Learning Styles as Planning, and Learning Styles as Situated Action

Continuing my thoughts about how learning styles could affect people’s encounters with machines, I wanted to examine Suchman’s Planning and Situated Action (1987 and 2007) in an educational context. Curriculum as experienced by humans might have similarities that can help inform about interaction as experienced between individual and groups of humans and machines.

Firstly, it appears learning style models have weaknesses. A review of 13 of the most influential learning style models (Coffield et al, 2004) highlights a lack of theoretical rigour, conceptual confusion and poor quality in learning style models, and an over-reliance on categorisation schemes. Attempts to categorise and then design pedagogy around these feels much more like planning, than planning with situated action. It underplays the idea that “lessons are always co-constructed by teacher and students together, through the unfolding actions and interactions” (Lemke, 1985). Coffield et al (2004) do not rule out the existence of learning styles; their primary concerns are with the research field, and use of learning styles to dictate interventions.

Wells (2003) provides an early discussion of “situated enactment of learning and teaching” highlighting the non-deterministic nature of plans. Whilst undertaking recent team-based activities in our MRes Digital Civics modules, each person does not use a single consistent learning style. Instead it is more fluid – an improvisation based on the materials, objectives and most importantly the other participants – just like Suchman’s analysis (1987) of photocopier users when they try to help each other. These interactions vary session-to-session, and group-to-group. Fortunately, our combined group agency is not entirely pre-scripted and predictable. It is situated action influenced by our experiences, conventions, traditions, knowledge, collaborations, and of course the instructor and lesson plan.

There are equivalences in the dynamics of (human-human) teacher-learner interaction with machine-human interaction – from an initial imbalance of understanding/knowledge, agency emerges during interpretation. The photocopier (Suchman, 1987) was trying to teach “users” its plan, and various interfaces, guides and handbooks were simply alternative methods of broadcasting a fixed plan to address different imagined learning styles.

Furthermore, teachers and learners are not the same, and Suchman (1987) proposes that machines and humans are complementary rather than equivalent. The result (knowledge) again is not a fixed pre-determined outcome, but like Suchman’s flexible and moving “boundaries”, instead is something which is relational, situational and changes over time.

The outcome of an interaction cannot simply be pre-planned, but needs to consider the context, and the interactions between all the participating parties at the time. Human learning styles should inform research in Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

By considering the ways people approach and make sense of unfamiliar problems with other humans and technology, we reveal alternative approaches to how interpretation is encountered, working our way towards better solutions. In turn we can embrace some degree of ambiguity so digital technology is permitted to understand and facilitate people’s actions and circumstances, rather than pre-define these encounters. Learning styles are considerations in both planning and situated action.


Jay L. Lemke. 1985. Using Language in the Classroom (Specialised curriculum: language & learning). Deakin University Press, Australia. ISBN 0730003086.

Frank C. Coffield, David V. M. Moseley, Elaine Hall, Kathryn Ecclestone. 2004. Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post‐16 Learning: Findings of a Systematic and Critical Review. Learning and Skills Research Centre, London.

Lucy Suchman. 1987. Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human–Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521337399.

Lucy Suchman. 2007. Human-Machine Reconfigurations – Plans and Situated Actions. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 052167588X.

Gordon Wells. 2003. Lesson Plans and Situated Learning-and-Teaching. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12:2, 265-272.


Author’s own. School reports.

Critical engagement and intra-cultural knowing: A case for cross-cultural learning

Cross-cultural learning within the British curriculum has often been explored through international historical events, practices and rituals. Whilst this may be interesting to highlight concepts of diversity we believe there is need for curriculum to investigate intra-national cultures to dispel notions of cultural homogeneity within nation-states.


We worked with two schools in the Northeast of England, Highfield Middle School in Prudhoe, Northumberland and Gosforth Central Middle School (GCMS) in Gosforth, Newcastle. Prudhoe is predominantly a mono-cultural town with strong mining history and Newcastle has the most diverse cultural population living in the northeast. We wanted to capitalise on these two aspects and explore concepts of cross-cultural learning. We tasked the students from Highfield Middle School to research various aspects of migration within their community while students in GCMS researched within their community on mining history.

Students from GCMS visited the local colliery museums to know more on the life of a miner and their close-knit community. They also spoke to their family members who had experience going down the coal-pits and gathered information from the real world. Students at Highfield Middle conducted interviews with their family and community members to understand how, when and why their families moved to Prudhoe. Using this real-world information students produced physical artefacts like board games, model of a working coal-mine, art work depicting life of a miner including performance of scenes from mining related plays such as Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters. They then developed digital mysteries using the Thinking Kit platform, a multi-user, computer based learning application designed to promote collaboration and higher order thinking skills.

A key aspect of this research was to encourage students to identify nuances within their own culture through intra-cultural learning. Building on from our previous work with international linking of schools, we applied concepts of peer-expert in this research. Students from each school evaluated the digital mysteries developed by their peers in the other school, using their knowledge of their local culture to become peer-experts. As well as linking the two schools digitally, a physical link was established through an open day event where teachers and students from Highfield Middle School visited GCMS in Newcastle. Students from both schools presented their physical and digital artefacts to retell the stories gathered from their local community. The open day also provided opportunity for teachers from the two schools to come together and discuss the activity and its impact on their agency.

This activity has highlighted how real-world learning encourages students to make deep connections with their learning materials. We approached the research through project based learning (PBL) pedagogy which initiates and supports real-world learning. Engaging in a technology-mediated PBL method has highlighted gaps such as the absence of a student-focused project management system that students can collaborate from different geographical sites. Through our work, we also explored the critical role of brokerage; where intermediary actors facilitate exchanges between other actors that are otherwise unable to access each other, to embed cross-cultural learning within curriculum. We believe for effective cross-cultural learning to take place, students should be encouraged to learn the nuances within their own culture to help them appreciate its fluidity and in doing so students learn about international cultures without any preset stereotype or biases. We reckon digital technologies has a crucial role to scaffold student learning and offer experiences that will help them to critically engage and make deep connections with their learning materials.

For more information please contact Vidya Sarangapani.

Getting young people thinking active

For nearly a decade primary school children in the North East have learned about fitness and nutrition through Newcastle United Foundation’s Match Fit programme. Now, a digital civics project aims to enhance this six-week programme by using digital technologies to further increase the fitness and health awareness of primary school children.

Students taking part in Match Fit learn about nutrition and exercise, as well as taking part in extensive physical activity, all inspired by the fitness regime of Newcastle United’s footballers.

ThinkActive.io takes this project one stage further by using sensors to measure the movement of the children to see just how active they are. Inexpensive fitness trackers report on step counts over the course of the programme to evidence behaviour change.

The goal of ThinkActive.io is to is to engage students with their own activity and nutritional data to enhance data literacy and help them learn about how health and fitness can be supported by technology. The data collected through the programme can also be used as an engaging educational resource by teachers; hopefully a more critical understanding of data provides students with the skills to be engaged digital citizens.

For more information please contact Andy Garbett.

Feedback from peer-experts impacts cross-cultural learning

Today’s globalised world has sparked our interest to know more about the diverse cultures and heritages that voluntarily or involuntarily shape our everyday lives. Education can prepare students to adapt and live fulfilling lives in this globalised world, but often cultural learning through the curriculum is delivered in a rigid manner. We were keen to explore how the use of digital tools could harness the lived experiences of young people around the world to develop deeper cultural understanding and impact flexibility in the school curriculum.


We embarked on an international cross-cultural learning activity with two schools in India and the UK over a period of three months, exploring notions of culture prevalent in the two countries through the eyes of the students. 30 students from The Indian School in New Delhi connected with 30 students from Gosforth Central Middle School in Newcastle upon Tyne. Through a project-based learning approach, students created physical and digital artefacts to represent their learning about the other culture by engaging with real-world contacts on their chosen topic. Students in India had to develop artefacts relating to UK and students in UK developed artefacts relating to India.

Students worked collaboratively in groups to develop artefacts such as travelogues depicting an imagined journey, models of iconic tourist attractions, music history and other physical artefacts to showcase their learning. They then developed digital mysteries using the Thinking Kit platform, a multi-user, computer based learning application designed to promote collaboration and higher order thinking skills.

A key aspect of this research project was to develop higher-order thinking in young people by encouraging them to provide feedback as peer-experts. Students from the two schools downloaded the digital mysteries created by their peers in the other school. They solved the digital mysteries and provided feedback on the content, context and aesthetics. Providing feedback to their peers encouraged students to harness their expertise and knowledge about the culture they were raised in; they became peer-experts.

Sharing feedback in both directions encouraged students to think deeply about both cultures and increased the impact of the feedback. After receiving the critique students highlighted how they would engage with the feedback and what they would do differently if they had to do the project again. This feedback led some of the students to re-visit their digital mystery, whilst others developed a completely new project plan.

Our international cross-cultural learning activity has highlighted that the presence of culture is not just in objects but also in practices and lived experiences of people. Harnessing the role of peer-experts, we were able develop a dialogic learning activity between the students to expand their understanding of how peer-feedback can shape and inform their learning.

We would like to thank the students and teachers at The Indian School, New Delhi and Gosforth Central Middle School, Newcastle for collaborating with us on this project. We also extend our thanks to IIIT-Delhi for helping us identify suitable collaborators alongside providing us on-the-ground logistical support in India.

For more information please contact Vidya Sarangapani.

Reflecting on group learning

Group Spinner is a digital visual tool intended to help teachers observe and reflect on children’s collaborative technology-enhanced learning activities in the classroom.

Based on a radar chart and a set of indicators, Group Spinner allows teachers to record in-class observations as to different aspects of group learning and learning behaviors, beyond the limited knowledge acquisition measures.

Depending on teachers’ level of experience and pedagogy, they considered Group Spinner to be a valuable tool to support:

  • Awareness: what are the other important factor beyond subject-knowledge learning outcome to look at (e.g. collaboration skills, using technology, motivation and engagement),
  • Reflection: the light-weight process of recording the observations using the indicators, transferring them to graphs and the ability to visualise development of students’ behaviour over sessions provides a powerful reflection tool for teachers about both their teaching and students’ development.
  • Communication: the visual presentation is an effective tool to communicate positive or negative changes in learning and learning behaviours to the students.
  • Planning: the ability to visualise changes in learning and learning behaviours across a number of sessions and for different student groups helps teachers in identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses and to plan future sessions accordingly.

The current axes and set of indicators (rubric) for Group Spinner fits well with self-organized learning environment approach. However, it is still applicable to more general setting and even to settings where no technology is used. The next iteration of Group Spinner will allow users to customise, or create from scratch, their own set of axes and indicators (templates) to meet more general usage scenarios even beyond education such as health and sport.

For more information please contact Ahmed Kharrufa, who also wrote this post.

Deep learning through classroom-community collaboration

The pluralist nature of our society has encouraged young people to explore and experience cultural diversity from a very young age. Schools are championing this approach by entwining curriculum topics with themes of cultural diversity but often this consists of exploring factual knowledge of rituals, practices, objects and historical events. We were keen to develop a learning approach that encouraged young people to explore real-world settings and tap into the knowledge assets present within their local communities.

We worked with 128 students from Gosforth Central Middle School, Newcastle upon Tyne over two terms on the topic of migration, incorporating elements of history, geography and religious education. Students worked in groups and collaborated with community members, parents, grandparents, relatives and friends to collect stories of migration and used these stories to further develop physical and digital artefacts.

Working in groups collaboratively, students interviewed young immigrants, explored immigration policies in political manifestos, created interactive board games and other artefacts to share the stories gathered from their community. Some students used the Thinking Kit platform, a multi-user, computer based learning application, designed to promote collaboration and higher order thinking skills, to develop interactive digital activities.

By talking to their community members over a sustained period of time, students could display empathic attitudes to learning. Using the experiences of others led to deep learning, a learning approach where students focus on understanding the meaning of the learning material, relate new ideas to previous knowledge and use concepts to make sense of their own everyday experiences in relation to others. This deep learning was possible due to the real-world conversations that children engaged in, outside their classrooms.

The use of the Thinking Kit digital application was important to amalgamate the personal learning of the students into the school curriculum and make it accessible to the wider student community. The digital artefacts are now a learning resource and are available as free downloads to anyone interested in student-led approaches to learning.

By encouraging students to link with the real-world, we want to create opportunities for students to question, reason and critically engage with the information available to them. In doing so we wish to support students to become active participants in an increasingly globalised world, bridging the gap between classrooms and communities.

For more information please contact Vidya Sarangapani.

Lab talk: Hanna Celina

Self-Organised Learning Environments have revolutionised education by giving students control over their learning. Hanna Celina has taken this concept and applied it to online courses to creating Learning Circle. In partnership with United World Colleges, Learning Circle delivers five-week online courses for high school children around the world. The courses focus on activism and encourage students to take an active role in shaping the course, taking part in group discussions and working on projects together.

Lab talk: Oliver Harness

Complex organisations such as schools cater well for the majority of their pupils, but those pupils who do not fit neatly into the organisational systems and structures may be neglected or need added support. Schools regularly collect and collate pupil performance and attendance data in an attempt to identify those not meeting normative standards. However those pupils with complex needs ‘get lost’ in this normative monitoring. Such pupils are those with special educational needs, or who are carers, or who are looked after.

It is those whose needs sit outside of the majority who need the most specific individualised support, yet they are most likely to be ‘missed’ by a complex organisation. Innovative IT solutions may help to enable managers meet to the needs of all pupils in schools, even those often marginalised by organisational systems and structures.

Oliver Harness, a School Improvement Advisor in Hartlepool, discusses the issues of support in schools, and opens a discussion about ways in which technology can help.

Take control of your education

EventMovement is an online platform that allows people to design and commission educational events. The Robinson Library at Newcastle University is holding a competition for students to use EventMovement to design events they would like to see, with a £250 for the best idea.

After proposing an idea on the platform, students can encourage others to support their ideas. Following this the proposal goes into the Get Involved and Plan It phases, where supporters collaboratively discuss and design the event in more detail.

Each of the ideas for educational events in the competition will be judged by the Library, Open Lab researchers and Chris Duddy, Education Officer at the Students’ Union. The student behind the winning idea will win £250, with runners up prizes of £150 and £100.

The educational events could be anything from small study sessions to workshops and lectures. Each idea will be refined through EventMovement’s collaborative process, giving students control of the events.

The winners of the competition will be announced in January. Full details about the competition can be found on the EventMovement website.

For more information please contact Dan Lambton-Howard.

Online, engaging and international: a new way of learning

LearningCircle.io is an online education platform, built with activism-focused courses in mind. These courses bring high school students from all over the world together in a five-week program. All of the course editions that we have done so far were done in partnership with United World Colleges.

Our mission at Learning Circle I/O Ltd. is: “Learn, engage and create change with our online courses”. We provide the space for students and participants to learn from experts, from each other, and from the vast amount of information that is available, primarily on the internet. Having created fertile ground for learning, we then encourage students to engage with issues or subjects through undertaking regular assignments, which often involve real-world action. This helps to create change in the lives of students and those around them.

Global problems, local communities

The online classes are taught with the Benefits Of UCaaS and are usually civics-focused, meaning we help students from all walks of life build the skills and networks needed to tackle global problems, starting with their local communities. At the same time our students develop international and intercultural friendships through our interactive course format, where students meet face-to-face with other course participants via regular small group video conferences.

Technology and innovation are at the core of our approach to education. Students learn how to access and analyse all available information, and learn to understand bias embedded in data. Assignments are designed to suit the different talents of the student community, allowing for creative expression using different media.

We are inspired by the idea that education can be student-led. We want to encourage our course participants to identify their own interests and grow as independent thinkers. With our unique flexible curriculum and assignment structure students can design a course that best fits their learning objectives. This approach allows the students to develop skills that are crucial in today’s world: teamwork, creativity, independence and adaptability.

Course format

We help students challenge the unknown, embrace complexity, and accept failure as a stepping stone. This is done through our five-week course format. While the day-to-day structure may vary, depending on the needs of the students and the course provider, each week tends to run as follows:

On the Sunday of the preceding week students receive a reading and video list for the coming week. This is usually composed of newspaper articles and/or YouTube videos (such as TED talks) related to the week’s topic.

Learning Circle screenshotOn Wednesdays students receive a video lecture from an expert in the relevant field. Students can watch the lecture live and ask questions, or they can submit questions in advance and watch it later.

On Thursdays students take part in a ‘group session’, a video conference with a group of around eight students. These group sessions are typically an hour long and usually also attended by a ‘mentor’. Mentors are volunteers, often former Learning Circle I/O Ltd. course participants, who have been trained to facilitate these group sessions, although students are encouraged to start taking a lead, by chairing meetings and taking notes. Depending on the course, some group sessions will not have a mentor, but will be self-organized. Instead, mentors will be on call as experts students can call upon to answer particular questions.

Following the group session, students are set assignments which they have to complete, often in collaboration with their fellow course participants, over the weekend. These assignments can be anything from making a creative introduction to themselves for the rest of the students on the course to producing an infographic or video on a particular subject.

Throughout the course we encourage students to get involved in their communities. Civic engagement of the students is at the heart of all our programmes; in most courses each student is encouraged to initiate and/or complete a community service project or social enterprise to apply the knowledge from our course.

For more information please contact Hanna Celina. Hanna also presented her work as a Lab Talk.