User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Learning on the Edge

with 16 comments

One of the first exercises I ask the pre-service and in-service teachers in my Psychology of Learning course to do is define learning.  This is not a look-up-in-the-dictionary type of activity.  They are asked to do so using their own thoughts, images, body movements, and chants/music.  It is a difficult exercise.

Actually, I find it quite baffling that educators don’t more often explore the question, “What is learning?”  Isn’t learning the ultimate goal, vision, mission of education?  If so, why is the implementation of learning, often known as curriculum, done so without a clear, clean, shared knowledge about what learning is?

I believe, as Grant Wiggins does:

Though we often lose sight of this basic fact, the point of learning is not just to know things but to be a different person – more mature, more wise, more self-disciplined, more effective, and more productive in the broadest sense. Knowledge is an indicator of educational success, not the aim.

  • If curriculum is a tour through what is known, how is knowledge ever advanced?
  • If a primary goal of education is high-level performance in the world going forward, how can marching through old knowledge out of context optimally prepare us to perform?

Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.

Recently, I attended Unplug’d, a type of think tank to explore education reform.  Its unofficial subtitle was learning on the edge as it occurred at a retreat center called Northern Edge Algonquin.  My thoughts and discussions at this gathering sparked ideas about the characteristics of learning on the edge. I believe that some of these include:

  • The Map is Not the Territory
  • There is Recognition, Acknowledgment, and Embracing of Unknowns
  • It Requires Jumping Into the Deep End
  • It is a Messy Experience Shared by Everyone in the Learning Community

The Map is Not the Territory

Jorge Luis Borges is said to have remarked that the only accurate representation of reality would be reality itself; by extension, the only accurate map of the Earth would be the exact shape and size of the Earth itself. Since we cannot construct such a map, we accept a certain level of inaccuracy from our maps.  As Borges implied, we must expect some inaccuracies of this kind. But even beyond this simple separation of reality and representation, our society functions in relative naïveté about the accuracy of maps. (

A similar illusion has evolved in education.  There is a belief that the curriculum maps, lesson plans, and teaching scripts are the territory, that all there needs to be known can be taught with these “maps”.

Learning on the edge recognizes that just like geographic maps, curriculum and lesson plans are inaccurate and incomplete maps of what can be learned and known.  Learning on the edge may be guided by curricular maps but there is an expectation of digressions, exploration of alternatives, and at times, throwing out the map altogether.  Learning on the edge comes with an awareness that the map may or may not be an accurate representation of reality.  It recognizes that each educator’s and student’s journey is unique, personalized, and self-determined.  Another illusion of institutionalized education is that a student’s learning can be determined.  Even with standardized curriculum, each students takes from it what s/he needs and desires.

What follows are the visual notes that Giulia Forsthye drew to depict the discussion our Unplug’d group had about the Map is Not the Territory.

Image by Giulia Forsthye.  Its inspiration came from

There is Recognition, Acknowledgment, and Embracing of Unknowns

Terra incognita or terra ignota (Latin “unknown land,”) is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented. The term was reintroduced in the fifteenth century from the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s work during the Age of Discovery.

Terra incognitia also means a new or unexplored field of knowledge. Learning on the edge has a built-in assumption that there are unknowns beyond the edge, there are things yet to be discovered by all members of the learning community, students and teachers alike.  It becomes a journey of explorations, of new insights and discoveries, of seeing things never seen before.

It Requires Jumping Into the Deep End

Learning on the edge is not about dipping toes in the water or wading in slowly from the shallows.  It requires a full commitment to jump in and get fully immersed.  The shock, at first, may take breath away, (Jumping in cold waters always does). This is especially true for those educators and learners who are used to journeying along the roads most traveled, who function and live by the tried and tested curriculum, lesson plans, and instructional and learning strategies.  But educators and students, who seek to learn on the edge, understand that there is only so much you can learn in one place, that terminal objectives and class outcomes are just that terminal. (Terminal: Of, at, relating to, or forming a limit, boundary, extremity, or end.

There’s only so much you can learn in one place
The more that I wait, the more time that I waste
Are you ready to jump
Get ready to jump
Don’t ever look back
Yes, I’m ready to jump
Just take my hand
get ready to jump

(Yep, Madonna’s Jump)

The act of jumping is a kinesthetic experience.  Similarly, learning on the edge and often in the deep end becomes a full body experience. Learning experiences are heard, seen, felt.  Changes in thinking, doing, knowing, being occur due to these experiences.

It is a Messy Experience Shared by Everyone in the Learning Community

Learning on the edge is a messy affair.  Thoughts and ideas get muddied.  Frustrations occur as there are few correct answers.  More questions and puzzlements arise.  Old paradigms are shaken up.

It is a shared experience of all members of the learning community – all students and all educators.  All members struggle, all are changed due to the experience.

Good learning is not a matter of finding a happy medium where both parties are transformed as little as possible. Rather, both parties must be maximally transformed—in a sense deformed. There is violence in learning. We cannot learn something without eating it, yet we cannot really learn it either without being chewed up.”
— Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries, Oxford University Press, 1986.

I want my students to learn, I want to be a facilitator of learning.  I do not have the goal of transmitting facts and knowledge so my students, at best, acquire a surface understanding. So maybe what I describe is not learning on the edge but learning as it should be. It is not easy to facilitate in traditional institutions but it is possible . . . and the rewards of seeing and hearing student testimonies of their significant learning are priceless.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 19, 2012 at 11:08 pm

16 Responses

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  1. Another thought-provoking post Jackie. Thank you.

    MV Education Services

    August 20, 2012 at 12:22 am

    • Thank you!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:24 am

  2. Nice post. I agree that educators should be asking themselves the question, “what is learning?”, and I would suggest that parents should ask this question too.


    August 20, 2012 at 12:42 am

    • Thanks –
      Absolutely agree that parents should ask and also address the question, “What is learning?”

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:44 am

  3. What a lovely post. I love when a writer gives me something to chew that I can’t digest all at once. Thanks for that.

    Heidi Siwak (@HeidiSiwak)

    August 20, 2012 at 2:05 am

    • Wow – what I great compliment, Heidi – I strive for that with most posts taking several days to write. Really appreciate the feedback and noticing/tweeting one of my favorite lines, “”curriculum and lesson plans are inaccurate and incomplete maps of what can be learned and known.”

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:14 am

  4. Yes, learning is messy and that’s just how it should be. Defining learning seems to be hard and so it should be and that’s because how we learn is personal and different from everyone else. Simply, I like to think about it as the feeling inside that makes me want to know more and understand that it’s about being in a constant state of questioning what’s next in my quest for understanding the world around me with others. Now, that is messy, isn’t it? Jackie, I really appreciate how you connect the state of being with learning – it’s experiential, contextual and in the moment.

    Lisa Neale

    August 20, 2012 at 3:14 am

    • Lisa – You understand learning because you are a natural learner. How do we facilitate that constant state of questioning in others??

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  5. Jackie, what a well-written response to all we tried to encompass over our three days together! As I plan how I will work to facilitate learning in my school building this year, I know that I will continue to come back to this.

    There is so much emotion attached to learning, and deep frustration can be part of the process. Supporting learners as whole beings is critical, and this is one thing I learned from you “at the edge”.

    Thank you for sharing this and helping my learning move forward.

    P.S. Why are so many educators up in the middle of the night? 🙂


    August 20, 2012 at 9:12 am

    • Thanks so much, Donna! You model being a lifelong learner and I know the principal sets the climate for the school. The teachers and students who like/love to learn will find you a breath of fresh air.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm

  6. Sadly we do have to follow “the map” so to speak in the public school context. Thank you for this post. Like Heidi I will need days to chew on this one. We seem to feel the same way about learning and the “system”. I want to thank you again for being a super supportive and inspiring “roomie” last weekend.


    August 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    • I think there needs to be a balance, Erin – I intentionally selected gifted ed and PE so the students and I could create our own maps, but one of my colleagues, a 4th grade teacher, had her students “doing” the curriculum AND constructivist/discovery learning.

      I very much enjoyed our in the bunks chat on Friday eve – one of those special life moments that last!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      • I agree about balance – it’s just that the curriculum, and test prep, seem to outweigh passion… oh well, I’ll keep on trying. 🙂 And I need to figure out how to get my own avatar on here! I’ll get there.


        August 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm

  7. I love, love, love your stuff. I am currently a middle school gifted facilitator and have been for the past 8 years. I try to incorporate this into my classroom and students are sometimes reluctant — they just want the easy way. I don’t let them have the easy way. I recently questioned authority in regard to the best interest of my self and my gifted students so next year I have been assigned to be the In School Suspension teacher. I believe they think I will quit so they won’t have to pay my 10 year experience, masters level salary. After I thought about it I am considering going for my Masters +30 and Phd. ;}

    Karen Cotta

    May 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    • Wow – Karen, I have such empathy. I used to teach gifted. The kids liked how I challenged them. Their teachers (I had them one day a week) and some of their parents did not. I blog because I believe it is important to have a voice. I hope you find a venue, place to have a voice!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm

  8. I taught art design technology for thirty years ..two basic problems to get the students to see & then use their imagination creatively …The school system will never teach this this as the real basis for education ie.
    Education should be to teach students how to research …
    The reason both state & most private education is designed by academics for academic production lines

    The answer is obvious build an educational platform which allows students to bye pass the academics ..

    Ian ceo brain project

    ian amor

    November 24, 2014 at 11:14 am

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