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Future of Learning

A Human Learning Ecosystem for Our Times

By Kevin Bartlett
A Human Learning Ecosystem for Our Times

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind

The first article I ever published, decades ago, focused on the idea that it was both possible and desirable to reimagine schools as connected learning systems, where every aspect of the school is shaped by a central set of ideas and values. Now here I am, around 30 years later, writing basically the same article because the world of education has barely changed.

Those original ideas have evolved through various iterations, projects, and products, including an early attempt at designing a common, inquiry-based curriculum, which saw the light as the International Baccalaureate (IB) primary years program, and a passion project with a small founding team to embrace neurodiversity: The Next Frontier, Inclusion. Still, we have yet to see the radical transformation of schooling that is surely required. This current article approaches the same tricky territory of systematizing learning for optimal impact. It centers on the work of the Common Ground Collaborative, a global movement dedicated to bringing clarity to complexity and to turning silos into systems.

The Why

The Common Ground Collaborative (CGC) is driven by the clear and present need for school transformation. Where there should be connections, we see gaps. Gaps between what teachers want to do for their students and the ways in which they are obliged to spend their time. Gaps between mountains of standards and the available time. Gaps between parents and schools, between disciplines, between departments. Gaps between what we promise and what we deliver. The gap between what we assess and what students need to learn in order to thrive and contribute in their complex, challenging world. “Engagement gaps” between kids and the classroom. Ultimately, the critical gap between millions of children and any halfway decent kind of education.

At the CGC, we set out to close gaps and build connections, to reinvent “school” as one coherent learning ecosystem, a learning culture in which all learning stakeholders thrive. Our goal is to bring simplicity and a system to the learning business. Our mission is hopelessly aspirational. We want deep learning to reach all children and communities. In the words of Simon Sinek, we are playing “the infinite game,” which is why we will never fully “get there” and why we will never stop. Our simple mission is, everybody learns.

From Why to How to What

Given our commitment to finding simplicity, it’s fitting that our own approach is simple. Equally, given our commitment to deep learning framed by inquiry, it’s fitting that we should begin with a compelling question, “In designing a learning ecosystem for our times, what questions should we ask ourselves?”

This question launched an extended professional inquiry that resulted in the CGC Learning Ecosystem, a unified “theory of everything,” a practical design for modern, equitable learning that actually matters. It is an approach that reduces stress and increases learning for all learning stakeholders, an approach that achieves our mission.

(Photo source: CGC)

A Learning Ecosystem for Our Times

The Ecosystem is framed by five elements driven by five questions:


What IS learning?


What’s WORTH learning?


How do all learners ACCESS learning equitably?


How do we create shared learning CULTURES?


How do learners provide EVIDENCE of their own learning?

Here’s how it all comes together:

If we want to make learning happen, common sense suggests that we start by defining the actual process of learning.

Building Learning Experts

On the journey towards a shared definition, we worked backward from the behaviors of experts based on the common sense notion that an expert has probably learned well. We determined that experts have a deep understanding of the ideas of their domain and the relationships among them and that they are highly competent in the skills of their domain. We were also committed to the importance of developing expert human beings with strong, positive values and dispositions.

(Photo source: CGC)

Our definition, therefore, addresses the learning of ideas, skills, and personal traits, translated into the CGC’s Three Cs statement, “Learning is the process of the consolidation and extension of Conceptual understanding, Competency, and Character.” The reason for separating out these forms of learning was not just to give us a simple definition, or a handy alliteration. We knew we needed to think differently about building learner capacity in conceptual, competency, and character learning because the pedagogy required to build each of these capacities is different.

The DNA of Learning

We built a methodology that is simple enough for applicability in multiple contexts yet complex enough to drive deep learning. We also developed the simple language that frames all learning goals in the CGC model, as follows:

Type of Learning


Learning Goal Sentence Stem



We understand that . . .



We are able to . . .



We become more . . .

In real learning contexts, these three continuous learning strands are constantly interacting in the context of illustrative content that actually matters. These connected processes, spiraling through an individual’s learning lifetime, evoke a powerful metaphor of the Three Cs as a living construct, a triple helix, the DNA of learning. It’s a bold claim, but the metaphor works to explain what’s happening when we’re learning. It helps us remember to plan, teach, and assess what matters. It brings teacher clarity and collective teacher efficacy.

Critically, the Three Cs definition also provides a common learning language that is simple enough and clear enough to frame the learning conversations of all learning stakeholders: learners, teachers, leaders, parents, governors, and partners so that we can begin to bridge the gulf in understanding that frequently blights efforts at true stakeholder engagement and collaboration. We think this holds true anywhere in the world. We think that a common definition of the learning process matters. We think it provides a global learning language for our times.

To extend our earlier metaphor, DNA does not live in a vacuum. It shapes a body. So another question presents itself, “What body of knowledge is important for these learners, right here, right now?” As we set out to identify the learning that really matters, we framed our DESIGN question as, “What’s WORTH learning?”  

Here’s a multi-faceted response:

It’s worth learning to be experts...

The CGC Learning Ecosystem develops learning experts, both child and adult. Experts have a deep conceptual understanding of ideas that matter, high levels of competency in key skills, and strong, positive moral character.

It’s worth learning about our human common ground…

We live in an age of divisions, where adherence to a group and mistrust of other groups is cultivated for reasons of profit and power. It is more important than ever to find our human common ground. As our primary content organizer in CGC, we identified six Human Commonalities. They provide “the why” behind the disciplines and are framed by pairings of universal concepts, amplified by “we all” statements expressing our common ground.

(Photo source: CGC)

The Human Commonalities support:

  • Disciplinary learning that preserves the essence of the disciplines.
  • Interdisciplinary learning, where learning draws from more than one discipline to enhance connections.
  • Transdisciplinary learning, where ideas and outcomes transcend disciplinary boundaries, sitting above disciplines.

It’s worth learning with the end in mind…

The Human Commonalities provide the potential to address our “what’s worth learning?” question from another powerful perspective. They help us address the big “so what?” when it comes to receiving an education. What does an expert learner walk away with? What transportable gifts? What capacities will help them succeed as an individual and as a contributing member of the human community? What are the “transfer goals” that they will actually apply in the range of contexts that learners will encounter outside school?

Since real-world capacities will naturally draw from multiple disciplines, and since the Human Commonalities are transdisciplinary by nature, they are the natural source for authentic life-worthy outcomes for applicable transfer goals. In line with our focus on simplicity, the CGC has identified a manageable number of six transfer goals, one per Commonality, that collectively provide a “Portrait of a Learner.” Here’s just one example:

A Portrait of a Learner

The Human Commonalities

The Why

The What

Purpose and Balance

We all seek meaning and purpose in our existence and strive towards achieving balance in our lives.

A balanced person can independently pursue their passions, apply their values, and balance their resources to achieve a sustained sense of personal wellbeing and purpose.

These culminating capacities are built over time through one connected learning continuum and also, in another fascinating benefit, through co-curricular pathways. We begin to shift from “school and after-school activities” to achieving our end goals through a connected system of curricular and co-curricular learning. The Portrait also provides opportunities for evidence-based and learner-curated assessment, a key element in a balanced, principle-driven assessment system.

It’s worth learning to make connections…

If we are to focus on the Portrait as the end in mind, then we need to organize our curriculum to provide “pathways to the Portrait.” The Human Commonalities provide the vertical organizers for a Learning Matrix comprising powerful Learning Modules organized for connection and coherence. They are designed to connect “vertically” from one year to the next and “horizontally” across the learning design in broad developmental bands.

Each of our learning modules is planned to a logical pattern that reflects our commitment to causal thinking. We always start with “the why,” unpacking the focus and purpose of the module by providing a powerful, compelling question, e.g., “So What’s real news?”, and a narrative story that explains to the reader the broad scope of the module and why the content matters.

We then unpack “the what,” in terms of selected illustrative content and the Conceptual, Competency, and Character learning goals. Using “backward design” thinking, learned from Understanding by Design, the brilliant brainchild of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, we then plan “the evidence,” a flexible choice of performance-based assessments that provide data for feedback for students to improve their learning and for teachers to inform our practice.

We then plan “the how” as a set of framing questions and a formative learning sequence that responds to those questions while providing learners with opportunities to master the learning goals and tackle the assessments with confidence. Finally, we retrace our learning journey with our learners in “the reflection,” which involves a range of creative ways for learners to relive, consider and consolidate their learning.

It’s worth achieving both learning coverage and learning uncoverage…

Most schools still need to feel that they are “covering standards” while they have the desire to provide opportunities for “uncovering” essential questions and big ideas. In CGC, we have been mindful of the need to provide both coverage and “uncoverage” (another Wiggins and McTighe term) and have been careful to build key disciplinary standards into our modules and to check for spiral coverage of these while using inquiry methodologies to bring learning alive for our learners. It’s a tricky balance but worth it.

It’s worth learning what we want to learn…

As one facet of “uncoverage,” one of our primary methodologies incorporates approaches to inquiry-based learning. When it comes to inquiry, we provide a simple logical toolkit that includes a practical guide to forms of inquiry, with the differences in the “forms” of inquiry being largely determined by different degrees of learner independence. If and when schools wish to explore more “open” inquiry, then we support that shift in a number of ways. This means that there are times when learners are invited to select and pursue their own lines of inquiry. Here’s our opening invitation to them, “What would you fight to learn?”

What’s WORTH Learning?

In CGC, we believe that it’s worth learning about our human common ground, that it’s worth learning to become experts in important knowledge domains, and that it’s worth learning how to build our expertise in the context of substantive content that really matters. It’s worth working towards life-worthy, transdisciplinary transfer goals: The Portrait of a Learner. Ultimately, it’s worth learning how to exercise our agency, and work with urgency, to take action on the pressing global challenges and opportunities that face humanity, right here, right now. That’s what’s worth learning...and why.

We think all of that matters. We think it provides a curriculum design for our times.

There is insufficient space in this article to do justice to the importance and complexity of issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Perhaps all we can do here is stress that the CGC has been committed from the outset to equity of access to learning for all learners, and access to equal opportunity for all community stakeholders.

In order to achieve this, we support schools in building a connected flow of “purpose-policy-practice” decisions and actions so that the school’s mission is reflected in its policies and enacted in its practices. We have synthesized all of this thinking into an overarching policy framework, called Building Belonging, which we use with schools to bring consensus on supporting all forms of diversity in clear and consistent ways.

Becoming Better Schools

The benefits of inclusive education to individual children, their families, and the school community are incalculable. Inclusive schools are, we believe, better schools. We transform lives. We learn to be smarter. As we build the capacities of our neurodiverse students, we build our own capacity, becoming more intelligent as an organization. We learn to be kinder, more generous, more open, more empathetic. All of this permeates the culture of inclusive schools. When we are inclusive, not by admissions or recruitment accident, but on purpose, we change. When we are deliberately diverse, we become inclusive not just as a matter of policy or program, but as a matter of identity. We get better, in all senses of the word. We think that equity matters. We think it is our duty to provide an inclusive organizational model for our times.

As common sense suggests, the factor that has the biggest impact on the quality of learning is the quality of teaching. No surprises there. What is surprising is that the search for consistent quality of learning, and therefore consistent quality of teaching, seems to be such a long and winding road. The usual markers on that road seem to focus on developing “standards” for teachers and then “evaluating” teachers against those standards. It’s all very compliance-oriented and rule-bound. Even the language around it smacks off the factory floor. In what other profession are we the “supervisors” of our colleagues?

In CGC, we take a very different approach. Schools are not factories. They are living, organic learning cultures. Necessarily, then, if we are to create great schools we need to focus, first, on the school as a culture.

Cultures share a language, and by defining learning and framing it simply, we have offered the opportunity of a shared learning language shared by all learning stakeholders. Cultures share norms and values. We believe that great school cultures are framed by a few shared principles, not constrained by multiple rules and regulations.

We define a principle as “a shared truth that brings order and freedom to a system. We are more likely to follow a “shared truth” than to attempt to comply, for example, with the mind-boggling number of “teaching standards” that seem to over-populate teacher evaluation systems.

So, where do our Learning Principles come from? We believe that a well-crafted, co-created set of Learning Principles will be a practical synthesis of our shared learning experiences and the most reliable research. As always in CGC, we also believe in simplicity over complexity, so we generally work hard to synthesize our collective wisdom into four to five Learning Principles. We do so by reaching deep into the hearts and memories of community members, recalling “learning stories” that have shaped them as learners, and translating those into Learning Principles, taking care to also integrate research into what actually works best to make learning happen.

Of course, a set of Learning Principles has no value on its own. Just another wall adornment to nail up by the mission statement. The real learning impact comes when Learning Principles are translated into Learning Practices, then into the necessary Teaching Practices to support the learning, then Leading Practices to support the teaching. It’s basic if-then logic. If we are living this principle, then here’s what we’ll see our learners doing, here’s what our teachers will be doing in support, here’s what our leaders will be doing, and here’s how parents can provide informed, practical support...and here’s how our Board can support this long-term culture-building strategy.

Here’s a small glimpse of our work in co-creating Learning Principles and Practices:

The PURPOSE Principle: Learning is a process of making meaning and must be driven by a clear, intentional sense of purpose. Learners are more engaged when they are convinced by “the why.”

As learners, we are able to:

As teachers, we are able to:

Clearly articulate the purpose behind any given learning experience.

Provide learners with a clear sense of “the why” behind our curricular choices.

So, that’s the simple idea. A school-wide learning culture, sharing a common learning language and shaped by a few deeply held shared learning principles that drive practices for learners, teachers, leaders, parents, and governors. Those practices provide the focus for continuous growth as learners, teachers, leaders, parents, and governors. These are simple patterns to help us to lead and manage complex organizations. We think that matters. We think it provides a learning culture for our times.

If there is an element of the learning business that is crying out for transformation, it is in our approaches to assessment, recording, and reporting. Assessment, rather like genres in literacy, has different purposes, audiences, media, and tools. In deciding where we should focus our attention in CGC, we have opted to focus primarily on assessment for and as learning. Schools may well feel the need for quantitative “testing” approaches for various reasons. We prefer to complement those systems with qualitative, learner-centered, evidence-based assessment approaches with students as active agents in gathering, analyzing, and communicating evidence of their own learning, guided by teachers.

In order to achieve this goal, we have joined forces with Jay McTighe, co-founder of the deeply influential Understanding by Design (UbD) movement, to co-create a Balanced Assessment System. Our early collaborations show great promise as we synthesize the most powerful innovations of both UbD and CGC in support of purposeful assessment. We are optimistic that our work will support schools in easing the stifling effect of an over-reliance on low-learning, high-stakes testing.

Closing the Learning Circle

Our Three Cs Self-Assessment Tool is one example of learner-driven, evidence-based qualitative assessment. It invites learners to comment on their own growth in conceptual, competency, and character learning, presenting their own learning evidence. This form of assessment closes the circle that began when we identified learning goals for each of the Three Cs.

We think that a qualitative, evidence-based, learner-centered approach to assessment matters. We think it provides an assessment model for our times.

A Human Learning Ecosystem for Our Times

Essentially, we believe that current models of education are broken. They simply don’t reach all learners and provide them with life-worthy learning in systemic, equitable ways. We propose a new model. A model that we believe asks the right questions and provides coherent, connected responses. A model that provides a shared, global learning language for all learning stakeholders. A model that engages learners with the universals, the human common ground, asking compelling questions that address content that actually matters. A model for teaching based on shared principles and practices that provide cultural patterns. A model for qualitative assessment that emphasizes learners providing substantive evidence in support of their own performance and progress. A model for global learning and teaching that transcends the boundaries of culture, nationality, and discipline.

As we worked on this, we realized that, as we built curriculum, we were engaging in the construction of a common language and shared beliefs and values. We were, in effect, building culture. Since we were engaging all learning stakeholders in this work, we were also building community. We were building the necessary human context for a global learning ecosystem. We were building a human learning ecosystem for our times. Our times demand this of us.


Kevin Bartlett is the founding director of the Common Ground Collaborative.

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