Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

8 March 2012

Reimagining Learning

Clark @ 6:06 AM

On the way to the recent Up To All Of Us unconference (#utaou), I hadn’t planned a personal agenda.  However, I was going through the diagrams that I’d created on my iPad, and discovered one that I’d frankly forgotten. Which was nice, because it allowed me to review it with fresh eyes, and it resonated.  And I decided to put it out at the event to get feedback.  Let me talk you through it, because I welcome your feedback too.

Up front, let me state at least part of the motivation.  I’m trying to capture rethinking about education or formal learning. I’m tired of anything that allows folks to think knowledge dump and test is going to lead to meaningful change.  I’m also trying to ‘think out loud’ for myself.   And start getting more concrete about learning experience design.

Let me start with the second row from the top.  I want to start thinking about a learning experience as a series of activities, not a progression of content.  These can be a rich suite of things: engagement with a simulation, a group project, a museum visit, an interview, anything you might choose for an individual to engage in to further their learning. And, yes, it can include traditional things: e.g. read this chapter.

This, by the way, has a direct relation to Project Tin Can, a proposal to supersede SCORM, allowing a greater variety of activities: Actor – Verb – Object, or I – did – this.  (For all I can recall, the origin of the diagram may have been an attempt to place Tin Can in a broad context!)

Around these activities, there are a couple of things. For one, content is accessed on the basis of the activities, not the other way around. Also, the activities produce products, and also reflections.

For the activities to be maximally valuable, they should produce output.  A sim use could produce a track of the learner’s exploration. A group project could provide a documented solution, or a concept-expression video or performance. An interview could produce an audio recording.  These products are portfolio items, going forward, and assessable items.  The assessment could be self, peer, or mentor.

However, in the context of ‘make your thinking visible’ (aka ‘show your  work’), there should also be reflections or cognitive annotations.  The underlying thinking needs to be visible for inspection. This is also part of your portfolio, and assessable. This is where, however, the opportunity to really recognize where the learner is, or is not, getting the content, and detect opportunities for assistance.

The learner is driven to content resources (audios, videos, documents, etc) by meaningful activity.  This in opposition to the notion that content dump happens before meaningful action. However, prior activities can ensure that learners are prepared to engage in the new activities.

The content could be pre-chosen, or the learners could be scaffolded in choosing appropriate materials. The latter is an opportunity for meta-learning.  Similarly, the choice of product could be determined, or up to learner/group choice, and again an opportunity for learning cross-project skills.  Helping learners create useful reflections is valuable (I recall guiding honours students to take credit for  the work they’d done; they were blind to much of the own hard work they had put in!).

When I presented this to the groups, there were several questions asked via post-its on the picture I hand-drew. Let me address them here:

What scale are you thinking about?

This unpacks. What goes into activity design is a whole separate area. And learning experience design may well play a role beneath this level.  However, the granularity of the activities is at issue.  I think about this at several scales, from an individual lesson plan to a full curriculum.    The choice of evaluation should be competency-based, assessed by rubrics, even jointly designed ones.  There is a lot of depth that is linked to this.

How does this differ from a traditional performance-based learning model?

I hadn’t heard of performance-based learning. Looking it up, there seems considerable overlap.  Also with outcome-based learningproblem-based learning, or service learning, and similarly Understanding By Design.  It may not be more, I haven’t yet done the side-by-side. It’s scaling it up , and arguably a different lens, and maybe more, or not.  Still, I’m trying to carry it to more places, and help provide ways to think anew about instruction and formal education.

An interesting aside, for me, is that this does segue to informal learning. That is, you, as an adult, choose certain activities to continue to develop your ability in certain areas.  Taking this framework provides a reference for learners to take control of their own learning, and develop their ability to be better learners.  Or so I would think, if done right.  Imagine the right side of the diagram moving from mentor to learner control.

How much is algorithmic?

That really depends.  Let me answer that in conjunction with this other comment:

Make a convert of this type of process out of a non-tech traditional process and tell that story… 

I can’t do that now, but one of the attendees suggested this sounded a lot like what she did in traditional design education. The point is that this framework is independent of technology.  You could be assigning studio and classroom and community projects, and getting back write-ups, performances, and more.  No digital tech involved.

There are definite ways in which technology can assist: providing tools for content search, and product and reflection generation, but this is not about technology. You could be algorithmic in choosing from a suite of activities by a set of rules governing recommendations based upon learner performance, content available, etc.  You could also be algorithmic in programming some feedback around tech-traversal.  But that’s definitely not where I’m going right now.

Similarly, I’m going to answer two other questions together:

 How can I look at the path others take? and How can I see how I am doing?

The portfolio is really the answer.  You should be getting feedback on your products, and seeing others’ feedback (within limits).  This is definitely not intended to be individual, but instead hopefully it could be in a group, or at least some of the activities would be (e.g. communing on blog posts, participating in a discussion forum, etc).  In a tech-mediated environment, you could see others’ (anonymized) paths, access your feedback, and see traces of other’s trajectories.

The real question is: is this formulation useful? Does it give you a new and useful way of thinking about designing learning, and supporting learning?


  1. Coming from the performance-based experience I think this makes sense however I think there should be a higher level of overlap (interaction? feedback?) between the activities, products, and mentoring to improve the portfolio. I see a creation-feedback-revision-coaching-update of the product cycle that I think is natural but in our rush to get the next “thing” done/built we have not allowed enough time to reflect, learn, and create improvements to demonstrate increased mastery. Just a thought! :)

    Comment by WJRyan — 8 March 2012 @ 8:20 AM

  2. As someone who comes from a face to face learning environment–the classroom–I find your ideas about elearning the best I have found on the web. I am currently working on a “learning how to learn” wiki(Explorience1)and think you do a great job of aligning learning principles from cognitive psychology and education (my training)with good elearning principles. I am particularly interested in your thoughts on self-directed learning. I see a lot of references to self-direction in the elearning literature but little recognition that students at all levels (k-12, college/graduate) have not developed self-directed learning skills.

    Comment by FRAN — 9 March 2012 @ 7:58 AM

  3. One thing I didn’t see at first in the diagram is something you refer to: assessment. It took me a second reading of the post, and closer study of the diagram, to notice “eval” off on the side.

    I don’t mean to redraw the thing, just to share the notion I have.

    I kept wanting to have the “flow” of assessment connect back to the activities, which already connect back to the content. As things stand, nothing connects out of the rationale box, nor out of the larger portfolio box.

    The other part, something I think is implicit, is the goal of whatever learning is going on. I’m assuming this is deliberately-chosen learning. On an informal level, that could be me, deciding to learn enough about JavaScript to code some working stuff, just so I have a better sense of how that happens. On a formal level, that could be me trying to learn project management and choosing among other things activities that lead to a PMP certification.

    In either case, the goal could shift: I could focus my programming goals; I could decide to skip the certification but still pursue project-related work.

    Maybe that’s happening within the eval box. I understand the diagram is a simplification; this loose musing is all the feedback I can come up with at the moment.

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 9 March 2012 @ 9:02 AM

  4. Hi Clark,

    This is what I saw when I looked at the diagram. I think there’s more to this than can be faithfully represented in a 2D diagram and a lot of nuance to the keys of the formula. Thinking in a chemical compound metaphor, the interactions, connections, and bindings that span activity to activity, work task to work task, product to product and the interplay between reflection opportunities is potentially where the power of the approach starts to pay exponential dividends. I imagine a complex and rich three dimensional relationship will reveal the interplay value.


    This seems general enough that it could apply to multiple contexts. It reminds me a bit of Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping approach. But I really think this transcends activity design itself and hedges into building a culture that supports and values healthy learning as much as it does healthy breathing (I don’t see learning and breathing as all that different as unconcious but controllable NECESSARY human functions).

    Comment by Steve F — 9 March 2012 @ 9:08 AM

  5. Thanks for the feedback. As both WJ and Dave point out, I don’t have enough loop built in about how the evaluation of the products and reflection feeds into a potential adaptation of the activity stream (curriculum); it’s intended, and it could and should capture that. As Steve points out, though, there’s only so much a 2D diagram can do. And love Steve’s different take, re-representation for the win! I need to master my drawing tools (or add to the suite) to see how I might represent this in 3 dimensions and use that extra one to add richness to the flows of information.

    Thanks for the kind words Fran. I think making this model explicit to the learner supports helping learners take over the responsibility for their own learning, as well as developing their skills for the component parts. As Dave points out, as professionals we do take responsibility for activities to develop our learning, and I don’t assume we necessarily do it as well as we could, so I see this as a open-ended handoff from mentor to learner to develop ongoing streams of activity for development. As the ongoing discussion of MOOCs makes clear, current schooling doesn’t do enough of a job, and eventually we’d like to reach a stage where we can put faith in our learners, but they will need scaffolding (we just would like that to happen much earlier.

    And, as Steve infers, this is very much a campaign to rethink learning and start imagining a culture where learning is treasured, developed, and innate.

    Comment by Clark — 9 March 2012 @ 5:19 PM

  6. In my interpretation, I saw products including outcomes and accomplishments as well as collected artifacts. Go, No-Go or increments between. Outcomes drive reflection and stem to feedback loops from peers & mentors. Outcomes (products) also feed back into the next loop of experiences.

    That’s the idea anyway:)

    Comment by Steve F — 9 March 2012 @ 7:37 PM

  7. Clark, I really like your model – thanks for sharing. A number of pointers for consideration:
    * if we consider the role of reflection, ala Schön not only as reflection after action, or reflection during action but also reflection for action – that would enrich the model even further?
    * I know graphic presentations (especially 2D ones) often look as if the process is linear while in fact it is not
    * There is also a lot of learning that falls “outside” the curricula (in the official sense. This learning also falls outside the parameters of the “official” evaluation and accreditation.
    * I miss a sense of context – how the learning impacts, shapes and changes the context and vice evrsa

    Your proposal does however “plot” the role of instructional design and use of tools. Thanks!

    Comment by Paul Prinsloo — 13 March 2012 @ 9:14 PM

  8. Firstly reminds of James Dalziel’s activity-oriented LMS called LAMS. Secondly, a learning activity oriented approach resembles a pattern oriented approach as in learning analytics. Thirdly, and probably most important, it reminds me of learning models that mainly focus on activities, like inquiry based or problem based learning.

    By the way, I wouldn’t compare UbD with learning models as its main goal is constructing a certain knowledge base for curricula (determining the learning goals or subject matter so to speak).

    Comment by Paulo Moekotte — 15 March 2012 @ 11:29 AM

  9. Just found this website–love the thinking here. Far, far too little of this kind of reflection and analysis in education, as far as I can tell anyway.

    One reaction I had has to do with the value of context–or application–to really be able to evaluate any learning model. That is, a more formal and academic learning environment would need a far tighter relationship between assessment and learning activities. Certain socioeconomic learner groups would need more diverse forms of community-interaction (where “mentoring” itself might be inadequate), and so on. Maybe what I’m getting at is that there are few conditions that are universal, and so any learning model must be inherently flexible. Adaptable. Truly learner-centered so that a learner or community can show ownership over that process, molding it with “human hands.” The model must also be as flexible or diverse as the needs for learning to begin with. When I develop learning models–or rather, sketch them out for fun–I try to start there: reasons for learning, because that changes everything.

    I am going to think more about this framework. Very cool thinking!

    Comment by Terry Heick — 19 April 2012 @ 8:25 AM

  10. Can Cathy Moore’s action mapping fit into this / help with the structure?

    I guess you’re saying:

    * Learn by doing activities
    * You will need some content (explanations / examples / tools / etc) to help you do the activity (so you know what / why / how)
    * You’ll also need experts who can help you
    * When you do an activity you should produce something (related to your goal for learning in the first place, a report, a web site, a project plan, etc)
    * It’s a good idea to check if the product was a good one or not
    * As the designer of this learning experience (and for ‘stakeholders’) you should check if the product and the parts that make it up could be improved

    I think if you take a practical activity (like learning soccer) and test if this would work and then apply it to knowledge work that’s a good way to check if it will work. This is because when dealing with learning for knowledge work (or comparing it with learning at school which is sometimes learning for the sake of learning) it’s easy to get stuck on the treadmill of knowledge acquisition (part of the process) instead of getting better at doing stuff (goal).

    Comment by Blair Rorani — 6 June 2012 @ 4:34 PM

  11. @clark what do you mean by 21C skills and how do they fit in?

    Comment by Blair Rorani — 6 June 2012 @ 4:39 PM

  12. Blair, I mean so-called 21st Century skills, those proposed to be the ones that will be needed going forward (e.g. critical thinking, communication). There are a number of such lists.

    Comment by Clark — 7 June 2012 @ 3:57 AM

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