How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures

This is the first of a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 2: Context and Culture.

“Learning does not happen in the same way for all people because cultural influences pervade development from the beginning of life.” (p. 22)

In this chapter the author’s dig into the concept of culture and how it impacts not only “what people learn but also how they learn” (p. 23). The impact of culture on an individual’s learning is vast when all of the components of culture are taken into account. The chapter covers topics including:

  • The role of culture in learning and development
  • Learning as social activity
  • The dynamic interaction of culture, biology and context
  • Social and emotional influences
  • Physical influences

Some of the most interesting takeaways:

The importance of early childhood education and childcare:

“A large body of work published before HPL I (but not addressed here) established that socialization practices – caretakers’ ways of interacting with children – shape how children learn, what they learn, how quickly they learn, and even what the developmental end point of that learning is (for everything from walking to how they interact socially).” (p. 24)

Cultural impacts on biology & childhood development:

“Human development, from birth throughout life, takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interactions between the human individual (an active, biopsychlogical organism) and that individual’s immediate physical and social environments. Through these dynamic interactions, culture influences even the biological aspects of learning.” (p. 28)

The impact of emotion on learning and motivation:

“People are willing to work harder to learn the content and skills they are emotional about, and they are emotionally interested when the content and skills they are learning seem useful and connected to their motivations and future goals” (p. 30)

Strong beginnings

As I read this chapter I couldn’t help thinking about how much of this content is driven by the very beginnings of children’s lives and how little influence our institutions of education have on those circumstances. It also reminded me of some work that has been done to identify the high return on investment in early childhood education. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania has collected some great research and articles about this topic here.


Assessing Participation

Picture of a classroom full of desk

old school by alamosbasement via flickr, cc licensed at

Whenever I discuss grading or assessment with a teacher, participation ultimately comes up in some form. One part of the conversation usually focuses on the goal of assessing participation such as improving verbal explanatory and argumentative skills, and then turns to how that assessment is recorded in a learning management system. Although there is plenty to discuss in terms of the goals of assessing participation, this article will focus on the logistics of recording participation in an LMS and differing ways of configuring this in Canvas.

First, a few things to consider:

  1. Do you want students to see their participation grades as they progress through the course? Are you using this as a barometer that students can use to improve their participation?
  2. Is completion of assignments factored into a part of your participation grade?
  3. Is attendance factored into participation?

Sharing Participation Grades

If you want your students to see their progression in this area you will need to:

  1. Make sure that your gradebook is visible to students on the Canvas menu
  2. Design your gradebook so that a weekly participation grade is entered/calculated

Factoring Attendance into Participation

We suggest calculating a daily amount for attendance and manually awarding points based on the students’ attendance for the week. However, you will want to consider what you will do in the case that a student is absent due to a cause that is not under their control.

Factoring Assignment Completion into Participation

If these assignments are only assessed based on completion this can be set up in Canvas for assignments and discussions. However, if you are also assessing the content of the assignment/discussion forum post, you will need to consider an alternate assessment method that may involve dual scores if you want to be sure to break out the participation component.

Questions of Pedagogy

All of these considerations will provoke additional pedagogical questions. For example:

  • What role does attendance play in the learning process? Is it possible that that role is actually conveyed in another assessment tool that you are using?
  • Similarly, does assessing the completion of assignments demonstrate the achievement of a learning goal?
  • Are you providing multiple means of participation to ensure that you involve all your students?

Assessing participation on a weekly basis can be time consuming so you’ll want to ensure that this time is accomplishing your goals. In many cases there are alternate methods that will result in the same or a similar outcome.

Image of sky with Nelson Mandela quote: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use the change the world."

The Connection between Motivation & Exploitation in Education

Image of sky with Nelson Mandela quote: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use the change the world."


A synopsis of chapter 9 “Technology to Support Learning” of How People Learn.

As a technologist I was most intrigued by this chapter’s title and was curious to see whether words written in 1993 would accurately reflect the current direction of educational technology. As you could probably expect a lot of the suggestions and ideas were aspirational and hopeful of technology’s promise in an educational context. Many of the concepts are still relevant and more easily possible and commonly practiced in education such as distance interviews and opportunities for teacher learning.

However, I was most taken by the last paragraph of the chapter which reads:

“Good educational software and teacher-support tools, developed with a full understanding of principles of learning, have not yet become the norm. Software developers are generally driven more by the game and play market than by the learning potential of their products. The software publishing industry, learning experts, and education policy planners, in partnership, need to take on the challenge of exploiting the promise of computer-based technologies for improving learning. Much remains to be learned about using technology’s potential: to make this happen, learning research will need to become the constant companion of software development” (HPL, p. 230).

The use of the term ‘exploiting’ seems almost prophetic to me. Unfortunately, I think what has actually happened is the reverse of the suggestion above. Software companies are largely exploiting schools and their students. How People Learn may have overlooked or underestimated the impact of money on motivation within the software industry and the way in which our capitalist economy rewards profit over care. In order for software companies to prioritize learning science over their own interests, they have to value altruistic principles over money. This is one of the reasons that I feel strongly that our government has to stay steadfastly committed to excellence (and FUNDING) within our public school system. Although the promise of privatization often centers on innovation and flexibility, I think we overlook the impact that individual company’s motivations can have on the direction in which education is driven when we are financially reliant on their funding mechanism. It is essential that the singular motivation for our educational system is care for our students and an expectation of excellence for all.

WordPress Designs and Event Management

Over the course of my time in the Academic Technology Group at Middlebury I became the go-to person for helping CTLR and faculty in general to set up event registration sites in WordPress. Since these opportunities began to present themselves to me in more and more frequent consistency I began to use them as a way to test out the configuration settings on new themes activated on our Middlebury server. This process both helped me to more fully understand WordPress functionality as well as the ways in which themes can be used to manipulate and display content in a variety of ways.

I think this process has been successful as I find myself being sought out by more faculty members who are interested in sharing their programming more widely. I’m hopeful that my work is helping to make it easier for more faculty to hear about more programming options outside of their departments and divisions. Below is a showcase of the sites I’ve created so far. You can click on each option to view the live site.

CTLR Programming Events Site

CTLR Programming Events Site

John Tallmadge Workshop Page

John Tallmadge Workshop Page

Science of Learning in Action Institute

Science of Learning in Action Institute

Grading and Assessment to Promote Deep Learning

Grading and Assessment to Promote Deep Learning

Anne Trubek: Writing for the Public

Anne Trubek: Writing for the Public

Intentional Pedagogy, Intentional Teaching

Intentional Pedagogy, Intentional Teaching

Beyond the Academy: Writing Your Book for a Wider Audience

Beyond the Academy: Writing Your Book for a Wider Audience

Promoting Student STEM Skills Through Inquiry Instruction

Promoting Student STEM Skills Through Inquiry Instruction

Teaching and Writing Retreat

Teaching and Writing Retreat


Professional Presence Redesign

In the fall of 2017 Professor David Stoll approached me about redesigning his WordPress site to update it and make it appear less blocky. Here is a screen shot of the original site.

Publications Web Site

Publications Web Site

I set about setting up a prototype site where I adjusted the theme and utilized a different way to showcasing images in a slideshow format. Below is a screenshot of the resulting prototype.

Professional Web Presence Prototype

Professional Web Presence Prototype

Fall Faculty Forum Web Site

At the end of the summer of 2017 Associate Professor of Political Science Jessica Teets approached the Academic Technology group for help with a web presence for a new Fall Faculty Forum event. The forum is scheduled to be held on fall parents’ weekend in October, with an intended audience of parents, students, colleagues and community members. Professor Teets shared that she wanted to make sure the site was easy to navigate, mobile-friendly, and provided information about individual faculty and their research, as well as logistics information for the event. Below is the design we came up with and you can view the live site here. Digital media tutor Pedro Bitar assisted with loading content and making edits as they were requested.

Fall Faculty Forum

Fall Faculty Forum

Try, Try Again

In this case study completed for EDU6319 How People Learn at Northeastern University I was able to examine the concept that “Practice makes perfect” through watching a middle-school student use a tool called “SmartMusic” to practice her flute music.

Prior to starting the case study I noted:

“Before interviewing or observing the student I wondered if an automated application could truly have an impact on student learning, and regardless of this fact, what the student’s feeling was about the application. As an avid user of technology I am too often disappointed by a tool that does not quite live up to my expectations. In this instance, I was thrilled to be surprised.”

Here is an overview of the case study.


As a part of the assignment I also analyzed the case study against relevant learning theories and principles. The full analysis is embedded below.

Digital Explorers

Digital Explorers is a digital literacy unit that I designed for 9 – 12 grade students to be delivered in an online or (ideally) hybrid manner. It was created as an assignment for the course EDU 6330, Digital Media Literacy at Northeastern University and was inspired by the work of Mike Caulfield’s Digital Polarization initiative and utilizes his only text “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers” as the class text.

Here is a brief video overview of the project:

And here’s the full unit plan.

Digital Media Tutor Assessment Plan

This project was created for EDU6324: Competencies, Assessment, and Learning Analytics at Northeastern University. This brief excerpt provides a window into my reasoning in creating this plan.

“Right now the gap is between measuring service by the tutors, and measuring learning outcomes and goal attainment for the tutors. In this project, I would like to transition to a tutor-centered focus on assessment.”

Examining Your Digital Citizenship

The proposal below outlines a modular instructional component that was designed such that it could be implemented into existing first year advising and orientation activities. It was developed as an assignment for Models for Learning Design at Northeastern University. Here is a brief overview of the project concept.

“Although we often refer to traditional college-aged students as digital natives, in actuality we are making assumptions that since technology use is comfortable for students, their ability to assimilate to a new technology environment does not require supports or instruction. This assumption is extremely problematic given the wide variety of variables in any academic environment. In addition, the assumption that just because students have an online identity, they are aware of their rights and abilities to manage this presence is also often faulty. This proposal is an attempt to address these two assumptions as soon as students become members of our academic community at Middlebury to ensure that students are oriented to technical resources and familiarized with methods that they can use to create and manage their online identity.”