2025: customizable vale webs, deinstitutionalized production, democratized startups, high-fidelity living and shareable cities. The implications are both deep and profound. See the details at


Technology in Education: A Future Classroom

Nemroff Pictures created this video (2:42) of what the future classroom will look like, including individualized learning options, holographic keyboards and screens, open secure wireless access, context-sensitive devices and flexible movement between local networks. The elements that surprise me are students are still attending school in classrooms, and teachers still standing at the front of instructional spaces. If all this connectedness, mobility and holography are available, why would students still be anchored to bricks-and-mortar physical facilities? Your input and insights on this are welcomed!


What Will Learning Look Like in 10 Years?

What Will Learning Look Like in 10 Years?

This excellent infographic from KnowledgeWorks shows the direction and dynamics in play for learning over the next decade (click through to view and download this document in PDF format from the source). Education will transform from students adapting to an assigned classroom to learners thriving in a rich learning ecosystem with teachers as coaches. Imagine the possibilities!


Learning and Teaching Doesn’t Fit into Bubbles

Learning and Teaching Doesn't Fit into Bubbles

For every student’s burgeoning hopes and dreams. For every family’s aspirations for their children. For the unique needs and interests and talents of every child. For the ever-changing organic nature of society. For the morphing values and ideals of each successive generation. For the unseen future that each of us in education strives to touch. There is no one-size-fits-all delivery of instruction, standards and services that can be funded, dispensed and captured across endless matrices of ovals. Learning and teaching are messy because they are human processes. You can’t quantify living, breathing, thriving, vibrant three-dimensional hearts, minds and spirits using corresponding two-dimensional bubbles. After all, human experience teaches us from an early age…bubbles burst.

We Must Start Considering What Achievement Really Is And How to Universally Assess It


Reposted from Starr Sackstein’s Blog:

“We must start considering what achievement really is and how to universally assess it, so that mastery level is something we all understand – no longer an arbitrary number or letter, but a reproducible skill evident to all witnesses based on the standards necessary to forward movement.

We need to do a better job of helping kids succeed, rather than rejoicing in their inability to jump through hoops. There can no longer be one right way to show proficiency and mastery of learning and no set time limit to achieve it.

We can all agree that people come in different shapes and sizes, with different learning styles, strengths and challenges, so why should we use one antiquated approach to report what they know?

Education must embrace that equity has little to do with justice and everything to do with meeting needs. If we universally support a deeper awareness of standards based learning, grades will actually mean something substantial.”

Read More…


Schools Will Be Last to Notice

Schools Will Be Last to Notice

The challenge of working to transform a longstanding public institution is that it has learned to sustain itself on the basic functions and operations that have historically served the public well. Public institutions reflect the societies they serve, and today society is morphing so quickly, an age-old entity like public education is going to need time to catch up. But how long can society wait? Will it come to, literally or figuratively, school buses driving around without passengers before transformation occurs?

The Missing Piece of Personalization: Passion and Engagement


Reposted from the Whole Child Blog:

“I think one of the most overlooked pieces for personalization currently is that the learner “connects learning with interests, talents, passions, and aspirations. As we move forward with personalization, we need to make sure not to forget student engagement and its implications for truly personalizing learning, where student passion and interest are not only allowed, but a critical component of the model.”  -Andrew K. Miller

Note: be sure to check out version three of Barbara Bray’s “Personalization v Differentiation v Individualization chart” embedded in this post.

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Standardization is Dead on Arrival

Standardization is Dead on Arrival

Standardization is an ideal of the industrial age, much like the assembly line, precision, accuracy, order and conformity. Why are we moving forward with assessment programs that still reflect these values, even as everything around us has become individualized and personalized? Our children will have multiple interests, multiple careers, and multiple opportunities to contribute successfully to the global community. If we are intent on preparing our children for this future, then there’s no one right answer. And if there’s no one right answer, standardization is dead on arrival.