Dimensions of Learning – Part 1

More than just an education

Being a great school requires more than just providing the best possible education, or at least it requires a different view of what education is.

With the 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) skills as the foundation for everything we are about, we then need to ensure we fully re-think the how, what and why of what education is about. The quote above comes from our college ethos statement and is, in summary, exactly what we are about; providing ‘great’ education by looking differently at what education actually is.

There’s a plethora of educational initiatives out there & each year one seems become the trendy ‘go to’ theory that’s going to revolutionise learning; they never do … Primarily because they have been watered down in translation through government committees, or because they have been mis-translated by enthusiastic trainers looking for a new angle to sell professional development courses to schools. Whether it’s ‘VAK’ or the more current ‘grit’, these fads do all have some basis in academic research ; it’s just that they miss the point when they reach the classroom.

One way to avoid fads is to base the whole pedagogy on a single, thorough, lasting model. Alongside the 21st Century Learning Skills foundation, we have taken on the work of Robert Marzano (Marzano, 1992), where he describes 5 ‘Dimensions’ of leaning, and embracing the effective ‘Habits of Mind’, described by Costa & Kallick (2000).

The Dimensions of Learning provide an entire description of effective learning that can be used to ensure that have, as our introduction to our ethos states, a different view of what education is.

The dimensions fit perfectly into short term planning, and provide further structure to embed the 21CLD skills. They also provide (if needed) a formal justification for putting student wellbeing at the heart of the school.

There are 5 Dimensions, as described by Marzano which together provide an entire framework for a 21st Century school:

Dimension 1: Attitudes and Perceptions

Attitudes and perceptions affect students’ ability to learn. For example, if students view the classroom as an unsafe and disorderly place, they will likely learn little there. Similarly, if students have negative attitudes about classroom tasks, they will probably put little effort into those tasks. A key element of effective instruction, then, is helping students to establish positive attitudes and perceptions about the classroom and about learning.

This, then, provides a modern justification, also, of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1948) – Without ensuring that a student feels safe, secure and cared for (Maslow’s three ‘lower’ needs), then they will not be receptive to any effective learning.

Therefore classroom layout, pastoral structures, teacher-student interaction, all of this is essential in getting the first part of being a great establishment right.

So, in our classrooms, we are installing 2 flat screen TVs, in place of the now endemic ‘smart’ board and projector. The TVs have higher quality displays, higher contrast and are easier to see in bright light (so there’s no need to have students sitting in darkness as if they were vampires off the set of a Twilight movie).

With teacher and student all having a touch-screen windows 10 device in front of them, and all material delivered through collaborative OneNote notebooks, the classroom becomes a much more dynamic environment. This, then, encourages effective and real use of ICT (one of the 21CLD skills)

And our classrooms are, therefore, bright, light and airy, with tables in ‘clusters’, to encourage collaborative learning.

Staff are expected to treat all students with the same level of respect they would expect & the environment encourages the attitude of collaborative learning (the first 21CLD skill) & self-regulation (another 21CLD skill!).

And even in simple interactions; an Australian Principal & School Leadership Expert, recently posted on the Microsoft Showcase School Leaders Yammer group a challenge to think twice about even the simple questions you ask when walking down a corridor. Rather than asking the standard ‘How’s it going?’ style of question, why not ask a ‘real’ question, such as:

“I’ve been thinking about … what do you think?” – making real connections and valuing people in the organisation, wherever you meet them. (Read the full quote here)

Dimensions 2, 3 & 4: Knowledge

The core 4 dimensions, then, outline the different levels and types of learning, with knowledge acquisition, extension and use being the focus of what the classroom engagement is all about…

Dimension 2: Acquire and Integrate Knowledge

Helping students acquire and integrate new knowledge is another important aspect of learning. When students are learning new information, they must be guided in relating the new knowledge to what they already know, organising that information, and then making it part of their long-term memory. When students are acquiring new skills and processes, they must learn a model (or set of steps), then shape the skill or process to make it efficient and effective for them, and, finally, internalise or practice the skill or process so they can perform it easily.

Dimension 3: Extend and Refine Knowledge

Learning does not stop with acquiring and integrating knowledge. Learners develop in-depth understanding through the process of extending and refining their knowledge (e.g., by making new distinctions, clearing up misconceptions, and reaching conclusions.) They rigorously analyse what they have learned by applying reasoning processes that will help them extend and refine the information. This is another of the key 21CLD skills.

Dimension 4: Use Knowledge Meaningfully

The most effective learning occurs when we use knowledge to perform meaningful tasks. For example, we might initially learn about tennis racquets by talking to a friend or reading a magazine article about them. We really learn about them, however, when we are trying to decide what kind of tennis racquet to buy. Making sure that students have the opportunity to use knowledge meaningfully is one of the most important parts of planning a unit of instruction. This is, in the 211CLD skills, the application of knowledge to real-world problem solving.

Dimension 5: Productive Habits of Mind

The most effective learners have developed powerful habits of mind that enable them to think critically, think creatively, and regulate their behaviour. Developing these habits of mind is, effectively, the over-arching goal, as when a student has effective habits of mind, they are then in a state where learning becomes second nature and they will learn throughout their lives. I will explore Habits of Mind more fully in a separate post.


Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2000). Discovering & Exploring Habits of Mind. A Developmental Series, Book 1. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1703 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311-1714

Marzano, R. J. (1992). A different kind of classroom: Teaching with dimensions of learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1250 North Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

Maslow, A. H. (1948). “Higher” and “lower” needs. The journal of psychology, 25(2), 433-436.

Dimensions of Learning – Part 1

More than just an education – building a school fit for the 21st Century

At our last open day, in May, I talked about the underlying theories we are building our curriculum on. Over the next few posts, I will go into more detail about the various elements of our curriculum, explaining how it all fits together. 


Part 1 – starting with the foundations.

A school committed to preparing young people for the future needs to rethink it’s very foundations on which it’s very purpose is prepared. The old foundations of the ‘Three R’s’ (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic) are fine, and still valid, but go nowhere near far enough in providing the skills needed for modern life. The three R’s come from an era where it was only necessary to prepare the bulk of school leavers to be sufficiently educated enough to follow instructions on the factory floor . . . 

Our students deserve to hope for much more than that and so need a much greater set of skills to enable them to succeed! Following global research, sponsored by Microsoft, we have placed a set of 6 skills as the foundations on which everything we believe in is built. These 21CLD skills, then, form our foundations and everything we are building rests on them.

These 6 skills from the heart of the 21st Century Learning Design programme and are:


The need to collaborate in the modern world is much more essential than ever before. Tasks are more complex than ever beforehand jobs today require teamwork and collaboration to be at the heart of our daily working pattern. The days of putting competition inside the classroom are long gone and schools that still see academic achievement as a competition between students is one still basing its practice in the 18th century! There is a healthy place for competition in schools (which is why we’re having traditional ‘houses’, with students competing to gain points for their house in various ways), but not in the classroom – learning is best done together, learning off and with each other in a collaborative environment. 

Knowledge Construction

This is a whole article in its own right, but simply, there’s three ‘levels’ to knowledge – factual acquisition, where we learn new facts, is the simplest. Young children learn facts very quickly, as any parent will testify when their 6 year old can recite the names of every dinosaur that ever lived!! This is the most basic level of knowledge, however (although it happens to be the most easily assessed and so forms the heart of western exam systems). 

Learning shouldn’t stop here, however & according to Costa (Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (2000). Habits of mind: A developmental series. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.), knowledge is better when it’s integrated into a student’s existing framework of understanding – when it’s ‘owned’ by them. This is, to a lesser extent still part of the examination system and so is sometimes focussed on by schools.

However, the highest level of knowledge is the creation of new structures, where the student is using the acquired knowledge to create new concepts in their mind; when they are extending and refining their understanding of the world around them. This is knowledge construction and happens to be almost impossible to examine in current systems (making it something that too many schools simply ignore). 


In order to collaborate effectively, a person needs to be in control of themselves first and foremost. Self-regulation, the ability to understand and control one’s own emotions and motivations, is a crucial ‘modern’ skill that our students need to learn. This is one of a broad umbrella of ‘soft’ skills that are frequently ignored, with the assumption that students will learn it through the process of growing up. This clearly isn’t the case for a significant number of young people.

Real World Problem Solving

The best educators always try to ensure that new knowledge is framed within ‘real life’, but for knowledge to be fully integrated into a person’s mind, it must be applied to something in the physical, real world. I can, for example, learn all about playing tennis from a book & watching it on the TV. I can even learn how to play using, for example, a hand controller on a console. I can compare it to playing other racquet sports I have played, but until I stand on a tennis court and play a real opponent, I have not fully learnt how to play tennis.

Effective use of ICT

I have said it before, but will say it again; Technology alone cannot change anything, but without it, we will not have lasting change. 

ICT alone will not transform learning, but learning will not be transformed without it.

Technology is an integral part of our world, our society, and we need to embrace it and use it in the most effective way possible. This is through embedding it’s use into the daily practice of school life, so that our young people learn how to use it to make their lives easier. 

We fall into the trap far too easily of assuming that all young people are experts in technology – in fact this is spread through concepts of ‘digital natives’ vs. ‘digital immigrants’. The truth is much more complex & our young people need as much help and support in navigating the technological world as they do navigating a new city. Whilst they may be the experts in using social media streams, they are no more confident or capable of using technology to enhance their lives as we are. We need to explicitly help and support them in this journey as much as any other.

Skilled Communication

With the world being so much more connected, the art of communication is another crucial ‘soft’ skill that our young people need now more than ever before. Whether it’s standing in front of an audience delivering a speech (Secret ambition – my lifelong ambition is to deliver a TED talk at their annual conference in Vancouver!), or ‘selling yourself at a job interview, the art of delivering a powerful talk, with passion and skill, is one that can enhance every young person and should be taught in school.

More than just an education – building a school fit for the 21st Century