Learning Cosmos: A Conceptual Framework to Understand your Learner’s Universe

I feel incredibly accomplished. Yesterday, as I was checking my email, I noticed I had a package waiting for me. It had been delivered by Livraria Disal and I knew exactly what it was. As a matter of fact, I had been anxiously expecting that email and that package. The package had 5 printed samples of the latest issue of New Routes Magazine. I was so excited that I couldn’t even wait to get back to my apartment to open it. That moment was the realization of an achievement I’m very proud of and eager to share. After many months, as a result of years of exploring neuroscience and psychology, I was honored to introduce people to my Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework which made the cover of New Routes #74. You have no idea how proud I am of sharing this with you.

Isn’t the cover beautiful?

Allow me to tell you why I believe you should learn about this framework and what inspired me to create it.

From the Big Bang to the Solar System

It started in my childhood, when I noticed I tried to make connections. My mind was always wandering, looking for something to explore, like those probes sent to other planets or astronauts on a space voyage. I was the weird kid, the geek. I was into sci-fi, video games, dinossaurs (who wasn’t?), and, particularly, the universe. It made me wonder. I suppose I wanted to understand how it worked and how it affected us.

Science became one of my major interests in life. I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was a teenager because I loved watching ER and seeing how those doctors understood the human body. I was wrong about the profession but right about something else, something I like till today: the process of inquiry; the scientific method. But it was more than that. I asked questions that science couldn’t answer as well. I knew some things were simply impossible to test (at least now). Then another interest grew in me and the Greeks had already chosen a very suitable name for it: love of wisdom aka philosophy. I love asking questions. ‘What if we did it like this?’ or ‘What would happen if we changed that?’

Not knowing exactly what I wanted to pursue in life, I ended up studying International Relations. I learned about how sovereign states interacted in the global arena and how issues related to economy, politics, law, human rights, and military power influenced their decisions. It certainly taught me a lot and gave me a different perspective about life and people in general. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to specialize in that field. I started a master’s course in Political Science but came to terms with the idea that I wanted to work in education, which confirmed something I had been doing for over 10 years at the time and I was reluctant to admit.

After that realization, my interest in Neuroscience grew stronger. I knew I needed to understand how the brain works and get the proper credentials to talk about it to other professionals in education. I joined the BRAZ-TESOL Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) SIG, which inspired me to get qualification in the area and led me to my master’s course in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol. My MSc in Bristol opened my eyes to an amazing and often hidden world of how our brain and our mind function. I always thought I could help teachers understand that universe of learning principles somehow and that feeling even influenced the topic of my dissertation, which looked at effective classroom strategies based on MBE. All of this brought me to my Learning Cosmos framework.

What is the Learning Cosmos?

I truly believe that the Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework is possibly the most important work I’ll ever do in my life and I intend to keep developing it. It’s an illustration that condenses many learning principles based on cognitive psychology and neuroscience into levels of influence from the cognitive to the environmental (going through emotional, attitudes & beliefs, motivational, and learning design). It contains concentric spheres, which were inspired by Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) Ecological Systems Theory, and it uses a powerful analogy to help teachers understand it: the universe.

Think about it for a second. If we consider the multitude of principles, theories and frameworks that address learning, we can compare it to the expanding universe. Different spheres, each one influencing the others. The objective of this article is to design a Learning Cosmos diagram based on what learning entails. My hope is that this Learning Cosmos can help students, teachers, schools, families, and policymakers admire and reflect on the amazing universe surrounding our learners

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

It took me some time to come up with the name Learning Cosmos. I knew from the beginning that I needed something special for the cover of New Routes and that I wanted to include as much about learning as I possibly could. I suppose that was the natural next step after my text for New Routes #72, Teaching Mind and Brain: Contributions of the Science of Learning

My text in New Routes #72

When I look at the creation process, how many sketches I made, and the end result, I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was really the culmination of all those years and experiences. These things are never really created overnight. I make a point of sharing this because I want you to be inspired and, who knows, even feel motivated to get some of your old projects done. Even when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, I struggled. Look at how the whole thing evolved:

It took me several emails with different suggestions to make it just right. I had to think of the common thread connecting all those theories and how I’d call them. I even had to draw the whole thing on a wall with chalk to understand how I could make it all fit.

I have to admit, though, that I couldn’t be happier with the result of my interaction with Jack Scholes, New Routes Editor, the whole team who helped me at Disal, and Carol Di Mauro and her team at BrandBox, for capturing the essence of this concept and making my vision a reality. Can you imagine how I felt when I first got this in my email? I literally had tears in my eyes. I was looking at a vision I had inside my head. It was real now and it was out for everyone to see.

Where did I get the inspiration?

My main source of inspiration

It was one of those days that you’re just looking for something interesting to read. I had many new books on my shelf but the one that really stood out was my copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (illustrated and expanded as you can see). I had already read it but the cover was so compelling that I couldn’t resist. I may have been influence by something else, which probably gave me the final push. It was National Geographic’s remake of Cosmos, the amazing show about the universe and science presented by Carl Sagan a few decades ago. The new host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has most certainly confirmed and intensified my love for science and the mysteries of the universe.

These two brilliant scientists, Hawking and Sagan, taught me things so fascinating that I think I wanted to honor them somehow. Not only did they broaden my horizons to the wonders of science, but they also did it in such an elegant way using a powerful learning tool that deserves our attention. I’m talking about analogies. When Hawking explains in his book the concept of an expanding universe using a black balloon with white dots on the surface and how these dots move apart as blow air into the balloon or when Sagan uses a map to show us how Erastothenes was able to calculate our planet’s circumference thousands of years ago by measuring the shadow cast by different objects and the distance between two locations on an episode of Cosmos, I mean, WOW! That’s simply mindblowing to me.

Look at the incredible design

So I chose to use an analogy that made sense. I suppose I joined my passion for the universe and how intriguing it can be as we’re always finding out new things as we explore further and further. Here are a few examples of how I used this analogy:

Earth has the perfect conditions to be teeming with life. Its interaction with the sun and other planets in the solar system as well as its location have made our planet special and allowed it to support life in all its beauty and forms. This is exactly how we should think of our learners’ experience. We need to provide them with the best possible conditions so that the design of our lessons allows them to flourish. Let’s call this sphere Learning Design

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The interstellar level is about other stars and planets in our galaxy. Our Milky Way contains anywhere between 100 and 400 billion stars and it would take anyone trying to cross its diameter 100 thousand years at the speed of light. If we could take a picture of it, it would look like a spiral rotating around a massive black hole, a giant vortex that sucks everything that gets too close (including light). The interaction of all these elements form our context and resources, just like what we see when we think of our schools, their infrastructure, and mindset/policy

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The premise here is that just like the universe, we can choose to focus on different levels of analysis when we look at learning. We can look at how our planet offers conditions to support life and focus on that but we mustn’t forget that these conditions are the result of a very intricate relationship that involves our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and many of the objects contained within our universe. It depends on gravity, matter, dark matter, radiation, light, space and time. Similarly, we can focus on our student’s attention and memory, learn how they work and what we can do to help them, but we cannot forget that our students are whole. Their emotions are intrinsically connected to their cognition and those two are affected by their levels of motivation, what they believe about learning and their capabilities, and even their school’s approach to teaching. They are indeed but a small, however precious, part of this amazing universe.

What can you use the Learning Cosmos for?

I suppose the simplest answer is: to learn about learning according to the scientific literature on the topic. I’m not saying I was able to cover every possible principle and theory but I do think I got the major ones that I believe educators should know about. It’s also an invitation. An invitation to explore those principles and dig deeper. I’d love to think that one of the concepts in the Learning Cosmos could trigger a domino effect and send you on a quest to discover new things about learning, very much like Alice in Wonderland or Cooper, Brand, Doyle, and Romilly in Interstellar by Christopher Nola.

Let’s say you would like to know more about cognition. You’ll realize that I only covered attention, engagement, feedback, and consolidation (Howard-Jones et al. 2018, Dehaene, 2020). I know, however, that cognition relates to reasoning, judging, use of language, perception, and the like. You could start reading something about these concepts that I left out and, who knows, even apply what you learn about them to change something you do in the classroom. Or perhaps you’d like to start from the emotional level and realize that I mentioned emotion regulation (Gross & Thompson, 2007) but I left out self-regulation. Those two constructs are intimately connected and they are also related to emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), which I included. What I’m trying to say is that the framework encourages you to look further as well as find connections to things you might already know.

You can watch my interview for Dr. Brenda Owobu-Reosti about the Learning Cosmos

I believe the Learning Cosmos can be a great tool if used wisely as stated below:

Think of the Learning Cosmos as a useful guide that could work as a reflective tool for you to assess why learning might not be taking place. Its purpose is to allow you to ask whether the problem is on, let’s say, the emotional sphere or the cognitive one (or likely both). It may encourage you to consider all these authors and theories the next time you want to work on your professional development or when you plan and deliver your next lesson.

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

Be it as it may, the Learning Cosmos is my attempt to make the scientific literature about learning more accessible as I bring all of those fundamental elements about learning together in one illustration. I need to emphasize that the real work was done by all those scientists and authors who published their papers and books. My task was only to connect it all for you to use it as a guide.

My intention is to help teachers, parents, students, educators in general, and even policymakers to understand how beautiful and complex learning is. I want them to look at learning with awe and wonder. I want them to learn as much as they can about learning from multiple perspectives so that they talk about it and provide more effective solutions that will help our students achieve more positive learning outcomes. Let’s look beyond attention and memory, let’s embrace other spheres of influence and make an impact on education.

If you want to know more about the Learning Cosmos Framework, check out the link below and stay tuned. I’ll explore each sphere in the coming blog posts to give you practical ideas on how to work with those principles. Next, we’ll talk about the cognitive sphere.

I’d like to dedicate this to my parents, particularly my dad who ignited this love for science in me and who sadly passed away in 2019. I wish you were here, dad. Also my mom who’s always encouraged me to explore and be whatever I wanted to be. To my wife Cris for inspiring me and helping me aim for the stars. To all my friends and acquaintances who learned something from me or taught me something, especially Mirela Ramacciotti for introducing me to MBE.

I truly hope you liked it and that I was able to share (at least a little bit) how passionate I am about this and how much I want to contribute. Do share with friends and let me know your thoughts

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine… for Now. Penguin.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books, Inc.

Gross, J.J. & Thompson, Ross. (2007). Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Foundations. Handbook of Emotion Regulation. 3-27. 

Howard-Jones, P., Ioannou, K., Bailey, R., Prior, J., Yau, S. H., & Jay, T. (2018). Applying the science of learning in the classroom. Profession, 18, 19.

Hawking, S. (1996). The Illustrated A brief history of time.

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