Digital Leading and Learning · Education · Lessons and Materials · Technology in Education

Creating a Significant Learning Environment

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 light bulb moments are amazing. Those light bulb moments are the reason I went into teaching, as Thomas explains during his talk (Thomas, TEDx, 2012).  I don’t get to see those light bulb 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. Constraint is a TOOL that we can use to foster learning.

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.

I’d like to begin exploring all of this with Douglas and Brown’s idea of tacit knowledge (Brown & Douglas, 2011). Tacit knowledge is when you know something but can’t necessarily explain it to someone else. Tacit knowledge cannot be taught to someone; a teacher cannot provide a student with tacit knowledge. The example in A New Culture of Learning  is the police sketch artist and his clients; they can tell the artist piece by piece what they remember, and the artist puts it all together. However, the client cannot explain in one whole idea what the person looks like (2011) I want to begin creating my Significant Learning Environment by focusing on this idea. I know I have to teach books, and I have to teach ideas from books, and thematic concepts, and all the grammatical structures of those books. However, what about those ideas are really important or relevant anymore? I need to begin by thinking about what tacit knowledge a student will take on from reading these books. A couple years ago I had an idea that I think I am going to run with next year. It all started when I realized that kids are just not connecting to reading anymore; there isn’t enough instant gratification anymore because of their shortened attention spans and the difficulty to please them, and they are frustrated when they can’t figure out why we are doing something in class.

Next year, I am going to surround all of our units on this simple idea that I have created called: POW. It stands for People, Ourselves, and World. I want the students to know that my class’s primary purpose is to help them better understand those three concepts. Every single day, I want them to walk out of the room having learned (either explicitly or tacitly) about one of those areas. One roadblock I might encounter is that it is different! Brown and Douglas discuss that people are not naturally programed to embrace change, but that it is important to do so! (2011). Students might yearn for something concrete- a study guide with comprehension questions on it, a quiz to prove they read the book, etc. However, if I embrace my POW model, those items will be entirely irrelevant anymore. I already avoid those kinds of assessments now, but I would be most likely completely eliminating them from my educational repertoire. Brown and Douglas explain that change is important because it forces us to learn in different ways, as well as it becomes an agent of motivation (2011). I think eventually, my students will be more motivated to come to class and practice this tacit learning because it will be more relevant to them. They will see that every single day they are learning something completely useful in my class about themselves, the people around them, or the world. In fact, the more I write about this, the more I am annoyed with myself for not using this model yet. What has been stopping me?

I suppose the most challenging road blocks will be abandoning hope that I will be able to align every lesson with the Keystone Eligible Content (the state standards we are responsible for in ninth and tenth grade English in Pennsylvania). I teach honors classes, so I just have to trust they will already be able to pass this annoying test and that I can focus on bigger and better things in my lessons. I don’t really get observed anymore, in my ninth year of teaching over here, and we don’t have to turn in lesson plans, so really, this will probably be a bit rebellious of me. I will be teaching them outside of our curriculum and most likely no one will even know, other than the colleagues I collaborate with closely who teach the same courses as me. This is where my courage will come in to stick to what I believe is useful (significant) learning for my students.

Because administration will not be on board about this, I don’t really think it will have an impact on my organization. I can’t go around shouting it out to the world that I am changing what I am teaching and how, so to be honest, I don’t think my organization will have any clue that it is even happening. My students’ parents are very involved, but with my experience, they are involved to make sure their students are being successful (earning high grades) so as long as my fairness in my assessments is maintained, I don’t expect any pushback from parents. I even think that parents might be my way into the administration team’s hearts. Their positive feedback from their children who will (hopefully) be going home to talk about how much they are learning from and enjoying their English class can carry over and maybe once the test scores come in and they were STILL as successful as they always are, the admin team may be able to start thinking a bit more holistically. I’m not sure if my perspective is broad enough to become a foundational perspective just yet; I suppose I will have to wait and see.

If my new significant learning environment embraces my POW model, it would run seamlessly with my ePortfolio innovation plan from 5305. In fact, it would be the perfect place for students to reflect on those three ideas every day or week. That can even be where I assess them formatively to make sure they really are embracing the model and taking something valuable away from it. For example: If we are reading Lord of the Flies and I run my English Island activity (an activity where my students must complete a series of challenging tasks without my help and I sit back and observe) the students can reflect on their experience on their ePortfolios to discuss what they learned about themselves, the people around them, and the world from that activity. Usually, I just have a quick five minute discussion at the start of class the next day to laugh at all the ridiculous things that occurred when the students didn’t have any direction from me, but imagine if all the students needed to reflect using the POW model and then collaborate and communicate together through their ePortfolios. The activity would then become an agent of tacit learning where they really learn something rather than “that fun activity where we ran around like crazies that day.” I am actually excited to finally embrace an idea I had a few summers ago but was too scared, lazy, or indifferent to enact.


Brown, S.  & Thomas, D., & (2011). A new culture of learning: cultivating the imagination

for a world of constant change [Kindle].

Harapnuik, D. (2015, May 8). Creating Significant Learning Environments (CSLE).

Retrieved June 3, 2016, from https://youtu/be/eZ-c7rz7eT4

Thomas, D. (2102, September 12). A New Culture of Learning. Douglas Thomas at

TEDXUFM. Retrieved June 1, 2016 from





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