Turning Learning On It’s Head

This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 Issue of AONTAS’s Explore Magazine. You can download a copy of that issue here.

Lets start with a thought experiment, imagine a baby learning to talk – getting out its first few syllables, imitating it’s parents, until finally it can say a word, a complete sentence. Now imagine a curriculum for learning to talk, there’d be a textbook naturally, flashcards, phonemes to remember, competition, and of course punishment if baby got it wrong. Would our imaginary child be enhanced as a result?

John Holt was a teacher in the Colorado and Boston public schools of the 1950s and 60s. Watching the students that passed through his private school classes (some of the most elite in the country), he saw that rather than being active engaged learners, these kids were in fact terrified. School was a frustrating battleground full of potential failure and public humiliation, and examination was constant. Success in school was shaky at best, and students were rewarded for guessing at the right answer rather than really knowing the material.

Our public education system, with its segregation by age, gender and test performance, its uniforms and its teacher at the top of the classroom, is based around the schools of the early 19th century Prussian empire. This system was not designed to create articulate well rounded adults. Rather it was a one size fits all authoritarian approach, intended to inculcate ‘fixed habits of reaction to authority’. To deselect those judged eugenically ‘unfit’ and supply workers for the factories of the burgeoning industrial revolution.

Responding to the needs of learners

Perhaps, after two centuries of educational psychology, after Vygotsky and Dewey and Holt and Ivan Illich, we can do better. Maybe it’s possible to build a school designed around the needs of learners and our understanding of learning.

Finland has made the attempt. In the 1970s their economy was based almost entirely on logging. To revolutionize it, they needed to reform their education system, and to do that they needed to reform teaching. Today you need a master’s degree to be a teacher in Finland (it can’t be in education), and only 10% of those who apply make it into the profession. The results speak for themselves. Despite having all but abolished mandatory testing and streaming, Finnish schools are ranked highest in the West by the OECD Programme for international student assessment. There’s less than 4% difference between the best and worst performing schools. Finnish teachers spend half of their paid time outside the classroom, preparing lessons, working with their colleges to craft an integrated curriculum, and continuing their own learning.

But there’s still a set curriculum. Even in Finland students are ultimately sent down an academic or vocational path, navigating a curriculum tailored to the states’ utility rather than their individual needs.

Another model is practiced by the thousand or so Waldorf schools, founded in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner, which practice a curriculum based around art and music. Here academics and literacy are delayed till late in a child’s development, textbooks are crafted by the kids themselves and the emphasis is on play and a comprehensive integrated curriculum acknowledging individual learning modalities and developmental schedules. Waldorf graduates are more engaged, positive and pro-social, and Waldorf schools are leaders in educating together the children of fractious communities in places like South Africa and Israel / Palestine.

More radical still are the 30 or so Sudburry Valley schools in the United States. These schools lack anything resembling a curriculum. In fact, they do away with classrooms and teachers all together. Students spent their days at whatever takes their fancy. These schools are gymnasiums for learning, full of musical instruments, computers and games; and 82% of graduates complete university or vocational education. Sudburry graduates score very highly on measures of vocational outcome satisfaction.

A vision for a new learning centre

I want to suggest that in the era of MIT Open Courseware, of the Maker Movement, of the Khan Academy that it’s time to do this everywhere. It’s time to build what Ivan Illich called ‘reference services to educational objects’, peer driven free learning centers where citizens of all ages can study whatever takes their fancy. These would be places full of tools, of academic books and journals, available to anyone for free. Places fusing the best aspects of library, maker workshop, salon and community art collective. Such volunteer run institutions would encourage social engagement and autonomy and build more rounded adult human beings. Visiting lectures could be provided by artists, artisans, scientists and engineers, filmed and made available for free online. Learning resources from the community and the wider city could be brought together in an accessible and integrative way.

The potential for autonomous, consensus driven institutions has been ably demonstrated by social and art centers like Seomra Spraoi and Exchange Dublin. An ongoing series of lectures called Knowledge Exchange has already offered free talks on everything from biohacking to artificial intelligence, while classes in bicycle repair and Spanish have been provided free for years in Seomra.

These ideas have led to the founding of Open Learning Ireland, a new nonprofit group dedicated to building an open learning institution in the capital. So far we’ve run two weekend long ‘pop-up unskools’ to test the concept – the first as part of the Dublin Contemporary 2011 Exhibition, and the second in conjunction with the Dublin Skillshare Festival (www.diyskillshare.org). You can learn more about Open Learning Ireland, and join in the discussion around how we can create a new learning institution in the city at our website – http://www.openlearningireland.com

Gareth Stack is a graduate of the Trinity College Dublin’s psychology programme, a trainee psychotherapist with the Tivoli Institute in Dun Laoghaire, and a co-founder of Open Learning Ireland, a non-profit group working to create an open access, non-profit learning space in Dublin City.

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