Learning goes online

By Steve Harrington

When the Russians launched Sputnik, the first global satellite, in 1957, it caught the public imagination and spurred interest in education and “inquiry based”  learning methods. 

“How do people learn, and how does their behaviour change as a result of their learning?” was the  question of the day for the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), recalls Jo Nelson of ICA Canada. It led to the theory of Imaginal Education and methods that have engaged learners and inspired many teachers.

Two curriculum models emerged: seminars and problem solving units (PSU). Seminars focused on an existing  body of knowledge, such as a book, while PSUs grappled with a question to solve a problem.  In each case, the teacher got people to work in small groups, deal with a compelling question, find data, process information, make decisions based on fresh images or mental models, and then share the outcome. 

There were many applications of Imaginal Education - from elementary school to adult and professional learning communities. Today, thanks to the Internet, they continue in new learning environments. 

Fourth-grade teacher Scott Bedley, for example, helps his class do group based inquiry using video-chat tools like Skype. He has a “connected classroom” project in which he and another teacher in a different country link up for a geography lesson. They give their students a problem to solve: where exactly is the other class located? Each class gets to ask a maximum of 20 questions with a yes or no answer. They plot the answers on a map of the world to narrow down the search - and be the first with an answer. In addition to learning about geography, the class gets to practice four problem-solving group skills:  collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and public communication. 

Scott is interested in how kids learn and how their behaviour changes in problem solving groups. “In my classroom, I’ll grasp onto any technology that can expand the kids’ possibilities,” he says. “Learning comes from a teacher who is willing to take a risk and do something new and bring these powerful tools… it is so powerful to connect them beyond these four walls”.

The question behind Imaginal Education: “How do people learn and how does their behaviour change?” also relates to two areas of work of the ICA Global Archives Project Online (GAP): group research projects to transform information into new knowledge and wisdom; and group book studies.

GAP has organised online book studies using video chat tools like Skype and Google Hangout. The books included The Nine Disciplines of the Facilitative Leader, Reinventing Organizations and So Far From Home.

Most of those who took part were Baby Boomers and Millennials. One of them, Ellen Howie, said studying books on the computer screen and through video chats required patience on her part. The book she studied was So Far From Home by Meg Wheatley. “I liked being in this teacher guided active-learning conversation where we tried to work together at a deeper level of inquiry with the author’s ideas,” she said. “One “take-away” is that Meg is challenging readers to be "warriors of the spirit" even in the midst of de-spiriting times that don't seem to change much.”

The online study involves a think-pair-share inquiry process. It begins with people working as solitary explorers of the author’s ideas.  What’s in this study for me, what do I bring to the study, what do I want to accomplish are questions they have to answer. They “chart” or make a visual model of the author’s ideas. They ask for help with technology issues, find materials online and try to remember the process.

Then they pair with another person online to discover chapter content, use an online collaborative document to brainstorm Qs & As and make visual models or “idea charts”  of the author’s points.

In the final part, they share their findings with the larger study group. Participants volunteer to host and lead the next session.

The GAP study group is currently studying On Care For Our Common Home, Laudato Si, a critique of the world’s environmental crisis by the Pope of the Roman Catholic church. If you would like to join the study group or ask for study materials, go to

Steve Harrington is an ICA Global Archives volunteer interested in global education and lives near Minneapolis.

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