Real World LearningReal

Balance – An Example for Using Frames in Real World Learning

What are frames? Frames like ‘balance’ are strong images. By triggering sets of associations they consolidate neural pathways. They help to structure complex relationships, and to strengthen values over the long term. We are surrounded by frames. Some are universal, others result from our culture, and some of them are imposed upon us by the marketing industry. We need frames for orientation – but they can also be subject to manipulation. Using frames in a sense of learning for sustainability means using them responsibly and always in a transparent way.

To make real world learning attractive and useful in a sense of learning for sustainability, it is necessary to let learners directly experience basic concepts from the real world that are

  • simple and yet accurate;
  • illustrative and easy to place in their surroundings;
  • transferable to different areas of their daily life.

Against this background, in the present article we are

  • choosing one frame – the frame ‘balance’ – for
  • encouraging learning about one basic concept – the concept of ‘self-regulation’
  • concurrently strengthening suitable values and competences for a more sustainable world.
  • Finally, we think about criteria to enhance the quality of learning around those attributes.

Looking for values and competences supporting the balance frame

Learning for sustainability means to encourage and to enable people to transform our economic system which is currently dedicated to permanent growth. To learn about basic science concepts and to acquire values and competences connected to a frame like ‘balance’ supports this aim. But what values are connected to the frame ‘balance’?

Thorsten circumplex model

Resulting from extended international research (Schwartz 1992), nine value groups were defined and arranged in a circle (circumplex, see Fig. 1). Most helpful for sustainable living are the so-called intrinsic values, assigned to the three value groups self-direction, universalism and benevolence at the top of the circumplex (Fig. 1, yellow shading).

In respect of our underlying frame ‘balance’, we will focus on three values from the value group ‘universalism’ (Blackmore et al. 2013:37):

  • unity with nature;
  • social justice;
  • inner harmony.

Intrinsic values are mostly coming from ourselves and messages related to them are mainly supporting common-interest frames (e.g. ‘help us to design our future’), while the extrinsic values from the groups of achievement and power are often triggered from outside. Messages related to these value-groups are generally strengthened through self-interest frames (e.g. ‘win the green future award’).

Two research findings about intrinsic and extrinsic values are especially important in our context (Blackmore et al. 2013):

  1. Strengthening extrinsic values means to weaken intrinsic values. This is the case, if learning is inspired for example by competing or saving money.
  2. Combining intrinsic and extrinsic values does not mean to achieve synergy or to add advantages of one to the other. At best, they neutralise each other.

While encouraging sustainable living in terms of unity with nature, social justice and inner harmony, the following competences (here understood as combinations of knowledge, skills and attitudes) might become important:

  • to be able to recognise one’s physical and mental relationship to nature;
  • to be able to think and act in respect of future generations;
  • to be able to include the idea of equal opportunities for all people to shape their lives;
  • to be able to form informed, balanced and independently reached opinions and decisions;
  • to be able to consider things from different perspectives;
  • to be able to deal with one’s own feelings and with the feelings of others;
  • to be able to participate in an active, respectful and democratic way;
  • to be able to apply sustainability concepts to examples from one’s own life;
  • to be able to enhance one’s personal development, interacting with the world around.

In our example, we align the basic science concept of self-regulation to the values and to some of the competences mentioned above, within the context of the balance frame.

Looking for a science concept supporting the balance frame

One of the basic concepts for life on Earth is the necessity of self-regulation or negative feedback (Vester 2007, Lovelock 1991). A classic case that can be simply demonstrated by a model to school classes is a valve steered by a centrifugal regulator, as it was used to control steam engines in past times. The faster the engine runs, the faster the pole spins, causing two iron balls to rise up and open the valve to release pressure and therefore to reduce the speed. If the regulator is out of order, pressure and velocity will constantly increase until the engine flies apart at its weakest point. This would be a result of positive feedback (or permanent growth) which is at the root of our economy and currently one of the main reasons of non-sustainable development.

To relate a science concept like self-regulation to the learners’ world, it should be transferable in different areas of life. Learners therefore shall be encouraged to connect the pattern

  • to themselves;
  • to living nature around them;
  • to the inanimate world;
  • to society.

 In all systems that are not completely ‘frozen’, there is something to regulate them. We will show examples for learning experiences covering the four areas mentioned above in the next chapter.

However, no concept exists in isolation, and one advantage of outdoor learning is to experience relationships of different aspects. Neighbouring issues that might be elaborated in a similar way as we do in our example with the balance frame could be webs, cycles, symbiosis or stability in case of disturbance.

Learning experiences connecting the idea of self-regulation to values and competences

For the individual learner, relating to the world and revealing its meaning are fundamental requirements for sustainable thinking and behaviour.

Learning inside the classroom has several advantages, but it often means to assign isolated phenomena to specific subjects, and to split up whole learning processes into programmed lessons.

Real world learning using firsthand experiences outside the classroom means to provoke, to raise curiosity and to connect. Through that it strengthens self-directed learning, resulting in the discovery of personal areas of interest.

But this requires that not each and every minute of the outdoor experience has to happen as it is prepared. Students need time to (re)act, teachers need time to find out what is really relevant for their students, and students and teachers must have the chance to interact in a vivid dialogue. Following Young et al. (2010), we therefore recommend not to create complete programmes from activities such as those suggested below, but to be prepared to leave about 50% of the time for the unexpected discoveries that happen, especially in nature.

Above we highlighted the necessity to transfer the concept of self-regulation against the balance frame to different areas of life. Here are some examples of how this can be done through real world learning with students. These examples are generally not assigned to grades. Based on a spiral curriculum, the concept of self-regulation (like other concepts) could occur with increasing complexity at different points in the course of education.

Self-regulation in relation to our own body

  • Students deeply inhale and exhale several times. Inhaling and exhaling are balanced. Our body ‘knows’ when to start the one or the other. After that, one student inflates a balloon until it explodes. What happened? While the amount of air in the lungs was regulated by breathing out, the air in the balloon was accumulated more and more. Within a confined system, this is only possible for a limited time.
  • Students are asked to hop on one leg over some distance. Then they walk back. In terms of self-regulation: Why does walking seem to be so much easier than hopping on one leg? After that, one student is asked just to stand on one leg as long as possible. What does one have to do to maintain ones balance?

Self-regulation in relation to the living nature around us

  • Students collect and arrange leaves in a row, according to their level of degradation. It should become clear how trees grow, how they rest in winter, and finally how they die and create a base for new life. To keep the balance, all living creatures must die. Dying is a process of self-regulation.
  • Students look in a natural forest for plants or traces of animals that maintain a diverse balance by preserving other creatures against excessive growth. They mark their discoveries with yellow ribbons. With its plants and animals, an ecosystem is regulating itself. If possible, students compare the forest with a nearby monoculture (forest, field).

Self-regulation in relation to the inanimate world

  • Students watch clouds in the sky. The clouds were formed by water vapour which condensed and will form raindrops as soon as the clouds become too heavy. This process is part of our climate – a long-lasting balanced system. The students can experience that by boiling water in a pot with a glass lid: When the heat increases, steam rises and condenses to water drops on the inner surface of the lid. When the drops become too heavy, they fall down. If the pressure of the steam is further increased, the lid starts to vibrate: It is lifted for a short time until the pressure escapes. Then it falls back to be lifted again by the increasing pressure. Both phenomena – vibration and water drops – demonstrate self-regulation.
  • Students visit the central heating plant of the school. There they search for gauges and valves controlling pressure and heat. The caretaker explains their function. If the gauges and valves are arranged and adjusted in the right way, the caretaker can leave for some days, and the system will keep all classrooms at the right temperature. For a certain time, this technical system can also keep its balance in a self-regulating way.

Self-regulation in relation to society

  • Students simulate a verbal conflict on the schoolyard in a role play. Several actors in the conversation get small cards. On the cards are either messages that lead to escalation, or such that lead to relaxation. After a while the course of the conversation is analysed. Which cards were most helpful to achieve balance? And what values are needed to regulate a group of students down to inner harmony. Can this also be transfered to global society?
  • Students go to a supermarket and inform themselves about the origins of the products and the prices they have to pay for them. Which products connect the supermarket to other continents? Where are those connections obvious (e.g. bananas) – and where are they hidden (e.g. meat from animals fed with corn from distant countries)? The students compare the wages in their own country with the loan the producers of goods e.g. from African countries might receive. How many children per day starve in Europe, and how many children per day starve in Africa? In terms of social justice, the world is obviously out of balance. – What could be effective mechanisms for self-regulation?

Defining criteria for contemporary real world learning

If we use such activities as the ones mentioned above: How do we know that framing processes are successful? How do we know that learners had the experiences we intended them to have? Do these experiences encourage sustainable action? And if they do so: When will this take affect?

These questions are almost impossible to answer. Results would be easy to check, if they were quantifiable: One plus one makes two, no doubt about it. And they would be easy to check, if learners had to behave in a certain way – and must bear the consequences if they don’t. But learning on a democratic basis always depends on the individual learner.

Progress in strengthening values to empower learners for sustainable action is mainly resulting from personal beliefs, and it is often not rewarded by the economic and social system we intend to transform. It is therefore not measurable in a causally determined way.

Pedagogical experts of the European ENSI[1] and SEED[2] networks say: “….quality criteria should give orientation and inspiration but should not be confused with ‘performance indicators’ or the like. In fact, a set of criteria may be considered as a ‘translation’ of a set of shared values formulated in terms that are more explicit and closer to practice but not as prescriptive and limited as performance indicators” (Breiting, Mayer, Mogensen 2005:9).

That is why we focus on quality criteria which offer opportunities for quality enhancement, and not so much for quality control.

As such the following criteria are intended to enhance the quality of real world learning experiences. They address the providers of educational activities. We want to empower them to deliver valuable firsthand experiences supporting and enhancing the learner’s values and competences as described above. The criteria also help teachers to find such providers.

Following the findings, we mentioned above, we define five quality criteria and suggest how to use them for learning about the basic science concept of self-regulation within the frame ‘balance’.

Five criteria for contemporary real world learning

  1. The provider encourages firsthand experiences, using different methods within a broad variety of natural and cultural learning sites from different areas of life.
  2. The provider uses frames connected to intrinsic values as supporting metaphors to overcome mental barriers in a transparent and responsible way.
  3. The provider connects learners to the resource by provoking and raising curiosity, and by facilitating participation in an atmosphere of self-directed learning.
  4. The provider encourages links between frames, topics and the everyday life of learners, inviting them to question their own attitudes.
  5. The provider illustrates the ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimension of different topics as well as their relevance for global justice for now and for future generations.

The provider encourages firsthand experiences, using different methods within a broad variety of natural and cultural learning sites from different areas of life.

The exercise of inhaling and exhaling is simple, accurate and related to the learners themselves. It can take place everywhere. Technical self-regulation might be explored at the central heating plant of the school, while the aspect of global justice can be reflected by examining different products in a supermarket – also considering the development of prices and the ups and downs within economic cycles. In a school garden, a park or a nearby forest, leaves and their different levels of degradation can be studied; natural growth is a self-regulating process, keeping ecosystems in balance. Those natural solutions for balance through self-regulation can be compared to the challenges of civilisation. Because sensual experiences are crucial for learning, and because different learners have different limits and prefer different ways to access learning, activities should trigger various senses like smelling, touching, listening and watching.

The provider uses frames connected to intrinsic values as supporting metaphors to overcome mental barriers in a transparent and responsible way.

Beside firsthand experiences of tangible objects, intangibles are most relevant for learning. They do not cover facts but meanings, and they trigger sets of associations through illustrative images. Especially natural environments are suitable in that concern, because they are full of metaphors. Offering frames means to offer meanings that are necessarily connected to values, and that might already be present in the learner’s own world. Thus the learning process is considerably facilitated. In our example, we gave a positive note to the frame ‘balance’, connecting it to the intrinsic values ‘unity with nature’, ‘social justice’ and ‘inner harmony’. This means that we looked at all experiences – whether in a school’s central heating plant, in a supermarket or in a forest – against this background. Using frames in a sense of learning for sustainability means using them responsibly and always in a transparent way.

The provider connects learners to the resource byprovoking and raising curiosity, and by facilitatingparticipation in an atmosphere of self-directed learning.

Participation and self-directed learning within targeted learning processes happen, if learners know what to search for and if they are encouraged to ask their own questions, when confronted with single phenomena. Real world learning sites like a heating plant, a supermarket or a forest raise curiosity, especially if learners are inspired by provocative questions to explore them on their own, and to describe their personal connectedness to the sites.

The provider encourages links between frames, topics and the everyday life of learners, inviting them to question their own attitudes.

The variety of sites also helps to connect the frame ‘balance’ and the topic ‘self-regulation’ to different areas of life. But in terms of sustainability this only makes sense if learners also reflect upon the effects of their own behaviour. In our example it is important to learn where permanent growth, thus turning our world out of balance, is fuelled by the own behaviour, and where own decisions could support self-regulation – e.g. in using energy (power plant) or buying products (supermarket) in a wise way.

The provider illustrates the ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimension of different topics as well as their relevance for global justice for now and for future generations.

The frame ‘balance’ and the topic ‘self-regulation’ are connected to as many dimensions of sustainability as possible – from local to global scale and intra- as well as intergenerational. Links are possible in terms of renewable energy resources, the management of soils in forestry and agriculture or the consumption of products that have an impact on people and nature in other parts of the world. Questions that can be raised are, how earlier generations and how people in other parts of the world were or are acting, and how far this is in harmony with the idea of balance. In terms of this last criterion, not all aspects must be covered simultaneously. Sometimes, it might be better for the quality of learning, to focus on fewer aspects and allow different experiences over a longer period of time.


Many of us are working for the transition to a sustainable society. But this transition is only possible if each individual is encouraged to do its part. The lists of demands are long, and the challenges quite complex. From our own work we know that firsthand experiences at original sites must play an essential role in lifelong learning. And our belief is that appropriate values and frames are of great help to focus such experiences for learners as well as for providers.

We therefore have tried to develop an example that illustrates how the synopsis of all relevant aspects can succeed, and which criteria should be met to enhance the quality of such an approach.

However, sometimes it is difficult to combine all aspects in one learning process, and not all aspects that we brought up, are of the same priority. Against this background, we understand our contribution more as a thought-provoking idea than as the last word.

We would be very pleased, if our considerations result in a lively discussion.


Kosler, T., Ludwig, T., Schichtel, A., Schirm, H., and Wiebelitz, A. (2013)


List of References

Blackmore, E., Underhill, R., McQuilkin, J., Leach, R., and Holmes, T. (2013) Common Cause for Nature: A Practical Guide for Values and Frames in Conservation. Machynlleth: Public Interest Research Centre

Breiting, S., Mayer, M., and Mogensen, F. (2005) Quality Criteria for ESD-Schools – Guidelines to enhance the quality of Education for Sustainable Development. Vienna: Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture

Lovelock, J. (1991) GAIA – The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. London: Gaia Books

Schwartz, S. H. (1992) ‚Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theory and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries‘. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 25). ed. by Zanna, M. New York: Academic Press: 1-65

Vester, F. (2007) The Art of Interconnected Thinking. München: MCB Publishing

Young, J., Haas, E., and McGown, E. (2010) Coyote´s Guide to Connection with Nature. 2nd edn. Washington: OWLink Media

[1] ENSI – Environment and School Initiatives

[2] SEED – School Development through Environmental Education

Thursday, September 18, 2014