My goodness!  A lot has happened in the almost two years (!) since I started this blog, wrote a few entries, and realized that the time wasn’t quite right for the Next Step.  But times have changed!  One big step for me was to take the HarvardX MOOC called “Leaders of Learning” in the summer of 2014.  The culminating assignment for “Leaders of Learning” is to

Briefly describe your theory of learning and then present the design of your ideal learning environment. Be sure to consider the five human factors (physical, cognitive, social, cultural, and emotional) as you develop your design.

Since I tend toward the Distributed Collective theory of learning, with just a bit of Distributed Individual thrown in, this is what I wrote … and drew … and posted to the edX platform:

People learn best when the physical and emotional environment is designed to support and challenge them, when the learning environment and activities are a good fit for their personal theories of learning and other learning preferences.  There is no such thing as “the” perfect learning environment for every single learner!  But in an era when ever fewer learners seem to fit well into the hierarchical individual framework, 20th-century-model schools are an increasingly poor fit for more and more learners.  Doing the “same old same old,” but with greater rigor and higher stakes, is unlikely to make things better and almost certain to make things worse.  Now that I have the terminology (distributed collective with a touch of distributed individual) and the framework to describe my own preferred learning environment, it is much easier for me to be specific about what an ideal learning environment looks like for me. Since schools tend to be hierarchical individual in structure and orientation, I can also see why so many school-averse learners over the years have gravitated to learning environments I have created; why students my colleagues described as “perfect little angels” tended not to want to take classes from me; and why I am an increasingly poor fit for those hierarchical individual learning environments as they grow ever more hierarchical and ever more individually focused under stress from their own external funding and regulatory hierarchies.

Several years ago, in a short article I wrote for my friends at Dream School Commons, I described the physical appearance my ideal learning environment this way:

Picture an old house, an old abandoned church, an old commercial building in a small town — something with lots of different kinds of spaces in it. If I made the choice, it would be a building from before the factory model became omnipresent, but actually an old textile mill would work well and would have the added irony of repurposing a factory for a post-factory world. In this space, there are comfortable, individual work stations for about 150 learners, as well as some conference tables or small-group meeting areas and a central area for presentations and whole-school meetings. (A larger school would be divided into “houses” or some such terminology, with no more than 150 per “house” — I take Dunbar’s number pretty seriously.) With these 150 learners, there are about 10-15 adults: a few master teachers, some apprentice teachers, and (depending on the community) a business manager, a receptionist, maybe a cook. Outside, there’s sufficient parking for everyone who drives, and there’s a community garden that’s tended by the learners, the teachers, family members, and other members of the learning community. Nearby, there are other old buildings owned by the learning community — some are already in use as housing or retail space, some are being rebuilt by community members, and a few might be awaiting their eventual rehab and repurposing.


Earlier this year, I refined that physical description and went into more detail about the process of teaching and learning in such an environment with this sample website, which I built for the “New School Creation” MOOC offered by High Tech High and the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Education in the Spring of 2014.

That’s still an attractive vision to me today, but a formal “school replacement” is not where I want to focus my attention.  Instead, I am very interested in creating a network of informal “third places” for young people in the economically deprived region along the Interstate 95 corridor on the North Carolina – South Carolina border.  For those who are still in school, the Three Column Network will be a safe, welcoming place to spend time in the afternoons and early evenings; for the many young people in the region who have dropped out of school and are unemployed, we will also provide a welcoming place to spend daytime hours and to reconnect with themselves as learners, with their own interests and passions, and with the many unmet needs of the small towns where they live.  I still want to use old houses and old commercial buildings, but I want them to feel even more like excellent locally-owned coffee shops and even less like schools than what I described years ago.  Picture that same open space, with comfortable chairs and sofas and a few tables scattered about.  Add free WiFi, some possibly old, but still usable computers and tablets, perhaps a 3-D printer, some craft supplies, a bookcase or two, and perhaps the extensive collection of Rokenbok building materials and vehicles that my children and I have accumulated over the years.  Relatively healthy food and drinks will certainly be available; I’m intrigued by the Sodastream machine, which turns juice and water into (somewhat) healthy carbonated beverages, and I envision coffee and a kitchen area where the produce from that community garden is transformed into various nutritious snacks and meals.  The illustration shows a typical first floor plan for a large early-twentieth-century house in our target area with its parlors, dining room, foyer, and first-floor bedroom repurposed into the kinds of spaces that a Three Column Network center will need.

JMS Learning Environment

Such an environment encourages a cognitive environment of distributed collective and distributed individual learning.  Some participants will “just” want to hang out with their friends, building the kinds of social ties that are impossible to build or maintain in today’s test-focused, “eyes on your own paper,” high-stakes hierarchical individual schools, especially the ones that are “under the gun” for chronically low test scores.    Others will want to work by themselves on topics of personal interest, using those old-but-serviceable computers, the 3-D printer, the craft supplies, or the contents of the bookshelves.  Still others will want to get help with homework assignments from school, and others will be available to give help … and in the course of those conversations, collaborative projects for helping others with similar issues will “just happen” to emerge as staff members “just happen” to ask a guiding question at an opportune moment.  Other collaborations will emerge as participants work together in the garden or the kitchen; as they wash the dishes or concoct a new healthy soda flavor togther; and as they work on crafts or on redesigning or “just” playing with the Rokenbok area.  As Learning Guide, I will sometimes be actively involved in these conversations; at other times, I’ll be working with online participants in some of my other distributed collective learning projects, which our face-to-face participants will be welcome to join if they wish.

Picture a social atmosphere of safety, a comfortable place without the test-score pressure that has become so pervasive in hierarchical individual quadrant schools.  Some participants may be ready to pursue their own interests and passions right away; others may need weeks or months of “deschooling” first.  But eventually, with some gentle encouragement from the Learning Guides and fellow participants, everyone will probably feel safe and begin to be curious about a large poster or mural, one that doesn’t yet exist but will be designed, created, and maintained by community members.  It will somehow show the “three columns” that give our organization its name: the personal journey of self-discovery (Who am I as a person and a learner?), the connection of personal passions, strengths, and interests with areas of curiosity or relative weakness (What do I love? Where do I want to improve?), and the process of building something to help others (What are the possibilities disguised as problems? What can we do together?).  Surrounding it, eventually, will be pictures and artifacts that document things that we, the joyful learning community, actually built together to meet community needs … everything from that first community garden (and meals that we serve to needy or elderly community members) to social ventures developed by current or former members.

Culturally, Three Column Centers will build on the seemingly contradictory values of self-reliance and community that form the very roots of identity in small towns in the rural South across all different ethnic and socioeconomic groups.  In fact, those two seemingly contradictory values are deeply interconnected: the community itself is the soil in which the self-reliance and independence grow and flourish.  In other words, for all the talk of hierarchy and individualism, the rural South is actually a distributed individual to distributed collective environment in many important aspects.  As such, the look and feel of Three Column Network learning centers will appeal to something deep-seated and hard to verbalize in our partner communities. (This paragraph went through six or seven drafts! Even for me, after years of reflection, it was hard to verbalize the deep-seated connection between self-reliance and community.)  In towns where residential segregation is still a de facto reality, we will aim for “neutral” sites on or near the “color line” borders, giving preference to historic structures that have positive associations for all different ethnic groups involved.  Within that historic structure, the physical atmosphere described above will be very deliberately designed, and successively redesigned by the ethnically and socioeconomically diverse joyful learning communities formed in those spaces, to be appealing and welcoming to members of all different demographic groups without “belonging” exclusively to any one group.

As a result of these factors, the emotional atmosphere of a Three Column Network learning center will be safe, welcoming, and supportive for every member, but will aim to provide just a bit of challenge and constructive discomfort for everyone, too.  That is a difficult balance to achieve, and we certainly will not be able to achieve it for everyone all the time!  But with a strong culture of communication and collaboration, we will be able to work through the inevitable challenges and difficulties and emerge as a stronger, more cohesive community.  The process of building social norms for ourselves, along with the related processes and experiences of “building meaningful things together,” will make us stronger and closer in the end.

I am truly excited to think of what we will accomplish in the next few months and years!