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Visualisations of learning

April 10, 2010

Image: graffito detail

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between learning theory and learning design, and I’ve realised the two are so intertwined as to be sometimes indistinguishable. Learning design frameworks are not only expressions of a particular theoretical approach, they are almost a condensed or distilled version of the theory itself – theory viewed, as it were, through the lens of practice. The point of learning design frameworks is therefore twofold. Not only do they aid in the planning, describing and sharing of a learning event’s design by making that design explicit and reproducable; they potentially also help us understand what’s actually going on – cognitively, organisationally, and conceptually – during any learning event.

The grandaddy of learning design frameworks is really the experiential learning cycle of David Kolb. Developed during the 1970s, and itself based on the work of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin (all learning needs a starting point!), Kolb’s model starts with personal experience and moves through a reflective phase and a generalising phase into a final experimental phase in which new ideas are tested and modified in the light of experience.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Graphic by Clara Davies/Tony Lowe, Leeds University LDU/SSDU.

Kolb’s model obviously focuses on what goes on inside the individual learner’s head, excluding the social dimension – and clearly reflecting a cognitive model of learning.

The experiential learning cycle has been immensely influential, and many more recent schemas follow Kolb in trying to isolate and define the different phases or types of learning that make up a learning event. Perhaps the best known of these is Diana Laurillard’s typology of learning activities or ‘flows’ – discursive, interactive, adaptive and reflective – which I blogged about during H806. One of Laurillard’s most important contributions is the centrality of dialogue in her conversational framework, manifesting a more social constructivist understanding of the learning process.

More recently, Grainne Conole has developed a more synchretic learning typology, identifying four key characteristics which combine elements of cognitivist, constructivist and social-constructivist learning theory. Conole represents these charateristics as facets of an archetypal learning-event structure, as follows:

Conole’s framework of learning activities (Conole G, 2008)

Another synchretic model, influenced by both Kolb and Laurillard, is the 8 Learning Events Model developed by LabSET in Belgium, which articulates every learning activity into eight distinct events – Receives, Explores, Imitates, Experiments, Practices, Debates, Creates & ‘Meta-learns’ (meaning reflects on the learning). Though highly derivative, the 8LEM model has the virtue of emphasising the active nature of learning.

LabSET 8 Learning Events Model

Some learning theorists have suggested a more structuralist approach to the problem of visualising learning, focusing on the learning event as an activity system or a set of variables which can be tuned like radio wavelengths. Conole for example suggests a kind of 3-dimensional cartesian grid on which any particular instance of learning can be plotted by adjusting the values along each of the three continua individual-social, passive-active, and information-experience.

Conole’s Tools-in-Use mapping framework (Conole G, 2008)

Interestingly, Conole’s axes also modulate between the basic stances of each of the main learning theoretical traditions – behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist and situated.

Another structuralist approach is that of Helen Beetham, whose learning activity framework analyses the learning event as a system, drawing on the social-constructivist activity theory of Yrjo Engestrom (see my post Metaphor and metamorphosis) as well as the IMS Learning Design Specification. Beetham’s model articulates the interdependence and reciprocality of each of the inputs, components, variables and outputs of the learning activity, which she helpfully defines as “a specific interaction of learners with other people, using specific tools and resources, oriented toward specific outcomes.”

Beetham’s learning activity outline (Beetham H, 2007)

Finally there’s the situated learning approach associated with Etienne Wenger and John Seely Brown, which informs the idea of learning as a cognitive apprenticeship and much practice-based learning design. The apprenticeship approach to learning design is essentially identical to Wenger’s legitimate peripheral participation model, as visualised here:

Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Diagram from University of South Alabama’s Online Learning Laboratory

Personally I don’t think the different visualisations of the learning process are mutually exclusive, or that educators should feel they have to choose between them. Different frameworks will be more appropriate in different contexts; for example, Beetham’s system template is probably most useful in a formal HE context, while the Community of Practice model may have a better fit with CPD or workplace learning; and although the 8LEM model may function well as a learning designer’s checklist, it clearly can’t offer the insight into the nature of the learning process that, say, Laurillard’s framework provides.

That said, it’s those models that best express the complexity and interconnectedness of learning events, as Laurillard’s and Beetham’s both do – and those, like the Community of Practice narrative, that capture the essentially social nature of learning – that to my mind are the most complete and compelling visualisations of learning.


Conole G, 2008. New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies. Ariadne Issue 56, July 2008
Beetham H, 2007. An approach to learning activity design, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, pp.26–40, Oxford, RoutledgeFalmer


From → H800

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