Doctoral Work

Blog Post: Activity Theory

Activity theory, which built on the work of Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leont’ev, and Sergei Rubinstein, is a framework that can be used to think about the parts of a system and how they work together to achieve an outcome (Engeström, 2001, p.134).

art credit: Catlin Tucker

The graphic above, based on Engeström’s work, identifies specific parts of a system.

  • Tools include physical items, symbols, language, and signs.
  • Subject refers to the person or people being studied
  • Rule includes the laws, norms, expectations, customs, etc.
  • Community is the collection of stakeholders who share knowledge, interests, and goals.
  • Division of labor refers to the way that work, activity, and responsibility are divided.
  • Object includes the immediate goal or goals
  • Outcome is the long-term goal or desired end product (Yoon, Ham & Yoon, 2016).

Activity systems are dynamic and the goal is to understand how the parts of the system impact each other. By looking at the system as a whole, it is easier to identify where issues are located within the system.

In my work as a blended learning coach and professional development facilitator, I am often frustrated when I meet educators with access to technology but choose not to use it. I have worked with teachers who have a Chromebook cart sitting in their rooms, but they do not open them regularly because they view technology as a headache. If I approach this situation using an activity theory framework, I might see that the actual challenges are localized in the community. Perhaps specific stakeholders, like students or parents, have an objection to using technology in the classroom. Perhaps the subject, or teacher in this scenario, lacks confidence using the tools at hand because they have not received support or training. By thinking about a problem using this framework, it is easier to identify where the actual challenges exist. Once pinpointed, they can be addressed or targeted.

In his article, Engeström (2001) describes the three generations of activity theory to demonstrate how this framework has evolved. Initially, Vygotsky presented the ideas of a triangle composed of a stimuli, response, and “mediated act” (p. 134). This first generation of activity theory focused on the individual.

Leont’ev built on Vygotsky’s work and expanded the focus from the individual to the collective. The basic triangle had to be expanded to include the complex interconnectedness of the individual to his/her community. Communities are composed of stakeholders, adhere to specific rules, and tend to adopt specific approaches to divisions of labor, all of which impact the individual (Engeström, 2001, p.135).

The third generation of activity theory goes even further to explore “boundary crossing” and the development of conceptual tools, multiple perspectives, and the interactions between various networks of activity (Engeström, 2001, p.135-136).

As increasingly complex systems and networks emerge that connect people across space and time, activity theory presents a framework to guide the way we think through the challenges that emerge within these systems.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

Yoon, Y. S., Ham, D. H., & Yoon, W. C. (2016). Application of activity theory to analysis of human-related accidents: method and case studies. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 150, 22-34.

Blog Post: The Power of Metaphors: Body of Knowledge vs. Landscape of Practice

Authored by: Catlin Tucker

The way we use language to define or describe a thing can impact the way we think about that particular thing. In “Learning in a landscape of practice: a framework,” Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, they prefer the phrase landscape of practice to a body of knowledge. The difference between these two descriptions is that the word “landscape” connotes something expansive and alive.

As social learning theorists, they equate the idea of a body of knowledge with a community of people who contribute to the continued vitality, application, and evolution of the practice (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p.2). Instead of a single community of practice, the landscape of practice is composed of many different communities of practice. The interactions and overlapping boundaries between the communities of practice function to add to a growing collection of shared knowledge.

To extend the metaphor, Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner point out that a landscape is:

  • Political involving power dynamics of practice
  • Flat and has a local component
  • Diverse requiring the negotiation of boundaries (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p. 4-7).

Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner differentiate between competence and knowledgeability. They define competences as “the dimension of knowing negotiated and defined within a single community of practice,” whereas “knowledgeability manifests in a person’s relations to a multiplicity of practices across the landscape” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p. 2). This distinction is increasingly important given how easy technology has made it for communities of practice to form online. People come together across space and time using myriad tools to store and build knowledge.

Participation in a community of practice pushes people, regardless of their profession, to continue learning and growing. Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner emphasize this point when they state that “connection, engagement, status, and legitimacy

in that community are all part of what makes someone a trustworthy practitioner” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p. 3). No profession or field is static, which is why it is crucial that people engage with a community to stay on top of new developments, techniques, and ideas.

As a professional development facilitator and blended learning coach, who regularly works with teachers, I am always stunned when I meet a teacher who is not using social media to connect with and learn from other teachers. Even if a teacher does not want to invest significant time into Twitter or LinkedIn, there is value in being a peripheral participant who reads what others post, connect with individuals within their domain of interest, and think about the ideas generated by these people. Without this exposure to new ideas within a given domain, it is easy to stop learning, experimenting, and growing.

In the context of the landscape metaphor, educators who are not connected and do not participate in a community of practice have stalled on their journey through the landscape of practice (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p. 8). This could create a lack of credibility because participation in a community of practice is crucial to legitimizing a professional’s ongoing expertise.

The landscape metaphor seems an appropriate metaphor for knowledge. Within in landscape are many ecosystems working in harmony to promote growth just as a body of knowledge benefits from multiple communities of practice within a domain working in tandem.

Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner (2015). Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Blog Post: Zone of Proximal Development

Authored by: Tim Seavey

Defining ZPD:

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is based on the work of the Russian psychologist and philosopher L.S. Vygotsky. In his work studying children as they develop and learn, he theorized that people learn on two planes–the social and psychological plane (Wertsch, J. V., & Tulviste, P., 1992). In essence, learning and knowledge are developed paradoxically through our interactions socially and our own constructivist thinking, or internal processes. As educators, we must understand how we can utilize this thinking in the classroom to improve instructional design. One way to achieve this is by using the Zone of Proximal Development, an idea Vygotsky developed based on his findings about how people learn.

In Vygotsky’s writings, he identifies the Zone of Proximal Development as the distance between a person’s level of independent problem solving (what they can do on their own) and their level potential development (what they can do with the help from an instructor) (Fernández, Wegerif, Mercer, & Rojas-Drummond, 2001; Welk, 2006; Wertsch, & Tulviste, 1992). This approach falls squarely in the social constructivism paradigm of educational theories.

Vygotsky advocates that to be effective, the instructor must first assess the individual’s capabilities or current ability level, then create tasks that are beyond their level but still achievable with the instructor’s assistance (Fernández, Wegerif, Mercer, & Rojas-Drummond, 2001; Wass, & Golding, 2014).

The strategy used by the instructor to assist a student in the tasks that are beyond them was termed “scaffolding” by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) who introduced the notion that an expert can support a learner’s progress through a relatively difficult task by providing support structures to help the learner become more proficient. (Colter, & Ulatowski, 2017; Fernández, Wegerif, Mercer, & Rojas-Drummond, 2001; Wass, & Golding, 2014)

Art credit: Catlin Tucker


Applying ZPD in the Classroom:

Applying the ZPD in the classroom can be an effective exercise in social constructivism that is aimed at engaging students in activities that are too difficult to perform independently (Macy, L., 2016).

  • Teachers should assign tasks that allow students to work within their ZPD with some guidance from the instructor. This stresses the importance of assessing the student prior to assigning the task. (Colter, Ulatowski, 2017; Wass & Golding, 2014)
  • Teachers should provide assistance to the student so that they can solve the challenge independently (Wass & Golding, 2014)
  • Teachers should push instruction giving learners the hardest task they can do with scaffolding to the outer level of potential within the student’s ZPD for maximum potential (Wass & Golding, 2014; Wertsch, & Tulviste, 1992).
  • Teachers should create an environment that is conducive for student learning (Wass & Golding, 2014)


Colter, R., & Ulatowski, J. (2017). The Unexamined Student Is Not Worth Teaching: Preparation, the Zone of Proximal Development, and the Socratic Model of Scaffolded Learning. Educational Philosophy And Theory, 49(14), 1367-1380.

Fernández, M., Wegerif, R., Mercer, N., & Rojas-Drummond, S. (2001). Re-conceptualizing” scaffolding” and the zone of proximal development in the context of symmetrical collaborative learning. The journal of classroom interaction, 40-54.

Macy, L. (2016). Bridging Pedagogies: Drama, Multiliteracies, and the Zone of Proximal Development. Educational Forum, 80(3), 310-323.

Wass, R., & Golding, C. (2014). Sharpening a tool for teaching: the zone of proximal development. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 671-684.

Welk, D. S. (2006). The Trainer’s Application of Vygotsky’s” Zone of Proximal Development” to Asynchronous Online Training of Faculty Facilitators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9(4), n4.

Wertsch, J. V., & Tulviste, P. (1992). LS Vygotsky and contemporary developmental psychology. Developmental psychology, 28(4), 548.


Blog Post: TPACK Framework

Authored by: Tim Seavey

Content experts are not always experts in instruction. This is evident in higher education where it is common practice to take the best practitioners in the field and ask them to teach. However, their expertise in their particular field does not mean they understand quality instructional methods or have theoretical training.

The Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework(TPACK) describes the convergence of content expertise and technological pedagogy. It’s the combination of experience, teaching methodology, and technology.

The TPACK framework stems from the PACK framework, which states that instructors must be competent in both the content knowledge and instructional design. However, in today’s technology-rich environment, students expect to learn using technology.

(Koehler, M., 2018,

Technological expertise does not mean an instructor to be the expert on every piece of technology. Technological expertise should be based on self-efficacy in learning or using new technologies (Moe & Polin, 2015). It is more important for educators to be comfortable experimenting with technology than knowing about every technology tool available. This technological expertise will help them to navigate the landscape of rapidly changing technology tools.

As an online instructor, I experience varying levels of self-efficacy with my faculty as it relates to technology. My colleagues frequently call on me to assist them with technology related tasks. Most of the time, they are afraid to push a button. Quite often, I don’t know the technical solution. However, I am not afraid to try and figure it out or research (YouTube and Google are my friends) the best solution. This does not make me any more of an expert in technology than my colleagues. It does, however, mean that I have a higher level of self-efficacy when it comes to using technology and that is key to TPACK.


Blog Post: Project-Based Learning, Cognitive Load, and Social Learning  

Authored by: Tim Seavey & Catlin Tucker

PBL, based on constructivism, is a minimally guided instructional technique that allows students ask questions, generate theories, and apply knowledge and skills to generate solutions around a phenomenon or driving question (Strobel & Barneveld, 2009; Krajcik & Blumenfeld 2006; Schmidt, Loyens, Gog, and Paas, 2006).

The main features of PBL include:

  • Driving question
  • Situated inquiry
  • Collaboration and social learning
  • Strategic use of technology tools and online resources
  • Creation of artifacts

PBL and Cognitive Load

Learners, especially novice learners, can easily exhaust their cognitive capacity on activities that do not foster learning. Cognitive load theory discusses three types of demands that can be placed on the learner. Intrinsic cognitive load is defined as “the cognitive demands that are inherent to what you are learning—such as the working memory you need in order to juggle the different pieces of information you’ve been given during a learning activity. Extraneous cognitive load refers to the cognitive demands of navigating instructions and the information to be learned—that is, dealing with the instructional procedures and materials themselves. Lastly, germane cognitive load refers to the working-memory resources needed to acquire new information” (Miller, 2014, p.83). The primary concern with cognitive load is extraneous cognitive load, which can frustrate learners and become a barrier to learning.

Antagonists of PBL argue that PBL is too unorganized and lacks the necessary teacher guidance. As a result, this lack of structure places a cognitive strain on the learner. However, proponents of  PBL argue that using scaffolding techniques to introduce a procedure, tracking the ways in which students work with problems in the classroom, and building into the driving question can reduce this strain and maximize the benefits of PBL.

PBL and Social Learning

Just as the cognitive load can be intense when students are engaged in PBL, the social learning component can also present both benefits and challenges. As identified above, the social learning component encourages students to use one another as valuable resources during the PBL process. They can learn from each other’s previous experience and perspectives. They can share the workload and work collaboratively to create artifacts that are more meaningful.

On the flip side, social learning demands that students negotiate with their peers and possess soft skills required to successfully work with one another. It is common for students to become frustrated, angry, or disillusioned with a project when there is friction among the team members. To address this potential challenge, teachers must explicitely support the development of soft skills. It is also helpful to facilitate regular team “check-ins” to find out how the group is progressing and troubleshoot any issues before they become big barriers that impede progress or learning.


Blog Post: Beyond Technocentrism: Supporting Constructionism in the Classroom

As I read Karen Brennen’s article “Beyond Technocentrism: Supporting Constructionism in the Classroom,” I was reminded of something I always say when working with teachers. “It isn’t about the technology. The technology is just a vehicle.” Too often conversations about using technology in the classroom or the relationship between learning and technology are focused entirely on the device, technology tool, or an online program. In Brennen’s article, she points out that the focus should be on learning “through the technology” not just with technology (p.289). Without making this shift from learning with technology to learning through technology, it is impossible to escape a technocentrism.

Technology should not be a shiny add-on in education. It needs to be woven into the everyday work students do in a meaningful way. It should allow for tasks that were not possible prior to the introduction of technology. In our conversation about the week’s reading, Tim and I both shared our concerns about the fact that technology is often used to replace traditional teaching tools (Smartboard instead of a whiteboard) or learning tools (computers with word processing instead of pen and paper). These substitutions are not transformative and do not encourage students to collaborate and create using technology.

Brennen encourages educators to think about technology in relation to learning theory. She goes on to say that Constructionism is a learning theory that “focuses on the significance of culture in learning, while simultaneously offering a meaningful role for technology in learning” (p.290). Constructionism is an extension of Piaget’s constructivist theory because it believes that students do not just get “knowledge” or ideas from teachers, but rather create their ideas by actively creating and making (p.290). As a proponent of the “Maker Movement,” this makes a lot of sense to me. If students build and create something that matters to them, they are more likely to learn. This can happen on a physical level as demonstrated by Caine (see awesome video below) who built an entire arcade out of old cardboard boxes. Not only did Caine have to design, measure, and build, but he also had to hone math skills when selling tickets and collecting money!


Technology opens even more doors when it comes to creating artifacts that kids care about. I shared with Tim that I have kids build physical representations of metaphors, write and publish passion blogs, and build multimedia digital portfolios. All of these assignments are in line with a constructionist perspective.

The key for teachers to consider the following question:

  • Why am I using technology?
  • Could students complete this task without technology? If so, what value is added by using the technology?
  • What are students creating? What will they learn through the process of creating this artifact?
  • Can they share what they have created online?

 Blog Post: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism 

Reading Ertmer and Newby’s begin their article titled, “Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective,” with a bit of history describing the foundations of modern learning theories: empiricism vs. rationalism. On one end of the spectrum, empiricism asserts that experience is the primary source of knowledge. By contrast, rationalism argues that reason without help from the senses is the primary source of knowledge.

As our understanding of the brain has evolved, so has general assumptions about how humans learn. Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are three learning theories that define learning and transfer differently. They also cast the learner in different roles in the learning process.

Behaviorism focuses on the learner’s response to specific stimuli. In our virtual session, Matt referenced classroom management as an example. If teachers do not “train” students to react to particular cues in specific ways, it may be harder to manage students. I also thought of the acronym SLANT, which many of the elementary teachers I coach use to cue students to sit up, lean forward, ask and answers questions, nod your head and track the speaker. When Tim and I read the piece, Ertmer and Newby’s example of math equations made sense. If students are going to do well with more mathematically challenging concepts, they must first memorize their multiplication tables. The stimulus is the equation, and the response is, hopefully, the correct answer. Often in this stimuli-response model, reinforcements and rewards are necessary to train the students to receive the correct response. Behaviorism may make the most sense when trying to elicit a particular behavior in the classroom or build basic foundational knowledge.

Cognitivism shifted the focus from behavior/response to complex processes happening inside of the brain. This learning theory was sparked by new knowledge of how the brain functions, thanks to developments in neuroscience. This approach to learning prioritized memory, specifically the way in which students store, organize, and recall information. Teachers can help these cognitive processes by “chunking” or organizing information, so it’s easier to store and retrieve. Helping learners to connect what they are learning with past experiences can also help them to learn.

Constructivism is grounded in the belief that individual learners create meaning from their life experiences and interactions with the world and other people. They create their reality then negotiate that reality with others through “social negotiation” (e.g., discussion or debate). The learning is most effective when the learning is couched in a situation or context that is authentic and relevant. Because every learner is different, this learning theory demands that students enjoy a high degree of agency and autonomy in relation to their work. The more tasks are anchored in the “real world” or authentic situations; the more effective the learning will be.

The role of students shifts with each learning theory. Behaviorism relegates students to a more passive role and prioritizes the role of the teacher in learning. Cognitivism acknowledges that learners must play a more active role in the actual act of learning. Constructivism is learner-driven and demands that students think metacognitively about their learning. This fundamental shift in the student’s role reinforced my preference for constructivism, though Ertmer and Newby state that the learning theories are not mutually exclusive and can complement each other.


SPELIT Assessment



Research Methodology by Kumar – Chapter 1

IOSSBR Conference Virtual Session 


March 5, 2018–Notes from Mind, Brain & Education, Chapter 3 “The Current Impact of Neuroscience on Teaching and Learning” by Judy Willis, MD, MEd 

“Teaching strategies derived from well-controlled neuroimaging research are at best compatible with the research to date about how the brain seems to deal with emotions, environmental influences, and sensory input” (p. 46).

ZPD = Zone of Proximal Development Theory

Lev Vygotsky suggests “students learn best when guided by adults or more capable peers through the distance between their level of independent problem solving and their level or zone of potential development” (p.48). Video games are a great example of this because they challenge the “player” to slowly advance.


February 20, 2018–Activity Theory & Brain-based Learning

Activity Theory provides a framework for thinking about a system and the myriad parts of that system. As part of our work on brain-based learning, Timothy Seavey and I used the Activity Theory to identify the parts of the education system related to our investigation of how neuroscience can positively impact student engagement through thoughtful lesson design.

Education has many moving parts, so using the Activity Theory helped us to flush out the different parts of the challenge facing the successful use of technology in education. I began by articulating the goal I am focused on for the K12 space: design engaging blended learning experiences and increase the effectiveness of blended learning environments. This is the object or the goal of my research. Then I worked backward using Engestrom’s model to identify the subject, activity, community, division of labor, rules, and artifacts.

Subject: Students and teachers

Activity: Engaged learning

Artifacts: Pedagogy and teaching practices/strategies

  • blended learning
  • technology-enhanced learning (TEL)
  • Frameworks:
    • Game Theory
    • Social Learning Theory
    • Cognitive Learning Theory

Community: Community of Practice (CoP)–”groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, 2002, p. 4).

  • Additional communities that may not fit the profile of a CoP include:
    • School communities
    • Departments
    • Student groups (e.g., student government, clubs)
    • Parent groups (e.g., PTA)

Rules and Regulations: Education Code

  • Federal and state laws
  • Funding requirements and restrictions
  • Time in seat/days in a year

Ideally, the activity theory helps a researcher to identify the parts of the system to effectively understand how it works and identify the areas of the system that must be considered to achieve a particular outcome.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Salomon, G. (1993). Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


February 16, 2018 – Exploring Impact of Acute Stress on Learning

Gagnon, S. & Wagner, A. (2016). “Acute Stress and Episodic Memory Retrieval: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Behavioral Consequences.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1369 (2016) 55-75. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12996


When people are under acute stress–most common daily stress caused by demands of present and pressures associated with the future–the parts of the brain needed for flexible and goal-oriented thinking shut down. Psychological stress is caused by situations that are novel, uncertain, uncontrollable, and/or threatening and trigger two stress response systems–the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Individuals in a state of short-term emotional arousal demonstrate higher levels of attention and enhanced memory. As learning is enhanced and the ability to code/make memory improves, the retrieval of unrelated information is suppressed. Chronic stress, unlike short-term acute stress, impairs long-term memory by causing changes in the basal cortisol levels and negatively impacting hippocampal function. Ultimately, the type and duration of the stressor impact a person’s ability to both encode/create and recall/access memories or learning. More research is needed to identify optimal windows of time for creating and retrieving memories and the role stress plays in this process.


This has implications for both teachers and students. First, teachers experiencing acute stress are less likely to take risks and try new approaches to teaching that are required by the shift to blended learning. Second, this could make a strong case for a blended learning environment that is student-directed. The more autonomy, flexibility, and control students have over their learning, environment, and artifacts, the less likely they are to experience acute stress. Competency-based learning, which is a staple of blended learning, can also function to alleviate stress because learning shifts from punitive points driven culture to a master-based individualized assessment model.

Given that memory is enhanced during moments (short) of emotional arousal–even exposure to emotional scenes, words, and objects–this may create a strong case for the use of short VR or AR learning experiences in which students are placed into an emotionally charged moment or situation to enhance memory creation. For example, students learning about a moment in history is more likely to form long-term memory and be able to access and recall of those events if they “experience” them in a VR environment that is emotionally arousing.

Using VR and AR to enhance teacher training may also yield a better understanding of new education models. If they can enter a blended learning classroom via VR, they are more likely to make memories about the different models they can recall later.


February 4, 2018 – Cognitive Neuroscience & Technology Enhanced Learning

Notes from pages 131-139 of “The Potential Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience for the Development and Use of Technology Enhanced Learning” by Paul Howard-Jones, Michela Ott, Theo van Leeuwen, and Bert De Smedt (2013)

In neuroscience, learning refers to memory and how a person forms memory. It is what happens inside the brain. By contrast, in education learning extends beyond memory to include interactions between people. In this context, learning goes beyond what happens in the brain to encompass social context. Educational research “emphasizes the importance of social interaction. For this reason, it seems appropriate that neuroeducational consideration of TEL [technology enhanced learning] should include two or more individuals represented as brain–mind–behaviour models interacting within a social environment” (p.134).

The authors suggest using the “levels of analysis” approach when integrating neuroscience into TEL. However, they point out that cognitive neuroscience uses the brain-mind-behavior levels (pictured above), but “our real-world behavior with technology inevitably involves our social behavior, with technology able to mediate our social interactions in several different ways” (p.134). This social behavior component of learning with technology opens the door for social science research methods.

The paper points out three roles that technology plays:

“(1) as a stimulus with which we can interact individually (2) as a stimulus around which social interaction takes place (e.g., collaborating around computers) (3) as a medium through which social interaction takes place” (p.135).

The authors point out some misinformation in TEL literature:

  • False: The brain is “vulnerable to damage by technology” (p.133). This assumes that the brain is static and hardwired, which is incorrect.
  • True: The brain “is plastic” and “can only develop through input from the environment and referred to as experience-dependent plasticity, a process that continues well beyond adolescence” (p. 133).

Items for further research:

Cognitive Psychology The author’s highlight the connection between neural process (brain), mental process (mind), and human behavior (behavior). They write that “the central role of mind in the brain–mind–behaviour sandwich makes cognitive psychology crucial to all cognitive neuroscience and in turn to neuroeducational TEL research” (p. 134). So cognitive psychology is an area I need to do more research one.

TEL (technology-enhanced learning)

January 31, 2018 – Cortisol and Learning

Today, I spent time researching cortisol and its impact on the brain, especially in the context of learning. Cortisol “binds to receptors that are found in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are important brain regions for learning and memory” (Munoz, 2013). The hippocampus processes memories in preparation for long-term storage. The amygdala is the center of the limbic-emotional brain and is “constantly alert to the needs of basic survival including sex, emotional reactions such as anger and fear. Consequently, it inspires aversive cues, such as sweaty palms” (The Brainwaves Center).

There is a lot of research about high levels of cortisol impacting memory; however, I found it fascinating that the research indicates that high levels of cortisol do NOT inhibit the formation of memories. In fact, high levels of cortisol aid the formation of memories, which has interesting implications for learning and the types of environments or learning activities that might increase cortisol and, therefore, help students to create long-term memories. This may have interesting implications for game-based learning and the use of competition in learning.

The problem with cortisol in the context of learning and school is that high levels of cortisol make it harder for students to recall memories and information. So, traditional forms assessment and timed, high-stakes exams may produce higher levels of cortisol and inhibit a student’s ability to demonstrate what they know.

My takeaway from my research today: high levels of cortisol help to form memories but makes it challenging to recall memories.

January 29, 2018 – Brain-based Learning 

When I was doing research about student engagement, I stumbled across Stephanie Knight’s (2017) blog titled “Brain Engagement: A Look at Chemical Reactions in the Classroom.” Though science and the brain are not my areas of expertise, I was immediately interested in this idea that student engagement is, in fact, brain engagement. If educators had a better understanding of how the brain works, we could design lessons that engage their brains.

As a blended learning expert, I am often asked to produce research that proves blended learning is more effective than traditional teaching strategies. It got me thinking about the value of merging what we know about the brain with what we know about technology and learning so we can draw more concrete conclusions about the impact of blending learning.

I’ve partnered with Tim Seavey, the General Education Coordinator, Associate Chair, and  Program Director at Loma Linda University, who has a background in radiology. His specific interest is in adult learning/andragogy, while my interest is focused on pedagogy, specifically at the K-12 level.

We have decided to look at brain-based learning with a specific focus on the way four chemicals in the brain–cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine–respond to different types of learning activities.

 After presenting our working concept to the class, we explored the impact that mobile devices are having on access to information, learning, and the brain. Clearly, the sharp rise of smart devices has exciting implications for connecting students with other learners all over the globe.

The third iteration of our working concept required that we find an Ashoka fellow whose work aligns in some way with our focus. Ashoka is “A global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs — individuals with innovative and practical ideas for solving social problems.” While researching Ashoka fellows, I found Emer Beamer in the Netherlands who is working to help teachers “tap into the natural space of play within a child and among children, to stimulate their interest and engagement in social issues, and challenging them to design solutions for these issues within the context of their formal education curriculum using modern technology.”

Beamer’s work intrigued me on several levels. I also believe students are incredibly creative and educators must tap into that creativity to get students tackling complex social issues. Technology creates exciting opportunities to make learning relevant and meaningful, which I believe is more likely to engage the brain. I have also used the design thinking process with my students to encourage them to work through complex projects. I’d love to see this focus on play and creativity at the secondary level as well.

After several iterations, Tim and I came up with a concise description of what we plan to focus on for our research.

The proliferation of technology demands new approaches to teaching and learning. This brain-based learning study focuses on the brain’s chemical reactions (cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) in response to different learning stimuli (textual, auditory, visual, Augmented Reality, Discourse, Virtual Reality, web-based) in online, offline, and blended environments. This study seeks to identify how brain engagement impacts the quality of learning in students of different ages–adult learners approximately 20-30 (andragogy) years old and secondary students (pedagogy) approximately 14-18 years old.

This is a HUGE topic, so I anticipate we will narrow our focus as we wade through the massive amounts of research currently available on the brain, technology, and learning.


January 27, 2018 – My Motivational Terrain

This semester at Pepperdine University I’m enrolled in a course titled “Virtual Learning and Collaboration.” My professor, Dr. Lani Fraizer, assigned us a motivational terrain paper to explore the following questions:

  • Where do you stand via your practitioner-scholar lens in terms of WHAT you are interested in?
  • HOW would you like to approach your scholarship and contribution to service?
  • What educational or intellectual issues fascinate you?

The goal of the motivational terrain assignment helped me to hone in on the aspects of education that I’m most interested in: student engagement, technology, and blended learning.

Technology is radically redefining the way students engage with information and each other. After failing to engage students using traditional teaching strategies and tools, I embraced blended learning. This mix of online and offline learning allowed me to shift the focus from me to my students placing them at the center of learning. My role as an educator changed from a disseminator of information to an architect of learning experiences. The dramatic changes in my students’ interest, engagement, and academic success was thrilling. I wanted other teachers to experience this same success. My desire to improve learning for students and support teachers as they adapt to an influx of technology has driven me to write books, publish blogs and articles, speak at conferences, and facilitate professional development for teachers all over the United States. I believe my doctoral work at Pepperdine University will challenge, inspire, and prepare me to lead innovative change in education.

Motivational Terrain
When I accepted my first teaching position in 2001, I was 22 years old. I entered the classroom with mental models shaped by my own experiences as a learner. I believed my primary job was to disseminate information. In the credential and masters programs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was taught to teach using the same traditional tools I used when I was a student: books, writing utensils, and paper. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to excite and engage my students. They did not lean in. They did not take risks. They did not participate in conversation.

Over time, I became disillusioned with my profession. I was failing. I could not create the dynamic classroom I had imagined when I entered credential school. In this moment of crisis, I had two choices: abandon this career or find a way to make it work for me and my students. I decided to stay in the classroom and began the long process of unlearning everything I had been taught about teaching. For the last 15 years, my students have been my teachers. The lessons I have learned from them have led me to question established norms, experiment with technology, and share what I have learned with anyone who will listen.

In 2001 my students rarely entered the classroom with devices. I saw the occasional iPod, but it was not until the release of the iPhone in 2007 that devices began to appear more frequently in our classroom. The proliferation of technology and my students’ increasing access to and enthusiasm for devices played a crucial role in driving my development as an educator. Though I never considered myself tech savvy, technology quickly changed the way my students communicated, connected, and shared. While most of my colleagues banned devices, I saw an opportunity. Technology allowed me to explore new approaches to teaching and learning.

Technology had a transformative impact on my students’ interest, engagement, and depth of learning. All of the sudden, my students had access to limitless amounts of information. I no longer needed to be the single source of information in the classroom. Students had the ability to connect, communicate, and collaborate across space and time. Learning became fluid and was no longer limited to a physical classroom or class period. With an online connection, students had access to a global audience. As a result, the quality of their work improved dramatically. There were also countless tools available online for students to create artifacts that mattered to them. All of these new realities and possibilities piqued my intellectual interest and drove me professionally to change the way I approached teaching. My goal was to use technology strategically to shift the focus from me to my students.

My successes pushing the boundaries of learning in my own classroom combined with my affinity for writing and public speaking led me to assume many different roles in education. Though teaching is my favorite job, I also work as a trainer, coach, speaker, consultant, and author. In my teaching position, I experiment, fail, and learn. This work has been invaluable to my journey as an educator. Students are the customers in education, and I want to see what they respond to and enjoy. I blog weekly and write a monthly column for Educational Leadership about the teaching techniques, blended learning models, assessment strategies, and technology tools I use with students. My goal as a writer is to keep my writing concrete and practical. I want teachers to read about what I am doing and feel they can try it themselves. My publications have lead to my work as a speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant. For the last three years, I have split my time between a 50% teaching position at Windsor High School and my other work. The balance has been ideal. My teaching position inspires me and my work with teachers gives me an outlet to share my learning.

My particular interest in education is blended learning. Blended learning is defined as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 34). Within the large umbrella term of blended learning, there are many different models that combine face-to-face learning in the classroom with online learning. Although the Christensen Institute has clearly defined the four main blended learning models, these models and their definitions are shifting and evolving. In my most recent book, Blended Learning in Action, I make the argument that the Lab Rotation, which is a subcategory of the Rotation Model, should be called Whole Group Rotation. I argue that the rise of 1:1 initiatives and mobile carts eliminate the need to move out of the classroom and into a computer lab for online learning. Instead, the whole class can rotate between on and offline activities together. The teacher can use online learning time to conference with students providing personalized instruction and support.

Technology is changing rapidly which requires that we continually re-examine and refine our definitions of blended learning models. One of my professional goals is to keep this conversation about what blended learning is and what is looks like evolving. Educators, even those with access to limited technology, should feel empowered to blend technology into their practice. They may begin with substituting technology for traditional tools, but I want to help teachers redefine what learning looks like with technology. In time, I believe all learning will fall into this blended space with teachers skillfully selecting specific models and technology tools to meet the learning objectives for a given lesson. Similar to the traditional teaching strategies that teachers have used for years, I am hopeful that blended learning models will become a part of every teacher’s teaching toolbox.
Although many teachers fear technology’s ability to replace them, I passionately believe that the teacher is critical to the success of a blended learning model. Technology can disseminate information, generate adaptive practice, and connect students with resources, but the most challenging and human aspects of teaching cannot be replaced by technology.

Teachers, however, need to embrace new roles in this era of technology. Instead of being fountains of knowledge, teachers must become architects of learning experiences and coaches. Instead of telling students we know, we must invest energy and time into designing dynamic learning opportunities that invite students to make meaning. When teachers are freed from the daunting task of transferring information in real time to 30 students, they can shift into the role of a coach in the classroom providing individualized support as students work. The teacher’s role as architect and coach are irreplaceable.
In my work as a blended learning coach, I have the opportunity to spend time in classrooms as an observer. Too often the only person talking is the teacher. It is a missed opportunity. Learning should be a social experience. Classrooms are packed with 25-30 students, yet the collective intelligence in the room is rarely harnessed to drive dynamic learning. Students need to engage with one another and learn together. Wenger (2000) makes the point that “engagement in social context involves a dual process of meaning-making. On the one hand, we engage directly in activities, conversations, reflections, and other forms of personal participation in social life. On the other hand, we produce physical and conceptual artifacts–words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, links to resources, and other forms of reification” (p.1). Wenger’s point that learning requires 1) participation and engagement and 2) reification and creation is at the heart of every lesson I design, each book I have written, and every keynote I have delivered. Students must engage and create to learn.

Learning should not be a passive experience. It must be dynamic, student-centered, and learner-driven. As a result, I am particularly interested in social learning theory and how educators can leverage the social dimensions of learning, both in person and online, to engage every student and achieve more meaningful learning experiences. Too often the online space is used solely for individual tasks or practice, but it can be a powerful space to connect students and foster collaboration. The collaborative possibilities available online are exciting, especially the opportunities to connect students in different locations around the world. I would love to see classrooms and learners regularly connect and learn together despite the physical distance between them. This space will explode in the future, and I am eager to continue exploring collaboration and engagement online as my career develops.

Almost everything I have learned as an educator has been through trial and error. I have approached teaching as an ongoing experiment. I design and implement a lesson, project, or strategy. I observe, critique, reflect and request feedback. Then I iterate. That is how I have learned everything I know about teaching and learning. Though I have learned invaluable information using this approach, I applied to Pepperdine University’s doctoral program because I want to continue to learn, question, and push boundaries. I want to be inspired to think bigger and lead innovative change in education.

After reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, I asked myself the following questions. What is your why? What drives you to get out of bed each morning? What is your purpose in education? The answer was simple. I love learning, and I want to ignite that same love of learning in every student. That is the why that drives me, inspires me, and gives me a clear sense of purpose.

Horn, M. & Staker, H. (2015). Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sinek, S. (2011). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, New York: Portfolio Penguin.

Wenger, E. (2000). “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: The Career of a Concept.” Retrieved from