Understanding Dr. Elmore’s Quandrants of Learning

Educators in the pursuit of learning try and establish a plethora of environments that attempt to address the needs of 21st century learners. In fact, we are living in a time and age in which a variety of different educational environments and communities are being explored by institutions both private and public. Professor Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor of Educational Leadership in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has developed an interesting framework to classify the different institutions in which learning occurs. In order to describe this framework, the Professor utilized an edX platform created course in which anyone can audit and learn from the material he presented.

The edX platform itself is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT. It provides an open course-ware platform that impacts the world by providing affordable online courses from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Through this modality, Professor Elmore eloquently describes his quadrant framework with the help of industry leaders from a variety of backgrounds ranging from Baltimore County Public Schools to Wikipedia. The course itself is split up into 4 distinct sections that are sandwiched in between an introduction and conclusion. Utilizing videos as well as open-ended discussion questions, the content is able to make a lasting impression on anyone who takes the course. Having education leaders in their own words describe the trials and tribulations of implementing change is fascinating.

That is where the field of education is currently at: a state of flux and one where there is constant push back against change. Individuals involved in education can begin to see that there is a need for fundamental reorganization of how and why people learn. However, before you change an organization you must be able to clearly identify the unique environments that exist within learning institutions.


Prof. Elmore describes the four quadrants by beginning with the Hierarchical Individual quadrant which explains our traditional K-12 system, while the hierarchical collective quadrant describes an organization like a living learning community. Both quadrants have the prefix of hierarchical because each of these types of organizations still have a standard form of authority (i.e. principles, learning managers). However, the other two quadrants illustrate the changing dynamics of education and learning in the 21st century. The first quadrant in this category is the distributed individual, which is a product of the distance education movement. The belief within this quadrant is that learners do not need a formal physical environment in order to learn, rather all they need is the appropriate knowledge content coupled with practice in order to master a skill or concept. The final quadrant that is described within the course is the distributed collective, which is an anarchist form of education. This quadrant presupposes that learners have no need for any formal invite, course, or even a classroom in order for them to learn together in a community. Hack-a-thons which are increasing in popularity are a perfect example of this new age of collective learning.

All of us have our particular preferences in regards to which quadrant we think organizations should utilize for learning. The truth, however, points us in the direction of an “all of the above” approach, being that a mix of exposure to all four of the quadrants is ideal. Online courses, in particular, can take advantage of creating a social learning community, while still valuing individual learning, and instilling a form of hierarchical authority. I’ll end with a quote from renowned educational psychologist John Dewey “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” (www.goodreads.com).

Find the link below to the EdX Course:
Leaders of Learning