The ERWC “Cell”

Why are the third-level headings in the ERWC Assignment Template called “cells”? Are we supposed to imagine them looking like this?


When we designed the first ERWC Assignment Template, we created a two column table with the ELA standards on the left hand and a description of an activity that addressed those standards on the right. As we added activities, we added rows, and eventually, we started naming categories of activities and describing the kinds of things that would happen at that point in the process. We started calling these categories “cells” because they were inserted into cells in the big table that was developing.

Recently, as we work on designing ERWC 3.0, some members of the committee began to question the term “cell,” saying that it wasn’t intuitive and that it reminded them of a prison cell. One even said that the term was “just weird.” I found myself defending the term, having used it without thinking much about it for more than 14 years.


One of the suggested replacements was “element.” I took an immediate dislike to this, but I had to think carefully about why. In one sense, an “element” is a substance with a unique molecular structure that is uncombined and pure. In another sense, it is a necessary part of something else. Neither of these descriptions fit what we have in mind when we imagine our activity categories, which are not unique, pure, or necessary.  And “element” seemed solid and static. It didn’t feel right.

A Container

I began to think about the connotations of “cell.” A cell is a space with boundaries in which things happen. Yes, there are prison cells, but there are also monk’s cells. A cell has an inside and an outside. A biological cell is full of activity, consuming energy, processing things, accomplishing tasks, performing functions. A biological cell has a role to play, connects and collaborates with other cells, does work and passes the results on to other cells with different roles. A cell is part of a whole, part of an organism without which it cannot survive.

So a “cell” is an activity node, a waystation in a network of activity. I think this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in naming the places and pathways of the template. We fill the cell with possible activities, processes, and products that connect to other cells and other products. And moving from the template cell to the module cell is a kind of reproduction, mitosis if you will. So yes, I think we should imagine a module to look something like the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is a pretty good metaphor for what we are doing. I think we should keep the term.

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