Digital Leading and Learning · Education

A New Culture of Learning


I really enjoyed watching Douglas Thomas’s TED talk this week! He makes some extremely poignant remarks that have stuck with me as I cultivate my thoughts on Significant Learning Environments. He is spot on with his explanation of what learning really looks like: engaging passion, imagination, and constraint. In his explanation of imagination, he discusses the question, “what if” and how if people could just be allowed to ask that question they would learn so much more. I also connected to his example of engaging passion where the child is on the beach and staring, in wonder, at a unique tree made of all kinds of shapes and textures. I have a six month old baby and immediately thought of what he looks like when he’s learning. His eyes become wide, he smiles, he squeals, and eventually, he does something new, like laugh, roll over, sit up, mimic a sound that he can now make, etc. Those lightbulb moments are amazing. Those lightbulb moments are the reason I went into teaching, as Thomas explains during his talk (Thomas, TEDx, 2012).  I don’t get to see those lightbulb moments often with my students anymore.

It seems as though I am faced with more constraints (Thomas’s third aspect of learning) every year, and even though those constraints are supposed to make me more creative, sometimes they just make me tired. I am given a book (much like the teacher in Thomas’s story about Romeo and Juliet) and must ‘teach it’ but really I am given a set of eligible content from our Pennsylvania standardized testing and told the students must understand it and be able to apply it to any text, not just Romeo and Juliet. However, I DO believe that constraint does make us more creative. I am drawn to think about a monthly assignment that I give to my honors ninth grade students. Every month, they are to write a reflection (a two page paper) on a certain topic. Their only constraint is the VERY broad topic that I provide to them (love, hate, thankfulness, etc). They usually abhor the openness of the assignment and I usually just tell them, “you’ll think of something!” However, listening to Thomas’s architect analogy, I started to think about my assignment and how I could really help my students engage in their creativity by providing more constraints; perhaps I can give them a topic like love and tell them that they can write two pages about love but they can’t USE the word love. Imagine that! I can only think they’d be forced to muster those creative juices and come up with something beautiful. I feel hypocritical because in courses I’ve taken where the teacher has told me that there are few constraints because they want us have a free canvas and open choices, I’ve been extremely bored and frustrated, and here I am doing the same thing. Constraint is a TOOL that we can use to foster learning. Enlightening,  huh?

Thomas continues on to discuss how those three ideas of passion, imagination, and constraint really equal play (Thomas, TEDx, 2012). I don’t know if I love the term “play” but I do think it makes sense that in order to learn we must DO, and if we are playing, we are doing. I don’t think you can necessarily PLAY your way through life, but you can experience your way through life, and I am really inspired to figure out ways to help my students experience rather than memorize. It really is my job to create this context, this significant learning environment to help foster their creativity and learning. I just don’t know how to do that quite yet. CSLEs are the ideas of holistic and experiential learning (Harapnuik, 2015). I am intrigued by the idea but with all of my constraints, I hope to learn in this course how to make that happen. I immediately think of my curriculum: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, etc. How can my students experience these novels? They aren’t plays; we can’t act them out. We can’t travel back in time to the Great Depression; we can’t crash land on an island without grownups and see how we all survive. So what CAN we do? I know there is an answer; I want to find it.


Thomas, D. (2102, September 12). A New Culture of Learning. Douglas Thomas at TEDXUFM. Retrieved June 1, 2016 from

Harapnuik, D. (2015, May 8). Creating Significant Learning Environments (CSLE). Retrieved June 3, 2016, from https://youtu/be/eZ-c7rz7eT4




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