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Discovering the DNA of Learning: How the CGC Cracked the Learning Code

September 3, 2020


Introduction

In a previous article we looked at how the Common Ground Collaborative (CGC) set about creating a complete, connected, Learning Ecosystem, using Four Guiding Questions. The first of these, ‘What is Learning?’, the CGC’s ‘Define’ question, has provided an answer far more powerful than we anticipated. Now read on…

What is learning and how do we do it?

When we set out to re-engineer learning, it felt like common sense to start by defining it. We’re all in the learning game, so wouldn’t it be sensible to decide what learning actually is before we start trying to make it happen? 

Of course, there are lots of statements about learning out there, some of them presented as ‘definitions’. Eventually, though, as our own definition of learning evolved, we realised that it was ‘different’. Rather than cozy generalizations about, for example, ‘lifelong learners’, ours was a practical definition of the actual learning process, designed to drive the teaching process.

Developing experts

We worked backwards from an understanding of the behaviours of experts, based on the common sense notion that an expert has probably learned well. We determined that experts have a deep understanding of the ideas of their domain and the relationships among them and that they are highly competent in the skills of their domain. We were also committed to the importance of developing expert human beings, with strong, positive values and dispositions. 

With this in mind, we felt our definition needed to address the learning of ideas, skills and personal traits. Since we are also committed to simplicity, we turned this raw material into the powerful, memorable CGC Learning Definition, known in all our member schools as ‘the 3 Cs’: Conceptual, Competency and Character Learning.

The reason for separating out these forms of learning was not just to give us a simple, memorable definition. We knew we needed to think differently about building learner capacity in conceptual understanding, competency and character because the pedagogy required to build each of these capacities is different. 

From learning process to teaching process

Knowing this, we unpacked each form of learning into a clear methodology that is simple enough for large-scale applicability in multiple school contexts, yet deep enough to genuinely drive learning. For example, we believe that inquiry-based learning is fundamental to building conceptual understanding but we were wary of over-complicating inquiry-based methodology or falling into the trap of presenting one inquiry-based process as dogma. Our own approach is to strip things down to their essence, making them, in the words of Einstein, ‘As simple as possible and no simpler than that’. Hence our take on building conceptual understanding as a process of Connect-Construct-Contribute. For Competency Learning: Deconstruct-Identify-Practice. For Character Learning: Consider-Act-Reflect.

Having built our learning definition we set out to ensure that it drives our learning model. We developed learning standards for each of the 3 Cs, each with their own, simple sentence stems, as follows:

  1. Conceptual Learning: I understand that…
  2. Competency Learning: I am able to…
  3. Character Learning: I am becoming more…

These standards drive all CGC Learning Modules, so that the learning definition shapes the learning goals and the teaching methodology. Within this ecosystem, teachers plan, teach and assess for conceptual, competency and character learning. When students self-assess, they do the same:

  1. I used to think that, now I understand that….and here’s my evidence
  2. I used to struggle to, now I am able to…and here’s my evidence
  3. As a person, I am becoming more…and here’s my evidence

Just as we had hoped from the outset, we had found a ‘process’ definition that shapes everything that follows. We realized, of course, that our definition is, like all ‘curriculum’, simply a human construct. We realized that, with any kind of authentic learning, any and all of our 3 C’s may be in play, although one or other may be more dominant, depending on what is being learned. We saw each kind of learning, not as a cycle, returning to its original starting point, but as a spiral, constantly evolving, one step leading to the next, throughout a lifetime of learning. 

The DNA of Learning

The idea of three spirals, constantly interacting, evoked a powerful image.  The 3 C’s as a living construct, a triple helix, the DNA of learning. It’s a bold claim, to claim to discover a learning DNA, and it’s obviously purely a metaphorical one. But the metaphor works. It works to explain, and to remember, what’s happening when we’re learning, and to remember to plan, teach and assess for what matters. It brings teacher clarity and collective teacher efficacy.  It helps in our quest to build our young learners into experts, with deep conceptual understanding of important ideas, high levels of competency in key skills and strong, positive moral character. We think that matters.

In the next in this series, we’ll extend the metaphor. A DNA doesn’t live in a vacuum. It shapes a body. So we’ll be asking questions about the 4th C: Content…a body of knowledge that really matters.  We’ll be asking, ‘What’s Worth Learning…and Why?’

This article was submitted by Kevin Bartlett. Kevin led international schools for over 30 years in 4 different locations, while working on a number of fronts to systematize international education. This work included designing accreditation systems including ACE, leading courses for the Principals’ Training Center, initiating and leading the IB Primary Years Programme and co-founding The Next Frontier Inclusion and the Common Ground Collaborative.

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