From Systems to Structures Part 2: Four Models for Learning

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In From Systems to Structures Part 1, I discussed the importance for a new guiding metaphor in the world of education. We call education a system that requires reform. Instead, we can transform education when we build a structure. To build a solid Education Structure we need a blueprint, a model from which to start. Without a model to direct construction, any effort to build becomes futile.

Education transformation requires four learning models, paired with four building tools. Two disclaimers before we start construction. First, the models and tools before us are not new ideas. Nor are they my ideas. People much wiser and smarter than I am have spent decades in the call for these changes. I am the messenger. Second, models require thought, perhaps even challenging thought, to the way in which you approach yourself as a teacher and your students as learners. Learning models are not another set of steps to follow, but paradigm-shifting guides.

It is a shift in how you teach, not what you teach.

Four Learning Models

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1. Learner-Centered

Tool – Empathy

Learner-Centered teaching models first use empathy as a tool to connect with the needs of each individual student. defined it better than I can:

“The learner-centered paradigm for learning functions like a pair of lenses that offers a new way to look at, think about, talk about, and act on education. It constitutes a shift of perspective that places every learner at its center, structures the system to build appropriate supports around him or her, and acknowledges the need to adapt and alter to meet the needs of all children.”

The Learner-Centered model is not something we do, but something we think. It takes us out of ourselves to see, hear, and understand things the way our students see, hear, and understand. Empathy allows us to shift our perspective to that of the student. To use empathy as a tool in our new education structure, we begin with observation. What do you notice about the student? What do you know about her or his life, culture, home, motivations, strengths, weaknesses? What do you need to know to make informed decisions about their learning?

Stop and ask yourself,

“What conditions does this learner need to succeed?”

The student’s strengths and weaknesses, his or her particular situation, provide the map to mastery of the content. To read more about Learner-Centered teaching, click here for It’s a Paradigm Shift. So What? by

2. Transformative

Tool – Enrichment

A Transformative Model is one in which learning becomes intrinsically connected to students’ own experiences. They enter the psychological “flow” and forget about time, outside cares, and other motivations. They connect the content with their own lives and the world around them. Enrichment, creating deeper connections, is the tool we need to arrange learning experiences to become transformative.

Transformative learning is about the magic moment that begins with “I have an idea!”

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When learning becomes transformative, it changes the way in which the learner views his or her world. It is a the connection made between a classroom lesson on condensation, and the water droplets on the windows at home. It is a music student hearing a specific rhythm in the rap song he listens to at home. It is the “Ah-ha” lightbulb click that makes the career of teaching worth the work.

A Transformative Learning Model,

“focuses on how in-school learning can enrich out-of-school experience by expanding perception, contributing meaning and value to future experience, and transforming our relationship with the world.” 

Dr. Kevin Pugh,

To read more about enrichment through the Transformative model, click here for Dr. Pugh’s blog on the Transformative Experience Theory.

3. Culturally Responsive

Tool – Story

Each person – you, students, parents, administrators – has their own story. The role of Culturally Responsive models of teaching and learning is to uncover the story behind each student.

Zaretta Hammond defined Culturally Responsive Teaching as,

“. . .Teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and content in order to promote effective information processing.”

Zaretta Hammond, “Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain,” pg 15
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Culturally Responsive models consider students’ specific ethnic and cultural backgrounds when planning and implementing learning objectives. We must reach beyond the surface differences in race, ethnicity, and income to discover the specific and individual culture of that child. What is it like when they go home? How can we link school activities to home life, whatever that may look like? What does that student bring to the table?

In short, what is his or her story?

Culturally Responsive Models make learning relevant to the particular family and social situation of the student, thereby closing the gap between school and home. For common misperceptions and appropriate responses of the Culturally Responsive model, click here for one of my favorite blog posts from Cult of Pedagogy.

4. Socially-Emotionally Aware

Tool – Support

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No learning can occur without considering the social and emotional state of our children. Socially-Emotionally Aware Models support the neurological and emotional processes of students and the impact of those processes on the social environment of the classroom.

“Promoting social and emotional development for all students in classrooms involves teaching and modeling social and emotional skills, providing opportunities for students to practice and hone those skills, and giving students an opportunity to apply these skills in various situations.”

Roger Weissberg,
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Socially-Emotionally Aware models are about supportive relationships. Supportive classrooms build a caring and comforting atmosphere where children feel safe and accepted. Social and emotional supports calm struggling students through academic and behavioral strategies. The support tool in a socially and emotionally aware learning model asks,

How can I help this student with their internal process to bring about significant learning?

Read more about socially and emotionally aware teaching techniques in this list of Six Principles of Trauma-Informed Care by the Grafton Integrated Health Network.

Blueprint for the Education Structure

With these four guidelines, and the proper tools in hand, we can build a new Education Structure.

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Each model builds upon the previous one. When you approach education with a learner-centered perspective driven by empathy, it is an easy step toward developing transformative and enriching experiences. When you start to develop and plan transformative experiences, considering story to create culturally responsive teaching comes easily and naturally. And when you are building a culturally responsive learning environment, you are also creating one that supports students socially and emotionally.

Can we start building together?

This is Part 2 of From Systems to Structures. For Part 1, click here.

References and Further Reading

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The Right To Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Klipfel, K.M. & Cook, D. B. (2017). Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice. ALA Editions: Chicago.

McCarthy, J. (2018). Student-Centered Planning.

McEachen, J. (2016). What’s Failing: The System or the Learners?

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. Berkley Publishing Group: New York, NY.

Pugh, K. & Wong, D. (2001). Learning science: A Deweyan perspective. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 38(3). 317-336. Pugh & Wong (2001)

Pugh, K. (2011). Transformative Experience: An integrative construct in the spirit of Deweyan pragmatism. Educational Psychologist. 46(2). 107-121. Pugh (2011)

Culturally Responsive
Berwick, C. (2018). 3 Promising Models of School Integration.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press: New York, NY.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin: Thousand Oaks: CA.

Warren, C. (2017). Empathy, teacher dispositions, and preparation for culturally responsive pedagogy. Journal of Teacher Education. 00(0) 1-15. Warren (2017)

Socially and Emotionally Aware
Cherry, C. (1983). Please Don’t Sit on the Kids: Alternatives to Punitive Discipline. David S. Lake Publishers: Belmont, CA.

Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning website:

Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Weissberg, R. P., Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development. 82(1). 405-432. Durlak, et al. (2011)

Greenberg, M.T., Fredericks, L., Weissberg, R. P., Elias, M.J. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist. 58(6/7) 466-474. Greenberg, et al. (2003)

Riley, H. & Terada, Y. (2019). Bringing the Science of Learning into Classrooms.

2 thoughts on “From Systems to Structures Part 2: Four Models for Learning

  1. Pingback: From Systems to Structures Part 1: A New Metaphor for Education – Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard

  2. Pingback: Imagine A New Way of Doing School – Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard

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