A Fantastic View Of Human Learning

In 2008, I opted to call my education consultancy Fantastic Learning Systems. Phrases like “That’s a fantastic result”! and “Fantastic work!” trumpet high praise for students in our classrooms. So, I thought, why don’t I use the phrase to focus on what is known about the best ways of human learning? But a lot has changed in thirteen years. The first thing I’d do today is ask an audience of curriculum makers, what do you think? Do you see any sense of aiming for the fantastic as a creator of learning experiences?

May I invite you to talk about creating a sense of the fantastic in your curriculum designs? Even whether or not it’s at all relevant.

It is a vital part of my work. Here’s just a small example of what I mean.

When I first viewed the Wearable Art creations some twenty years ago, they became for me some of the best resources for teaching thinking skills to my students. The practice of wearing ‘art’ pushed me to think through drawing up conceptual categories with them.

We tussled about the known and the unknown. How metaphors are realised. How human experiences move us from being artistic, scientific, indeed, into many fields of knowledge. In short, our discussions were fantastic!

Do my ideas of fantastic learning resonate with you?

1. What do we know works best?

Like many curriculum developers, I’ve had my eyes opened in the last decade by many theories and practical applications of teaching and learning strategies.

The most well-known ones that have championed the idea of ‘what works best’ include for me: Visible Learning, New Pedagogies For Deep Learning, Positive Psychology, Growth Mindset, the Australian Council for Educational Research’s Learning Progressions, Design Thinking and the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation‘s  Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

I have also been a keen observer of how state education departments have come to focus on curriculum impact, such as Victoria has done through its HITS strategies. These bring together “10 instructional practices that reliably increase student learning when they’re applied.”

Furthermore, I’ve followed the impact of cognitive science research on curriculum development. For instance, I completed the Coursera MOOC Learning How To Learn. Impressively, the most popular course on the learning platform, its facilitators Professors Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski deliver an excellent experience of how to avoid cognitive load.

However, the ideas that have excited me the most have come from studies of creativity and philosophy such as from Harvard’s Project Zero; cognitive linguists and philosophers (e.g. George Lakoff, Mark Turner); embodied cognition by theatre and dance historians (e.g. Bruce McConachie, Nicola Shaughnessy) and through sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on organisational management.

What educational theories and practices excite you the most, why?

2. Curriculum in a knowledge economy

Of course, the curriculum approaches I’ve referred to are only the ‘tip’ of a very big iceberg. Firstly, because they are in themselves made up of dozens of related strategies and practices. Secondly, because they each live in ecosystems of government-funded, education system-specific and/or commercially available contexts.

Welcome, then, to life as a professional person in a knowledge economy!

In fact, I found accessing ‘what works best’ as a curriculum creator became synonymous with managing digital ecosystems. This, in turn, gave rise to me experiencing the effects of an ‘information tsunami‘.

GP Morgan Liotta recently pointed out, for instance, how an ‘information tsunami’ is affecting her work in immunising patients in the pandemic, now focused on the immunisation of children. She asks colleagues,

With so much information circulating, how can GPs best support parents with COVID-19 vaccine counselling for their children?
NEWSGP, August 19, 2021

Accordingly, Child and Young Person’s Health Chair, Dr James Best says the problem is already happening with the current adult vaccination rollout. There’s too much information and a lot of misinformation. Consequently, patients have lost trust in expert knowledge which, in turn, prevents them from making an informed decision. Ironic, isn’t it, in an Information Age?

However, a decade ago, the effect of information tsunamis were already being raised in business circles. The advice at the time was that they should set up information management strategies. Similarly, elearning designers were raising the problem of cognitive load within their industry.

Do the information tsunami and cognitive overload impact your curriculum work?

3. A fantastic age for curriculum creation?

Despite these challenges, fantastic, in my mind, is now an apt way to describe curriculum creation in a digital world. Interestingly, driven by the fact that the monetisation of knowledge no longer remains just the territory of software developers. It now also belongs to content strategists, user experience specialists, digital marketers, self-publishers and a score of new content creation professions.

Kristina Halvorsen’s ‘honeycomb diagram’ is an early demonstration of what was happening in her content strategy business, Brain Traffic. Just look at the complexity of what creatives considered important when communicating on the web!

Surely, no one doubts that digital disruption is redrawing ALL our professional roles!

As a result, as I see it, curriculum content creation is no longer just the domain of school, university and vocational training professionals. Instead, it’s potentially something you need to employ for running any online business. This is the journey I have gone on myself as formal areas of curriculum development moved away from ‘curriculum branches’ in education departments.

It is in that context that I call the KAJABI platform fantastic! On it, course creation and digital marketing sit side-by-side within a comprehensive ‘toolkit’ of webpages, customer relationship management tools and ‘pipeline’ automations.

What are you noticing are the biggest changes to the curriculum developer’s role because of digital disruption?

4. Dealing with the burden of a great potential

But curriculum creation is NOT just about producing content!

The following Peanuts cartoon took pride of place in the principal’s office of my first school (I was barely 21). I’ve used it over the years to focus on the fact that a child’s learning is inseparable from what a whole lot of adults believe and say about what he/she can/not do. That’s why I believe that if curriculum creators are to reinvent their importance in a digital age, they must become passionate about methods of recognition and reward. One such group that I know is doing just that is the Woodleigh Institute under the direction of Dr Richard Owen.

Richard and his team are bring together an impressive conference in November 2021, reimagining the pathways and possibilities for senior secondary education. Indeed, they show how curriculum makers are honour-bound to find and present the evidence of every young person’s fantastic achievements. That’s what a ‘curriculum framework’ should do after all, right? It should make intended outcomes transparent.

Along with this, we must also realise how it’s not formal curriculum policies alone that deliver the best of teaching or learning. At best, they are the outline that shapes our practice. The colour and vibrancy comes from our grit, rigour, resilience, perseverance, experimentation, inquiry and mastery, and these are just some of the terms associated with the best of human learning.

How do you hold together formal and informal aspects of your job to nurture what you do?

5. What is recognised?

In 2020/2021, I participated in Learning Creates Australia‘s National Social Lab looking at “solutions around new metrics and a better recognition system for a range of pathways beyond school”.

I believe that the project vitally highlights key problems in our current system. It brings together a significant group of people, nationally and globally, who are collectively saying that the curriculum needs to change.

Home Page For LCA’s First National Social Lab Project

It was inspirational for me to view how LCA produced its first major findings through the report, Recognition of learning success for all. Under Professor Sandra Milligan and her team at the University of Melbourne, the report brings together the work of schools, communities and Social Lab teams to summarised the existing case for change. In short, that

Key indicators and metrics are not improving, or are improving only slowly. Many young people are still not completing school. Standards of attainment in some core areas of learning are falling. Even for those who complete school, transition into a satisfying post-school pathways is often difficult and slow and not conducive to confidence.

Are you participating in projects that are looking to the future of learning and work?

6. What’s the opposite to fantastic?

Common antonyms to fantastic include adjectives like serious, common, conventional, plain, poor and small. You get the drift. No depiction of ‘larger-than-life’ qualities, or breaking open conventional approaches to size or standing.

So, today, I find myself asking could such a mindset be worse than outright failure? In my view, yes, because at least a sense of failure is part of building the resilience needed for success. However, to be capture by some limiting vision of human potential is death in the doldrums. (Read Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ trilogy of The Oresteia for the most brilliant descriptions of the Greek fleet, travelling to Troy, being caught in the doldrums and turning into rotting hulks)

An anecdote pops into my head from a talk to postgraduates by UWA’s Vice-Chancellor Fay Gale in 1990. I was just setting off on my doctoral adventures. In it, Professor Gale shared the story of how water-collecting receptacles found above limestone caves along the Great Australian Bight were not considered for decades by researchers as human-made creations.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128141243000923

Why? The European researchers refused to view the people living in the caves as capable of technology that could funnelled water from the surface to their dwelling places below. Rather, they were prepared to investigate how wind and water had produced them! Of course, the story plays into debates around the ‘pygmalion effect’ and other theories of ‘self-fulfilling’ prophesies. However, for Professor Gale, it best illustrated how cultural annihilation is most effectively realised by narrowing human learning, in ourselves as well as others.

What stories do you hold in you about how we diminish and demote human capacity in ourselves and others?

7. Curriculum for a common humanity

It is clear to me that curriculum makers are in a particularly powerful position today. We have technologies that make production and distribution cheap and fast. That means resources, learning events and timely connections can fly like never before.

However, what remains challenging are the ethical and political values that shape their use in our mission to bring together teaching and learning experiences. In turn, this impacts how we measure the effectiveness of those experiences through our documents, interactions and multimodal curriculum-based communications?

Speaking personally, doing ‘fantastic work’ can’t be anything other than accounting for the full scope of human potential. Holding up the Preamble of the United Nations Charter alongside my work from time to time, for instance, is a sobering thing to do.

Do you think the preamble is still relevant to life in the digital age?

The challenge has spurred me on to set up a LinkedIn discussion group on curriculum creation in the knowledge economy. If you’d like to share your thoughts and practices on your fantastic work, join me.

How Do You Combat Information Tsunamis And Other Changes To Creating Curriculum In A Knowledge Economy?


I’ve set up a closed LinkedIn group for curriculum creators.