Thinking Outside the Box

As scholars and teachers it is important for us to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What are we contributing? How are we contributing? In what ways are our lives connected to that which we are contributing? When we teach, what is it of value that our students will take with them, that will nourish them physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually (however one defines it), be it in their careers, in their personal lives, in their leisure time, and in their relationships to other human beings and the planet?

We should ask often: What do engineering, chemistry, art, language, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and all the other disciplines to which we are dedicated have to do with the quality of life? Behind every teaching or facilitating move, behind every research or scholarly act, the questions always lurk: What is it that we are doing? Why are we here?

There are many scholars who are exploring these questions and providing concrete proposals for action. Listed below are just a few of them.

A connected world is a better world, right? A thought-provoking look at technology today.


What is connectivism? Here is a partial explanation by George Siemens, former Executive Director of the Learning Innovation Networked Knowledge Lab at UT Arlington:

“Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.”

Principles of connectivism::

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

In 2012, Stephen Downes from the National Research Council Canada contributed to the philosophy of connectivism. In Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks, he states:  

“Learning is the creation and removal of connections between the entities, or the adjustment of the strengths of those connections. A learning theory is, literally, a theory describing how these connections are created or adjusted. In this book I describe four major mechanisms: similarity, contiguity, feedback, and harmony. There may be other mechanisms, these and others may work together, and the precise mechanism for any given person may be irreducibly complex.” 

Contemplative Learning and Integrative Education

In 2010, Parker J. Palmer, professor of physics at Amherst College and director of the academic program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, along with co-author, Arthur Zajonc, released The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, aimed to revisit the roots and reclaim the vision of higher education. From the book jacket: 

The Heart of Higher Education is an invitation to everyone who cares about the academy to revisit its roots and help reclaim its highest calling.” Parker J. Palmer “speaks deeply to people in many walks of life, including education, medicine, religion, law, philanthropy, politics, and social change. … Named one of the ‘most influential senior leaders’ in higher education, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Arthur Zajonc is professor of physics at Amherst College. … He currently directs the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which supports appropriate inclusion of contemplative methods in higher education.”

In 1998, Mary Rose O’Reilley, professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, released Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. In it, she argues that the “secrets” of good teaching are the same as the secrets of good living: seeing one’s self without blinking, offering hospitality to the alien other, having compassion for suffering, speaking truth to power, being present and being real. O’Reilley states:  

“Some pedagogical practices crush the soul; most of us have suffered their bruising force. Others allow the spirit to come home: to self, to community, and to the revelations of reality. [This book] is my own try at articulating a space in which teacher and student can practice this radical presence.”

For more information on contemplative education, please visit the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Digital Habitats and Communities of Practice

In 2009, Nancy White, founder and owner of Full Circle Associates, released Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities which develops a new literacy and language to describe the practice of stewarding technology for communities. She is interested in building online communities, with implications for higher learning. The philosophy of her organization is:

  • To connect — connect people with ideas, information, services and other people.
  • To collaborate — utilize the full skills, knowledge and experience of each player in every collaboration.
  • To discern — apply the right tools and techniques for the right solution.
  • To learn — from every client and encounter.
  • To enjoy the work and to reward ourselves when we come full circle to completion.

Please visit the Full Circle Associates website for more information.

In 2014, Henri Lipmanowicz, former president of Merck’s Intercontinental Region and Japan, and Keith McCandless, former executive director of the Foundation for Health Care Quality, released The Suprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation. Below is a short video about Liberating Structures:

Guided Reflection in College Courses

A 2004 essay titled “The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment,” written by Sarah L. Ash and Patti H. Clayton, introduced:

a reflection model that pushes students beyond superficial interpretations of complex issues and facilitates academic mastery, personal growth, civic engagement, critical thinking, and the meaningful demonstration of learning. Although developed in a service-learning program, its general features can support reflection on a range of experiences.”

Open Educational Resources

As textbooks become ever more expensive, and alternative resources for course materials become more widespread, faculty are creating open educational resources for the content in their courses. Using open content makes it easier to update course materials, and students are not as burdened with the high cost of textbooks. Open educational resources (OERs) can make life – and learning – much better for students. Please visit the University of Pittsburg’s University Library System for a list of common OERs.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

First published in Portuguese in 1968, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated and published in English in 1970. Freire’s methodology has helped to empower countless impoverished and illiterate people throughout the world. His groundbreaking work seeks to empower students in their relationship to society. In the preface of the 30th anniversary edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull wrote, 

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Helping, Fixing, or Serving?

Dr. Rachel Remen’s “Helping, Fixing, or Serving?” addresses service, but applies to teaching as well, not only in the realm of service learning, but in all teaching and learning endeavors. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal.

Valuing Why We Are at the Academy

Rubrics from the Association of American Colleges and Universities website provide food for thought about what it is, of value, that we wish for students to take away from their years of college study and retain, use, and expand years later. They address intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning and cause us to question the highest motives and goals that we have for our curriculum, our courses, and our students’ learning. Please visit the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning Excellence’s page on Rubrics for more information.


Ash, S.L. and Clayton, P.H. (2004). “The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment.” Innovative Higher Education. (29.2)

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. Creative Commons.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the OppressedNew rev. 30th-Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.

Lipmanowicz, H. and McCandless, K. (2014). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press.

O’Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Palmer, P.J. and A. Zajonc. (2010). The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Siemens, G. (January 2005). “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning

White, N., Wenger, E., and Smith, J.D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. CPSquare.