Mar 09

Movie Studio Platinum 13 with HitFilm gets an A

Of all the UI updates we’ve endured this year, I figured SONY Movie Studio Platinum 13 was …another one. But it was long overdue and they did a great job. You need the HitFilm 2 Express bundle to get the mask tools you’ll need for chroma key and green screen work, filters and some snazzy effects you probably didn’t expect to be this easy to achieve in this price range. Together they make a great starter package for young people and people who work with them.

Other than Jahshaka, a project I’ve seen at various times and places on the Internet promising to make a comeback since 2006, I haven’t seen any great open source video editing software. Skills are in high demand, and they should be. I recorded the screen video with CamStudio, and I did some stills with The Gimp.

Classroom technology and access to it aren’t anywhere near consistent, and there are reasons to be found on several levels. Economic ones are high on the list …even cellphones and webcams, software and lights and green screen set-ups in the $500 and slightly under range will still be out of reach for some. In some areas schools must use specific tools prescribed by others, and everywhere there’s inconsistent buy-in. YouTube viewership attests to the power and popularity of the medium, the ease with which one can now produce video with impact, and the pure fun make it an irresistible medium for educators.

By 2010, 19% of Americans had tried video calls, video chat or teleconferencing online and on cell phones. There are definitely equity issues apparent in video calling patterns, making calls on line is appealing to “upscale” users. “A third of internet users (34%) living in households earning $75,000 or above have participated in such calls or chats, compared with 18% of those earning less than $75,000. […] Urban internet users (27%) and suburban users (23%) are significantly more likely than rural users (12%) to have participated in video calls, chats, or teleconferences […] Cell-owning blacks are more likely than whites to participate in video calls, chats, or teleconferences (10% vs. 5%).” (Pew, 2010). But this says nothing about aspirations to tell stories using video.

The corporate take is that video storytelling is not quite ready for prime time. But it was the $10 transistor radio in the hands of teens in the 50s, who didn’t need audiophile fidelity as long as they could take their music with them, that disrupted the vacuum tube.

What’s been missing from video is interactivity. But now there are free mashup tools like Popcorn.js and Webmaker, HTML5 timeline tools that let you pause, mix, overlay your own ideas in text and imagery, or branch off in another direction based on a user input. And video is not something that’s easy to do alone. Can a project incorporating video in a classroom setting meet all the 4Cs, the so-called 21st Century Competencies—Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity?

With tools like MSP and HitFilm, or any of the products on this list young people aren’t likely to wait to hear the marketers at SXSW are finally catching up.


Feb 02

EvaluateThat “thickly”

A Tale of Two Tweets

Two Tweets that seem at first glance to take somewhat differing positions on evaluating teachers led to these thoughts on exactly where testing fits into learning, what it looks like when it’s of benefit, and who should benefit. The first Tweet does not say what some might take it to mean at face value. If you think about it—or if you learned it at teachers’ college while preparing for a career as an educator—you’ll probably agree there’s a difference between evaluation and assessment. You may even agree with me that opportunity, ongoing assessment, reflection, peer review, coaching, scaffolding are all needed to transform practice, while standardized tests often prove absolutely nothing beyond one’s ability to take standardized tests.

Evaluation is what you do to demonstrate you’ve arrived, or how far you’ve left to go. Getting there is an iterative process requiring frequent stops—you may want to check the map, ask directions, refuel along the way. If learning is truly to become learner centred, why do reformers like “race” metaphors? Perhaps I’d like to choose my learning situation more as I’d choose a vacation spot—I might be inspired to take a side trip, seek out a long lost relative… and why not? Children are at the beginning of a learning journey. A guide on the side who knows the terrain can help reel in an overly ambitious itinerary or suggest hidden gems to the lethargic and less imaginative traveller, and in a pinch get them to the train station on time.

Where we have arrived today is due to the corporate reform movement’s itinerary, and itself begs evaluation. It has failed. Charter schools seldom do better than traditional public schools, and often do worse. They do considerably worse when it comes to equity and inclusion. Resorting to fiat and coercion are telltale signs of failure—leaders do the hard work of building consensus. Public Enemy #1, logic and an objective assessment of the current situation would conclude, is the anti-public: privatization.

The second Tweet implicitly highlights the valued added by what Clifford Geertz might have called a “thick description” of what teachers do. Geertz did not understand the subjects of his ethnographic assessments separately from the context of their situations—which is also defined more thickly than the simple question, “Where?” Thickness demands we ask also, “Who ?” “What?” “How?” “When?” and the one perhaps most critical to critical thinking—“Why?”

7 million “whys”

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest …
… I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, Two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

—Rudyard Kipling

Humans, especially young ones, are naturally inquisitive. But we’re not infallible. Seven million questions beg seven million answers, and intuition can be wrong. Jean Lave does not understand teaching and learning as separate and distinct—her thick ethnographic descriptions of classical apprenticeships have been tapped for adaption to technology-enhanced learning “environments” for nearly 40 years, at first in great part due to the corporate backing of John Seely Brown of Xerox. Xerox in the 80s didn’t write curriculum or tell educators what to do with it. Just as SMART and a host of others today, they put educators together in collaborative, project-based learning situations and asked, “How can we facilitate this learning situation?” They designed thicker learning situations because they had described them more thickly. Then they stood back and allowed learning to happen.

“do it yourself” becomes “do it together”

Corporate money is not the problem, unfettered profit seeking is. All parents have a right to expect quality publicly funded education, all teachers have a right to fulfill their passion in 21st century classrooms of all kinds, and all students have the right to feel intrinsically motivated and grow the dignity and self respect that comes from taking charge of their own destinies.

But that means students, parents and teachers also have responsibilities, to forge thicker understandings of the (wicked) problems (e.g., things we know fail, like VAM) and take proactive charge of solutions (e.g., things we know work, like parent engagement). Looking to smaller local businesses—parents who own businesses, older siblings with work experience—for local expertise, creating and executing project-based learning “situations” might bring the community back into schools. The do it yourself approach becomes do it together.



Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2, 141-178.

Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator, [PDF].

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, advance release of pending publication [HTML]

Haertel, Edward H. (2013), Reliability and Validity of Inferences About Teachers Based on Student Test Scores, the 14th William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture, presented at The National Press Club, Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2013. [PDF]

Seemann, K 2002, ‘Holistic technology education’, in H Middleton, M Pavlova & D Roebuck, Learning in technology education, challenges for the 21st century, Nathan, Qld, Centre for Learning Research, Griffith University, vol. 2, pp. 164 – 173.

Warren, Mark R.; Hong, Soo; Leung Rubin, Carolyn; Sychitkokhong Uy, Phitsamay (2009) Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community- Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, Teachers College Record, Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254 [PDF]

Jan 23

There’s still time to get edreform right in Canada, and there’s still interest in doing so

Canada’s campaign finance laws, relatively stronger unions, a slight majority of conservatives who understand the role of revenues, tradition of compassion and peace-making—I think these are some of the characteristics of a precariously perched public pride that keep, for now, an all-out US-style free-market frenzy from taking root. “Publick Spirit,” as they spelled it when the call was for 19th Century Competencies, was a virtue touted by Republicans, Federalists, Tories and Whigs throughout the shrinking Empire. @symphily, while being perhaps exceptionally articulate in his questioning, and meticulous in the quality and expression of his supporting arguments, asks immensely important questions that in my experience aren’t exceptionally uncommon amongst Canadian teacher candidates today. They are coining, learning and understanding terms such as “glocalization,” “cyber-colonialism,” “metamodal mastery.”

Just as musicianship is known to support mathematical learning, perhaps entrepreneurship might be responsibly and ethically understood in ways that support social capital, that enrich and nourish the public sphere. Practical action research, connecting theory and discourse in praxis, participatory research… these are respected techniques known for decades in Canadian faculties of education, whether or not they are associated with names like Freire, or Gramsci. Is that why Ontario teachers were able to resist and eventually overcome a neoliberal assault in ’97, to demand some semblance of evidence based assessment be included in the EQAO?

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out in education what free-marketists call “areas of nonconsumption.” That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out what free-marketists might call “areas of nonconsumption in education” (see Christensen, Horn, and other Harvard Business School’s blogs and cookbooks). That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

What Canada has to fear most is her tradition of complacency. What good is eschewing corporate and union capital in elections if you don’t get up and go to the polls yourselves?

I do agree with a great deal of what C21 has to say about 21st Century competencies and literacies. The SMART board is a truly engaging and open-ended tool, the kind that allows pedagogy to take wings. I think there are genuine educators at all levels of this organization, and I’ve seen them genuinely engaged. In my master’s research I was able to differentiate C21 from its American cousin P21, where a free-market feeding frenzy suggests the “p” might stand for “piranha.” But the line is all too thin and we may remind the enthusiastic Canadian publishers and education technology innovators here—you swim with sharks.

I see the words “student centred” often, and I trust that they’re written with sincere esteem. I yearn only for shared understanding of what student centred actually might look like. I think it says they get to be the ones to decide what kind of world they live in or, for a practical example, that if code is a 21st century literacy we teach kids to read and write code—not simply to buy other people’s code. The discourse and theory of disruptive innovation too can be disrupted — students and teachers adept at technology, collaboration and critical thinking will be quite capable of creating rich learning situations with or without their own choice of self-authored, open source and/or commercial products, chosen because they support the lesson—never because the lesson was designed to sell a product. Students assessed to identify strengths and weaknesses, to improve their next performance—not because there’s a contract with a far-away testing company whose CEO may expect an obscene bonus for creating numbers that will be used against them and their support systems.

With awareness, involvement and due vigilance—“jealousy” as they said when public had the extra “k”—and an understanding that democracy is a way of life, not the vote you cast every few years—genuine ITC *facilitators* of deep, thick learning, teaching excellence, and student achievement will gain favour and remain important contributors, while ITC *directors* who say they have all the answers, who employ the “power tools” of coercive disruption to push those they label “resistant to change” aside in the interest of profits and stockholder achievement, will fail and fade away.

Thank you Mr. Kierstead for your work in transforming education. Thank you Mr. Steeves for your vigilance and this essential restoration and re-framing of the critical underlying issues. Thank you also Mr. Cantor for your supporting evidence and the astute simile that inspired me to think back yet another hundred years.

Let’s protect Canadian schools and children from blind, uncritical, ideology-driven trust in innovation, and put into practice policy that rewards the genuine thickening of learning situation—differentiating informed ongoing assessment from deficit thinking and prejudice, critically evaluating whether a perceived anaemia is due to poverty, language acquisition, a learning disability, or something else—student-centred investment in students, actively learning. Investing in the supply chain that monetizes a child’s learning environment for quick gain is something that costs so very much more, and yields so very much less.


† Comment on awaiting moderation. The post is a year old; I may eventually revise or elaborate the above as a new and independent post, if after some time approval is not forthcoming. -RCF


Further thought and reflection

Morbey and class (2014) EDUC 3610: Morbey, Franklin, and Friedman. Professor Mary Leigh Morbey’s Teacher Candidates at York University consider cyberethics, comparing Morbey, Ursula Franklin and Thomas Friedman and asking, “…in light of all three writers how do we begin to think about ethics, technology, and education?” [Prezi]

Jan 18

CompendiumLD for Learning Design

When the Open University funded the Learning Design Initiative in 2007 they asked about 4 specific aspects of the topic: efficiency & effectiveness of time spent designing learning; ways to represent innovative practice; access and availability of quality support for designers; the true nature of a quality design as it appears or presents in practice. With the continued support of Jisc they’ve produced a range of tools. When the OULDI picked an open source code base on which to build a collaboration-friendly tool to visually represent “a learning design” they “…considered various drawing packages, as well as more specialised mind mapping tools (such as Inspiration and MindManager).

Please note
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In the end we choose to use Compendium, a visual representation tool, originally developed for enabling group argumentation…” (OU Website).

Compendium was already the Open University’s home-grown product. They set about adapting it specifically to the requirements of learning design, and they named it CompendiumLD. Learning Design is and evolution of traditional and established “instructional design” that provides a more holistic approach (Conole, 2014). Their tool truly does offer a “…range of flexible approaches to the design process,” the interactive SVG to the right, if you’re able to see and use it, is only one example, a “Sequence Map View.” Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an XML-based vector image format for graphics that supports interactivity and animation (Wikipedia). If you’re getting JavaScript alert popup message when you mouse over blame them, not me!

Learning Design emerged “as a counter measure to Instructional Design. Driven primarily by researchers in Europe and Australia, Learning Design aimed to provide practitioners with guidance and support to inform their design process which is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. It is seen as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, which operates primarily at the level of multimedia; in contrast Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process.
—Gráinne Colone, OULDI Project Lead (September 2008 – August 2011)

On the CompendiumLD corner of the Open University’s site you can also see a “Learning Outcomes View,” and a “Task Times View,” showing how you can use CompendiumLD to deliver timed assessments. For more advanced examples, see this Peer assessment using a wiki., or an example Modelling adaptations featuring open educational resources, “a design which shows how existing open educational resources can be included in an activity structure that caters for learners with different levels of skills and knowledge” created with a perhaps somewhat dated (<frameset>, <script Language="JavaScript1.2">) but nevertheless reliable and robust1 Web Export functionality that lets you share your designs with collaborators and other learners.

If there’s anything “wrong” with Compendium and CompendiumLD, you see it in these screen shots… is it perhaps a somewhat 90s, or turn-of-the-21st-century look to the icons? Never mind! Don’t let that distract you from what you can do with CompendiumLD. If it still bothers you, you can in fact change the images, icons and stencil sets, and it’s source is freely available — if you’d like to work on the interface the community will likely be grateful. Just look at CompendiumNG if you’ve any doubts there’s a next generation coming up in the Compendium family.

As part of the JISC Curriculum Design project (OULDI_JISC), four other [higher education] institutions (Brunel, Cambridge, London South Bank and Reading Universities) have been trialing and exploring the use of the OU learning design methodology. The purpose of these pilots is to determine the transferability of the OU methodology across a range of different HE organisations. In addition the pilots will provide the project with valuable feedback about the tools and resources developed as part of the OULDI-JISC project, and the approaches we have used to introduce and embed the methodologies institutionally (workshops, special interest groups and the toolbox etc). These Universities previously worked together as a cluster group for the HEA Pathfinder Project, on which Gráinne Conole was critical friend and it is expected that this work will build on, and extend on, that project.

I’ve had a strong sense of the value of these tools—and of the entire paradigm surrounding their development2 and use that seems to me so well-aligned with the long-established findings of cognitive apprenticeship—since they first came to my attention only a couple years ago. I’m truly excited to see their work expand and continue.


Further reading

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, blogged chapter from forthcoming publication. Or start with my shorter overview

The Open University Learning Design Initiative “Our aim is to develop and implement a methodology for learning design composed of tools, practice and other innovation that both builds upon, and contributes to, existing academic and practitioner research. We have been working across several OU faculties and with 4 other universities to pilot curriculum design activities and relevant supporting tools and to contribute to the broader academic work in the subject.”

Jisc, “UK’s expert on digital technologies for education and research”

Fouchaux, Richard C. (2013), Thick learning situations: paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design, project, paper and various web applications [HTML]
[…demonstrating, if not quite explaining, its own subthesis—the impending obsolescence of the traditional paper—and the work left to be done in utilizing new forms, and raising them to the status of other literacies! My MRP, the birth of this site. -rcf]

  1. By comparison, I discovered Visual Understanding Environment (VUE), a similar tool from Tufts University, has advanced as far as image maps enhanced with an early version of jQuery, but I found it very easy to break by putting HTML or the wrong text characters into the Node Notes.
  2. Back in 2011 I tried to say it in 10 seconds, but it took me 11, and maybe it’s not entirely clear I’m talking about the same issues. What do you think? [video]


Jan 15

Overview of Gráinne Conole’s “trajectories of e-learning”

Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning – Gráinne Conole

Gráinne Conole is Professor of Learning Innovation and Director of the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester. Her work into applications of technology in learning is trailblazing and prolific (e.g., Conole & Fill, 2005; Conole, and Alevizou, 2010; ISC report JISC 2011; Conole, 2011; Conole, 2013). In this chapter from a forthcoming book that she posted to her blog today she summarizes the state of the art very well, however you may find as blogs go, it’s still a long read. Here’s an overview. I hope it’s of interest and you’ll visit her site to read the entire thing.

Professor Conole stresses The growing importance of ICT in education and quotes from a UNESCO 2005 report that saw 7 applications of technology in learning:

  1. to improve administrative efficiency and provide a pan-institutional infrastructure for managing learning, teaching and research.
  2. to disseminate teaching and learning materials to teachers and students, usually through an LMS and resource repositories.
  3. to improve the ICT skills of teachers and students and their digital literacies and competences
  4. to allow teachers and students access to sources of information from around the world.
  5. as examples of good practice and mechanisms for sharing ideas on education and learning.
  6. provide spaces for academics and students to collaborate on joint projects. These can also be used to support collaboration for research projects.
  7. to conduct lessons from remote locations and support distance learning. This can include both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

She provides a timeline of technology’s application “…from being a peripheral innovation to being part of the core services we offer learners. Each item on the timeline is discussed in turn.

Graphic, Figure 1: The e-learning timeline, source: Conole, 2014, blog

Figure 1 shows the e-learning timeline the chapter is based on. Professor Conole discusses each of the key technological developments that have arisen over the past thirty years

Professor Conole talks about the evolution of Multimedia Authoring Tools (like Adobe Captivate and others), The Web, “Learning Objects” (which are not the equivalent of “eLearning modules,” but “precursors to the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement”), and Learning Management Systems:

Graphic, Figure 2: Components of an institutional LMS, source: Conole, 2014, blog

Figure 2: Components of an institutional LMS
LMSs provide a hub for learning materials and course delivery and often also cover the management of course registration, course scheduling, discussion forums, blog sites, student scores, and student transcripts. LMSs contain a number of tools for presenting learning materials, for communication and collaboration and for managing assignments.

Professor Conole says Mobile Devices are gaining traction because they can be “used across different learning spaces, beyond the formal classroom setting, into the home and within informal learning contexts, such as museums.” And they are.

This very important distinction is highlighted in Professor Conole’s overview:

Learning Design emerged “as a counter measure to Instructional Design. Driven primarily by researchers in Europe and Australia, Learning Design aimed to provide practitioners with guidance and support to inform their design process which is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. It is seen as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, which operates primarily at the level of multimedia; in contrast Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process.

Gamification is an immensely important trend “as a means of motivation and learner engagement” and Conole quotes Gee, 2008: “The potential of gamification, however, goes beyond promoting healthy lifestyles and marketing strategies. Gamers voluntarily invest countless hours in developing their problem-solving skills within the context of games” and says 21st century learning will reflect Gee’s ‘situated and embodied learning,’ “…meaning a student is not just being taught inert knowledge, rather using facts and information as tools for problem solving in a specific context and solving the problem (Gee 2011).”

[The Open Educational Resources (OER) is] …promoted by organisations such as UNSESCO and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. UNESCO argues that Education is a fundamental human right and therefore educational resources should be freely available.” She concludes this section “The OER movement has been successful in promoting the idea that knowledge is a public good, expanding the aspirations of organisations and individuals to publish OER. However as yet the potential of OER to transform practice has not being realised, there is a need for innovative forms of support on the creation and evaluation of OER” noting strongly that Hewlett Foundation, Atkins et al. (2007) said “adopt programs and policies to promote Open Educational Resources” is one of the five higher-level recommendations in the conclusion to the report.

Learning occurs wherever Social and participatory media appears (quality and scope of learning varies greatly). Conole draws from her prior work (Conole and Alevizou, 2010) “a review of the use of social and participatory media in Higher Education. [the authors] adapted a taxonomy of types of Web 2.0 tools (O’Reilly 2005) developed by Crook et al. (2008) based on the functionality of different tools.” She then lists 10 tool types, 3 trends and 5 characteristics—Peer critiquing, User-generated content, Collective aggregation, Community formation, Digital personas —that we can expect to continue into the 21st century.

She discusses the initial excitement around Virtual worlds, something I was also once very excited about, about which I came to the same conclusion: “Part of the problem is in the fact that the current Virtual Worlds are still difficult to use and part of the problem is that there are not many learning interventions where other technologies can be just as appropriate, i.e. it is not clear that the investment in time in building and using the Virtual World is worth it.”

The remainder of the article is devoted to the growing role and importance of E-books and smart devices, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), arguing effectively for an alternative classification system based on 12 dimensions, and the emergence of Learning Analytics—data collection and its uses.

Professor Gráinne Conole wraps up her review of the key technological developments of the last 30 years with advice on what to look out for in the months and years ahead, where to look, and the following ideas and assertions:

To conclude, the nature of learning, teaching and research is changing as a result of the increasing impact of technologies in education. We are seeing changing roles and evolving organisation structures. In addition, disruptive technologies, like MOOCs, are challenging traditional educational business models and new models are emerging. We need to think beyond the distinction of campus-based and online learning, to focus more on the notion of Technology-Enhanced learning spaces.[41] We cannot as individuals or institutions afford to ignore technologies, we need to harness the characteristics of new media and adopt more open practices in our learning, teaching and research.
– Gráinne Conole

I first learned of professor Conole’s work in graduate school while doing a major research project, when charting a path from cognitive apprenticeship to design research took me through the realm of Compendium.

If you’re interested in these things, I highly recommend the entire piece. Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning


Professor Gráinne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation
Director, Institute of Learning Innovation, School of Education, University of Leicester

Dec 21

Can (messy) mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?

Graphic: a very messy mind map of a complex project.My research into educational, mostly open source software tools identified ones that have proven multi-tasking abilities within “authentic” learning situations (Conole and Fill, 2005; Conole, 2008). Among these, the so-called “Mind Mapping” tools stand out for what I think are several very good reasons. The image to the right, a “mind map” of a recent research project, shows the good, the bad and the ugly.

the rules common to all information systems do not cover the messy, ambiguous, and context-sensitive processes of meaning making, a form of activity in which the construction of highly “fuzzy” and metaphoric category systems is just as notable as the use of specifiable categories for sorting inputs in a way to yield comprehensible outputs.

—Jerome Bruner (1996 in Illeris, 2009, pg. 162)

It seems under-researched maybe, but I believe I saw indications, and I certainly have anecdotal evidence, that mind maps may lack meaning to people who for whatever reason(s) must solve problems in predominantly linear ways. In at least one case I’ve seen a mind map—the one of my research project at the top of the post—elicit genuine anxiety in a person with clinical anxiety disorder!

Messiness: the face of authentic learning

It’s certainly true that mind maps can get confusing. Connections become interwoven in admittedly “messy” ways—which, I argue, makes them particularly suitable to solving exactly the types of messy problems we increasingly face—although they often appear in ways that can understandably throw self-identified “linear thinkers” quite literally for a loop. It’s small wonder many people believe mind maps don’t, won’t, will never work for them. However, the same solutions cartographers have applied for centuries work in these maps too (Buckingham Shum and Okada, 2007), and are available in free tools with powerful multitasking abilities. Messiness is a fact of authentic learning situations (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 19). Clinical settings and attempts to eliminate messiness can even be counter-productive (pg. 20). Describing the linear step pattern shown below in Fig. 1 (red line) Patricia Seybold says, “…we keep trying to shoehorn” Wicked Problems into that linear approach” (2013, pg. 3). I think what I’ll call linear imposition, the imposing of a linear framework or template on a non-linear situation, is at the root of Jean Lave’s “paradox” she says often causes institutionalized learning to fail (Lave, 1993, pg. 78). I believe ethnographers such as Lave have had an important impact on design thinking in education research and instructional design because of their “attempts to characterize relationships and events that occur in different educational settings. …ethnographic research produces rich descriptions that make it possible to understand what is happening and why” (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 21). By “rich” descriptions Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc mean “‘Thick,’ as in Geertz,” and by mapping these connections we contribute to the design of ‘thicker’ learning situations we hope result in deeper learning.

designVUE: lining up the non-linear

The problem is, while we may place things on lists and in lines to organize and sequence an approach, those things may have their own interconnections and internal organizations, especially if the “things” are groups of people with competing rights and interests. And so the line we draw prior to achieving full understanding of a problem is actually an imposition that changes the nature of the existing problem and causes new problems to arise. As Conklin has shown, solving problems is an iterative process.

How Humans Solve Opportunity-Driven Problems

graph plotting a linear step by step solution (red) overlayed by a process actually observed in practice (green)

Figure 1: From a 1980’s study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) that looked into how people solve problems. Each peak in the green line can be understood as heading “back to the drawing board,” yet each return to the drawing board carries all the experience of the previous attempts. Source: Conklin, 2006 ©2006 John Wiley & Sons, 2013 CogNexus Group. For an excellent discussion, see also Seybold, 2013.

Mitigating Mind-Map Anxiety

Mind-map anxiety might be mitigated by applying well understood principles of cartography. Buckingham Shum and Okada (2007) say the analogy to cartographic representations of physical space is valid, providing “…an ‘aerial view’ of a topic by highlighting key elements and connections,” and calling mind maps “vehicles for summarising and negotiating meaning” (pg. 27). designVUE is one college design department’s enhancement of another university’s contribution to the open source software world and visual understanding. I think designVUE’s quick formatting tools and presentation mode lets us do some of the things map makers do. Some of these things are, or should be, in grade-level curriculum requirements—perhaps giving students hands on access to free tools like designVUE might support the teaching and learning of many.

Map coloring is the act of assigning different colors to different features on a map. There are two very different uses of this term. The first is in cartography, choosing the colors to be used when producing a map. The second is in mathematics, where the problem is to determine the minimum number of colors needed to color a map so that no two adjacent features have the same color.
—Wikipedia article

There’s nothing more linear than a time-line; as the first image shows, a mind-mapping tool makes it easy to display linear progression, so if this is the only objection, it soon crumbles. In designVUE you choose the colour scheme (“fill,” “line,” font “style”) and shape.

With the Quick Prototyping tool draw a line of bubbles in a quick succession of clicks…

mind map bubbles in a line

Image 1. In VUE you can use the Prototyping tool to draw a line of bubbles with a directional arrow between, or with standard tool place the thought bubble on a line or arrow.

Any individual “bubble” in the map may consist of much messier activities. Brainstorming, for example, is a spiral of ideas, questions, answers, and arguments. In designVUE you can use colour to visually set an activity apart, but you can also create pathways that hide and reveal specific sets of bubbles—overcome cognitive overload. Or group bubbles within each other as I’ve done here with a question, answer and pro/con set that illustrate IBIS1, a system that often goes hand-in-hand another highly successful application of mind-maps: “dialogue mapping2.”

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 2. Part of a brainstorming session suggesting a circular and iterative process, shown in a different colour. With “Pathways” you can hide entire sections and choose different sequences.

But wait! Yes, there’s more! In these days of collaboration linear thinkers and their strategies are as important as ever. designVUE has a presentation tool that allows teams to construct linear pathways through maps of even the most complex dialogues, in order to gain clarity, reach consensus, and explain decisions to others. designVUE also does metadata in OpenCalais, allows you to store resources and documents in the bubbles, share maps as interactive HTML documents, reuse the same maps in multiple other maps… I’m only scratching the surface.

Image 3. Showing Pathways in the workspace. Also shown are the IBIS icons for question, idea, pro and con arguments.

The Pathways panel allows you to create standard (linear) PowerPoint-like slides and bullet points, though not as effortlessly as the commercial product. VUE’s true power as a presentation tool takes some time to appreciate and master, but if your goal is to enhance a learning situation by creating memorable and meaningful visual connections between the content, and then using the same tool to convey those ideas to an audience this tool might be what you’re after.

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 4. The Pathways panel allows you to show and edit more traditional PowerPoint-like slides. In effect VUE’s “Pathways” can be separate but related presentations, or audience-specific variations on a theme.

Panel closeup. The images can be sized, additional ones and text added to each slide that need not be shown in other views:

Image 5. Closeup of the expanded Pathways Panel. The order and whether it’s shown is determined here.

In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. There’s definitely a learning curve but my early impression is this can potentially change the way you do presentations. I highly recommend this VUE tutorial for ideas and examples.

Image 6. In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. See this VUE tutorial for examples (note the PDF for download beneath the video player).


The types of 21st century problems we increasingly understand need taming—as they defy solving by their very nature—are “wicked problems.” This necessarily includes nearly all matters of public education, indeed of public policy as a whole, where the conflicting and intersecting rights and responsibilities of multiple stakeholders is always …messy! Governments are coming to recognize this. See the Australian Public Service Commission site for one well explained example (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007). In Canada Quebec and New Brunswick have already discovered the importance of understanding certain problems’ ‘wickedness’ in these ways. “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning—and especially those of social or policy planning—are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgement for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again.)” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, pg. 160).

Mind mapping, undertaken thoughtfully and with purpose (see Jeff Conklin’s video: The Limits of Conversational Structure), has proven its value in all aspects of teaching and learning. As a teacher I used it much as John Budd did here, and as an instructional designer I use it as a graphic organizer. When mapping strategies are used to both record, and then map dialog to describe real situation, and when that’s done openly and collaboratively as in situations such as Conklin has described and reproduced in practice for years it can lead to shared understanding and conflict resolution.

I don’t think it’s fair, or rational, to presume that everyone is going to instantly drop PowerPoint and buy into a mindmap-based workflow, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. While dialogue mapping can handle wicked problems, it can also do meeting minutes, so consensus can be achieved and documented by the most mutually comfortable and practical means—and the cartographers have a single one stop tool to gather and document the entire process, or to communicate it to others.


If we embrace all the 21st century models, or “competencies” seen emerging, the primary and inescapable one at the base of many others is asynchronous collaboration via digital networks. Can it not simply be that the divergent thinkers map their thoughts in collaboration with linear thinkers who further delineate the why and how of their musings? Taking up perhaps the next most agreed upon 21st century learning objective, critical thinking, it seems likely we can seek solutions to simple problems and taming strategies for wicked ones, discerning the difference. Mind mapping tools are web enabled and metadata ready. A strategy for taming wicked problems that uses mind maps, argument mapping or Conklin’s trademarked Dialogue Mapping, keeps track of pros, cons, and rationale, and documents decisions making around simple problems, but offers a powerful tool for the building of the shared understanding that must precede consensus around the taming of wicked ones. Formal training can be found, but the VUE, designVUE and various Compendium software sites themselves, Conklin’s and YouTube are probably the place to start—to get an, ahem… visual understanding of what mind maps and mind mappers might bring to which ever debate you’re having.

Maybe “Can messy mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?” isn’t the right question. In my experience it still requires steps and sequencing to deal with the issues, but the graphic organization—the visual understanding—provided by maps in programs like VUE and Compendium, in the right hands, can really help you get a grip on the situation. It very well may need both types of thinking, and that well may require collaboration. Maybe the question to be asking is, “Are there any concept and conversation cartographers in your workplace or your PLN?”


Read more about mind maps


  1. Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) was invented by Werner Kunz and Horst Rittel as an argumentation-based approach to tackling wicked problems – complex, ill-defined problems that involve multiple stakeholders. (more)
  2. Dialogue Mapping™ is trademarked by Jeff Conklin & CogNexus Institute, who describes it as “…a radically inclusive facilitation process that creates a diagram or ‘map’ that captures and connects participants’ comments as a meeting conversation unfolds. It is especially effective with highly complex or “Wicked” problems that are wrought with both social and technical complexity, as well as a sometimes maddening inability to move forward in a meaningful and cost effective way.” (more) [Demonstration PDF]


the assumptions proposed here amount to a preliminary account of what is meant by situated learning. Knowledgeability is routinely in a state of change rather than stasis, in the medium of socially, culturally, and historically ongoing systems of activity, involving people who are related in multiple and heterogeneous ways, whose social locations, interests, reasons, and subjective possibilities are different, and who improvise struggles in situated ways with each other over the value of particular definitions of the situation, in both immediate and comprehensive terms, and for whom the production of failure is as much a part of routine collective activity as the production of average, ordinary knowledgeability.
—Jean Lave

More VUE

The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University

VUE is very well documented. The English user guide is here.

designVUE is a branch of VUE. It is an open source project based in the Design Engineering Group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Imperial College London.

CompendiumLD is either fierce competition… or you can do as I do and use both! See the Learning Design-specific “stencils” in the screen shots. They’re easily ported to other Compendium flavours, and you could apply the concept in VUE with your own icons and very little extra trouble.


Bruner, Jerome (1996) Culture, mind, and education in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

Buckingham Shum, Simon and Okada, Alexandra (2007). Knowledge Mapping for Open Sensemaking Communities. In: Researching open content in education – OpenLearn 2007, 31 Oct 2007, Milton Keynes, UK.

Collins, Allan & Joseph, Diana & Bielaczyc, Katerine (2004), Design Research- Theoretical and Methodological Issues, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 1, Design-Based Research:Clarifying the Terms. Introduction to the Learning Sciences Methodology Strand (2004), pp.15-42

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conklin, Jeffrey (2006) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons., Ltd., 242 pp.

Conklin, Jeff (2006b) Dialogue Mapping Demonstration, [unspecified journal, citation incomplete] CogNexus Institute, pp. 249-251 [Demonstration PDF].

Conole, G. and Fill, K. (2005). A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [PDF:]. Gráinne Conole and Karen Fill, University of Southampton. Page 1 Published 26 September 2005 ISSN: 1365-893X [uses CompendiumLD]

Conole, G. (2008). Capturing Practice: The Role of Mediating Artefacts in Learning Design. Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects. (Eds.) Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. ISR Press. [Pre-print of learning design chapter on using compendium].

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1993) The practice of learning in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (2012) Tackling Wicked Problems in the Built Environment: Of Health Inequalities and Bedbugs [Workshop details]

Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber (1973) “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, Amsterdam, pp. 155-169.

^ Seybold, Patricia B. (2013) How To Address “Wicked Problems” – Use Dialogue Mapping to Build a Shared Understanding and Evolve a Group’s Thinking, book review, [HTML | PDF]

Nov 24

What makes “social learning” authentic?

Graphic. Social learning theory inside an equilateral triangle. Arrows imply interaction between the three points, which are labelled ‘modeled behaviour,’ ‘innate person,’ and ‘learning environment.’Educators everywhere agree that learning is social, but what does that mean—what does it look like? To a large degree it means we can learn by watching and emulating others who already do the things we wish to learn and have in some way demonstrated mastery. It also means we can learn from others at and around our own level—in fact there’s substantial evidence that we need this element of peer-to-peer engagement. It’s my especially good fortune, and not a day in my life has passed that I haven’t felt grateful, to have been born with at least some degree of musical talent, raised in a household that valued it, located in a time and community that enabled it (middle-class Bethlehem, PA, 1960s). So my learning, especially early on, has largely been situated amongst family and friends who also play and love music. The social aspect always looked a lot like hanging out with good friends figuring out parts we held in high regard, jamming our own music and other people’s—or “busting some licks.”

[learning music] …always looked a lot like hanging out with good friends figuring out parts, jamming our own music and other people’s …“busting some licks”

In every topic there’s also a vital social element in agreeing upon the criteria that make up what we call a “good,” “better,” or even a “magnificent” performance. When it comes to curriculum-based planning and performance criteria, I’ve again been thankful my main teaching field is music. While the sequencing and relative importance of day-to-day content is widely open to creative license, people generally agree on what sounds “good.” As yet another bonus, to a large degree we can explain what we’re thinking and doing (or not) when it sounds good.

The short video below is a music lesson I learned in the early 80s from my friend Reggie Evans, who was also my room-mate and, as he is to this day, a superb musician and songwriter. His main instrument is the drum kit, and one of the performance criteria by which I choose the word “superb” is his sense of meter. This means you can hear and feel the evenness of his beat, even in the parts (subdivisions) of each beat when he plays, and he doesn’t speed up or slow down the tempo (unless he wants to—in which case listeners remain convinced he’s in control the whole time). Reg wanted me to play a simple three-note motif on a 4-track cassette demo of an idea he had. We both expected it to take 2 or 3 minutes. But then he told me I was playing it wrong. We didn’t have a woodshed but we had a back deck.

The first image below is the funky lick, after which I’ve transcribed how Reg was able to illustrate his thinking about beats, and I was able to transfer that “picture” from drum sticks (or hands) to guitar pick. This lesson was among the most important anyone ever gave me when I was “coming up” as a musician. Why? Because it solved a problem I was having at the time and I’ve been able to apply it, in both teaching and learning, over and over since, in multiple contexts.

music and text describing what to do.
“Melody” works best with Firefox. MIDI requires plugin

Sometimes among aspiring musicians informal social learning—especially any in which the the word “wrong” is said out loud—looks a lot like an argument. When it comes to interpreting a passage of 16th notes, bands have probably split over far less! Fortunately Reg just wanted to hear the part played well, and I just wanted to be the one to play it. That’s called “intrinsic motivation.”

more music and text describing what to do.
“Handclap” works best with Firefox. MIDI requires plugin



Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Thickening the learning situation

…or, “practising what I preach.” This is the long-overdue first instalment of blog-post metaknowledge. My intention is to develop something analogous to “the making of” chapter on your favourite DVD. It sounds like a project that needs a database and template, but doing it manually will give me great insight on what will go into a database.

The video has been updated since publishing, links and link info added, and some sentences have been edited for clarity.


Nov 24

JavaScript the least of (my) hurdles with MIDI.js

On #musedchat Monday Nov 18 I saw an opportunity to mention an open source Scoring/Engraving tool and was soon encouraged to send more links to open source resources. I’ve been collecting such links in the bookmarks of various browsers for years, and I’ve followed through on my initial interest to various degrees, so in some cases I found myself checking links along with my memory. In one case—MIDI.js—I said a big “Oh yeah! I was gonna try installing that, wasn’t I?”

How easy it is to try out any of the hundreds of thousands of interesting and potentially useful JavaScript offerings one can find on the Internet depends a lot on how much documentation the developer and interested community have provided and good examples of the code in (ahem) “authentic situations.” No matter how good it is, if you want it you’ll soon have to view source and dig in. The code behind MIDI.js looked to me daunting, but on closer inspection it turned out the biggest hurdle was recognizing the playlist of MIDI files is an array of Base64-encoded strings hard-coded in the file. If you know what that is, and if you can encode your MIDI file as a Base-64 string then copy/paste it over the ones in the original example—and if you set up the folder structure identically to the original (clone the Git repository straight into /xampp/htdocs if you work with a LAMP setup like mine)—it just works! But it looks just like the author’s.

The design is not responsive1 and doesn’t fit my blog or mobile device. The colours are very cool but I don’t need them. The note display has so many pedagogical applications my brain is exploding—but it doesn’t fit on my pages, same goes for the player and buttons. The JavaScript knowledge I need is “just enough” to identify where to safely slice and dice the code and recognize the very few places I might change something. It was more important I knew Base-64 encoding is something I’d likely find a web site to do. The highest-level skill needed here is actually CSS. I need to restyle the player so it fits my pages in the contexts I expect it to be viewed. And I want those notes to play along exactly as they do now, just in a completely different layout.

Here’s what it looks like today. (It’s not worth listening to in anything but Chrome).

An undefined error originally came from this line, but I haven’t found where MIDI.lang is supposed to be defined, and the sentence really doesn’t tell me anything I care to know if I define it as “English.” I made sure the page has a title and I even gave it a language attribute but no luck only by hard-coding it as shown below could I stop it so far. Will dig in [to the MIDI object, its properties and methods] later.

// I added...
// Quick suppression of undefined
MIDI.lang = MIDI.lang || 'en-ca';
/// above...
// this is the language we are running in
var title = document.getElementById("title");
title.innerHTML = "Sound being generated with &quot; + MIDI.lang + ".";
// I also added at line 108
pausePlayStop(true);  // Sorry Gasman. Autoplay is just wrong!
// Just above that I see <code>song[songid++%3]</code>, the '%3' implies something hard-coded that applied to the fact there used to be 3 midi files. To be continued... 
Oct 08

Learning situations can be thick—as in ‘Clifford Geertz’ thick.

Clifford Geertz knew how to make people understand the importance of symbols and the way they “map,” as we say, to other pieces of the human condition. “Thick” descriptions don’t stop at describing clothing, or the actions being performed in a ritual. “Thick” descriptions try to get to the meaning of the clothing and gestures within the culture and context, to convey the impact the ritual has on the life of the ritual performer.

…between what Ryle calls the “thin description” of what the rehearser… is doing (“rapidly contracting his right eyelids”) and the “thick description” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend taking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”) lies the object of ethnography…
—Clifford Geertz (in Denzin & Lincoln, 2003, pg. 147)

His colleague Robert Darnton recounts an example of the power of Geertz’s thick description:

…I enumerated esoteric details about the connections between cardinal directions, color symbolism, and mythological motifs. By the time I got to initiation rites, I realized that everything was falling flat. I was making a worldview sound as mechanical as the directions in a tool kit.

At that point, Cliff intervened. He described the scenario. Adolescent boys sleeping in the familiar comfort of their beds are awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night. They are dressed in a ritual breechclout (a kind of loincloth) covered with a blanket and made to climb down a ladder into a windowless antechamber of a kiva, the deepest, most secret room in the pueblo. Then they are told to shed their blankets. A terrible thump occurs over their heads. Elders cover the ladder with a blanket; and when they remove it, there stands the chief deity in a terrifying mask. He announces that he has come from his dwelling place beneath the lake and asks the boys if they are prepared to be “finished” as men. After they agree, he flails their bare torsos with a yucca whip, striking with all his might and raising huge, red welts on their rib cages. Finally, when they are reduced to terror, he pulls off his mask, and they see the face of a relative or neighbor laughing at them.

…Like all the students, …It made me think of the child who pulls the beard off the department store Santa Claus.…

Not at all, Cliff explained. The boys had learned that uncle x was a god, not that a supposed god was only uncle x. Suddenly we were staring into strange territory.

—Robert Darnton
Princeton University

As a teacher, Geertz delivered equally thick learning experiences. He was everything one might expect from the somewhat dishevelled, “Beware! Genius Inside” look he’s said to have sported (Darnton, 2008, par. 12).

Cliff had the students dashing around the hermeneutic circle like runners stealing bases. … as a teacher, he was exhilarating. When his eyes lit up and the words poured out, he infected students with the excitement of the chase. They, too, could penetrate another world. The game was difficult, but anyone could play. And in Cliff they had an example of a hunter-gatherer who blazed his own trail through the jungle of cultures.
—Robert Darnton

“Thick” Learning Situations …enriched by technology

It’s my experience that mind-mapping software, specifically Compendium and VUE, and their promising offshoots CompendiumLD (Learning Design), CompendiumNG (Next Generation?) and designVUE (VUE with Issues Based Information System support for dialogue mapping to solve wicked problems, available in Compendium but not the original VUE) have great capacity to help those who make learning situations, make them “thicker,” in the Geertzian sense.

Which one should I use

Well, the short answer is, I still use both. I’ve gravitated towards CompendiumNG in recent days, but I’ve also seen that designVUE’s a powerful presentation tool. The designVUE site says, accurately in my opinion: “[designVUE] enables users to capture sources of inspiration, integrate supporting evidence and visualise design decisions.” When I did my major research project last spring I found Compendium’s Web export to be old-fashioned looking but rock solid, and VUE’s to be wonderfully true to the original but including some types of information, HTML code for example, broke the output. designVUE adds Compendium’s ability to nest maps in creative ways, which is a benefit to me, but I’ve noted not all keyboard shortcuts available in the parent VUE seem to be hooked up in designVUE. CompendiumLD has icons and stencils specially for Learning Design, and CNG has a sleek updated look with very mature toolbar, workspace, almost an IDE? for learning design.

I’ve written here about student mind maps as classroom exercises, here about VUE and designVUE’s amazing non-linear presentation abilities, and my preliminary exploration of CompendiumNG here. I’ve written about mind mapping in general here, here, here, and here, and I intend to write much more about all 5 of these programs as I continue to use them and apply them in my own work—planning lessons and doing storyboards are among the things I’m trying. I wish I could put together all the best features of all 5 strains of Compendium and VUE. In the meantime any of them can perform similar basic concepts, you just have to adapt slightly to each tool. Here’s a 52-second presentation showing just one novice’s approach (mine) to a project design using CompendiumLD. I hope it’s enough to intrigue you to explore further.

Some features and benefits of CompendiumLD for project design

This is an HTML5 audio player I made that synchronizes the display of images and text to audio or video. Press play. I apologize for the audio quality, I’ve been having some problems with my setup… I used Audacity to remove noise and other problems, but wasn’t able to completely “fix it in the mix.”

Please make use of my comments section and follow me on Twitter @theFooshShow



Budd, John W., (2004) Mind Maps as Classroom Exercises, The Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 2004), pp. 35-46. [Available on line but missing accompanying graphics, retrieved 2012-12-10]

Conole, Gráinne and Fill, Karen. (2005), A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities, Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [].

Conole, G. (2007-draft) Using Compendium as a tool to support the design of learning activities [PDF], retrieved 2012-11-11.

Conole, G. (2007), ‘Describing learning activities: tools and resources to guide practice’ in Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age, H. Beetham and R. Sharpe (Eds), Oxford: RoutledgeFalmer.

Conole, G. (2008), ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learning design’, in L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B. Harper (Eds), Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies.

Conole, Gráinne; Brasher, Andrew; Cross, Simon; Weller, Martin; Nixon, Stewart; Clark, Paul and Petit, John (2008). A new methodology for learning design. In: Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (EDMEDIA), 30 June – 4 July 2008, Vienna.

Darnton, Robert (2008) From the In Memoriam column of the February 2007 Perspectives, This essay first appeared as “Cosmology in the Classroom: Fieldnotes on Clifford Geertz,” in the New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007. It is reprinted with permission [HTML].

Denzin, Norman K. and Lincoln, Yvonna S. Eds., (2003), Turning Points in Qualitative Research — Tying Knots in a Handkerchief, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 505 pages.

Oct 06

How did you learn how to learn?

Two chimps, one watching the other doing something with a stick.When we hand children “tablets” and walk away it seems they intuitively learn how to use them. But should we really be surprised, if we consider dedicated researchers in computer-human interface design poured roughly 40 years of knowledge and experimentation into their making (Baeker, Grudin, Buxton & Greenberg, 1995)? On The Agenda with Steve Paikin: The Classroom of 2030 Oct 9, 2013 (hashtag #Learning2030), video evidence of this was shown and it was said, “The absence of the teacher becomes a pedagogical tool.” But what do our observations of children’s intuition tell us about what they’ve learned, or about learning how to learn? In the preface to the 21st anniversary edition of his 1995 The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach (1995/2011; I cite the 20th anniversary reissue, 2005, reprinted 2011), Howard Gardner revealed that, prior to its publication in 1983, he had believed the Theory of Multiple Intelligence (MI) was a contribution to mainstream psychology. He said he wasn’t thinking about pedagogy at all (1995/2011, pg. xiii). Yet the theory, whether one believes it or not, impacted pedagogy greatly, and continues to inform the debate on education reform. This post is for everyone who joins me in respecting Gardner’s contributions, and also finds recent evidence of kids’ intuition when mastering computerized tablets remarkable and encouraging. Howard Gardner found something about children’s intuition “troublesome” (1992, pg. 5). In the Peterson Lecture he presented in Geneva in 1992, Gardner reminded all of us: as children, and perhaps even as “educated” adults, when it comes to the big things, most of our intuition is just plain wrong.

Gardner and the Arts

Piaget believed that if you studied children you had to know what they were going to become—what the end state of development is. Piaget thought it was to be a scientist; that is what Piaget was. However, …I felt that there was something wrong with a theory that only talked about the mind of the scientist as being the endall of a child’s development. So I began to explore what development would be like if one thought of participation in the arts as an artist, or a critic, or a performer or a connoisseur as being a viable end state for human development. This is not to say that human beings should develop to become artists any more than they should develop to become scientists but rather that we can develop many different kinds of human beings.

—Howard Gardner (1992, pg. 1)

By 1992 Gardner was celebrating Project Zero‘s twenty-fifth anniversary. Compared to its early years, PZ “…was much larger; more empirically oriented; extended well beyond the arts; and had a strong applied division, which worked in the schools, museums, and other educational institutions.” It was actually educators’ response to MI and the publication of the influential report, “A Nation at Risk” the same year that turned his lens, and that of his Project Zero, on education. The project was conveniently housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but had been “philosophical and conceptual” in the 1970s and by the 1980s was doing “primarily psychological research funded by governmental grants” (Gardner, Perkins, Quense, Seidel, and Tishman, 2003, #3, par. 1).

For Gardner, that ‘to be a musician/artist/performer when I grow up’ is “a viable end state for human development” was a radical departure from Piaget (1992, pg. 1). By this time the seven “intelligences,” the word’s very definition and implications an area of criticism then and now (see for example, Morgan, 1992 or Willingham, 2004), was beginning to morph into five “minds,” introduced around the time of his (post-Peterson lectures) 1995 The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach. In the introduction to the 20th Anniversary edition he summarizes them. “The first three,” says Gardner, “can be reduced to three words: depth, breadth and stretch” (1995/2011, pg. xxiv). The fourth and fifth minds Gardner feels are “…not cognitive in the traditional sense” (1995/2011, pg. xxiv). The Respectful Mind brings tolerance and acceptance, and the Ethical Mind, while he labels it (too rigidly, I think) “outside the ken of children” (the youngest children, yes, but I think not some tweens, even pre-tweens I’ve known, as he concedes on pg. xxv). I’m inclined to assert that Howard Gardner’s divergence from Piaget has some elements of another extender of Piaget’s work, the moral theorist Lawrence Kohlberg (see Table 1).

On the ridiculous notion of replacing teachers in learning environments

Gardner rejected conflation of MI with “learning styles” (1995/2011, pg. xix), although H. Morgan (1992) points out strong parallels with “cognitive styles” (esp. pp. 4-12). He was coming to see the practical strength of apprenticeship, also uncovered by the “cognitive apprenticeshipframework posited by John Seely Brown, Allen Collins, S.E. Newman, Ann Holum et al. (Collins, Brown & Holum, 1989; Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989), and their work that stemmed from the ethnography of Jean Lave and computer science of Etienne Wenger (Lave & Enger, 1991), which as I’ve pointed out (Fouchaux, 2013) has especially promising and well-documented associations with technology-enhanced pedagogy.

In the early 90s, Gardner’s other source of excitement for the future of learning was the emergence of children’s museums like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre. Gardner developed a vision of school reform that included the expert/apprentice model: Modeling (expert performs a task, verbalizing/illustrating their knowledge and thinking) Coaching (expert observes and facilitates) Scaffolding (expert provides support(s)), Articulation (expert encourages learners to verbalize/illustrate their knowledge and thinking), Reflection (expert enables learners to compare their performance with others) and Exploration (expert invites learners to pose and solve their own problems) (Collins, Brown and Hollum, 1991, pg. 3). While he enthusiastically acknowledged these pieces of all learning situations can all be supported and enhanced by technology, Gardner seems already to have had a feeling for the importance of what is now known as “face to face” (sometimes abbreviated F2F) or “blended learning.”

Like Gardner, devotion to the study of learning and passion for its improvement drove his peers in the 1980s cognitive apprenticeship school to dig below the surface, beneath first impressions. “There are three important distinctions between traditional and cognitive apprenticeship: in traditional apprenticeship the process is easily observable; in traditional apprenticeship the tasks arise and emerge in the workplace; in traditional apprenticeship the skills to be learned are inherent in the task itself. To translate the model of traditional apprenticeship to cognitive apprenticeship, experts need to: identify the processes of the task and make them visible to students; situate abstract tasks in authentic contexts, so that students understand the relevance of the work; vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that students can transfer what they learn” (Collins, Brown and Hollum, 1991, pg. 3).

Highly trained, highly respected, “reasonably competitively” paid professional educators

The benefits of training life-long teachers well and elevating the profession are proven and quite replicable. The idea of literally replacing teachers with prerecorded experts, virtual database curators guiding us through virtual museums and so on may sound very futuristic, but it is not one commonly held by serious trained educators who have devoted a life-time of study to understanding how the learning process really works. It’s more the realm of venture capitalists wielding “power tools,” dazzled by dollar signs, trying to take shortcuts past the wicked problem of obtaining consensus, and dismiss the roles poverty and privilege, equity and inclusion play in building a competitive, free and democratic society. Teaching and learning environments will adapt and adopt technology—I fully expect teleconferencing with experts to play a bigger role, experts who probably should have demonstrated superior communication skills and a concept of instructional design up front and/or work in tandem with the advanced preparation of those who do. I’ve seen indications and suspect recordings of live Webinars can retain enough genuine human interaction that they may have some vicarious benefit when observed after the fact. I’ve little doubt we’ll one day see self-driving cars, with speed and safety limits enforceable at the system level providing safe navigation of accident-free highways, travelling on auto-pilot. I ask, is “auto-pilot” a good model to pursue for the education of our children?

Whatever role we see for technology, we all do generally agree that schools fail because of the gap between what we expect them to do, and what we’ve actually designed them to do. Standardized testing, and moreover the purposes to which it is put, is the nemesis of authentic learning—not simply vinegar to its oil, more like a cancer in need of white corpuscles. Gardner has demonstrated the utter and complete failure of the tell and test model to build the kind of critical thinking skills required to connect the dots once we leave the classroom. No amount of technology will ever change this until we rethink and reframe schooling itself, in fact they may only entrench the problems. But to abandon the public social element of schools is to deny the essentially socially situated condition of learning itself (Apple, 2005; Reid, 2005).

What is Schooling?

…five-year-olds do one thing that is troublesome: they form intuitive conceptions or theories—theory of matter, theories of mind, theories of life. Every normal five-year-old develops these theories. And it is very good for getting along in the world. However, the theories are wrong. School is supposed to replace the erroneous theories with better theories.

—Howard Gardner (1992, pg. 5)

Gardner believed in 1992 that the role of schooling is to provide “Christopherian encounters,” perhaps similar to what others have called “threshold concepts,” (see for example Meyer & Land, 2010) in order to replace childhood misunderstandings with understanding, which he he says elsewhere is easier to demonstrate if people have more than one way of representing a skill, and use their multiple ways deftly (their repertoire or tool kit, as some might say) in response to their audience or situation (1995/2011, pg. 14).

In the case of misconceptions, in the celebratory year 1992 I recommend Christopherian encounters, named after Christopher Colombus. If you believe the world is flat, but every day or every year you travel around the world and you come back to where you started before, that tends to belie the notion that the world is flat. In a Christopherian encounter you expose your theories to disconfirmation. If your theories are consistently disconfirmed, you will slowly abandon them, and hopefully construct a better theory.
Howard Gardner (1992, pg. 10)
[Emphasis mine. Of course we know
this isn’t always what happens.
Please see his arguments, which follow.]

Why even the best students in the best schools do not understand

Most of the elements elaborated upon in his 1995 recommendations for schools were already part of his 1992 guest lecture in Geneva. Subject by subject he reveals how only experts master the subject matter, while many (most) of the the most highly “educated” fail to make the connections they’ve invested years in education presumably to be able to make. He said it affected all disciplines and documented its impact on each, developing terminology where necessary.

Pure and applied sciences: Aristotelians, Rigid Algorithms

“Most people remain five-year-olds or Aristotelians even though they studied physics,” says Gardner (1992, pg. 7), and gives examples from astronomy and other sciences, as well. 23 out of 25 Harvard astronomy graduates ignore everything they’ve just studied and regurgitated on tests to do with the earth’s seasons or axis, and state the earth is warmer in summer because it’s closer to the sun than in the winter. Students “…who have taken not one, but two or three courses in biology focusing on the topic of evolution, still do not understand the basics of evolution. They still believe that something in one generation can be passed on to the next, even if it was acquired in that generation.” What he encounters in mathematics are not so much misconceptions as “rigid algorithms,” learning to plug numbers into a formula, by rote (pg. 7).

Problems in Economics and Statistics

Economics presents a bridge area between mathematical thinking in the social arena. “College-educated subjects outperformed those without a college education, but there was little difference between those college students who had studied economics and those who had not. […] Misconceptions or stereotypes were found across both groups. […] Such primary rules seem to occupy a place similar to a rigidly applied algorithm: When in doubt, invoke the rule triggered by a word like interest or inflation” (1995/2011, pg. 181). Gardner tells of a well-known set of studies by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and their colleagues asked students to answer questions calling for the use of statistical principles, and gives only 5 of their astonishing examples. In one, given a sample in which they’re told up front the ratio of engineers to lawyers is 7:3, and asked which a particular subject who just happens to be good at debate is more likely to be, trained statisticians abandon their schooling and go with the stereotype (pg. 183).

A favourite script is the restaurant script. Every four-year-old knows that if you go to a restaurant, somebody comes and seats you. You are given the menu; you order. Food comes. You eat it and then you call for the cheque, and you leave. If you go to McDonald’s you pay first but that is an exception to the script.
—Howard Gardner (1992, pg. 8)

The Arts and the Humanities: scripts, simplifications and stereotypes

The Star Wars script is one very powerful script we develop as children, it goes, “it’s good to be big; you should be big yourself; if you’re not big, align yourself with somebody who is big. If you look like that person, you will be good and people who look different will be bad.” But history majors who write papers on the complex nuances of WWII approach current events in what some might call Manichaean terms of good guys vs. bad guys (1992, pg. 8). Gardner’s unschooled mind presented quite embarrassingly in the arts in a much earlier 1920s study by literary critic and poet Ivor Armstrong Richards. He removed the poet’s names from classics by John Donne, Gerald Manley Hopkins and others and “…found that the students did not have a clue about which poems were good (according to the critics) and which were bad” (1992, pg. 8) Gardner tells us “…you have very, very good students who have studied literature, who, when the book clue is removed (namely this is by a good poet, this is by a bad poet or by a non poet), display the same kind of taste that someone with no education in literature would exhibit” (pg. 9).

Schools presumably seek to present three kinds of knowledge across disciplines: notational sophistication, concepts within the discipline, and forms of exposition and reasoning within the discipline (1995/2011, pg. 143). Gardner has ideas on how to address the failings that lead to each type of misconception, some of which I’ve outlined already.

A repertoire and toolkit for repair

As I said earlier, Gardner speaks of deftly using multiple ways to represent, practice and experience skills and knowledge. He offers “…five different “windows” into the same room.” They are 1. Narrational—basically the story mode. 2. A quantitative, logical rational way of dealing with numbers, principles, causality. 3. A foundational way, asking who? what? where? when? how? …why? 4. Aesthetic—looks, configurations, impressions. 5. Finally, hands on—“What is it actually like to be this thing, to do this thing? …what is it like to breed drosophila? If you are studying democracy, what is it like to be in a group that decides by consensus as opposed to one that decides by autocracy, oligarchy or some other political principle” (1992, pg. 12)?

John Seely Brown’s Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), a cross-disciplinary team of researchers from anthropology, education, linguistics, computer science and psychology found Seven Principles of Learning: “Learning is fundamentally social; Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities; Learning is an act of membership; Knowing depends on engagement in practice; Engagement is inseparable from empowerment; “Failure to Learn” is the normal result of exclusion from participation; We already have a society of lifelong learners” (Collins, Brown, and Holum, 1989; Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989). This project in particular led to the cognitive apprenticeship framework, with immediate recognition of its potential enhancement by technology (Fouchaux, 2013, Appendices B, C, & D).

The social media boom, the rise of Facebook and Twitter and their inevitable entrance into discussions about teaching and learning have not created new knowledge, nor caused a spontaneous eruption of stunning new ideas. They have only increased the number of people with access to what we have been learning about education and technology since the emergence of these technologies. We have amplified and expanded a conversation we educators have been having for decades. The first Apple Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs) were disrupting the console driven mainframes and finding their ways into the homes of relatively ordinary people and their work places in the 1980s. Nearly 40 years ago they defined the study of systems usability, and they established the practice of watching users use systems, and then measuring the results with the focused aim of making the systems more usable. Children’s “intuitive” adoption and uptake is not magic (Baeker et al., 1995).

Assessment in Context: The Alternative to Standardized Testing

Gardner says “ongoing assessment” or “assessment in context” means “…assessment is taking place all the time by students and by peers as well as by the teacher” (1992, pg. 12). It may be surprising to some readers that Howard Gardner, the man at the centre of the orbit of some of the most highly-esteemed education researchers and projects at Harvard and the private sector, was in 1992 so matter-of-fact in his vehement disapproval of the types of standardized testing that still dominate, and some, especially in the USA, say should be expanded (Gardner, 1992b). It was indisputable to Gardner, just as it was to Xerox CEO John Seely Brown and the set of top-notch educationists, researchers and scholars he used his corporation’s influence to assemble (see Fouchaux 2013, Appendix A), to empower, to enable—but not to dominate nor simply to exploit—in the collaborative communities of practice that characterized experimentation in education of the 1980s and ’90s.

Diane Ravitch has now made clear that, contrary to the claims being made, public school test scores and graduation rates in the USA are the highest they’ve ever been, and dropout rates are at their lowest (Ravitch, 2013). Discourse to the contrary is a concerted effort to destroy public schools in that country, disrupting a 325 year commitment embedded in the Constitution (Dennis, 2000).

Therefor it can not be more plain that those who promote more testing have a different purpose. To say in the 20-teens that one believes eliminating fully trained and accredited professional educators, and all the “thickness” years of exposure to the ideas of men and women who like Gardner, Collins, and Brown, have devoted lifetimes to improving children’s learning bring to the learning situation, can be nothing but an attempt to wrench the helm onto another tack by fiat and coercion. Children’s intuition, as Gardner showed decades ago, isn’t good enough. “Absence” of the teacher is not the same as “removal.” We’ve agreed to dispense with the sage on the stage, but if you don’t have guides on the side who know the ropes, the waters, and the weather, you will certainly get lost. You may run aground, sink and drown, or simply drift away forever upon doldrums no different than the Ancient Mariner’s, you’ll just be taking a more expensive cruise.

Educationists from across the decades and around the world concur. We must re-design schools from the ground up to be highly inclusive public spaces, purposed to build and share learning experiences in collaborative settings. We must cultivate critical discernment and expose would-be apprentices to experts who are themselves students of pedagogy. We must understand that learning is continual and there is no single learner or teacher where 2 or more humans coexist (Collins, Brown and Newman, 1989; Gardner, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Lave, 1996; Meyer & Land, 2010; Salhlberg, 2011). We must not narrow instruction to rigid algorithms and formulaic responses in science and math, but design situations where experts and novices engage and interact in practice. We must let them create performances of their understanding that convey the internalization of the concepts, awareness of critical connections to prior learning and available information. We must find cohesion and build shared understanding to solve the wicked problem of education reform collaboratively, not authoritatively.

In short, we must learn how to learn, with, not just from, people whose passion it is to understand how learning takes place and what that looks like. We must learn to recognize and celebrate the hard work that’s gone before. Stop experimenting with disproven methods and apply the results of a century of experimentation we’ve already done. Make sure the people driving the school bus want to get the kids where they want to be… not drive certain kids to a certain part of town to park and sell them junk food, not to scrap the bus, nor to sell it for parts.


Watch: The Agenda with Steve Paikin: The Classroom of 2030

Watch: TVO on the Road: Learning 2030


Table 1: Lawrence Kohlberg’s three levels and six stages of moral reasoning.

Level Age Range Stage Nature of Moral Reasoning
Level I: Preconventional Morality Seen in preschool children, most elementary school students, some junior high school students, and a few high school students Stage 1: Punishment-avoidance and obedience People make decisions based on what is best for themselves, without regard for others’ needs or feelings. They obey rules only if established by more powerful individuals; they may disobey if they aren’t likely to get caught. “Wrong” behaviors are those that will be punished.
    Stage 2: Exchange of favors People recognize that others also have needs. They may try to satisfy others’ needs if their own needs are also met (“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”). They continue to define right and wrong primarily in terms of consequences to themselves.
Level II: Conventional Morality Seen in a few older elementary school students, some junior high school students, and many high school students (Stage 4 typically does not appear until the high school years) Stage 3: Good boy/girl People make decisions based on what actions will please others, especially authority figures and other individuals with high status (e.g., teachers, popular peers). They are concerned about maintaining relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty, and they take other people’s perspectives and intentions into account when making decisions.
    Stage 4: Law and order People look to society as a whole for guidelines about right or wrong. They know rules are necessary for keeping society running smoothly and believe it is their “duty” to obey them. However, they perceive rules to be inflexible; they don’t necessarily recognize that as society’s needs change, rules should change as well.
Level II: Postconventional Morality Rarely seen before college (Stage 6 is extremely rare even in adults) Stage 5: Social contract People recognize that rules represent agreements among many individuals about appropriate behavior. Rules are seen as potentially useful mechanisms that can maintain the general social order and protect individual rights, rather than as absolute dictates that must be obeyed simply because they are “the law.” People also recognize the flexibility of rules; rules that no longer serve society’s best interests can and should be changed.
    Stage 6: Universal ethical principle Stage 6 is a hypothetical, “ideal” stage that few people ever reach. People in this stage adhere to a few abstract, universal principles (e.g., equality of all people, respect for human dignity, commitment to justice) that transcend specific norms and rules. They answer to a strong inner conscience and willingly disobey laws that violate their own ethical principles.

Sources: Colby & Kohlberg, 1984; Colby et al., 1983; Kohlberg, 1976, 1984, 1986; Reimer, Paolitto, & Hersh, 1983; Snarey, 1995.
Excerpted from Child Development and Education, by T.M McDevitt, J.E. Ormrod, 2007 edition, p. 518. in article Kohlberg’s Three Levels and Six Stages of Moral Reasoning


Apple, Michael (2005) Are markets in education democratic? Neoliberal globalism, vouchers, and the politics of choice in Apple, M. W.; Kenway, J.; & Singh, M. (Eds.). Globalizing Education: Policies, Pedagogies and Politics. (2005/2007) New York: Peter Lang.

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Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Newman, S.E. (1989). “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing and Mathematics! In L.B. Resnick (ed.) Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essa in Honor of Robert Glaser Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, and in Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator [1991 reprint PDF].

Dennis, Russell (2000) The Role of the Federal Government In Public Education In the United States [HTML]

Fouchaux, Richard (2013), Thick Situations: Paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design, research paper submitted to the Graduate Program in Education, York University, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Education [PDF]

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Kohlberg, Lawrence; Charles Levine, Alexandra Hewer (1983). Moral stages : a current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, NY: Karger.

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Mary Catherine O’Connor, editors, Volume 30, 1992, pp 77-119.

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Ravitch, Diane (2013) Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Reid, Alan (2005) Rethinking the democratic purposes of public schooling in a globalizing world in Apple, M. W.; Kenway, J.; & Singh, M. (Eds.) Globalizing Education: Policies, Pedagogies and Politics. (2005/2007) New York: Peter Lang.

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N.B. This post has been edited several times—to improve clarity, correct the TVO broadcast date, to fix a broken internal page anchor, and to correct grammar and spelling.