ePortfolio: Dr. Simon Priest




THE EDUCATIONAL STAIRCASE: For the past two decades, I have been successfully enhancing and evaluating university faculty in 4 distinct approaches to teaching.  Before defining and examining these approaches in more detail, one needs to understand the base model (2003) that derives from both the original (1956) and the revised (2001) versions of Bloom’s Cognitive Learning Taxonomy.  The model is a learning progression with five steps, each representing a different emphasis of learning with the corresponding pair of Bloom's learning objectives (plus two added ones):

  1. Memorize Facts: learners commit foundation facts to memory through repetition and recollection.  Today, very few facts need to be memorized, since modern technology places on-demand, just-in-time data at our finger tips.
  2. Understand Information: learners assimilate, accommodate, and organize facts into patterns of ideas that are similar, different, and related (thus repeating the work of previous scholars, authors, and researchers).
  3. Apply Knowledge: in familiar situations (those already learned about) learners use information to solve problems and make decisions for real world projects.  Then, they evaluate the efficacy of their actions.
  4. Generalize Wisdom: in unfamiliar situations (those not yet learned about) learners employ knowledge and evaluate its efficacy to bring change.  Then, they re-evaluate or further refine their own judgment and actions.
  5. Systematize Innovation: learners use collective wisdom to create or improve theories, models, practices, products, processes, and/or systems.  They invent and bring to light, better ways of doing.

In order to help learners reach each step in turn, a shift in teaching approach and skills is necessary.  The four risers between the five steps are different instructional approaches or pedagogies.  Faculty can add each approach to their repertoires to become more rounded as teachers.

  • The PRESENTER employs one-way or transmitting pedagogies (lecture and demonstration) to convey data that assist learners to convert memorized facts into patterns of well-understood information.  Often called the “sage on the stage” (King, 1993), this faculty-directed method converges learners’ thinking toward established, or sometimes singular, knowledge that often reiterates the previous findings of scholars, authors, and researchers.
  • The FACILITATOR uses two-way or transacting pedagogies (moderated discussion and reflection) to help learners discover lessons for themselves and to apply this new knowledge in familiar situations that were learned in class (often through problem-based case studies).  Referred to as the “guide on the side” (King, 1993), this learner-centred approach diverges learners’ thinking toward other methods of doing and prepares them to critique.
  • The CONDUCTOR utilizes transforming pedagogies (advice and encouragement) to change learners or groups, who generalize new wisdom into unfamiliar, not yet learned in class, settings for the real world (field trip, laboratory, capstone project, or service learning) and work-related job practice (placement or practicum).  Like a “catalyst in the mist” (Priest, 2013), this self-determined technique gets learners to: think critically about changing others or themselves in their working or living communities, make a difference in society, and get ready for creativity.
  • The MENTOR exercises transmuting pedagogies (participating as a partner) to aid learners in innovating a novel system (process, practice, or product), inventing a new theory (research, evaluation, or model), and/or finding a better way.  Much like a “friend at the bend” (Priest, 2013), this inquiry-discovery journey proves or improves (through research or evaluation), navigates risky or uncharted territory, shares equally in collegial collaboration, is oriented toward imagination, and emphasizes creative thinking, rigorous logic, and the scientific method.



THE RELATIONSHIP TABLE: This table compares and contrasts the four approaches across 25 characteristics (2004).  Just because a specific item is mentioned for one characteristic under a single approach doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t occur elsewhere.  The many items listed are ideal common tendencies and are not meant to be restricted solely to particular circumstances.

Of the characteristics above, Learner Maturity (listed near the bottom of the table) drives the model forward.  A change in teaching approach is only effective when learners are ready for that approach.  In fact, as learners mature, they do best with certain approaches of teaching, while others leave them sorely lacking (Knowles, 1970).  Recent studies show that approach sequence is important and suggests that approach should fit maturity and readiness for experiential learning.  Learners in a group may have varying levels of maturity and so the approach adopted by a teacher should fit the modal need of each group of learners, with some flexibility to shift to other approaches as needed in order to suit any individuals who stand out from the crowd.  Also, if one is teaching in a predominant approach, and the circumstances change, that approach may likely need to be adapted to suit the circumstance as well as the group or its composite individual learners.  For example, a teacher may be facilitating, with a shift toward presenting (for less mature learners who need it or when a lecture is called for) and a shift toward conducting (for more mature learners or in a laboratory setting). Here are the references for both items above.

  1. Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.).  (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of educational outcomes: Complete edition, New York: Longman.
  2. Bloom, B.S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals; Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans.
  3. King, A. (1993).   From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.  College Teaching, 41(1), pp30-35.
  4. Knowles, M.S.  (1970).  The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press.
  5. Priest, S.  (2013).  The Educational Staircase: Alternative Pedagogies for E-learning.  Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research (COHERE) Conference.  Vancouver, BC, Canada, October 24th.



TEN GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR TEACHING EXCELLENCE: I did an early version of this in 2008 and greatly improved it later with thanks to Bryan Taylor, Master Instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, who pushed this agenda. He, I, and others finalized this list of ten guiding principles from early work done at Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia (where I spent a month as a distinguished professor in the 1990's).

  1. Create dynamic learning environments that are: engaging, motivating, and intellectually stimulating.
  2. Emphasize the importance, relevance, and integration of theory and knowledge with professional practice to develop solutions to real world challenges.
  3. Offer learning experiences that develop internationally aware and culturally sensitive graduates who make a difference as socially and ethically responsible citizens.
  4. Provide an inclusive environment of support and respect for all students by embracing diversity, remaining empathetic to students' needs, listening to the collective student voice, and recommending specialized services when necessary.
  5. Encourage the spirit of inquiry, compassion, curiosity, critical and creative thinking informed by current research, industry standards, and current market conditions.
  6. Enhance student engagement and learning through designing effective curriculum, matching technology with teaching, and using appropriate assessment methods.
  7. Improve teaching practice through continuous self-awareness, ongoing professional development, and critical reflection as informed by a range of evaluation approaches.
  8. Provide opportunities to experiment with innovative teaching techniques, while staying current, committed, and passionate about subject matter.
  9. Establish cross-disciplinary connections with communities of teaching excellence in the schools, by collaborating, mentoring instructors, identifying master teachers, sharing best practices and showcasing talents.
  10. Foster a climate of risk taking where faculty are encouraged to explore different approaches, accept personal or professional imperfections and become comfortable making mistakes.



A DOZEN BEST TEACHING PRACTICES: My list of best teaching practices are not pedagogical techniques. They go beyond the art and science of instruction. These are characteristics that rise from a particular philosophy of learning and hence lead to best teaching regardless of practice or method. In no specific order, and derived from my qualitative research into instructional excellence, here they are.

  1. Learner Empathy: an understanding of what learning is like for the learner by experiencing similar novelty and dissonance.
  2. Respect & Listen: give learners a voice in class, draw on their life experiences, welcome questions, and respect contributions.
  3. Encouragement: not just equitably supporting as a cheerleader, but also fostering a sense of curiosity, creativity or critique.
  4. Adapting to Needs: a willingness to change one's approach to better suit the needs of individual and/or collective learners.
  5. Passion & Commitment: as indicated by devoting time to learners outside of class and staying current in the subject matter.
  6. Flexibility: relax into your role, you don't always have to have the "correct" answer or even follow the daily lesson plan.
  7. Nurture Independence: realizing they must learn to learn without you, because you won't always be there for them.
  8. Motivate & Engage: the difficult half of teaching is getting learners to participate; give them reasons and uses for learning.
  9. Technology Use: judiciously applying technologies to teaching in a way that enables rather than disables learning.
  10. Know Yourself: understand your abilities and shortcomings; work to enhance the former and improve the latter.
  11. Reflect on Practice: take the time and effort to analyse your teaching as a better way to knowing yourself as a teacher.
  12. Fun & Humor: enjoy what you do; revel in the moment a "lightbulb switches on" for learners, and be proud of their learning.



A FACULTY DEVELOPMENT SEQUENCE: I have been involved in several faculty development programs over the years and have consulted in the creation of training and development sequences at numerous institutions since 2008. However, this very simple order highlights the five most important steps and was nicely refined from recent work at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Again, I want to thank Bryan Taylor and the 40+ members of the Teaching Excellence Task Force for their contributions to a consensual process achieved on the first day.

  1. ORIENTATION: Everything you need to know before arriving at the institution (usually only one way to do something). These are the Standard Operating Procedures for the institution, and Local Operating Procedures for its unit (a school or department), that everyone must know prior to starting work. These can be delivered through an E-learning platform, MOOC, or web-based collection. In most cases, only one way of operating and interacting will be acceptable or easily recognizable, so these are the minimum competencies and best practices necessary to get in the door and begin teaching. Examples include, but are not limited to: where to park, using the library, getting your ID, obtaining audiovisual equipment, using the LMS, and accessing email/voice messages.
  2. TRAINING: Everything you need to know to get started with live teaching. This would acknowledge the need for a basic or introductory course in best teaching practices tempered for the unit (school/department). Such a course would preferably be completed before going live, but last minute hires could finish this during their probationary periods. Examples of course content may include: public speaking, effective communication, presenting with technology (classroom or online), and applying the Socratic Method of questioning.
  3. ENHANCEMENT/DEVELOPMENT: Everything you need to know to grow as an instructor. Whereas training would cover the bear minimum of best practices, this learning would encompass excellence in all forms of teaching. Once past the probationary period of teaching, faculty would be expected to prepare a personalized learning plan, with the guidance of a sponsor, by choosing from a menu of options that can provide the experiences necessary to learn. For example, to improve public speaking, one does not necessarily have to take yet another course. Sponsors could help with access to toastmasters, conference presentations, classroom feedback, and so on. Ultimately, growing competence will occur via different paths, but these routes should be right for the individual. Faculty may find that some competencies, more than others, will fit with their personal teaching approaches, since no one size fits all.
  4. MASTERY/EXPERT: After proving skilled teaching, everything you need to know to support/sponsor others. Becoming masterful in certain combinations of competencies and/or best practices (not every last one of them) should be sufficient expertise to orient newcomers, deliver training, support enhancement/development and sponsor learning plans and experiences. This fourth level provisions the three before it in the sequence. An extra course in how to do this may be necessary to ensure consistency across an institution, but implementation would be independent by units.
  5. COMMUNITY: Empowered units (school/department), who can self-serve all needs for teaching excellence. When a significant number of faculty reach master/expert level in a variety of teaching competencies and best practices, they will form a collaborative community. As new faculty on board, this community will service its own needs for orientation, training, enhancement/development, peer support and sponsoring their own faculty. Eventually, these communities will be able to create safe spaces for taking risks with new ways of teaching and/or emerging technologies.



A STUDENT-CENTERED MANDALA: In 2010, I evolved a mandala (a philosophical circle representing the spiritual universe) that put students in the middle, but Dwayne Harapnuik helped me improve it. He is an extremely talented eLearning consultant and I had the pleasure to collaborate with him as my top Instructional Developer at BCIT. Dwayne has been working on what he calls "Creating Significant Learning Environments or CSLE" and, together, we finished this mandala for the key components of CSLE.

  • The STUDENT is at the heart of learning. All choices are made with the student's needs and best interests in mind. Today's students are socially networked, demand just-in-time learning, seek peer information, and are comfortable collaborating.
  • The student is surrounded by the primary ring of 4 TEACHING APPROACHES (presenting, facilitating, conducting & mentoring) from the Educational Staircase above. Obviously, choice of approach depends on the student's level of maturity for learning, the products or processes being taught and much more (see Relationship Table above).
  • The secondary ring contains a number of influential factors. Students require UBIQUITOUS ACCESS (all times, any location, universal devices, every format, mobile and flexible, rights) to use information. That information can be DELIVERED in at least one of FOUR FORMATS (face-to-face, technology-enriched, blended and online: see Definitions on the Technology page). Since SOCIAL NETWORKING (linked relationships that are established, through face-to-face or technology/media, and cement shared bonds or common interests) is constant for modern learners. It cannot be ignored and should be incorporated into their learning. Teachers are no longer the single most important sources of information; the Internet has replaced them!
  • Several tertiary factors are important to advance learning. INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN, improving learning effectiveness and efficiency by enhancing curriculum and teaching, is best reverse engineered from ultimately desirable learning outcomes. ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION, measuring student learning and developing its delivery, are continuous improvement processes with significant learning outcomes, engaging learner experiences, mastery of content, and diverse assessments methods. SUPPORT & INFRASTRUCTURE involves providing necessary non-academic resources ranging from classroom temperature and lighting, through computer labs, to an IT network that simultaneously sustains multiple devices for each person on campus. ACADEMIC QUALITY ensures learning outcomes are exceeded (to grow independent self-learners for a not yet existent future) through excellence in teaching, course content, assignment diversity, class size, facilities, equipment, and other resources.

One can think of this mandala like the planet Earth. So, I embellished it by adding some extra (faculty & student) quaternary factors around the outer atmosphere. Student centered learning only works in a climate where faculty themselves are ready to learn and willing to teach differently. It proves a waste of time and/or money, if it isn't directed toward the necessary competencies to graduate, get a job, and play a role in the betterment of society.



I.N.F.O.R.M.A.L. LEARNING: Informal learning can easily be seen as the opposite of formal education or institutionalized learning.  However, I fancy a broader and deeper definition that encompasses many of today’s trending terms and centers on choice.  To me, INFORMAL learning is:

  1. I ndependent - learning is not constrained by teacher decisions about what, when where, and how to learn,
  2. N eeds-based - learners balance needs and select personalized content from relevant curricula based on need,
  3. F lexible - learners choose their learning pace, place, time, content, pedagogy, technology, and other resources,
  4. O pen - barrier free learning, curricula, materials, and delivery mode (blended) are found beyond formal systems,
  5. R esourceful - full of resources, learning draws upon freely available content used within openly licensed media,
  6. M obile - learners use personal electronic devices as highly agile technologies that allow for liberated movement,
  7. A ccessible - information and learning are ubiquitous (anytime, everywhere, all devices, universal format, etc.), and
  8. L ife-oriented - learning lessons are applied to living, working or surviving in the real world or a global society.

This summary combines the best of open learning, flexible learning, mobile learning, and online learning.  While these are distinctly different terms, they all share the purpose of providing more customized approaches to learning than can be offered by formal or institutionalized education.  Nevertheless, many universities and colleges are attempting, and some are succeeding, to offer pieces of informal learning to their students.  Corporations have long offered competency-based learning and their on the job learning has clearly been informal.



COMPETENCY-BASED EDUCATION: I conducted my first piece of research into competency-based education for leadership with my dissertation in 1986 and developed a corporate university for management founded on a competency framework in 1996. Since then, I've been assisting universities and companies with their moves toward competency-based learning. This seven step process outlines one approach that I have repeatedly found useful in developing competency-based curricula.



PRIOR LEARNING ASSESSMENT: I created a Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition System to measure learning from electronic, experiential, and employment education. The 2005 EXEMPLAR System had some unique elements (especially reflection on experience) and I pollinated these into subsequent institutions, with help from Tejas Batavia (twice my Director of Academic Operations), as we addressed planned and prior learning. EXEMPLAR stands for:

  • E lectronic - collection of courses taken online, but outside the influence of the matriculating institution doing the PLAR
  • X periential - informal learning that comes from living life (volunteering, family wisdom, and informal/non-traditional)
  • E mployment - competencies gained on the job or in the workplace (internships, apprecticeships, preceptorships, etc.)
  • M easures - trustworthy methods of evaluating ePortfolio content, performance demonstrations, and reflective reviews
  • P rior or planned - Prior means obtained before or apart from one's education, while planned learning occurs concurrently
  • L earning - a change in feeling, thinking, behaving, or resisting change that results from an educational experience
  • A ssessment - gauging the value or utility of learning as measured to meet or exceed a benchmarked standard
  • R ecognition - granting course credit from the past that is transferrable in the present toward graduation in the future

Planned learning starts at the first step of this eight step process, while prior learning begins at the third step without the benefit of preparation during the initial steps. As the process proceeds, the learner takes the first two steps with a staff advisor (L+SA). The staff advisor helps prepare learning objectives, explain the overall process, and write a learning plan. For the third and fourth step, the learner (L) works alone, but can get assistance upon request. The learner gains competence according to the plan and constructs an ePortfolio. The learner takes the fifth and sixth steps with a faculty evaluator (L+FE). The learner demonstrates competency mastery through performance of that competency and a reflective review, with the faculty evaluator observing both or either. For the seventh and eight steps, the faculty evaluator (FE) works alone to complete the process. The faculty evaluator determines whether the competency has been satisfactorily demonstrated and, if so, how much credit to apply to the learner's transcript. Again, in this process, EXEMPLAR also stands for:

  1. E stablish learning objectives (L+SA) - Many learners don't know how to write learning objectives and some don't know what they need to learn for their future careers. Therefore, experienced staff advice contributes to complete this initial step.
  2. X tend intentions into plans (L+SA) - The plan should include career goals, necessary competencies, missing courses, and other learning gaps. Input may be obtained from sources other than the staff advisor (professionals, friends and family).
  3. E ducate to gain competence (L) - This step proceeds according to competency-based and free form independent learning. The learner goes and gets the experience (or already has it) and education necessary to become competent.
  4. M ake an ePortfolio (L) - The ePortfolio should contain evidence-based examples of learning with supporting documentation (certificates, contracts, course outlines, photographs, products, attestations, and other corroborative statements).
  5. P eform to demonstrate competence (L+FE) - Learners can take a written test (College Level Examination Program), perform a verbal recital, express emotional reactions. or actually demonstrate competence in front of the evaluator.
  6. L everage through reflective review (L+FE) - As one unique element, reflective reviews are written essays or oral debriefings in response to facilitative questions: what was learned, how can that be applied, what will be different as a result, etc.
  7. A ppraise competence (FE) - The contents of the ePortfolio, competence demonstration, and reflective review are objectively evaluated using valid (credible) and reliable (dependable) methods for quantitative (qualitative) data.
  8. R ealize credits for transfer (FE) - By considering resources from the Canadian Association for PLA and the US Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), credit value can be applied by the matriculating institution doing the PLAR.



This ePortfolio is not a learning portfolio. It contains examples of past work, but its type is best suited to supplementing faculty CVs. LEARNING PORTFOLIO ELEMENTS: Learning portfolios are most appropriate for students, prove useful in competency-based education or prior learning assessment, and are composed of several elements. Their contents are pretty much the same whether the portfolio is a physical exhibit or e-/digital version. While no standard format exists, here are some of the common hallmarks of a portfolio focused on learning as identified by the letters PORTFOLIO: Process/product, Optional, Record, Table, Format, Other, Learning, Input and Output.



PORTFOLIO LEARNING EXPERIENCES: In my work as an experiential educator, I am often asked to show the breadth and depth of this methodology.  I prepared this archery diagram as a way to demonstrate the range of experiential examples and arrange these by learning location.

The kinds of experiential education and active learning that is worthy of inclusion in a learner’s portfolio is basically anything other than the typical: listening to a lecture, watching a video, or reading a book.  These alternative learning experiences can be organized across two philosophical approaches and several locations.  For example, they can take the philosophical form of project-based challenges or problem-based solutions that are most obvious in both online and face-to-face classrooms and can be assigned to individuals or groups.  These two philosophical approaches enjoy great confusion in the literature; here is how I differentiate them.  Both approaches are learner centered and teacher facilitated.  Both are open-ended and rooted in the “real world” (outside of the university).  Both require learners to gather and analyze a great deal of background information.  The two overlap and can become complimentary, leading to even greater confusion between approaches.

The former project-based approach is often well structured, the goal is clear, the linear path to reach it is straightforward, and learners are free to determine what they will do to obtain success.  They follow a typical product construction method, where each learner has tasks and responsibilities as an individual or team member.  Reaching success requires cooperation at least, where learners work together to complete their mutually beneficial pieces.  Completion of the project results in a single end product or final artifact that is often presented and assessed on the basis of set standards from an earlier project explanation.  Completion of the project challenge normally takes a longer time (compared to problem solving), because several problems may be encountered along the way, each requiring the other approach.

The latter problem-based approach tends to be ill structured, the goals may be vague, and these make for great uncertainty as learners are free to choose their path to success.  Learners follow a typical problem-solving process composed of several general steps.  Reaching success requires true collaboration at most, where learners work together to co-create fresh solutions (several heads are better than one).  Following the process leads to multiple solutions and some that may possibly work.  Assessment is based on whether the problem-solving process was followed and worked smoothly to provide the best solution.  Problem solving takes a shorter time (compared to project completion), but the final outcome may need to be put into action as yet another project.

For locations, we can think of these as ever-expanding outward opportunities, portrayed as ever-contracting inward circles, targeted toward the bull’s-eye of securing a happy LIFE (fifth location) with goals like gainful employment, discretionary income, and enjoyable recreation.  Both work and leisure continue to provide learning experiences, while the remaining four locations lead up to this fifth one.  We start in the CLASSROOM (first), where learners obtain experiences beyond the standard professorial lecture.  Next is the CAMPUS locale, where learners gain experience beyond their coursework.  This is followed by the COMMUNITY (third), where learners dip their toes into the natural environment and neighboring society.   The penultimate location is the PROFESSION setting (fourth), where learners gain valuable work experience toward their future employment.  Here are definitions of each kind of experience organized within the locations.  These include the requisite steps in the experiential learning cycle: action, reflection, integration, and continuation.


  • Vicarious Sharing: telling stories with inherent lessons, so that the learner does not require firsthand experience
  • Role Play: acting out a prescribed part in a predetermined scenario for the purpose of demonstrating a lesson
  • Debate & Dialogue: Discussion to exchange ideas, usually around opposing viewpoints, in order to resolve conflict
  • Simulation: substitution of a model to imitate reality and provide valuable training without actual consequences
  • Gamification: adding game playing elements to lessons so as to increase engagement and metaphoric meaning
  • Peer Presentation: sharing project completions or problem solutions with colleagues and co-workers
  • Peer Instruction: teaching lessons to colleagues and co-workers under the tutelage of the course instructor
  • Peer Assessment: evaluating and/or grading the presentations and instruction of colleagues and co-workers
  • Demonstration: showing lessons (rather than telling), where learners are actively participating in the event
  • Real World Case Study: analysis of a specific instance, project, or problem, based in actual, not imaginary, data


  • Investigative Interview: conversations to obtain answers to questions that aid in the search for problem solutions
  • Work Study: working for the institution or its academic group in exchange for tuition funding or payment
  • Laboratory: practical applications of lecture lessons, to experiment, research, teach, invent, build, or practice
  • Competition: an open contest to determine the best problem solutions, project completions or product inventions
  • Exhibition: displaying student work to complete projects, solve problems, conduct research, or invent products
  • Capstone: a culminating project (formed from more than one problem) that encapsulates and highlights lessons
  • Volunteer Work: unpaid on-the-job contributions that freely assist with project completions or problem solutions


  • Day Excursion: less than 24 hours, during which learners participate in a trip to museums or other institutions
  • Field Work: conducting training and learning in real world wilderness, agricultural, rural, and/or urban places
  • Service Learning: expression of servant leadership for the benefit of environment, neighborhood, or society
  • Fellowship for Scholarship: volunteering for a religious or service group in exchange for tuition funding
  • Research & Evaluation: conducting evidence-based inquiry into local programs, projects, or problems
  • Study Abroad: single or multi-day trips to foreign nations to learn about culture, history, and tradition
  • Overnight Expedition: multi-day trip that usually stresses adventure as a means to develop self and others


  • Unpaid Internship: on-the-job experience in business or industry (usually happens without pay)
  • Student Teaching: practical experience in instructing or other forms of education (usually without pay)
  • Conference Contribution: attending an event so as to offer a presentation, question or comment (not passive)
  • Preceptorship: clinical experience in medicine, nursing, dentistry, or other healthcare fields (may include pay)
  • Apprenticeship: work experience in trades or other manual labor, usually under the tutelage of a craftsperson
  • External Placement: employment experience in other, not mentioned occupations (may or may not include pay)
  • Practicum: vocational experience that emphasizes pragmatic training in any other careers (overlaps with above)



AN EXPERIENTIAL PROGRESSION: Back in 1983, I met Jasper Hunt at an AEE conference and we talked about degrees of experientiality. As a philosopher of experiential learning and ethical teaching, and later good friend, he helped shape my thinking around this scale. The result was a sequential progression of experience where the learner moved from passive spectator to active participant. At the same time, learning content moved from theories and concepts to practice and innovation.

Not yet out of date, I believe this old-style order has value in how we should structure progressive experiences for learners. Start with demonstrations (observing others' displayed experiences), then progress to role-plays and vicarious experiences (watching or listening to others relate their experiences). Next, simulate experiences (group intiatives or lab exercises), and end with real life experiences (internships or field trips). The key to advancing to the next level lies in reflecting on past experiences in preparation for future ones.



UNIFIED LEARNING THEORY: When I wrote this white paper, I believed that a unified theory of learning should integrate the following seven paradigms of educational psychology:

  1. Behaviorism: learning is shaped by classical (reflex/response) and operant (consequence/change) conditioning.
  2. Constructivism: learning schemata (lessons) are built from interactions among memories and life experiences.
  3. Pragmatism: learning is gained from repeated reflection on experiences in a continuing cycle of distinct steps.
  4. Cognitivism: learning is acquired and applied objectively through mental processes (computational thought).
  5. Humanism: learning is freely chosen self-development toward the actualization pinnacle of personal potential.
  6. Social Learning: learning is obtained through social settings and the contextual interactions of human models.
  7. Connectivism: learning comes from linking nodes (people/information) through social/technological networks.

This comparison table demonstrates the main similarities and differences among paradigms. While considerable overlap makes a clean distinction difficult to achieve and some authorities could be listed under several paradigms, an evolution of theories can be found in these summaries, key points, memory uses, learner roles, and criticisms.



HOW DO HUMANS SELF-LEARN?: I searched for years for a decent self-learning hypothesis that would explain this detailed process from an experiential perspective and, after repeated disappointments, decided to make my own based on earlier work with sound judgment. I expressed the eight stages through the infinity shape of a single-sided Mobius Strip with double loops: classical and operant conditioning.

  1. EXPERIENCE: The learner experiences activities designed (or at least expecting) to teach a lesson.
  2. INDUCE: The learner reflects on those specific activities (called the learning experience).
  3. GENERALIZE: The learner realizes a general lesson from inductive reflection on the learning experience.
  4. MEMORIZE: This general lesson is stored in memory to be available when next needed.
  5. DEDUCE: When called for, the lesson is withdrawn from memory and refracted to fit the specific situation.
  6. APPLY: The deduced refraction is then applied to that situation and monitored for success and consequences.
  7. EVALUATE: The relative success and consequences of the applied learning is measured.
  8. REFINE: Based on this evaluation, the lesson is confirmed or refined. An infinite cycle, the process then repeats.

Here are two different examples: the seeming simplicity of learning about the incandescent light bulb's invention and the apparent complexity of learning to drive a car. For the former, a learner talks to teachers and searches out multiple sources on the Internet over a one hour period. He initially finds a great many sources saying "Edison in 1879" and one source that disagrees. On the basis of the majority, he picks "Edison in 1879" and commits this to memory. When asked in a social situation about the light bulb's invention, he is about to give his most common answer, but someone else provides a different response and much discussion ensues. He, along with others in the group, argues for Edison. He soon realizes through discussion that many inventors contributed to earlier versions and that Edison merely improved the light bulb. With this new information, he refines his lesson and returns to further explore the one source that disagreed. After repeating the cycle, he learns a broader and deeper understanding of light bulb invention that starts from Davy in 1802 and proceeds through Woodward & Evans in 1874 who sold their Canadian patent and licensed their American patent to Edison five years later.

For the latter example, the learner participates in a driving related collection of readings, videos, demonstrations, simulations, and real-life practice over several weeks. She inductively reflects on the collection of activities and generalizes lessons about how to drive. The lessons are memorized and deductively refracted to take her driver's license test. If she passes, her driving is confirmed and then reinforced by driving with a provisional license. If she fails, her driving needs refinement and she consequently repeats some of the earlier experiences.

I define learning as the acquisition of competence, gained from experience, that leads to enduring change in feelings, thoughts, and/or behaviors. Competence acquired can be knowledge, skills, talents, ideas, or expertise. Learning experiences used to acquire competence may include listening to lectures, watching videos, reading publications, writing essays, making presentations, talking in discussion, studying homework, observing demonstrations, participating in role plays, sharing stories, engaging in simulations, attending field trips, practicing internships, studying abroad, cooperating with others, conducting research, joining in innovation, and much more. Enduring change lasts for the long term with a notable difference in emotions, concepts, intellect, and/or actions.

If this is learning, then the next step follows: teaching is helping others to learn by enabling the double looped 8-stage cycle to succeed. The initial four stages make up the first loop operating under classical conditioning laws. The final four stages compose the second loop functioning within operant conditioning parameters.

Classical conditioning refers to the predictable response to a stimulus or multiple stimuli. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, fed his dogs with the presence of paired stimuli: food and a ringing bell. The dogs initially salivated to the arrival of food (unconditioned reflexive response to unconditioned reflexive stimulus). However, over time and in the absence of food, the dogs learned to salivate (conditioned response) to bell ringing (conditioned stimulus). When I fell in love, a certain song was playing in the background. Over time, we made that "our song" and whenever I hear it, I am filled with emotional reactions that wouldn't normally be associated with any music.

Operant conditioning refers to the predictable influence that intentional actions have on voluntary behavior. Skinner, an American psychologist, put rats in a box with a lever system that delivered food. Initially, the rats discovered by chance that pressing the lever delivered food (positive reinforcement) and so they repeated the action with the intent of being fed. In time, the rats learned to press the lever to get food whenever they were hungry. A similar study followed where the lever stopped loud music (negative reinforcement) and the rats learned to press the lever continually. Another study examined earlier trained rats pressing the lever to receive a mild electroshock (positive punishment) instead of food and so they learned not to press the lever. One more study, investigated trained rats pressing the lever, but losing water (negative punishment) and eventually they learned not to press the lever. When I was very young, a friend and I had the opportunity to smoke with the cool kids during recess. I threw up in school, was ridiculed by classmates, was shunned by the cool kids, and given punishments by the principal and my parents. I never smoked again, but my old friend still smokes to this day. He survived the ordeal without punishment, but was rewarded as a new member in the cool kids club. They reinforced his smoking every day for the next few years.

If a lesson stored in memory (the first loop) is not regularly applied and evaluated in new situations (the second loop), then learning is soon forgotten without reinforcing or refining the lesson. In my youth, I learned to read music and could play several instruments, but, once I enrolled in university, I never used these lessons again. Today, my musicality is rusty and I doubt I could even read notes, let alone play them on an instrument. However, since the memory is still hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I am hopeful that relearning music would be easier the second time around. Perhaps, I'll pick up an instrument in my retirement.

Memories are held in several forms. Declarative memories are true and false facts that can be semantic (an encyclopedia of facts) or episodic (key life events). I remember all the semantic steps of the biochemical Kreb's Cycle and where and who I was with during the episodes of learning. Procedural memories are skills and rules for methods that can be mental (how to calculate or read) or motoric (how to perform an action). I remember how to use math to calculate the optimal angle of trajectory and how to throw an object to achieve maximum distance.

Obviously, a large part of this hypothesis is based on reflection and refraction of memories and to make or modify lessons for memorizing, so the next post goes into more detail on these key functions within the learning process.



REFLECTION AND REFRACTION IN LEARNING: The public domain picture below shows a near perfect reflection of scenery and my morphing of the words "Teaching" and "Learning" to mirror one another. It also embodies refraction with the adjusted view of pebbles in the lower left corner. As an experiential educator, I see the enormous value of reflection and present the matching concept of refraction to increase the potential for change.

Reflection is the bounce back of light or sound from a surface so that two images or echoes are seen or heard. Examples include the doubling of one’s self in a mirror and the duplication from shouting inside a cave. Reflection in teaching and learning is much the same and is an inductive process: from specific to general. We re-look at what we did/felt and re-listen to what we said/heard from a fresh perspective. On one's own, self-reflection can take many forms: introspection, contemplation, and meditation. With others, reflection involves formal discussion in a group or informal dialog with a partner. These exchanges provide corroborating information, dissenting opinions, reinforcing thoughts and/or contradictory perspectives. In reflection, we see learning through the eyes of others and this helps us to learn.

Dewey is often quoted as having said "we do not learn from experience alone, but we do learn from reflecting on experience." I would add, we do not change by learning alone, but we do change from refracting on our learning. I am refering to the double loops above that partner classical with operant conditioning in experiential learning.

Refraction is the change in speed or direction of sound or light as it moves through different densities of liquid, solid or gas. Examples include the change in pitch when one speaks through exhaled helium compared with oxygen and when sunrays are concentrated by a glass or plastic lens. Refraction in teaching and learning is much the same, but is a deductive process: from general to specific. We bend or reshape what we will do and say to suit each situation and further refine our learning based on fresh feedback that we solicit from the perspectives of others. In refraction, we experience new learning through feedback from others and this helps us to learn.

I wear glasses and often think about what my experiences and opportunities in each situation would look like if viewed through another's spectacles. In fact, when I reflect and refract, I do so for several views in parallel: myself, my best friend (who understands me), a professional colleague (who understands the situation), a complete stranger (who does not understand me or the situation) and, most importantly, the learner (who is on the receiving end of my teaching). I think about what they would learn, do or say in each situation.

As a teacher, I doubt my efficacy at every opportunity and ask myself questions, just like those asked in sequential funneling or isolated frontloading, since both are designed to facilitate learning through reflective and refractive processes. I draw my conclusions from thoughts or written answers to these questions and thus create new lessons or refine and/or reinforce existing ones. I strongly recommend deliberate reflection and refraction for teachers to examine their practice and improve their performance based on what they learn about their teaching.



MYTHS AND MISREPRESENTATIVE MODELS: Education is full of many well meaning models, but some have misrepresented our thinking and intentions for decades. Two famous myths I want to immediately address are individual learning styles and the Learning Pyramid. Both are well used and widely accepted, but both are also misrepresentative. While I like some of their content, and they support my philosophies of experiential learning, I advise caution in blindly following their recommendations. I can remember making both of these errors in my early days as a university professor: not much older than my undergraduates, yet younger than all my grad students!

First, learning styles suggests that people have individual preferences for ways to learn and that they learn best only by those styles.  Therefore, the model recommends that teachers identify individual learners’ styles and teach in those styles in order to contentrate and accelerate learning.  Styles typically identified by experts are: verbal (talking), visual (seeing), aural (listening), and physical (tactile/moving).  Some separate out logical (reason/math) and textual (reading/writing) from these four.  Others divide all six into solitary (learning alone) or social (learning in a group).

Many educators have claimed that Gardner's 1983 work on multiple intelligences reinforces the learning styles model. However, Gardner has been quick to point out that, while his labels for several intelligences held by the human were similar to some learning styles, they were never meant to be used in this manner. He has made some clear distinctions: intelligence is not a style; it is a computational power; learning styles are more a preferred use of senses for information input; information is interpreted by computational power; and the term "styles" confuses the learning process.

Evidence-based research * lacks support for this hypothesis and indicates that the teaching style fits better with certain types of learning content rather than to the particular personal style preferences of learners. This may be hard to swallow, because it seems to stray from the central notion of student-centered learning: learner needs direct what appears best. Nevertheless, learners deserve multi-modal approaches where teaching style matches learning content. One key reason for this is that students need to experience all ways of learning, because learning experiences aren't always going to come the way they want in life and they had best learn to adapt.

Second, the Learning Pyramid addresses retention of information as a function of learning activity. It suggests that active forms (talking/doing) are more effective than passive forms (looking/listening) at enabling learners to retain data. Therefore, this model recommends teachers use increasingly experiential methods in order to maximize learning.  The percentages and order makes good intuitive sense, making the model highly attractive to most educators.  Unfortunately, it has no basis in evidence-based research.  The often cited source, NTL or the National Training Labs, has repeatedly stated that they can’t find any research that was used to create the percentages used back in 1949. Dale's 1954 "Cone of Experience" for audiovisual media may have been based on NTL's Pyramid of Learning. In 1967, percentages for this were incorrectly attached by a well meaning Treichler who penned a story on the cone. His source for these numbers is unknown, but speculations range from the US Army, through University of Texas Extension, to the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (now ExxonMobil).

For all modern versions, the problem lies in the incorrect conflation of retention (recalling stored information) with learning (a change in feeling, thinking, and/or behavior).  I come from the school of thought that sees learning as more than merely memorizing the facts.  Measuring learning through tests of retained knowledge is probably a contributing factor to the misrepresentation of these two.  We have no knowledge of what material was recalled, how or when it was tested, subjects’ ages, instructions received, or prior familiarity with facts memorized.

Again, evidence-based research † lacks support for this hypothesis and indicates that degrees of experientiality fit better with certain types of learning content rather than remembering facts. Once more, this may taste disagreeable, but many examples make common sense. Mastery of surgery cannot be attained solely by passive methods (reading/lecturing) and frostbite injury doesn't have to be actively experienced in order to learn the importance of avoiding it. Regardless, learners deserve multi-modal approaches where degree of experientiality matches learning content. For the second time, one key reason for this is that students need to experience all ways of learning, because learning experiences aren't always going to come the way they want in life and they had best learn to adapt.

Last, I am not suggesting we abandon these models in educational practices, but merely that we see them as guiding ideas and not absolute rules.  Every learning situation is unique and no single simplified model or theory fits the complexities of learning.  Therefore, these two should be cautiously considered when teaching and not applied without critique according to the situation. We should avoid "pigeonholing" our students, since they are all different. They differ in their learning interests, backgrounds, favorites, capacities, and disabilities. One size of teaching does not fit everyone. They may have specific sensory preferences, but no research indicates that catering to each will enhance learning. The best answer is to teach with plurality: use multiple methods to repeat the same theory or concept and engage sequential experiences toward innovating and learning best practice. Let's vary our teaching to suit the content of the learning, as well as our differing students.

  1. Allcock, S. J., & Hulme, J. A. (2010). Learning styles in the classroom: Educational benefit or planning exercise? Psychology Teaching Review16(2), 67-79.
  2. Bishka, A. (2010). Learning styles fray: Brilliant or batty? Performance Improvement, 49(10), 9-13.
  3. Fridley, W. L., & Fridley, C. A. (2010). Some problems & peculiarities with the learning styles rhetoric and practice. Journal of Philosophy & History of Education, 60, 21-27.
  4. Kirshner, P. A. & van Merrienboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169-183.
  5. Martin, S. (2010). Teachers using learning styles: Torn between research and accountability? Teaching and Teacher Education26(8), 1583-1591.
  6. Mayer, R. E. (2011). Does styles research have useful implications for educational practice? Learning & Individual Differences, 21(3), 319-320.
  7. Norman, G. (2009). When will learning style go out of style? Advances in Health Sciences Education14(1), 1-4.
  8. Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.
  9. Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change, 42(5), 32-35.
  10. Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education46(7), 634-635.
  11. Scott, C. (2010). The enduring appeal of “learning styles”. Australian Journal of Education, 54(1), 5-17.
  1. Bruner, J.S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  2. Dale, E. (1954) Audio-visual methods in teaching, revised edition. New York: Holt-Dryden Book.
  3. Dwyer, F.M. (1978) Strategies for Improving Visual Learning. State College, PA: Learning Services.
  4. Hoban, C.F., Hoban, C.F., Jr., &Zisman, S.B. (1937) Visualizing the curriculum. New York: The Cordon Company.
  5. Lalley, J. & R. Miller (2007). “The learning pyramid: Does it point teachers in the right direction?” Education and Information Technologies 128(1): 64-79.
  6. Metiri Group (2008). Multimodal learning through media: What the research says, Cisco Systems: 24.
  7. Saettler, P. (1990) The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
  8. Subramony, D.P. (in press). Dale’s cone revisited: Critically examining the misapplication of a nebulous theory to guide practice. Educational Technology 43.
  9. Treichler, D.G. (1967) Are you missing the boat in training aids? Film and Audio-Visual Communications 1: 14-16.



CURRICULA LIFECYCLE: In 2006, I used this diagram to explain to my instructional developers, how I wanted to keep curriculum current with an annual process. It is simply two phases with nine steps as shown (Design and Delivery are part of a greater 5D sequence, see Program Evaluation).



EVALUATION THROUGHOUT ADDIE: ADDIE is a well known sequence for creating individual courses within a curriculum (and sometime the whole curriculum like a progressive series of connected gears). In ADDIE, one Analyses, Designs, Develops, Implements and Evaluates each course. As a data-driven administrator, I was always concerned that evaluation was left to the end of the sequence, when I believed it should be integrated throughout the five steps. Since the original authors meant for evaluation to improve the course, I changed the sequence to ADDII and replaced the evaluation step with improvement (2007). Then, I applied evaluation to all of the five ADDII steps as shown. Take a look at the five kinds of Program Evaluation to understand each and its role in the sequence.



TEAM-BASED LEARNING: As a Dean responsible for business courses, I had to defend our use of team-based learning (TBL): a group of people working together to solve a problem or complete a project (while also maintaining healthy relationships to move from being a group to becoming a team). The biggest criticisms levelled by fellow academics toward TBL were the inability to assess individual contributions within the whole collective and the relative ease by which some members could hide and “loaf-off” by doing less then their fair share, while comfortable in the knowledge that other members would pick up their slack. For these reasons, my colleagues had attempted and subsequently dismissed TBL as a viable form of teaching and learning.

In response, I agreed that their valid criticisms resonated with me and shared that I had held similar concerns at one time. However, I explained that we had eliminated those concerns by not just measuring a single dimension of TBL, but evaluating all three dimensions: the process used, the product generated, and the lesson or learning objectives gained. For additional information see the Six Kinds of Knowledge Content for Assessment.

I clarified that we knew any learner excelling on one dimensions might not necessarily understand anything about the other two, so we were careful to check all three. Since we evaluated these dimensions of TBL, we were able to get a better handle on individual contributions. Since we used technology, we could see who was loafing-off and who was picking up the slack. I added that we also included reflective discussions and a component of peer grading by members to enhance assessment.

This worked and some of the detractors even began including TBL in their courses. This got us thinking that we should consider whether the same approach to assessment would work with groups or teams that were cooperative or collaborative and with those that worked together in face-to-face or technology settings. After protracted study we failed to find any differences and decided that our assessment approach was robust enough for all circumstances, but we also found the following.

TBL methods can be cooperative or collaborative, but I think the role of a facilitator is most necessary with the latter approach. Cooperation is useful for project completion or problem solving. It means members share information or resources and function independently to combine their individual work into a collective effort. It is the most appropriate method for most standard course assignments. However, in capstone courses or in competitive challenges, co-creative ideation is necessary to improve an existing “thing” or to invent a new “thing” and this is where collaboration shines. Collaboration leads to creative idea generation. It means members share everything (unconditionally, including mutual assistance) and work together to combine their efforts into a synergistic outcome. I used to explain the difference with a little story: you collaborate with your colleagues to create something innovative, but you cooperate with the police to avoid something consequential!

Like other forms of education, TBL can be moderated in face-to-face or technology settings. Due to the anonymity afforded by technology, online members tend to generate and share more ideas, but engage more equally than face-to-face members. I believe this is due to the added introversion of public speaking. When a few members dominate the process in face-to-face settings, this tends to inhibit others (even some of the extroverts) from speaking up and joining in. All of this suggests that moving from the classroom to the online environment demands that we pay extra attention to the interpersonal dynamics.



SIX KINDS OF KNOWLEDGE CONTENT FOR ASSESSMENT: This colour wheel lists the six kinds of knowledge content that can be assessed in most learning situations. Each kind has its definition and an example. Whereas most assessment lists have 3 or 4 kinds of knowledge, I believe adding Contextual and Quality to the mix is valid.



ACADEMIC LEVELS OF LEARNING: In 2005, I envisioned four academic levels detailing a progression from standardized curriculum with lessons, through a flexible/adaptive curriculum using problem-based training and a custom tailored curriculum using project-based learning, to an open curriculum conducting evidence-based research and design. This transition was aimed at shifting thinking from convergent with one right answer, through divergent with multiple answers and critical with critiqued change, to creative with imagination and innovation. This was supported by faculty who shifted their teaching approaches accordingly.



ACADEMIC DEGREES OF DIFFERENCE: Over my years as an academic administrator, I have had to differentiate among the four academic degrees, especially when developing new programs or rationalizing existing ones. Here is a brief summary of comparative distinguishing factors that address interaction with: theory & practice, research, skills for dealing with people/data/self/ideas, breadth & depth of comprehension, and learning emphasis.



VISION, MISSION, VALUES & MOTIVATION: I facilitated a one-day (afternoon and morning) Appreciative Inquiry process with all 60 staff at the Learning and Teaching Center for BCIT to develop these four statements. It was a group effort with 100% engagement and their results were impressive.



CUSTOMER SERVICE: This poster was developed by our Customer Service Task Force to partially address an extensive list of 100 customer concerns. Thanks to Barbara Davis and her team for leading the charge.



PROJECT MANAGEMENT: This poster was created by our Project Management Task Force to streamline a new process of classroom/online course development & curricula review. Kudos to Brian Hosier for driving the bus.

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