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Beyond Dichotomies: A Spectrum of Learner Driven Learning


Hello LCL colleagues--I'd love your input on something I developed today.

In response to a breakout group discussion in today’s session on Passion and Creative Learning, I was inspired to create a model to conceptualize variations in learner-driven learning across a range of domains. I see learner-driven learning as less of a dichotomy and more of a spectrum, with at least five interrelated elements: Presence/Participation, Topic/Content, Skills, Method/Media, and Educational or Other Goals, as outlined in the attached figure I created (I couldn't figure out how to link to a text document, so I hope this is readable).

Some learning experiences will cluster toward the extremes of the spectrum in all domains. For instance, free play among a group of neighborhood kids is likely to be child-driven in most regards. In contrast, a mandatory drivers’ education course is likely to have little room for learners’ interests. Most learning experiences will fall in the middle of the spectrum with substantial variation possible even within the same setting (including schools and informal learning environments). And, most educational settings also have very real and important constraints (e.g., educational standards) that they must balance.

This spectrum is not meant to imply a hierarchy or a value judgment. There are contexts in which it may be appropriate for learning to be more highly structured or educator driven. However, in almost every setting, there is likely to be room to enhance the influence of learner’s interests in one or more domains. A key question is: While respecting the parameters unique to each educational environment, how can we enhance the extent to which learners shape and own their lifewide and lifelong learning?

I'd love your thoughts--does this resonate for you? Do you see it differently? Are there inspirations or resources relevant to this that I should know about? Thanks for your insights and input.


In a time when interesting content freely flows from smart phones, it is unspeakable that we are still forcing kids to sit in boring environments and call this a learning process. When you observe a class of first, second, or third graders as they almost all raise their hands to answer every question, there can be little question as to what’s happening when in just three more years at the beginning of middle school, this excitement surrounding learning no longer is present in many kids.

During elementary age years, core academic skills have to be onboarded if students are to make it to adulthood in good shape to play a functional role in society. At that first year of middle school age, kids are able to begin choosing their own learning direction. They still need adult influence to keep them pointed in what many would call the “right direction” but the right direction does not include Algebra 2 for everyone.

@clm ask How can we enhance the extent to which learners shape and own their lifewide and lifelong learning?

To answer your question, we should not only allow but expect middle school age and older kids, to equally split their daily educational time requirements between two intentions. The first and most important task for these young learners is to find their passion. Time and proper environments have to be set aside and planned for if this is going to happen before a student’s first year in high school.

As a part of this passion search, students will continue the process of mastering core academic skills that should be mastered by all. Currently these skills are not mastered but instead there is a never ending, always on time process of memorizing abstract knowledge for the purpose of passing a test.

@clm stated There are contexts in which it may be appropriate for learning to be more highly structured or educator driven.

Today the internet provides an infinite quantity of knowledge. It also provides the ability for individuals to be in contact with people who share their passion. With the stated desire that students own their education, there are very few context that resemble those current 45 minute periods where silo’d core academic content is taught, that are are still acceptable. Even the mandatory drivers education class is personal to kids. That course is a personal ticket to freedom for many and while it is also scarry, these classes when mixed with hands-on driving are not boring.

As teachers begin to see students take charge of their own learning paths, they will begin to observe how students doing passion work create a learning environment not only for their peers, but also for teachers. When teachers become more like coaches and witness students being successful with their passion projects, they get the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness and ability to learn. This models what it means to be a lifelong learner and modeling is one of the most successful methods for allowing others to learn.



Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You clearly have a passion for education and I think we agree on so much. As someone who's worked in children's museum education and early childhood education, I couldn't agree with you more about the need to connect young learners to their passions and to foster learning across diverse fields. I see the amazing eagerness and enthusiasm young children have for learning and I want nothing more than to protect and extend it throughout life, as you do.

I actually had a hard time thinking of an example that would fall at the far left of the spectrum (entirely educator-driven) because I believe that any learning holds potential for deepening personal engagement and relevance. However, I do believe that educators have a critical role to play in scaffolding and supporting learning and even play (think play workers and adventure playgrounds

I am also sensitive to the enormous challenges faced by teachers (especially in public schools) who are contending with a wide range of standards, high-stakes testing and great pressure from parents and administrators. It's a very different context than a museum. My intention is to avoid making judgments about exactly how any teacher or school can or should implement learner driven education. It's just such a complex balancing act.

I think the bigger point I wanted to make is that the possibilities for deepening learner-driven learning exist in every context. The challenge is to figure out which facets you have the greatest capacity to make learner-driven within the constraints of your particular institution or setting. Simply put, I was hoping to explore which doors of possibility for deepening learner driven education might be opened further.

One clarification I'd like to make: There are many ways that educators can shape learning and meet their own goals for children's education while still centering learning on children's interests. This issue comes up often in early childhood settings regarding the balance between child-directed play and guided play or playful learning. We recognize that true child-directed free play is in decline and we seek to promote it throughout children's lives. At the same time, we recognize the value of guided, playful learning facilitated by teachers, parents and caregivers. However, the two are not necessarily incompatible.

As Rachel White wrote in a 2013 review of the research on play and learning for the Minnesota Children's Museum: “Although playful learning can be somewhat structured and adult-facilitated, it must also be child-centered... Play should stem from the child’s own desire.”
I think we could easily substitute the word "learning" in that last sentence.

Again, thanks for taking the time to comment!


I like the spectrum idea and think it's useful. It encourages thoughtful discussion of reasons why a learning situation has been/ can be/ should be structured in a certain way. It also puts common learning situations in an interesting perspective. For example, even in a situation where attendance is mandatory, a learner can skip class, feign illness, drop out of school, refuse to pay attention or participate, disrupt class, etc. Thinking about these learner actions (common even among the best students) in relation to your spectrum puts them in a completely different light compared with thinking about them as "truancy" and "disciplinary problems."
A suggestion: use less abstract words, especially in the left-hand column. Here are some off-the-cuff ideas instead of "Presence/Participation": Participate [present tense verb], Involve, Engage, Be Present, Choice to Participate. I realize that using words like these could be viewed as less neutral, as expressing a judgment as to which kind of learning is better, but the spectrum already implies the valuing of learner viewpoints to some degree.


Thanks so much, Kathy! I like the suggestions about using more specific language. You're right that there is an inherent regard for learner engagement that underlies this. Thanks for your input.


While respecting the parameters unique to each educational environment, how can we enhance the extent to which learners shape and own their lifewide and lifelong learning?

Having been an Electronic/IT Contractor for 20+ years I have learned on the job a lot and feel I have developed ways to learn from Manufacturers/Software Vendors web site or Google it and discover what others have done. Also read management and organisation books (for example, Post - Capitalist Society and REWORK). Just finished How TO WIN: The Argument, the Pitch, the job, the Race by Rob Yeung and working through the exercises.


The chart invites us as LCL participant-learners to wonder whether and how the LCL MOOC could be played with to move more to the right-hand (learner-driven) side.


clm, what you are mapping out in your matrix is really what we would consider in the international development arena a "human rights-based approach" (HRBA) to education. I could easily layer a HRBA matrix of "modes of participation" over your matrix and it would more or less align with the left side being less rights-based and less participatory. Meaning that learners/students are rights holders and teachers are the duty bearers - so the column "Fully Educator Driven" is the least participatory on a HRBA spectrum, and is more along the lines of tokenistic learning and we would call that Co-Option because the duty bearer is controlling the situation, while the column all the way to the right illustrates people doing by and for themselves, which in HRBA terminology we would call Collective Action, where the rights holders are driving the bus. Collective Action is really where people become their own agents of change, in a social change context.

So perhaps unknowingly, or I should say intuitively, you are proposing a map of rights-based education and what it would look like at different levels of participation. smile



Well, that's a fascinating insight! I love that you made that connection. I think one of the biggest opportunities in creative learning is to weave in insights from across disciplines. After all, no one field "owns" creativity.

Here are a few other relevant models for learner and child engagement from the museum/arts/design worlds:

  1. Audience Involvement Spectrum from the James Irvine Foundation and WolfBrown which includes spectating, enhanced engagement, crowd sourcing, co-creation, and audience-as-artist:
  2. Nina Simon's (author of The Participatory Museum and Museum 2.0) discussion of 4 types of public participation: contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and hosted (the first 3 come from the Public Participation in Scientific Research Project):
  3. Dr. Roger Hart of the Children’s Environments Research Group “Ladder
    of Participation” to describe the potential roles of children in
    design projects. It includes 5 types of child participation--Assigned but informed, consulted and informed, adult-initiated/shared decisions, child-initiated and directed, child-initiated/shared decisions with adults, as well as 3 types of non-participation--Manipulation/deception, decoration, tokenism :’s-ladder-of-participation/

Hi clm, it seems we are orbiting parallel universes then, how interesting! I can see your #1, Audience Involvement Spectrum, as being also very aligned with the HRBA of modes of participation, as well as your above matrix.


+clm (and others reading this thread) -- would you be interested in some non-disruptive metaMOOCing? (see )


We have a program, New World Kids, that is designed to identify and nurture the unique strengths of diverse learners. We have concentrated on PK and K-! versions of the program. The learners are actually part of the curriculum and teachers are mentored to be good observers, documenters and analyzers. We create what we call, "open-ended structures." The lessons in our curriculum

are highly structured but always have room for student choice. As the year progresses, the open-end is wider and wider--not just for the kids, but for the teachers as well. You can check us out at