Four Recursive Practices for Teaching and Learning


I don’t expect a lot of people to read this post, let alone actually click on the title in genuine interest. It’s not that I don’t think the meta-cognition that takes place around teaching and learning isn’t important, it’s just that many educators I encounter on a daily basis both within and outside of my school district are often not concerned with reflective or recursive practices that are vital to helping construct life-long learners. To be fair, it’s not always their own fault that they don’t express interest in helping students find ways to create their own learning environment; educators have families, second jobs, stresses from administration, assessments, evaluations, etc. and quite often many of us are just looking for the quickest way from point A (start of the school year) to point B (final exams/end of the year).

I feel that the school district I work in does a better job than most at hiring and supporting teachers who reflect upon pedagogy (our middle school being a very effective model for supporting reflective teaching and learning practices), but it’s my opinion that a large number of school districts do very little (or nothing at all) in the way of articulating curriculum and designing schools that can effectively support three recursive practices that Gardner Campbell identified as key elements of teaching and learning in a post-lunch lecture at the 2009 Open Education Conference. If you’re so interested, you can watch the entire presentation below, but if you’re short on time, you can skip the video and go straight to my distillation of these three essential practices for teaching and learning at all levels.


The first recursive practice laid out by Gardner Campbell is one which almost every learner has been doing, with or without the help of their teacher. Narration is writing, blogging, retelling, journalling, reflecting; all of the wonderful writing that we ask our students to accomplish in order to prove not just to us, but to themselves that they are in fact learning. Gardner simply takes it one step farther and asks that we as educators practice narration as well.

Whether it’s through artist statements, poetry, or simply taking notes about a particularly terrible or amazing lesson, the art of articulating one’s own experience is a practice which has proven to be effective for many students and teachers. And you don’t even need technology to do it! Have your students write their thoughts down on scrap paper while thinking through a difficult assignment or task; or maybe carve out some time for reflection at the end of each of your units. You could even make Friday “narration day” in which students get to write about one fantastic and one terrible experience they had that week. Make it interesting and challenge students to come up with their own writing prompts, or create ones for them. Geting students to tell their own story is the first recursive practice that can begin to have a profound impact on their lives.


Simply narrating isn’t enough to instill students with the sense that what they think and how they think will affect them for the rest of their lives. They must curate their learning, organize their thoughts, and arrange it in ways that make sense to them. I imagine it is very much like John Cusack’s character “Rob” in the movie High Fidelity, in which after experiencing a particularly painful breakup, he completely re-arranges his massive vinyl collection according to biographical significance. The order in which he places his albums tells the story of his many loves and breakups over the years, and while we don’t necessarily need to get students to be constantly re-examining their love lives, we do need to instill in them a love for self examination and reflection.

Portfolios of student work, assembling “best of” folders of writing for conferences, and reading previous work in an effort to re-asses its value in the face of new understanding means that narration and previous experiences are revisited, and sorted in a way that makes the learning process easy to follow. Again, technology doesn’t have to be used in order to do this. Technology helps with typical blogging platforms automatically curating archives, categories, and tags in a way that makes it easier to sift through one’s previous experiences, but any way in which we can encourage students and teachers to curate their own lives will help bring a better sense of accomplishment and achievement after accomplishing new tasks.


Up until this point, a teacher could easily accomplish these recursive practices without technology, and to a certain extent sharing can be accomplished through many face to face strategies. However, the true potential of Gardner Campbell’s visions comes from the complete and total process of “narrate, curate, share” happening on the open web. Through individual blogging, connections among social networks like Twitter, or group conversations in a forum, students can begin to shape their own presence and existence as a life-long learner not just within the classroom, but in the real world.

Gardner’s thoughts and theories can best be summed up in the statement “put it out there!” Get students sharing through their own personal blog at Kidsblog, activate Blogger on your Google or Google Apps for Education account, or find someone in your school district that’s savvy enough to get your very own installation of WordPress (my personal favorite) on a school web server. If you’d rather have a collaborative group effort or conversation you could go setup a free forum at FreeForum, Forumer, or install your own copy of phpBB or BBpress with the help of that same tech-savvy individual that setup WordPress for you. The point is to make it open, accessible, and live to the rest of the web, rather than behind the shroud of an LMS, or the curtain of privacy of an “education friendly” service.

While I realize this may not be possible in some districts due to policies or comfort level of the teacher, it’s an eventual necessary step that students must take at some point in their K-12 experience if they are to become better prepared for life beyond school.


I told you that Gardner Campbell laid out three recursive practices for effective teaching and learning, so why then is there a fourth one that I’ve included here? Transitioning to narrating, curating, and sharing on the web requires a crucial step that isn’t immediately apparent to some teachers who are used to the informal discussions and feedback that happens face to face in the classroom. For students and teacher to truly be immersed in what Gardner calls their own personal cyberinfrastructure, feedback from others is the extrinsic motivator that pushes individuals forward if they struggle to do so on their own. Gardner however, warns of providing too much feedback or “training wheels” that are often typically never matched with a gradual release of responsibility that allows students to struggle and grow on their own:

“Pointing students to data buckets and conduits we’ve already made for them won’t do. Templates and training wheels may be necessary for a while, but by the time students get to college, those aids all too regularly turn into hindrances. For students who have relied on these aids, the freedom to explore and create is the last thing on their minds, so deeply has it been discouraged.” – Gardner Campbell, A Personal Cyberinfrastructure

So what does this mean for providing feedback, then? As the teacher you must find that balancing point between providing feedback on student blogs, comments on wikis, or notes left in collaborative google documents, and letting the learner narrate, curate, and share on their own. Too much feedback, and the student will always expect it, no matter how trivial the topic or piece shared. Too little, and the learner will feel as though their work does not warrant the attention of the teacher. While many veteran teachers can do this almost automatically in a face to face setting, to do so online can be exceedingly difficult as the experience blurs distinctions between “work time” and “free time”, with students and teachers narrating and sharing when the mood strikes, rather than the dedicated time you have with one another in a traditional classroom setting. It’s also highly important that students are offering feedback to their peers, and reacting to that feedback in a way that models good constructive criticism and improving upon ones work. Opening up students work to the web means that it’s not just the teacher that’s responsible for leaving the feedback and providing that extrinsic motivation for continued growth; it’s now on the shoulders of everyone in your learning community to help one another in a much more public and open way.

I could continue to drone on about the need for students to publish, reflect, curate, and receive and react to feedback, but I don’t have to; the increasingly relevant Common Core Standards already call for this to happen at all levels of K-12 using technology. The question then is not really should we be doing this in education, but are you prepared to have your students narrating, curating, sharing, and offering feedback openly? I’m sure many are already doing this within the walls of their classroom with pencil, paper, and perhaps a Google Doc or two. It’s time now to explore what happens when you open the door wide and begin to invite other learning communities into your own through the web.


  1. Great thoughtful post. I think feedback is such a big, helpful thing to tap into as a teacher. My classes (I teach university-level composition and creative writing) really started improving when I started having mid-term, anonymous, unofficial assessments–meaning students could ask all kinds of questions about pedagogy and assignment construction and all of it that they were either too disinterested or intimidated to ask during the semester, OR that they hadn’t though of until we took a moment to reflect. Technology has made end-of-semester responses much easier, and more quickly available, but the widespread implementation of more consistent conduits between students and teachers to address these kinds of questions would change the whole game in a really amazing way, I think.

    The problem, though, is that this system really works best (maybe only “””works””” at all) with teachers who are or can become comfortable with that kind of transparency, and students who aren’t disengaged for whatever reason (not distracted, not automatically disengaged from activities that are mandatory like high school or general education prerequisites or whatever, etc.).

    How does one–a teacher, a student–encourage virtue in one’s classroom, classmates, professional peers? Or do you, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, play for those who are listening?

    You got me thinkin’, Ben. Nice post, and beeteedubbs, some of us pathologically click any link with “Recursive” and “Learning” in the title. Pavlovian response, at this point.

    1. Well, now that I know the secret of how to get academics to notice my work I’ve got an entire series of blog posts in the works, “Recursive Practices for Breakfast, Lunch, a Dinner; a Foodies’ guide to better learning through eating” 🙂

      I like that you’re exploring those conduits of feedback at the post-secondary level (too often us K-12 folks just hear the “you’re not preparing them for what they need to do). It’s very similar to the way some of our English and composition teachers are working with students using blogs and Google Groups. A more consistent application of those conduits would certainly be amazing, especially if they aren’t just codified window dressing that Gardner speaks of as a digital facelift.

      You’re right though, it doesn’t matter how transformative this type of teaching and learning is, if teacher’s aren’t comfortable with it (isn’t that one of the first steps to achieve in Maslow’s Hierarchy?). If both the students and the instructor aren’t comfortable, you’re going to have a very uneasy go of learning in the environment.

      I’ve found a great deal of value in “playing for those that are listening” as a means of using peer pressure to stimulate other students into action, and then working on individual relationships with students to catch those that aren’t listening. That of course, would be a completely different conversation.

  2. Such a great and thoughtful post! I’m humbled to have played some small part in it. The very work of narrating, curating, and sharing you undertake in your own writing here not only illustrates the ideas but embodies them in ways I can only describe as soulful.

    The illustration from “High Fidelity,” a favorite film (especially for a music lover like me), is especially inspiring. It’s really a brilliant connection and I will credit you when I use it–as I certainly will. Another wonderful example of how this conversation works at its best.

    Thanks very much for puttin’ it out there. I’m in your debt.

    1. Thank you for commenting! As much as I learn about communities, learning, feedback, and supporting others, I’m still humbled when someone whom I’ve learned a great deal from tells me there’s value in what I’ve done.

      I was particularly drawn to your use of Little Big Planet to describe the network effect that comes from distributed creation and learning, as it’s a game I spent a lot of time exploring and enjoying. Thank you for wrestling with such a frightening concept (to educators fearful of the web), and making some great arguments about how you can’t ignore the “bags of gold” that are just a click away!

  3. Even though you don’t think many will read it, I hope all will! Thanks, Ben, for describing in detail ideas that are new to me.

    This deserves a re-read or two on my part because there’s some valuable depth here. Awesome work!

  4. ‘Never pass up a post with recursive in the title’ is a good rule to follow.

    After banging this drum in primary (k-6 I guess) for a while I think there is still a distance to cover before this becomes general practise.
    I don’t know if the USA is ahead of the UK but here is still a lot of teachers who see a big gap between their own skills and the skills necessary for this to really become imbedded. A pity as blogging & commenting fits very well with work done in Formative assessment imo.

    1. I’m not sure if the USA is ahead of the UK in much, especially when it comes to educational technology. The perceived gap between the skills teachers have and what they need in terms of instructional practices probably isn’t as bad as what we think, they’ve just all been beaten out of them by prescriptive curriculum and learning sequences that cannot be altered for fear of “getting off course.”

  5. I am currently a pre-certification teacher-in-training for English, and I can’t tell you how inspirational your post is, Ben. I spent some time in the desktop-publishing industry, and I’ve had this crazy idea in my head about having my students do some kind of year-long “desktop publishing” project where they use a program like Adobe InDesign to create a year-long document that integrates their experiences in my classroom, in school, and in their lives outside of school. Each document would entail textual elements, visual elements–both still and moving images–and design elements, and I thought I could have some kind of portfolio night at the end of the school year where parents, school-district employees, and fellow students would come to view and “experience” the different portfolios. Your post has also given me the idea that they can go ahead and “publish” their work along the way as well. My idea isn’t fully formed yet, but your blog post has now given me the “theory” I need to justify my idea to a department chair, administrator, or parent. I’m going to return to your post as a resource if and when I actually get the chance to employ my idea and need to flesh it out more with some guiding principles in mind. Thanks so much, Ben.

    1. Publishing, especially the unfinished products, is quite often that turning point in which a project can go from good to great. As long as you delicately handle feedback from students on unfinished work from other students, and establish a clear framework for responding in a constructive way, I think it would be a truly amazing project.

      Finding ways for students to use professional grade tools to express themselves is always an added bonus for those adults that don’t feel youth can manage such applications.

  6. I don’t expect a lot of people to read this post, let alone actually click on the title in genuine interest.

    Three years after the fact, your observations have helped my thinking about education become a little clearer. Thanks for sharing your narration.

  7. I liked your article. Thank you for having clear ideas for me to try. We have been asked to be more discursive in our teaching and I mistakenly got the word wrong and stumbled on your article. What you have written does make sense to me and I wish it was what our leaders are looking for! You don’t happen to know what the difference is between recursive and discursive teaching methods are? I’ll keep looking but your post was well worth reading and reflecting on.

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