Framing Learning as Connection

The connectivity model. The learner is at the center.

Downloadable PDF: The Connectivity Model

Connection as a learning process. The pedagogical nature of connecting can be conceptualized in terms of Kolb’s theory of experiential learning.  Drawing from the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, Lewin, and Piaget, Kolb argues that learning is a continual, holistic, and creative process grounded in experience in and with the world. He describes learning as a cycle of encountering new experiences, making reflective observations, developing abstract conceptualizations, and experimenting to test these abstractions.  Learning can be initiated at any site within the cycle.  Since it was first published in 1971, the Kolb model has been used successfully in educational practice and research across a diverse range of disciplines including but not limited to business, healthcare, social services, and education (Kolb & Kolb, 2015). Connectivity draws on the same theoretical foundations as the Kolb model for experiential learning and follows the same cycle: learners document and reflect on their connections, explore them for larger meaning or purpose, consider how that meaning might inform next steps, and use that information to take further steps towards their learning goals.

Learning by connecting with people. Connected learning and open education strategies are rooted in social constructivism and therefore value social interaction as a form of learning. Interpersonal interaction can take a variety of educational forms.  Learners might observe and imitate others in their environment and then adjust their behavior based on positive and negative reinforcement (Bandura, 1977). They might engage with instructors in more formalized learning, characterized by such approaches as explicit instruction, facilitation of self-discovery, or modeling of desired behaviors (Bandura, 1977; Bruner, 1966; Vygotsky, 1980).  They might also engage with peers who drive learning through the implicit and explicit feedback of peer cultures (Ito et al., 2013) or participate in a variety of formal and informal learning communities (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Slide from the defense that maps the connectivity model to existing theory and research.
Slide from the defense that maps the connectivity model to existing theory and research.

The pedagogical relationships within peer-based learning communities can be described in terms of collaboration or cooperation, though there is general consensus that these concepts overlap and student activity might shift rapidly between them (Dillenbourg, 1999). In general, collaboration implies that group members share similar levels of respect or status within the community, perform the same actions, and work towards a common, negotiated product or endpoint. The quality of interaction related to collaboration is not counted in the frequency of contact but rather in the influence the contact has on each group member’s cognitive processes (Dillenbourg, 1999).  In contrast, cooperative groups are less likely to value equality and uniformity among members; rather, they maintain individual perspectives, purposes, and goals within shared context and stream of collective activity. They divide up the work and tend to value the quantity of proffered effort as well as quality of the contribution (Stahl, 2005).

Students also learn when they interact with people who do not share their values, perspectives, or similar life experiences (Slavin, 1990).  Connections with “the other” have the potential to trigger transformative learning through the process of creating a disorientating dilemma, reflection, and discourse (Mezirow, 1991).  Even if transformative learning does not occur, the experience of engaging with diverse groups of people offers glimpses of that which was not previously known to exist.  As Wenger (2000) described:

There is something disquieting, humbling at times, yet exciting and attractive about such close encounters with the unknown, with the mystery of ‘otherness:’ a chance to explore the edge of your competence, learn something entirely new, revisit your little truths, and perhaps expand your horizon. (p. 233)

Finally, students learn from engaging with others as an audience. The constructionist approach, characterized by Harel and Papert (1991), does not emphasize collaborative knowledge construction as much as intrapersonal development in the presence of others. Constructionists suggest that students faced with performing or creating a product for an audience will learn more deeply because they must externalize their thoughts for the purpose of sharing them.  Once thoughts are made explicit, they can be studied, refined, and made sharper through the process (Ackermann, 2001).

Learning by connecting concepts.  Learning takes place when students are able to connect new concepts to previously established knowledge.  When learners are able to make meaning from previously unconnected information, the creative act transforms the information, the learning experience, and the learner. Downes (2007) described transformation of information into knowledge in terms of a trail of falling dominos; the wave of energy created by the falling dominoes is extrinsic but innately related to the individual dominoes. In another metaphor, he suggested that the transformed information is like a television image that conveys far more than its pixelated parts. Bruner (1996) describes the impact of information transformation in this way:

To be able to go beyond the information given to figure things out is one of the untarnishable joys in life. One of the greatest triumphs of learning (and of teaching) is to get things organised in your head in a way that permits you to know more than you “ought” to. And this takes reflection, brooding about what it is that you know. The enemy of reflection is the breakneck pace. (p.129)

Finally, Meyer and Land (2003) describe the connection of concepts as a passage through a series of thresholds that facilitate a movement from superficial to more complex understanding of information.  These concepts, which are found in all disciplines and stages of education, are portals that open up new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something (Meyer & Land, 2003). The passage through the threshold is irreversible; once students achieve understanding they will not or cannot return to their previous, more simplistic understanding (Cousins, 2006).

The pedagogical nature of connecting concepts can also be considered in terms of schema theory. The organization of information into models, or schema, allows for increased memory formation, storage, and retrieval.  New experiences are tested against previously held knowledge through a process of pattern recognition.  When similar patterns are found, the new experience is added to the selected schema.  Either the model (accommodation) or the perception of the new experience (assimilation) is adjusted to make the connections complete and the memory formed (Gruber & Voneche, 1977).

Schema theory informs number of widely accepted pedagogical models, including Vygotsky’s (1980) zone of proximal development (ZPD).  Vygotsky wrote that effective learning occurs when instructors build on what students already know, introducing new materials that are just beyond the student’s current understanding.  In doing so, students are able to move in a stepwise progression towards a deeper understanding.  Bruner (1960) developed a programmatic strategy for scaffolding called the spiral curriculum, in which students revisit topics iteratively and with more complexity over time and in every turn.  Ausubel (1968) created the advance organizers specifically to enhance schema formation and information retention.  These materials, given to students prior to class, emphasize how new information can be abstracted, organized, and connected to previously learned information to form a big picture of the topic of interest (Ausubel, 1968).  Finally, concept maps, a derivation of the advanced organizer, encourage students to visualize learned concepts (usually in graphs that include boxes and connecting lines) in terms of their relationships with each other.  Concept mapping not only encourages pattern formation and recognition, but can be used as an evaluation tool, for identifying correct and incorrect ideas held by students (Novak & Canas, 2008).

Learning by connecting through space and time.  The phrase, “connections across space and time” is synonymous with transfer; it means that students are able to connect their current thinking or experience with experiences that have taken place in other situations, contexts, or time periods.  Many argue that the goal of education is to support the transfer of school learning across space and time to contexts and scenarios beyond the classroom. Transfer, or connection, is an active process of pattern recognition, schema retrieval, application, reflection, and adjustment. The more robust the schema – the more connections and diverse examples that lie within – the faster, more creative, and more expert the transfer of knowledge will be (Bransford et al., 2000).

The ability to transfer is enhanced when students are able connect situated experiences and facts with abstract principles, organizing categories, and cross-disciplinary relationships.  For example, when environmental conditions change students who learn the abstract principles behind archery will be more successful than those who only practiced shooting a target. Second, emphasizing similarities and differences between scenarios or items enable students to engage in pattern recognition. For example, stressing the interactions between anatomy and physiology rather than teaching each in isolation allows medical students to create more flexible models of how different human bodies will respond to diverse scenarios. Finally, students transfer knowledge more effectively when they have engaged with the material in a variety of contexts.   Proven techniques include having students explore a variety of contexts for examples or instances, develop solutions to a problem across diverse conditions, or hypothesize how the information might be useful in different contexts (Bransford et al., 2000).

Metacognitive knowledge, defined as “knowledge of cognition in general as well as awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition,” increases a student’s ability to transfer knowledge without explicit prompting (Anderson, Krathwohl, & Bloom, 2001, p. 29).  Metacognitive knowledge can be divided into reflection (the understanding of cognition), and reflexivity (the ability to act on the reflection). Ideally, students are able to reflect on their own learning, diagnose strengths and weaknesses, identify and apply strategies for improvement, and assess their own performance.  When students perform these tasks independently, they tend to assess themselves for the ability to transfer knowledge and make any required adjustments to be successful (Bransford et al., 2000).
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