By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

I have been thinking today about truth, trust, and learning. I am going to try and weave them together in a post that makes some logical sense but if I fail, I ask your forgiveness in advance. Maybe hear this post as sound bites rather than a narrative as I try to find my way.

 I was listening to Dr. Ravi Zacharias and heard him say, “Intent is prior to content” and my mind exploded. I whispered, “Yes, content needs to be situated in truth (i.e. that which conforms to reality as it actually is) or context and that is why a thick schema (prior knowledge and experience) is so important.” Content (new information) will attach to existing schema and allow for easily processing (sense making) or learning. Trusting in the context (where the new content is situated) and how well it aligns with prior knowledge is what enables us to accept it as truth. Think of stacking bowls with content nestled or situated inside context.

Imagine just teaching content without the context setting. Or imagine content being the big bowl, with context situated in it.

Learner First
If you have read my book you know I talk quite a bit about being a learner first and an educator second. Well this applies to just about every area of life.

Being a learner first helps us to share ideas (teach) whether we are parenting, car building or gardening. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests there is an order of needs that must be met for deep learning to occur. For example, if the learner has missed several meals or is not safe then deep meaningful learning will be limited. It’s hard to be an orange tree in a desert.  

I break Maslow into four main areas starting with most basic needs first: 1) security (safety and survival); 2) love (belonging and confidence);  3) truth (content within context);  4) wonderment (the awe of creativity and self actualization through exploration).

All of these are found within the context of healthy relationships. It is through relationship that learners move up the hierarchy. The Web enables us to experience more and more content but is often void of the relationship through which foundational context and truth are developed. Deep learning (generalizing what you hear or see to a new context) in online spaces is perceived as hard for many because trust-filled relationships are difficult to build online. Many say they need face to face experiences to develop the level of trust that serves as the connecting fiber gluing existing knowledge and new knowledge together. However, as learners apply themselves in online environments and begin to engage with others and build trust-filled relationships, they are able to learn deeply in this new medium. But the effort and focus required to build relationships in online learning spaces takes time, and most busy educators feel they just do not have the time to invest.

Now here is where my thinking gets a little wild.

Wonderment is at the top of the Maslow hierarchy, suggesting that as we mature we will eventually, with hard work and effort, reach the peak of the pyramid.  And yet let’s think about that progression with this question in mind: who owns wonderment?


Did you know….(source:

  • The brain is the least developed organ at birth?
  • 90% of the brain’s growth occurs from birth to five years old?
  • A baby’s brain doubles in weight from birth to age three years?
  • A baby is a “citizen of the world” from birth to age six months and can very easily learn any one or a multiple of the 6,000 languages in the world?
  • A baby at age 7 months starts on a linguistic journey that will makes it increasingly bound to the language it frequently hears?
  • Children who don’t play much or are rarely touched developed brains that are 20% to 30% smaller than normal?
  • At birth the human brain has about 100 billion nerve cells (called neurons), most of them unconnected.
  • As the infant sees, hears, smells and feels, the neurons form trillions of connections called synapses. A neuron may connect to as many as 15,000 other neurons, forming an intricate network of neural pathways. (Schema)
  • This complex network is the brain’s “wiring.” The patterns in which these connections are formed lay the groundwork for future learning. (Context)

Think about the awe and sense of wonderment you see in small children. The creativity in their self directed games and pretend play. The joy of learning, exploring and testing of their world and conceptual frames. They trust unconditionally and are eager to move from one wondrous learning even to the next.

It is as if we we train the joy and creativity out of them in the process called School and relegate wonder, creativity and self actualization only to those who can do “higher order thinking.”

Think about it: the problem solving skills we value so much dominate the preliterate/prelanguage child’s learning methods. They use wonderment, question asking, and exploration throughout the early years as they make sense of their world. But as they enter school something happens to that wonderment. It seems as though when we move to a more teacher directed structure (rather than the personal sense-making that came so natural to them since birth) wonderment begins to diminish. And by the 5th or 6th  grade, students are asked to not talk to each other, to leave childish play behind in exchange for compliance, listening and on-task behavior that results in higher test scores and abstract measures of thinking. Wonderment is barely visible.

So much great teaching — so little learning…

Let’s look at your own learning first, as a way of making this concept more visible.  If we think of learning as being able to apply what you have heard or seen to a new context, then why have so many of us not done more to shift our teaching methods to more modern ways? I mean, there are tons of teaching ideas out there. Plenty of evidence that this or that strategy works better. Every conference or webinar is filled to the brim with things to try. Why isn’t it sticking?

Let’s think about that. You go to a conference or an inservice and you hear some great new ideas or strategies that you want to try out back in your classroom or workplace. You get excited when you are listening — you think of many ways you could apply this new knowledge. Then you come back to your real world and either you get caught up in the day to day activities of work and the ideas fade — or worse: five minutes after the session someone asks you what you heard and the ideas are already gone. Even the notes you scratched together do not help with recall of the new things you just learned. Why? Because it was content presented void of relationship, context, and trust. Unless you have sufficient schema to which you connect the new ideas — recall is just too difficult.

Own the Learning
Hearing the message  is just the very beginning of the learning. After hearing or seeing comes the hard work. Learners (including teacher learners) need to spend time with new ideas. They need to retell, discuss or elaborate on what they have just learned as soon as possible. We are social learners and by engaging with others we attach the new ideas and situate them in context. Next learners need to dig deeper and do a little reading or researching around the topic. It is through personal context building and playful construction of the ideas that schema develops. The more the learner works with the content to make sense of it, the more ownership they will have.

There is no free lunch. If you want to be able to use the ideas you heard at a conference or read about online, then you have to invest the time. It is through your personal interaction and application of what you hear that allows you to construct the knowledge needed to be able to use or apply the knowledge to a new context.

Teaching is Just the Beginning of Learning
Teaching isn’t talking. Learning isn’t listening. Teachers, effective ones anyway, serve as the catalyst for learning. Teachers should whet the learner’s appetite. It is the teacher that first creates an awareness. But teachers can’t do the learning for you. Learners have to do the learning. Teachers should expose the passion and interest they have in the topic– opening the door for the learner to dig deeper and construct their own knowledge.

If teaching and learning were just about content, then teachers could be replaced by technology. But content will not in and of itself produce learning. It is what happens after the content is introduced that matters for learning. Think of the content like seed. It has to have soil (context) in which to grow. Maslow’s needs have to be met. There has to be trust in one’s ability to learn and a safe environment in which to pursue the learning.

Self directed learning is the result of relationships that produce trust, truth and context for the content being presented. Good pedagogy also plays a role. All of these constructs of learning can happen more easily in a face to face environment where teachers can nurture the learning forward.  But for those who have a robust schema or context in which to situate the content the more easily, they will find they can learn deeply with others  in online environments as well.

Moral to this story: Create experiences for your learners. Build their learning environments with rich literature, fantasy, music, play, dance, art, travel, and food. Expose them to a wide range of experiences, people, sounds, and sights. Give them a thick schematic foundation on which to build. Develop playful, trusting relationships through which you share truth and content as building blocks for learning.


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6 Responses to “The Role of Truth, Trust and Context in Online Learning”

  1. Rob January 1, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    Shelly….do you have specific examples of units where schematic has been well thought out and activities and lessons are setting the tone for future learning?


    • Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach January 2, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

      Hi Rob,

      First, I am Sheryl or Sherry– not Shelly. (wink)

      I need to understand your question more fully. I am suggesting that schema building happens before school and continues in school with inquiry driven and techno-constructivist approaches to learning. I am suggesting that if you provide rich ingredients and then let your learners construct knowledge with you there guiding and asking questions and using formative assessment as a learning tool with which learners guide their own learning that they will learn content more deeply.

      If you want to be specific.. give me an example of the content/grade you teach and we can build an example here.

  2. dave cormier January 2, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Sherry? I didn’t know that :)

    I agree with much of what is here about the learner and about context being critical and what i see as the learner being an individual.

    My concern is with this “that which conforms to reality as it actually is”

    I don’t believe that there are many things of importance that actually qualify for this… the political debates raging in both our countries amount to people shouting that their position is ‘true’, when we all know that things like an economy aren’t like that.

    I worry about teaching ‘to truth’. In order to decide that something is ‘true’ you need to be in a particular position of power. There are many ‘simple’ things that we can speak about being true, the way that some math works, the conventions of grammar, historical dates… but even these can be contested.

    I think of creativity as a confrontation of accepted norms and conventions… and I think of teaching to ‘truth’ as the opposite of that.

    What say you?

  3. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach January 2, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    I struggled with the truth piece as I wrote. That is why I tried to define it but you are right it is still awkward especially for folks who do not even agree there is absolute truth that everything is subjective. And I totally agree with you about creativity.

    What I was trying to convey with truth was that there needs to be trust (the intent) before learners (especially online) will receive the content and that the more unfamiliar the learner is with the content schematically the more trust in the validity of the information needs to exist. And that many times the trust is in the individual more than the reliability of the new knowledge– and that is why relationships are so important.

    Take that to online communities– so many people tell me that trust can not be built online. You and I know our experience tells us otherwise. That is what I was trying to build around when I used truth. I really was thinking of truth more as information we can confirm?

  4. Gillian July 19, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    Hi Sheryl,

    I love the idea of trust as being necessary to moving up the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy. I think it’s totally necessary for children to be able to trust adults in order to have their needs met. Not only must they trust adults, but also they must trust their peers. Learning online and working with people who may not necessarily meet face-to-face could help build the trust kids need.


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