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


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.

5 Reasons Why You Should Flip Your English Classroom

Take a few seconds to think about your daily routine at work. If you’re a teacher, you probably go to your school, get into the teachers’ room where you might keep the materials you’re going to use in class, get the books and worksheets you need, go to the classroom and start to teach. Now imagine a doctor’s routine. She goes to the hospital to treat patients in an office or the emergency room or even perform surgery in the operation room. A lawyer studies the case, goes to his client, then goes to court to face the trial.

What do these professionals have in common? They go to work to apply the knowledge they have acquired. They prepare themselves before, often at home or in an office, and get to work to use the information they already have to perform something. Planning a lesson, preparing for surgery or studying a case for court are done before the real action takes place.

That’s pretty much the same principle of a Flipped Classroom. Instead of learning concepts (new vocabulary or grammar structures for example) in the classroom, students are exposed to them at home and use the classroom time to apply their knowledge. Well, not just apply, but we’ll discuss this later. Let’s stick to some definitions first.

Based on conversations with peers, videos I’ve watched, and websites I’ve read, the simplest definition of the flipped classroom approach is well shown in the image below. Students do the classwork at home and the homework in class. They are exposed to the content before the lesson and practice it during the lesson in more active ways. They can also check understanding and do some extension after the lesson.

It’s worth mentioning that Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, creators of this concept, have a lot of resources about flipped learning. Don’t forget to check out Jon Bergmann’s website here.

Look at the image below and reflect on the process.

It does seem like something worth trying, doesn’t it? The big question is:

Is this approach better than the traditional one?

To answer that, here are 5 reasons why you should give it a try:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Personalization/Differentiation
  3. Self-efficacy
  4. Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)
  5. Problem/Project-based learning

Autonomy because students are given voice and choice outside the classroom when you set up the activities they are supposed to do before the lesson. I mean, sure they’ll have to choose from a predetermined list of things, but you can also encourage them to do their own research and find a video or blog with the content they need to start learning before the lesson.

Personalization/ differentiation because during the lesson you’ll have different activities for students to apply their knowledge. You can use games, arts, a text, a video, an experiment, the sky is the limit.

Self-efficacy because you’ll be helping your students become more responsible for their own learning and they’ll have to organize their time to study the materials before the lesson and accomplish the goals you help them set for themselves.

Higher order thinking skills because not only will students apply the knowledge the were exposed to at home, but also use that knowledge in more demanding ways such as evaluating, analyzing and creating with it (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

And finally, problem or project-based learning because students will be allowed to exchange information with their peers to accomplish something that is more related to real life and, thus, more relevant to them.

Ok, this may sound too abstract in your head and I should have started with a concrete example. So here you can find two.

Example 1. Past forms – Past Perfect vs Past Simple

Before the lesson, students are supposed to watch videos and/or read their books or a website on different past forms. The lesson objective is to introduce Past Perfect and contrast it with Past Simple. You have set up a Google Classroom group to communicate with your students and posted 3 videos and 2 links to reliable websites with this content. You’ve also posted a message encouraging students to find their own research sources.

When the students get to the classroom, you use the first 5-10min to help them activate the prior knowledge, that is, access what they were meant to study at home. You can do a quiz or get them to sit in groups and tell each other which resources they used to learn about Past Forms and compare what they know.

You’ve prepared the classroom with different activities for them to try out during the entire lesson. They can make posters about historical figures and what they had done before a certain date, or they can interview their peers on what they had done before going to school and record a video using their phones, or they can work on a short horror or fiction story together.

While all the students are working, you can go around the classroom and sit with them to ask questions about what they’re doing and elicit the target-language from them. That will allow you to give them more personalized attention and feedback. You can also encourage students to exchange groups to check what others are doing and have them present or share what they worked on at the end of the lesson.

Example 2. Connectors and Opinions

The out-of-class stage is the same as the previous example. During the lesson, you can start with activating their prior knowledge again and have them break into groups. In their groups, they can write an opinion blog post using a computer, or a news piece about a recent event or even a talk show with guests discussing some interesting issue. They’ll have to use connectors of contrast, sequence and addition, for instance, as well as expressions to give their opinion, agree and disagree.

Interesting approach, don’t you think? It allows students to spend most of the class time using the content rather than acquiring it and it gives them the opportunity to prepare as much as they want at home. They’ll do things their own way in their own pace. For this to work well, there are some things to consider, though:

  1. Students need to have access to the materials outside the classroom. A good idea is to use technology. Select the platform you like the most (Google Classroom, Edmodo, Moodle, Canvas, Facebook, WhatsApp, your ELT book online platform). If you don’t have access to the internet, you can use handouts, worksheets, the students’ own books, magazines, some sort of audio recorder. Just be creative!
  2. There needs to be accountability. You need to hold your students responsible for studying the materials beforehand. You can work with some sort of reward system, like positive reinforcement, and give them points for accessing the materials or using the beginning of the lesson to check if they really did it. Peer pressure and accountability may do the trick.
  3. But, to be fair, some students will still not study the materials and you need to allow them to do it at the beginning of the lesson. You can have a computer, tablet or phone (handout or worksheet) in a corner where students can go to and do whatever they can in 5 minutes or have other students help by explaining what they studied at home. If this behavior persists, you may think of ways to address this by talking to your students and making them realize that not engaging with the materials is not the way to go.

If you’re still not convinced you should give it a try, think of how education will change in the next couple of years. Authors from different areas seem to agree that there will be a major shift from teaching content exclusively to teaching competencies and one way we’ll be able to do that is by turning our classrooms into labs. Students will come and go to practice the content they started learning at home and will not only apply, analyze, evaluate, and create with it, but also practice collaboration, leadership, self-regulation, strategic planning, communicating clearly, setting and sticking to goals, empathy, tolerance and more.

I say give it a shot and, even if it fails the first time you do it, try again. It doesn’t have to be every lesson. Just step out of your comfort zone and see the magic happen. Then you can come here and leave a comment about your experience.

Have a great week!

English as a Lingua Franca: A case between Brazil and Iraq

Photo I took in Rio de Janeiro when Afrah was moving to Iran

About a year ago, quite unpretensiously, checking my Facebook timeline, a message popped up on the right corner. It was a woman from a city in Iraq. She had sent me a message with a very simple request: help her improve her English. Unfortunately, as I think many people would have felt, I was initially apprehensive to accept her as Facebook friend. The fact that she was from Iraq rang a sort of alarm in my head. This may sound like a horrible thing to write, but don’t we normally associate Iraq with terrorism and sociopolitical chaos?  Sadly, I believe we do, thanks to the media bombarding us with all sorts of terrible news from that country.

I decided to put aside my own prejudice and befriend her. It was definitely the right decision and I’ll tell you the story. Afrah has opened my eyes to what’s going on in her country and what the Iraqi people are like. She is a normal young woman who went to college to study English. She lived in a big house with her parents, siblings, and her pretty little nieces. Her level of English required some work, though. But most of the time we had no problem to communicate. That was when I decided to invite her to talk to my students through my Facebook messenger in class. Since she was not allowed to show herself to us, we used audio messages. I’ll never forget the first time she said hello to my teenage students and how happy she was to hear their voices. From that time on, we used Afrah’s help in every possible way we could think of, including WhatsApp calls to interview her, photos of her house to learn about houses and rooms, letters and postcards, you name it. She became part of my Project-Based Learning (PBL) adventure.

That short story brings me to a concept that has been going around for some time now. It’s English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). According to Henry Widdowson:

‘The modified forms of the language, which are actually in use should be recognised as a legitimate development of English as an international means of communication. The functional range of the language . . . enables its users to express themselves more freely without having to conform to norms, which represent the socio-cultural identity of other people (in Jenkins, 2007)’. 

You see, in short, ELF is the global use of English that focuses on communication rather than accuracy. It’s what allows us, non-native speakers of basically any level, to have a meaningful conversation with someone from the most unusual parts of the globe. It’s what allowed Afrah to talk to me and tell me her impressive story.

I found out that she wanted to become a teacher. She told me she loved fish and pizza. She sent me a photo of her little nieces dressed like Santa Claus for Xmas. Her father is the kindest man she knows, who likes everybody and is helping oppressed families being slaughtered by Daaish (terrorist group) in Mosul. She’s a person. A human being, just like any other and she inspired an article I wrote for the Braz-Tesol Newsletter.

Braz-Tesol Newsletter_Andre Hedlund

The best part is that I’ve had some impact on her. A couple of months ago she decided to pursue a master’s degree in Iran and now she is studying Methodologies in ELT. It was such a brave move for her to leave her family for a while and continue her education. Her father is supporting her and she couldn’t be any happier. She told me today that she’ll write her thesis on PBL and I’m over the moon with the news! And to think that I could’ve ignored her…

As a non-native English teacher and proficiency certificates examiner, I realize the importance of teaching accuracy and sticking to the rules. However, I can’t help thinking about how relevant ELF has become and how it serves as an instrument of collaboration. Through ELF we can learn about people’s culture, listen to their stories and relate to them, destroying stereotypes and promoting more tolerance.

I’m really proud of my friend Afrah and I want her to keep reaching for the stars.

حظا موفقا يا صديقي

What about you? What do you think about ELF? Here’s a short article from the British Council, coincidentally in Iran, to help you organize your thoughts:


I’d love to read some comments.


Jenkins, J. 2007. English as a lingua franca: attitude and identity. Oxford: Oxford
University Press

PBL Taken Further: 5 Ps to Get your Students Around it on International Trips


Closing ceremony of Goiás Without Borders with the 300 public school students who passed the selection process

Hello, folks! First of all, I’d like to apologize for not writing for some time. I’ve been quite busy and involved in many projects. But I’m back and I have great news, which will be duly announced soon.

One of the main reasons why I’ve been absent is the wonderful Goiás Without Borders program in which I took part as the organizer of the English Immersion course with Partners of the Americas Goiás. The purpose of this program is to send 125 public school students to the USA for a month to have intensive English classes and work on global competencies. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am to be part of such a beautiful concept, especially considering it is the first edition and our 30-hour English prep course was a tremendous success. So here’s my huge THANK YOU to all those bright young people (the first 125 and the other 175 who are going next year) who gave me, and 21 other teachers as well as my dear colleagues Rejane and Elisa, hope to carry on fighting for our education. YOU ROCKED BIG TIME!!!

Another special THANK YOU note to a dedicated young man by the name of Guilherme. He’s the reason why I’m writing this post. Guilherme approached me on the first day of class and said: “I have an idea for a project”. I was running around the place making sure everything was OK and didn’t give him the proper attention at first. Then we finally sat and discussed his ideas. He wanted the 125 gang to record their experience in the USA so that they can share it with future candidates of the program. I thought his idea was brilliant and decided to take it one step further. Why not use that incredible energy of over 100 eager adolescents to produce authentic materials we can share with teachers and students in Brazil and the world? Think about it for a second: authentic videos, images, audio files of New Jersey and New York in the winter.

Since these young people are between 15 and 19 years old, we already have a consent from their parents to share whatever materials they produce and, considering that they’re posting it on social media under the hashtag #gopartnersgo, #goiassemfronteiras, #mrtrunktravels and #fasamgoiassemfronteiras, feel free to access whatever you want in a month or so.

Here are the 5 Ps, and many questions, for them to get started and for you, dear teacher, to share with your students who might be taking their vacation abroad.

Suggestion: If you’re a teacher or educator, you might want to take a look at the entry I wrote with Stephan Hughes on PBL first.


Project-Based Learning starts with a problem, a driving question. So, think about things you would like to know about the USA and how you can investigate them to discover what they are, how they work, why they are that way etc. Maybe you want to know how people celebrate Christmas or if American students are more dedicated than Brazilian students. Perhaps you would like to find out how universities work or the nationality of most immigrants in New York. 

Now you need to know how you’re going to make your material available for others to see/hear/feel. Is it going to be mostly audio or video? Don’t you think writing short texts and interviews are also a good idea? Are you going to record very long videos or short ones? Can you use Facebook, Instagram or YouTube to share this material? Can you use WordPress or Blogger to create a blog? What about a podcast? 

You’ve decided to make short videos of people’s leisure time in New Jersey and post them on Facebook for example. What if someone else had a similar idea? There are 125 people involved in the project! You need to come up with rules and set goals. Also, you don’t want to have too many videos about uninteresting things. How many videos/podcasts/texts/photos will you produce every week? Remember: quality is more important than quantity. Will you edit or animate anything? Do you have all the skills you need to do a great job? Can you find someone to help you with editing tips or even to edit for you? What if you had different sections or columns (daily life, culture, arts, etc) to make things easier for you and the whole crew? Did you prepare your interview questions in advance?

Time to go out there collecting data. Does your phone have a fully charged battery? Do you have something to write on? Have you asked people’s permission to film or record them? Are you keeping track of things you’re collecting? Where you save everything you collected?

You’ve got the material and now you have to present it to the world. Have you revised it? Are you struggling with the writing? Can anyone help you? Is there a logo or a slogan you would like to add? Are the videos/images/texts/podcasts interconnected? 

Rather than giving you answers, I thought I’d ask you a lot of questions to see what might come up. Remember that this is a great opportunity for you to document your experience and help people who might go through the same things as you or even never have the chance to do so. Can’t wait for the results!

If we used this force, young people’s eagerness to find out about things, about people, and about the world, I’m sure we’d be not only nurturing curiosity but also helping them discover what roles they can play in our globalized world. Isn’t education supposed to do that after all? Join us with your students!

Managing Project-Based Learning – A collaboration with Stephan Hughes (the first of many, hopefully)


Implementing project-based learning in a content-based syllabus has become the order du jour in educational contexts in general and in ELT in particular. Academic directors and coordinators face the responsibility of delivering meaningful, student-driven, student-generated learning opportunities, which, in turn, will foster the much sought-after skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. This post outlines my role as coordinator responsible for implementing projects in a language centre as a prelude to André Hedlund’s narrative of his experience with projects at CCBEU Goiânia.

Based on the core design elements of PBL, the text analyses, therefore, the implications in managing projects and ensuring minimal success. The first important point to consider in any project-based or program-oriented learning program is success and failure co-exist – we expect students to achieve pre-established goals while at the same time are prepared to redesign the project if the steps do not go as planned. PBL makes room for activities to take different turns in accordance with the profile of the teacher and students involved. This is why any project used in a learning context must have the so-called EVALUATION stage, in which teacher, students and other stakeholders give their appraisal of how well the project achieved its original goals.

That said, as someone acting in the back office, I believe there are nine stages prior to the Evaluation mentioned above.

CONCEPTUALIZATION – As coordinators, we have to apprehend the rationale in order to clarify teachers’ questions and allay their fears especially if they have never done anything like that before.

TIMETABLE FIT – We have to find room for these new project-based activities in a pre-established schedule/outline based on content

TAILORING AND PARAMETRIZATION – The next step involves choosing themes relevant to the age groups and in line with national or international standards, e.g. The UN Global Goals

DEFINING REACH AND IMPACT – We need to think how such a project can cause an impact on learners’ life skills, on family, on the school, and on society.

BENCHMARKING – Looking at what other schools or groups are doing can make a huge difference in the design and relevance.

DEFINING ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES – Knowing who is responsible for what and how these roles interweave is a must for the coordinator

DESIGNING A WORKFLOW – The coordinator can do this in advance or can work in tandem with teachers and/or students to determine the number of tasks and the time each task will take over the course of the period.

CHOOSING COMMUNICATION TOOLS – in the age of instant communication, using online tools and apps can be the key to meeting the initial expectations

MONITORING PROGRESS – The online apps above can also facilitate status updates and adjustments along the way instead of at the end of the project

EVALUATING RESULTS – Everyone directly involved should have a chance to assess the effectiveness of the project and to reflect on what they gained from the experience.

My Experience at CCBEU Goiânia

This section will attempt to illustrate Stephan Hughes’ thorough introduction through the experience I’ve been conducting at my school in Goiânia and align it with his nine stages. However, before I dare explore the subject in more detail, I must highlight 3 impediments that kept me from successfully implementing PBL last semester. These are insights I gained the hard way and cannot be taken lightly if success is what you are after:

  1. PBL means long-term commitment. Having your students work on a project that will be designed, executed and exhibited in a week or even a month is not the idea behind PBL.
  2. PBL is all about them. When you are the one who picks the project and tells them what each one needs to do, you are certainly missing the point of what PBL means. The project will arise from your students and only then will they be able to call it THEIR project.
  3. Will the transition be smooth? Don’t take it to the bank. It takes time to get your students in the PBL framework and the key aspect that helped me was to share with them as much as possible about PBL
  4. PBL should impact their communities, be it local, regional or global. There should be an external audience that will follow what they are doing and learn from it.

As a teacher, unlike Stephan’s role in this entry, I had to make sure my students felt prepared to embark on the PBL journey. I carefully chose articles, videos, and interviews that promoted a view I profoundly believe in, that of PBL as a learning catalyst. In order to do so, in the first three weeks of class, I showed examples of schools that had successfully used PBL and how that affected learning outcomes (BENCHMARKING). We also discussed the Brazilian educational reality (with saddening international ranking statistics) and my students started to think critically about what our content-based schooling system has been promoting. Little by little, through PBL’s own tools, such as investigation, collaboration, and critical thinking, they realized that working with projects, rather than memorizing absolute truths to pass a standardized test, had a real-life connection.

Then we established three phases (TIMETABLE FIT): Phase I: CONCEPTUALIZATION, DEFINING ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES, Strategic Planning (August- beginning of September); Phase II: Execution, MONITORING PROGRESS, and guidance/correction/feedback (September – Beginning of November); Phase III: Exhibition and EVALUATION RESULTS (end of November).

On phase I, every group had the responsibility of doing something groups rarely do. They had to look at their Scope & Sequence and brainstorm how to conceptualize a project that would take into account the communicative functions and the related grammar structures and vocabulary they were supposed to know by the end of the semester. It was a fun and rewarding challenge. My most advanced groups (with older students) took control of their learning and discussed, as a coherent team, what they could do. It felt like I was in a business meeting witnessing the birth of an innovative idea or product. I taught them the 5W2H (why, what, where, when, who, how, how much/many) technique and they drew a table on the whiteboard and communicated their thoughts and feelings, appreciating the fact that they were given a say and, consequently, a powerful voice (TAILORING AND PARAMETRIZATION). I became a wingman, sitting in a corner, simply adjusting things.

DEFINING REACH AND IMPACT: I saw a clever and dedicated girl conduct the symphony from the board with my 13-color markers.  She has what it takes to be a leader. I observed a young adult who had always looked a bit uninspired and exhausted go on for minutes and more minutes about why they should write a book and how they could do it. He could certainly be a successful author or movie producer.  I watched four young people transform what their book offered into a voyage in the depths of love and how it is celebrated around the world, how the local media cover it, and how they can help people find it. I can see them as future journalists, project managers, psychologists, and, to be honest, whatever makes them want to put a ding in the universe.

Well, here are the projects according to their levels and based on their syllabus:

CEFR-A1 (10yo) – People Around the World – Page comparing different people’s habits

CEFR-A2 (13yo) – My City, Your City – Page comparing what cities in the word offer

CEFR – B1 (15yo) – All You Need is Love – Report on how love is celebrated around the world

CEFR – B1 (adults) – Not Just another Book – Literary book based on the units of their book

CEFR – B2 (16yo) – Life TML – Instagram Account about travel, culture, learning, and society

Phase II is about making things happen. They have their project idea, their plan, the tools they need to communicate with each other via WhatsApp or Edmodo (CHOOSING COMMUNICATION TOOL), and the right motivation. Now, to make their projects flourish, and reinforce the PBL schema in their minds, I had to make some adaptations in the structure of my lesson. I moved from the PPP framework to this 7-stage framework that places a lot of emphasis on investigation:

  1. Conversation (7 – 10 min): We discuss 6 topics that will help them brainstorm and add something to their project;
  2. Revision (5 – 7 min): We actively retrieve what was done in the previous lesson in order for them to keep track of their progress;
  3. Problem (5 -7 min): I show them a prompt (normally a photo) to provoke an insight. This will be the problem they need to solve by the end of the lesson. It is related to their project and, obviously, their book;
  4. Inquiry (10 -12 min): This is the moment for questioning. I normally write 5 questions that will help them think about strategies to solve the problem and encourage them to ask me as many questions as possible;
  5. Investigation (25 – 35 min): This is the most important and communicative part of the lesson. They need to use whatever tools they have in hand (worksheet, cell phone, book, each other, magazine, video) to come up with possible solutions to the problem;
  6. Exhibition and Extension (15 – 20 min): They share their findings and suggest possible solutions. I make recommendations and ask the other groups (in case there are any) to do the same. Then I point out possible extended work with links, references, and ideas (this is how I call homework nowadays);
  7. Wrap up (2 – 5 min): We reflect on our lesson and whether each one played the role they were supposed to. We also establish our next steps;

Stages 3 to 6 are vital to PBL. That’s when our students are provided with the time to engage in their projects during our lesson. However, a major part of the project needs to be developed outside the school, thus maximizing their contact with the language.

So far that’s what we have. I honestly feel that most of the students are excited to be working on their project and that their learning outcomes have improved. We need to work hard for two months now to be able to present our projects to the community and, naturally, their parents. That’s when I’ll be better able to assess how much PBL has contributed to their learning. For now, I’ll leave you with some photos of the process and an invitation to give PBL a shot.

My CEFR-B1+ has already started posting on Instagram.
My CEFR-A2 is investigating how long it takes to get to places in some of the cities they chose.