What could be the future of learning?

It might seem strange to look towards the future by first looking back at the past, but it seems that there have always been deep thinkers considering the purpose of school and education, challenging the status quo and trying to revolutionize the way we learn. So what have we learned from them and what are we going to do with it? How we will use their voices to make our own choices and take ownership over the future of learning? 

“He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger” wrote Confucius (551 BCE) in Lunyu. He did not believe that we are born with natural abilities but develop our knowledge through long and careful study. He also had suggestions for pedagogy, “Only for one deeply frustrated over what he does not know will I provide a start; only for one struggling to form his thoughts into words will I provide a beginning.” (Lunyu).

Do we offer opportunities for learners to be thinkers? Do we help our children understand that they can develop skills and abilities through hard work or do we also quietly identify those who are “gifted” and who are not? Do we consider that we can grow our own abilities or are we “just not great at math”? How much do we let our students struggle and how much do we help?

The words of Socrates (470 BCE), as portrayed in Plato’s works, state that “knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning,” through this process the student “will recover it [knowledge] for himself.” Socrates did not believe that any one person or organization can teach others but that we learn by seeking our own understanding of truth by questioning and interpreting the wisdom and knowledge of others. He believed the goal of education is to “help you know what you can; and, even more importantly, to know what you do not know.” (Bob Burges, New Foundations)

Do we teach our students how to question or how to answer? Do we allow them to find their own meaning or do we give them our meaning? Do we act as teachers or as guides?

Mo Tzu (468 BCE) believed that we learn through challenges and by reflecting on failures (and successes), that we realize self-knowledge through questioning not conforming. His philosophy was one that encouraged people to work hard to change their fate and the inequality in the world.

Do we allow children the space to make “shame free” mistakes? Do we offer the time and guidance for authentic reflection or is it a chore met often with a groan? Do we ask our students to conform too often to the norms we set out for them? Can we allow them more opportunities to determine their own destinies even within our school communities?

Plato (428 BCE) wrote about a learning society in The Republic and The Laws, he presented a model for what we now describe as lifelong education.

Do we encourage lifelong learning by having an endpoint to school? Should we be enhancing the education of our adult learners through more professional learning opportunities, mentorships and coaching? Can we make our schools learning organizations? Can we better model lifelong learning for our students?

Aristotle (384 BCE) wrote, ‘Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it… We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones.’ (Aristotle Niconachean Ethics, Book II, p.91). He also categorized the disciplines into the theoretical, practical and technical.

Do we concentrate too much on the theoretical? Do we ignore practical and technical knowledge? Do we give our children the opportunities to do, to experience for themselves? Could we allow them more authentic learning experiences?

Michel De Montaigne (1533) wrote in his essay On Educating Children: “Obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt authoritas eorum qui docent.” [For those who want to learn, the obstacle can often be the authority of those who teach.]

Are we the obstacle? How do we share the “authority to teach”?

John Locke (1632) composed Some Thoughts Concerning Education where he stated that children “love to be treated as Rational Creatures,” and that parents and teachers should develop the habit of reasoning rather than just memorization. He emphasized a need for teaching critical-thinking skills. Locke also said that adults must should teach children how to learn and to enjoy learning; the teacher “should remember that his business is not so much to teach [the child] all that is knowable, as to raise in him a love and esteem of knowledge; and to put him in the right way of knowing and improving himself.”

Are we honoring children as “rational creatures”? Do we teach them how to learn or what to learn? Do we support their love of knowledge and guide them to find it on their own or do we prevent them from finding their passions through mandatory assignments and compulsory requirements?

On Education was written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712); he said that early education should be more about interactions with the world and less about books. He discussed the value of developing inferential thought processes through experiences and observations. Rousseau believed that middle education should then continue on to the selection of a trade and learning the skills of a trade. He believed education should be useful and purposeful for the learner.  And finally, he posits that education should conclude with lessons on human emotions, especially sympathy, so the learner could be prepared to be brought into the world and socialized as an active and compassionate citizen.

Do we allow our young learners the chance to interact with the world and develop their senses to wonder and question and derive meaning from experience or do we focus too much too early on reading and writing and arithmetic? Is there a role for apprenticeships in school? Do we include enough character development in our curriculum, are they ready when they leave us to be compassionate citizens?

John Dewey (1859) believed that students should be part of their learning, to not just learn pre-determined skills, but to use their own prior knowledge and make connections with new ideas, to find out through hands-on learning or experiential education. Instead of just mastering facts, learning rules and being compliant, Dewey suggested, schools should help students to be reflective, inquirers, autonomous, critical thinkers and morally sound citizens.

Do we focus too much on “predetermined skills”? Can we allow our students to be more a part of the learning? Do we have too many rules and expect too much compliance?

Jean Piaget (1896) suggested that teachers should view students as learners and view education as learner-centered. This means that there should be an allowance for learners’ to shape their curriculum. He also believed that learners can construct, or build, understanding for themselves. Piaget said: “Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society … but for me and no one else, education means making creators… You have to make inventors, innovators—not conformists” (from Conversations with Jean Piaget, Bringuier, 1980, p. 132).

Do we allow our students to construct their own meaning by shaping our curriculum? Do we nurture creators and innovators or conformists?

Paulo Freire (1921) and George Counts (1889) advocated for critical pedagogy. They believed that teaching is political and knowledge cannot be neutral. Their goal with critical pedagogy was to help students become more aware of the political perspectives within knowledge to develop critical consciousness and affect change in their world. Counts proposed that teachers “dare build a new social order” he continued by saying that teachers “cannot evade the responsibility of participating actively in the task of reconstituting the democratic tradition and of thus working positively toward a new society.”

Do we offer students opportunities to find information from diverse perspectives or are we teaching only one side of history and knowledge? Do we offer education for everyone or only those that fit our mold? “Do schools reflect society, or do schools transform society?” (quoted from Kevin Bartlett)

So what are my big takeaways? What we have learned about education and schools from the big thinkers throughout time? Will they guide us to reimagine schools? What could be the future of learning? Can we create learning communities where there could be:

  • More guidance for self discovery (Less teaching)
  • Learning organizations with more adult learning opportunities – lifelong learning!
  • More practical, authentic learning experiences offered – in the real world! (Less theory taught)
  • More opportunities to cultivate skills, especially critical thinking skills (Less emphasis on the knowledge and curriculum)
  • Possibilities for internships and apprenticeships
  • Classes and interactions focused on character development
  • Opportunities for active citizenship – action!
  • Chances for children to set the norms and determine the guidelines
  • Spaces for students voices to be heard as they determine their own path
  • Places with positive language aimed to develop a growth mindset
  • Spaces where we see the ability in everyone
  • More thoughtful provocations and productive struggle (Less teaching, helping and answering)
  • More active inquiry shaped by the learners (Less planning)
  • More opportunities for students to determine what they will learn, how they will learn, where they will learn, with whom they will learn and how they will know they have been successful
  • Education for everyone
  • Environments that develop creators and innovators (Not conformists)
  • Shared learning, planning, teaching, assessing (Less obstacles)

What could be the future of learning?

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Read like a rebel

A few weekends ago, at an IB conference in Singapore, I shared my personal journey from being a robot (a compliant student/teacher) to becoming a rebel (a thinker/questioner/challenger).

And a huge part of that journey for me was what I read. So often as educators we read amazing books… but they are usually books that help us do a better job within the system. Books about doing school well, or doing school better, or some even about doing school differently… but often just a little differently.

For me, the biggest shifts in thinking that I had came from books outside the system. From de-schoolers, un-schoolers, home-schoolers and even anti-schoolers. Books that made me critically look at the nature of the institution of school and begin to question some of the things we often assume to be “natural” or “essential” or “untouchable” elements of the education system.

So here are some of the things I read that helped poke and provoke my thinking about teaching, learning, schooling and the rights of the child:

It can be books…

Turning Points

How Children Learn

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Summerhill

Dumbing us Down

De-Schooling Society

It can be blogs:

Alfie Kohn blog

It can be Tweeters:

Bruce L Smith

It’s any reading material that gets you thinking, makes you question, gets you angry. The type of reading material that fires you up and gives you the confidence to look at school and say “that’s not okay”. The type of reading material that doesn’t shy away from challenging those “untouchable” elements of the school system.

The type of reading material that makes you feel unafraid to fail, be different or get in trouble.

What are your favourite “rebel reads” that I should add to the list?