Empowering Students Through Connections-Based Learning

By Sean Robinson | October 22nd, 2019 | No Comments

We’d like to thank Sean for this insightful analysis ahead of his session at EdmodoCon. If you’re interested in more from Sean, register for EdmodoCon today to see him speak live about connections-based learning.

If you’d like to learn more about how students can practice healthy digital connections, check out this collection of digital citizenship resources.

We’re all looking for a way to frame learning in the 21st century. Personalization, a shrinking world, exabytes of information at students’ fingertips: each of these trends have led us to look at education in a new light. We see it in the titles of contemporary educational frameworks: ideas like project-based learning, passion-based learning, competency-based learning, and inquiry-based learning.  These names may seem like buzzwords, but they are important. They set the tone for teacher conduct, curriculum focus, and student action.  Should we base our learning on projects? Passions? Competencies? Student inquiry?


Each educational label is a way to guide the priorities of our pedagogy.  These learning methods are an attempt to describe a learning process that is more meaningful and personal to the students.  With project-based learning, projects based in genuine reality become the vehicle for learning. With passion-based learning, we can leverage students’ passions to enable growth. In competency-based learning, students focus on progressively mastering smaller elements of a greater objective.  And with inquiry-based learning, students build skills and knowledge around developing and responding to essential questions that can’t simply be solved by “Googling it.”

I would like to share a new, different method.

What if we were to base teaching and learning on human connection? Projects, passions, competencies, and questions can still play a role. But relationships could be at the forefront of our minds. We could pursue learning partners that would help lead our students to acquire the needed skills, knowledge and understanding. Could we adopt a teaching approach that makes connection a priority? And does research support an emphasis like this?

Yes. Absolutely.

In How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, Bransford, Brown, & Cocking examine the science of learning.  In a section on connecting classrooms to the community, they state that “students can learn more when they are able to interact with working scientists, authors, and other practicing professionals.” When they examined how it plays a part in making effective learning environments, they explain that technology’s role is in “building local and global communities that include teachers, administrators, students, parents, practicing scientists, and other interested people.”¹

Daniel G. Krutka & Kenneth Carano examined sources of scholarly literature on videoconferencing for learning, touting its power. They show how it:

  • softens geographical boundaries.
  • wakes students up to the world around them.
  • shows them their place and responsibility in it.
  • leads to student action.

In their 2016 article in the Journal of Social Studies Education Research, Krutka and Carano conclude: “Whether we aim to address environmental concerns, reduce prejudice, or pursue specific projects, videoconferencing can transcend geographic boundaries and provide an impetus for action.”²

These are just a few of the many studies that support the use of connections-based learning in the classroom. But I know its power on a deeper level.

When faced with teaching subjects like electricity, or climate science, or cellular reproduction, or the solar system, I ask myself: who can we engage as we learn? We then connect with learning partners who can lead us to the needed skills, knowledge, and understanding. This has helped us create learning partnerships with classrooms who might experience a lack of electricity,  students in a different climate zone, stem cell researchers, or planetary scientists.

These connections open the door for my students to work on real world projects, apply their passions in responding to real needs, master needed competencies, and  pursue “ungoogleable” questions. They explore the required learning outcomes, but in connection with the community, experts, organizations, or classrooms around the world.

But more than that, it gives my students a chance to work at creating positive change. Students have:

  • partnered with a Tanzanian student to spread the message of the global goals
  • campaigned for peace in Yemen
  • built lights for Haitan sugar-cane workers
  • helped an NYU student bring water purifiers to Kenya
  • created solar power computer solutions for students in rural Uganda.

Each initiative stemmed from my students’ response to the needs they heard in a connection.

Time and time again, students speak on how this work has allowed them to see how powerful they are for good. All from simply making a connection.

Every time I share a human connection with my students, it leads to meaning, motivation, empathy, and a chance to make a difference. But why? Because human connection is always meaningful. We know this intuitively: whether it is a loved one, a friend, or a mentor, we recognize the power these connections have in our lives. Power to move us, change us, call us to action. Connections-based learning is simply harnessing that power. It is what it states: an approach to teaching and learning that is based on human connection.

What I am proposing is that the first thing we do when we consider our learning outcomes is to ask: who can we engage as we learn? Then, once a learning partner is established, we let students ask their own essential questions, create their own learning goals, work on their own projects, and follow their own passions. All of these in response to the needs that arise from a strategic connection.

But furthermore, I want to get across to as many people as possible how easy it is to leverage connection in anything we do. It all starts with these simple words: “Would you consider connecting with my class?” Then we let students respond. We support them as they connect, as they collaborate, as they cultivate positive change. As they change the world. All from a simple connection.

For more information visit: https://connectionsbasedlearning.com/

Thanks again to Sean for this enlightening article. Remember, if you want to learn more, register for EdmodoCon today to see him speak live about connections-based learning.

If you’d like to learn more about how students can practice healthy digital connections, check out this collection of digital citizenship resources.


¹Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. National Academy Press: 2000, 207, 226.

²Krutka, D. G., Carano, K. T. (2016). Videoconferencing for Global Citizenship Education: Wise Practices for Social Studies Educators. Journal of Social Studies Education Research, 7(2), 109-136.

About the Author: Sean Robinson