Guiding Principles

Over the years I have come to hold a number of beliefs about learning that inform all the work I do. This list changes as I continue to reflect and learn, which is the first principle:

Learning is Essential to Life

Every form of life on this planet learns in one fashion or another. We learn to survive. We learn to adapt our habitats. Some species, including humans, learn how to live in communities and learn from each other. Humans uniquely learn to work together to advance societies and technologies. While I haven’t designed an experiment to test it, I do believe that if we were to stop learning we would as surely die as we would if we stopped breathing or eating.

Learning is Personal

Whether you are a student in a 800 person introductory course, a 10,000 participant MOOC, or studying a language on your own – learning is personal to you.

  • You bring your unique past knowledge and experience to choose what you give your attention to.
  • Your prior knowledge and learning experiences shape what information will be added to your knowledge and skills and what will be forgotten.
  • Your motivation to learn will effect your ability to learn.
  • Your career and life goals will inform what you set out to learn.
  • The acuity of your senses will impact the data you process.
  • Your ability to accept and incorporate feedback will accelerate or slow your building of knowledge.

These and other factors that are unique to you work to make your learning experience personal.

Knowledge is Built through Connections

I am an advocate of the Connectivism theory of learning first articulated by George Siemens’ in his blog, elearnspace, in December 2004 and in an article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age in International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning in January of 2005. (my annotated copy of this article is at

In this networked conceptualization, learning happens when there are connections made between various nodes of information. Nodes include people, objects, machines, and links to other networks. Learning happens when a network is presented with and makes a connection to a new node. A simple example is a book is simply an object sitting on bookshelf until a person opens it and reads the words inside or feels its weight and decides it will make a good door stop. It is the connection between the two objects where the learning occurs. The use as a information source or a weight to hold a door open depends on numerous factors (mentioned above) that brought that person to pick up the book to learn about it.

Interaction is Essential

Learning is a form of communication. Communication requires at least two entities to interact with each other. Entities include people, animals, computers, networks, and simple objects. At least one of entities has to have some level of intelligence for learning to happen. An ant can learn from a scrap of food whether it is too heavy for the ant to lift or not.

When it comes to human learning our complex intelligence enables us to abstract ideas and convey and receive ideas through emotions as well as via data. The richer the input, the more likely we will give our attention to the interaction and the more likely we are to connect it to our currently knowledge.

Learning is Social

We build our knowledge constructs together with others. Friends, colleagues, other community members can challenge our ideas, help us refine our thinking, and give us insights that we haven’t found for ourselves. Working out Loud and in collaborative settings enhance the quality of the information we have to access. We can get honest reaction to our ideas.

Technology is Neutral

We often fall into the trap of hoping that a new piece of technology will solve our problems. We also tend to believe that the newest tools are the best tool for any situation. Both of these are false.

The reality is that technology is neutral. It will not teach people knowledge or skills. I will not improve their performance. Technology delivers content and experiences to humans exactly as they or other humans have created and organized the materials and programmed the technology. Eric Smith, the VP of IT when I was at Heinle & Heinle, used to say that CD-Roms had great potential to deliver content to teachers and students. But a CD-Rom filled with poor information or organized in a incomprehensible fashion was “no more than a frisbee.”

To fully optimize the use of technologies for learning we need to follow a process of:

  1. We need to understand what each technology can do,
  2. determine if there is any educational benefit that can be derived through each tool’s functionality,
  3. choose the technology which can best fulfill the needs of our students and organization,
  4. and then craft content and activities which meet our learners’ needs.

Lifelong Learning – Because Knowledge is Fluid

Finally, what we know and believe to be true is constantly changing. New experiences change what we know. Scientific discoveries change entire disciplines of knowledge. Social norms morph and evolve because of new technologies and, yes, viral pandemics. All at a rate of change that is constantly accelerating.

The imperative is to encourage a personal practice of lifelong learning. In the workplace, failure to keep up with the latest technology, business practices, and your professional knowledge will render you unemployable in a matter of a year or two. Even in our personal lives advances are rendering what we know about finance, shopping, medical care, media, and other areas as obsolete putting our financial stability, personal identity, and general security precariously at risk.

As I continue my personal practice of lifelong learning, I’ll update these Guiding Principles as I learn and grow. I welcome any thought you have about what I’ve shared here.

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