Communities of Practice

As a young environmental scientist, I belonged to something that I believe meets the definition of a Community of Practice. A Community of Practice (CoP) refers to a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better through interaction. The CoP that I belonged to was not anything formal but grew organically as slightly older more experienced employees taught less experienced employees the tricks of the trade. It was much easier to ask someone in your peer group a “stupid question” than it was to ask your supervisor.   Eventually the CoP became more formalized as brown bag learning lunches were set up and mentor/mentee relationships were established. Now that I have moved on from the environmental field and started my first job in instructional design, I long for the days when I belonged to a CoP. In my current situation, there is a lot of protecting ones turf and a certain unwillingness among some of my coworkers to share their experience. This is not only bad for me but bad for the organization. Recently, I have started looking on-line for a CoP that I can both learn from and contribute to. One obvious instructional design CoP is the E-Learning Heroes community. While I have gotten some useful information from this community it seems more like a marketing tool for Articulate software than a true CoP. If you are reading this blog and know of a real CoP for instructional designers, please send me an email or comment on this entry. I would be happy to hear from you.

Experiential Learning

This week’s blog is on experiential learning. Experiential Learning is the process of learning through experience; by acquiring skills and expertise by doing things.  It supports learners in applying their knowledge and understanding of real-work problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates the learning.

The educational theorist most associated with experiential learning is David Kolb. Kolb developed a model of experiential learning that consisted of four stages that learners go through in the learning process:

  1. Concrete experience – the openness and willingness to involve oneself in new experiences;
  2. Reflective observation – observational and reflective skills so these new experiences can be viewed from a variety of perspectives;
  3. Abstract conceptualization – analytical abilities so integrative ideas and concepts can be created from their observations; and
  4. Abstract experimentation – decision making and problem solving skills so the new ideas can be used in actual practice.

Kolb viewed these elements as a cycle starting with concrete experience.  The result or action of the final phase would lead to a new concrete experience, thus starting a new learning cycle. Kolb’s model is built on the idea that learning preferences can be described using two continuums: active experimentation-reflective observation and abstract conceptualization-concrete experience. The result is four types of learners: converger (active experimentation-abstract conceptualization), accommodator (active experimentation-concrete experience), assimilator (reflective observation-abstract conceptualization), and diverger (reflective observation-concrete experience). Real life examples of experiential learning include internships, practicums, cooperative education, service learning, and field work.

I had my first real experience in experiential learning in 2014 when I completed a teaching practicum for my MED program. I definitely completed the four phases of Kolb’s learning cycle. Teaching Earth and environmental science to high schoolers was definitely a “concrete experience”. As part of the practicum, we were required to create a portfolio where we reflected on our teaching experience. Based on these reflections, I tried to identify my strengths and weaknesses and what was working and what was not (i.e. abstract conceptualization). Finally, I tried to use this information to improve my teaching. For me, experiential learning was a very effective learning strategy. Unfortunately, my practicum came as the culmination of my Master’s program. It was at the end of two years of work that I realized that not only did I not like teaching high school but I really did not have an aptitude for it. This was more a flaw of education programs than indictment of experiential learning. Had I experienced real teaching earlier, I would have recognized my own limitations.


This week’s topic is constructivism. For those of you who did not major in education, constructivism is a human development/learning theory most notably associated with Jean Piaget and Len Vygotsky.   While constructivism has many flavors, its primary tenant is that learning is a process of constructing meaning from experience. While I agree with this tenant as it relates to adults I find it troubling when applied to childhood learning. Most if not all adults struggle to give meaning to their life experiences. However, this requires a high level of cognitive skill and reasoning. However, unlike Piaget I believe that babies are born as a blank slate without language, culture, or social skills. They are not capable of abstract thought, lack an internal dialogue, and do not understand the context in which learning events occur. While their brains are hard wired to develop these skills, constructivism does not seem to adequately explain how they do. I believe there must be other mechanisms for human learning/development that ultimately create the high level thinking abilities of adults. Nevertheless, the constructivism paradigm, with its emphasis on active engagement and hands on activities, does seem like a good building block for adult learning.

Learning and Emotion

While doing some reading for my Instructional Design Master’s program, I came upon a discussion of the triune brain. This was not a new concept for me as I had taken several biology courses as an undergrad. The triune brain is a model of the evolutionary development of the brain proposed by the neuroscientist Paul MacLean. In MacLean’s model, the innermost and most primitive part of the human brain is responsible for instinctive behavior including the fight or flight mechanism. This part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain, or reptilian complex, because it was first developed in reptiles. As reptiles evolved into mammals the limbic system, or paleomammalian complex, arose. The limbic system is where emotions are processed before they are given meaning in the neo-cortex.   The neo-cortex is the part of the human brain responsible for high level thinking (e.g. language, abstraction, planning, and perception).

So you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with education and instructional design? Well, for many people, myself included, a new challenge is met with pure unprocessed emotion. When a person like me is confronted with a difficult or complex learning task our limbic systems triggers the fight or flight mechanism in our reptilian brain before our neo-cortex can process the infomation. Our bodies are then flooded with stress hormones the same as if we were being chased by a lion. These excess stress hormones can lead to anxiety and depression which in turn impacts our ability to think and learn. We as educators need to be mindful of how emotions, both positive and negative, impact both children’s and adult’s ability to learn.