So How’s This Going To Work? – Learning Sciences and Schools of the Future

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by SomeDriftwood

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

Well our professor Dr. Michele Jacobsen talked about how there may be a reading that really speaks to you, and that it may create a very enthusiastic response. I believe I have found my reading and this post will try to capture my response. I can tell you that it was one of those moments where I debated putting the paper down and start writing before I was finished, and I had trouble sitting still until the end.

In our second reading from Sawyer, his 2009 paper entitled Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research I found myself with a better handle on a lot of what I read in our first reading from his  Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. He outlined a shift to an innovation economy, he highlighted key learning sciences findings and how they contradict with the “standard model” of schooling and then he put forth a discussion of design principles from the learning sciences that he thought could:

“…be used to guide the development of new models of schooling that are more closely aligned with the innovation economy.”

These design principles included:

  • Customized learning
  • Diverse knowledge sources
  • Distributed Knowledge
  • Curriculum
  • The role of the teacher
  • Assessment

From this discussion he suggested four key findings:

  • The importance of learning deeper conceptual understanding, rather than superficial facts and procedures
  • The importance of learning connected and coherent knowledge, rather than knowledge compartmentalized into distinct subjects and courses
  • The importance of learning authentic knowledge in the context of use, rather than decontextualized classroom exercises
  • The importance of learning in collaboration, rather than isolation

And he suggested four characteristics that effective learning environments will have:

  • Customized learning – Each child receives a customized learning experience 
  • Availability of diverse knowledge sources – Learners can acquire knowledge whenever they need it from a variety of sources: books, web sites, and experts around the globe.
  • Collaborative group learning – Students learn together as they work collaboratively on authentic, inquiry-oriented projects. 
  • Assessment for deeper learning – Tests should evaluate the students’ deeper conceptual understanding, the extent to which their knowledge is integrated, coherent and contextualized. 

He goes on to suggest that some of these changes will be harder than others, citing that schools now are introducing collaborative learning, but to provide personalization means breaking free from long-standing structures of standardization, maybe alluding to age-based grouping as he mentions previously in the section on customized learning.

My reaction to reading this was one of excitement, as he suggests these changes are coming and talks about new curriculum based in research of the Learning Sciences in the next 10-20 years. I also recognize that there are great challenges to overcome and that it will require people to let go of long held ideas of what school is and what it looks like. I also thought that there are already places where these type of changes are starting.

Two years ago I was able to make a trip out to Vancouver and visit some schools to connect some educators and learn about their practices. One school I was able to visit was the Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, B.C. and I was able to meet with David Truss, the lead administrator on site. This is a brief description of the school from their website:

The Inquiry Hub provides grade 9-12 students an innovative, technology driven, full-time program which allows them to pursue their own learning questions by shaping their educational experience around their interests instead of structured classes. Go to:

In this building I saw collaborative learning, with students working on projects, and I saw customization, as I saw them choosing inquiry projects based on their passions and interests. (See this blog post for a detailed account of the Green Inquiry school garden project developed by Grade 9 students at the Inquiry Hub, and see this site for the student portfolio site of their work.)

On the same trip I was able to visit Georges Vanier Elementary School in Surrey, B.C. to meet with Gallit Zvi and Hugh McDonald and sit in on their Genius Hour class that they team taught with two classes of Grade 6 students. (Gallit is now at Simon Fraser University but remains very involved in the Genius Hour community). In this class of buzzing young minds I saw again customized and collaborative learning at work but also the connecting with diverse knowledge sources, as some students from the class had made connections with real world experts to assist in their projects.

Now I realize that measured against what Sawyer talks about when it comes to the types of changes required to the system, these examples might be seen as change in its infancy, but we should definitely look to find examples and share them, to help prepare the public, the professionals, our students and ourselves for changes that, we hope, will be coming very soon.


Sawyer, R. K. (2009).  Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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