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  • Writer's pictureEducating Gender

A Gender based Argument For a New World Wide Web of Learning


In the 2007-08 school year, I had the honor and privilege of being able to take a sabbatical from my school and work with an outstanding scholar at USC, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, doing work in cognitive neuroscience and education. To be honest, if I hadn’t taken that year, I probably would have transitioned out of the field of education because I was so burned out and uninspired. I was one of those educator zombies we’ve all seen roaming the halls of our schools. Our eyes half closed, we're often unclear as to how we woke up in the morning, climbed in our cars and ended up in front of a group of students teaching again.

I wanted to know how kids learned. And, I was no longer satisfied as both an instructional leader and a teacher with not having a clear answer to this question. What I learned is that, at this point, we know very little. This wasn’t discouraging because I also learned that we are gaining powerful tools and processes for learning much more than we ever did before.

To be honest, if I hadn’t taken that year, I probably would have transitioned out of the field of education because I was so burned out and uninspired. I was one of those educator zombies we’ve all seen roaming the halls of our schools.

Dr. Immordino-Yang’s teacher was a professor by the name of Kurt Fischer, who to our misfortune, is no longer with us, but his contributions to our understanding of learning really reshaped my thinking as an educator. I no longer saw my classrooms (or anyone else’s) quite the same again. One of his central insights actually helped me merge many disconnected thoughts I had as a teacher into a more coherent understanding regarding how we develop and learn.

So, what was it?

As educators, we were all trained to think that the process of education looked like a ladder. Every step of the ladder was a critical skill, a piece of information, a process that was necessary for the student to ascend the next rung. And, our main source for this understanding was how we were all taught the famous Bloom’s taxonomy. The categories of the taxonomy were even presented to us as looking like a ladder. Fischer turned that understanding inside out.

Using our growing understanding of cognitive neuroscience and learning, Fischer, in his Dynamic Skill Theory, described the process not as a ladder but as a web. In this model, many different influences come into play in order for students to learn an idea or concept. Two students in the same class will have an entirely different road map of previous learning experiences, personal stories, and social/emotional experiences to get them to their understanding of whatever is the current learning expectation. In other words, students are not a product on an assembly line. In fact every single student has a unique, emerging, and expanding blueprint that informs how they will learn...anything.

In light of this new understanding, Bloom’s Taxonomy is not to be rejected, but reframed accordingly as Bloom’s Web. Schools that would function with this model in mind would be creating what Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta would refer to, in their thoughtful In Search of Deep Learning, as “vertical integrated communities” and would rely on such standards found in Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Scale.

Two students in the same class will have an entirely different road map of previous learning experiences, personal stories, and social/emotional experiences to get them to their understanding of whatever is the current learning expectation.

One of the main insights of the psychologist Carol Gilligan is that girls and women develop web based systems of thinking early on, in particular to solve moral and ethical dilemmas. Men find themselves working in much more narrow, linear and hierarchical ways. What interests me most is that Gilligan’s insights seem to confirm that girls' and women’s thinking process is much more aligned with the way cognitive processes unfold naturally. Men’s constructions of the world appear to be highly compromised by social constructions of masculinity which limit their ability to integrate learning and to problem solve in a more holistic manner. Male dominant thinking separates and silos emotions and feelings from academic development and learning, suggesting there is no connection between the two. Nothing can be further from the truth. But, our educational systems are modeled after this thinking, with highly compartmentalized and specialized boxes and learning experiences, negating connection and negating relational thinking.

What we now understand is that learning is naturally integrated and embedded, mind, body and soul, and that our schools need to reflect this integration at the highest levels. As students grow and learn in these structures that resemble a web, we need to move away from the linear, compartmentalized and binary constructs that we currently define as school. They are not only ineffective but they're detrimental to the actual ways that we incorporate and integrate knowledge to create deep learning.

Male dominant thinking separates and silos emotions and feelings from academic development and learning, suggesting there is no connection between the two. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

If we are to truly construct schools to align with how students actually learn, we might think of school in the following ways:

  1. All educational experiences would look more like a nursery room classroom than our current high school models. Early childhood pedagogy looks to integrate all of the various aspects of a child’s development, including sensory, somatic, emotional, and academic.

  2. Drive thematic based learning programs as part of your traditional curriculum. Have 2-3 week learning experiences, student driven projects that demand integrated thinking.

  3. Have students draw out and illustrate their cognitive webs. What do they already know? How do their experiences and backgrounds inform their understandings?

These webs should also become part of a natural process of self reflection for students. Learners should be asked to consider:

  • What are the different influences that impact my learning?

  • How have I changed as a learner?

  • What does my web look like?

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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