Posted by: Gillian | February 17, 2011

Learning, measuring and teaching connections

Ripples on a pond, a snowdrop and The King’s Speech.  Connective learning, knowledge and human agency. Using images is one way to try and understand the relationships between learning, the measurement of knowledge and the nature of teaching in order to both learn and teach more effectively.

If you take a handful of gravel and throw it into a pond, each differently-sized stone creates its own differently-sized set of concentric rings that collide and interact creating waves and flatspots.  These nodes have their own consequences – bigger waves and/or disruption of the bigger pattern.  When learning networks are created, individuals interact with the subject and disturb it to a greater or lesser extent.  The efforts of the various individuals interact and new learning can emerge.  In the classroom, these interactions can be artificially encouraged with essays, required discussions, projects, etc acting like jetties, moorings and passing surfers – redirecting the waves and injecting energy.

A snowdrop is a familiar flower.  White, appears early, about so-high, got a bit of green on it ….   Yes, I know a snowdrop.  So, probably, do you.  We would both give it much the same description and both agree that we ‘know’ the snowdrop. Yet do we both know the same flower? In primary school, we would probably pass the test but galanthophiles compared notes, decided snowdrops came in various forms and new knowledge was created.  Lectures and guided walks can now speed the learning process but, as the plants hybridise, there is always the chance to discover something new and add to the body of knowledge.

Both the gravel and the snowdrop approaches to learning allow for instructional intervention to make learning the right things quicker and more efficient. The King’s Speech image takes a different approach to human agency.  First, there is the learner himself, King George VI, who can talk to himself but who stutters in public.  Then there is Logue, who knows the goal, knows something (but not everything) about speaking and who provides the tools to help the King unlock and develop his own skills.  If the goal had been merely to measure whether or not the King could deliver a speech, the film could have stopped at his recording of the Shakespeare speech but the learning needed to interact with many other pieces of the King’s prior learning to allow him to deliver any number of speeches to a variety of publics.  His learning requirement had a very social construct and he needed 3D connectionism to achieve his learning goal.

This inter-related nature of learning is what makes learning assessment and learning analytics so complicated.  All forms of summative assessment (essays, projects, multiple choice questions, etc) are no guarantee of the ability to transfer learning to new contexts nor to adapt and develop learning yet the success of the entire education system (even research projects) is quantified in relation to units of socially-constructed knowledge: how many people in a given context know what, at what level of detail.  By analysing learning pathways, the theory is that ‘teaching’ can become more effective, so much effort in online teaching has gone into analysing data related to login times, posts, downloads, etc. but this is effectively looking only at the nodes in the surface rings of the handful of  thrown gravel.  It ignores what is happening under the surface and it is constrained by what is happening in that one learning network.  Another handful of gravel, on another day, might produce similar results in the same environment but it all it takes is for the energy of one student to be disproportionately great and the entire pattern can change. Introduce a set of students from atypical backgrounds and the pattern may become unrecognisable.

Somewhere between Prufrock on the one hand and Taylor-istic learning units on the other, people learning within their own social networks and people being pushed through on a conveyor belt of accepted learning, there is room for 3D learning analytics to match 3D connective learning.  To expect all learners to be capable of using this in a self-directed way is unrealistic (ask any NEET) so facilitating teachers become essential.  Teachers, like Logue, help create the right conditions for learning and progression but, unlike Logue, they would do so on the basis of more than intuition and empirical knowledge.  That system does not yet exist.  And perhaps when it does it will never be perfect because how much time and effort will it take for a teacher to grasp the width and depth of each student’s pre-existing knowledge (including learning blocks/motivators), their personal goals and the relation of that individual to the demands of the syllabus and the wider world? Yet not to try is to dehumanise education and inhibit innovation.  Summative assessments undoubtedly make life easier for many – including employers and political economists.  Portfolios and personal statements are already used to help broaden the information available about any person.  What does not yet happen is that learning analytics work step by step with and for the learner, giving connections to education-industry goals but integrating all their disconnected knowledge and  interests in a way that can open new doors. Learning design just goes on getting more interesting!


Snowdrop photo: Copyright Malcolm Storey,


  1. I like your images of different types of learning, beautiful. do you distinguish two types of measuring? One for assisting further learning and the other to please management of the school? Number one measuring is a help for creating the right conditions for learning. The other one is: “I am a good teacher because, as you see all students have good points”
    regards Jaap

    • Thank you, Jaap. I understand what you mean (have seen it) but think your two types of measuring can overlap: both formative and summative assessment can help learners with further learning. Also, I tend to give formative feedback even for summative assessments. Schools, however, do have a habit of asking for formative assessments (and assessing you on doing them) but only paying for summative work!
      I certainly agree that creating the right conditions for learning is vital and all students have good points. Not so sure that all students having good points makes me a good teacher 😉

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