It’s all about our imaginations. You’ve heard it said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” To this we might add: “Fish that have only swum in polluted waters may have no idea that fresher waters exist.”
We aren’t fish, but we can become so accustomed to our way of life that we are oblivious to how things can be different; different in a better way.
In our fast-changing world, we cannot afford to take things for granted. We have to challenge ourselves to see things differently, and public education is one of the things that needs a fresh look.
Most of us have attended traditional schools, and they may be all we really know. John Gatto, in his acclaimed book Dumbing Us Down, said, “Among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.”
So what is another way to do things? Can we do better? A growing number of people believe we can.
We are being influenced by thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson, who has the most watched TED Talk of all time. He says schools are killing children’s creativity, and he is not calling for just minor adjustments to how we educate our young.
In another popular video titled Changing Education Paradigms, he argues that we need to adopt a whole different model that fits with today’s world. A Google search of Ken Robinson produces links to his videos.
The traditional education model was designed to meet the needs of the industrial age. According to John Gatto and many others, it was meant to produce obedient factory workers who could tolerate boring days, and it assigned people to their station in life.
At the time it was introduced, people could learn most of what they needed to know in the first 20 years of life. It is a top-down system where teachers are the bosses and students are the workers. It has been described as “the factory” and “the autocratic” learning model, assembly line learning that turns out widgets from the same mold.
This is a harsh way of looking at a system that helped masses of people to become literate and climb out of poverty, but in today’s diverse world, where people must be prepared to keep learning throughout their lives and assume greater responsibility for themselves, it is increasingly being seen as having outlived its usefulness.
Evidence of this is found in the levels of disengagement in learning, the number of student dropouts, and the overall troubled state of youth.
A closer look reveals that a traditional education can even be damaging to high-achieving students. Alfie Kohn, author of Feel-Bad Education and The Myth of the Spoiled Child among other works, is an authority on what motivates young people.
In a short YouTube video titled Why Grades Shouldn’t Exist, he warns that striving for grades disassociates students from what is most important for their well-being.
Daniel Greenberg, a co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School, which places no importance on grades, has coined the phrase “recovering ‘A’ student” to describe people who chased high marks and who are now trying to regain a healthier perspective on life.
In two powerful documentaries, Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure, Vicki Abeles describes the harm and futility that an obsession over grades can do to young people. It all adds up to the need for schools to actively pursue a fundamentally different way of doing business.
Surprisingly, the model emerging to replace the traditional one is not new. More than a century ago, John Dewey, a giant in the field of education, was referring to it as “progressive education.” He talked about experiential learning, learning by doing.
It has evolved into what is now known as the democratic learning model, named as such because it is based on our democratic values. The right to self-determination is respected, and where decisions affect more than the individual, they are made using democratic processes.
Dorothy Nolte wrote a poem referred to by people advocating for this model. Its title is Children Learn What They Live, and the advocates add, “If we want children to be responsible, then they must be given responsibility. If we want them to grow up to be good democratic citizens, then they must live democratic lives.”
With the democratic model, students are seen as the clients, and the teachers as service providers. Schools become community learning resource centres that respond to the unique needs of each student without saddling them with labels. The students assume responsibility for their own learning and everyone is a teacher and a learner.
The actual teachers become facilitators, mentors, coaches and co-learners who cultivate diverse learning communities that bring the big world to the attention of the students. Their role can be seen as that of resourceful and caring parents in a large extended family.
The model is sometimes called the self-directed learning model, and when it comes to grades, the view is that the only truly valid form of evaluation is self-evaluation.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, strives to convince us that people today need more autonomy. He says, “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ onto the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage.’ This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.”
Most of us know of self-directed learning, but “knowing” is not necessarily “understanding.” People scoffed at Copernicus for suggesting that the earth moved around the sun. Everyone could see the sun moving across the sky.
So, could it be that people who scoff at the thought of children directing their own learning are also fooled by an illusion? Is it normal for students to be irresponsible slackers when they are not under the watchful eyes of their teachers?
People who promote democratic learning will declare that it is most certainly not normal, that it stems from students being forced to learn things that are of no interest to them, and from being so controlled in school that rebelliousness is just below the surface waiting to be released. They also draw attention to what great learners children are before they go to school.
A move to democratic learning is something that needs to be done with foresight. Daniel Pink warns that people will struggle if we pluck them “out of controlling environments, when they’ve known nothing else, and plop them in an environment of undiluted autonomy.”
He says they need some kind of “scaffolding” to support the move. “Scaffolding” in this sense can be described as maintaining a degree of familiarity for people in transition.
A group of concerned Ottawa citizens calling itself the Ottawa Public Education Remake Initiative, or OPERI for short, is promoting a way to manage the transition using appropriate scaffolding. It is urging educators to implement a conservative pilot program that can serve as a starting point and gradually become more democratic, according to people’s readiness to accept more change. Its main feature is that it eliminates the bells.
Larry Rosenstock, a co-founder of High Tech High, believes that the traditional school practice of formal scheduling, breaking the day into fixed chunks of time, is the single greatest impediment to educational innovation. High Tech High has been described by Vicki Abeles as “one of the most vibrant and innovative schools I’ve seen.” Others such as Ken Robinson also speak of the need to get beyond formal scheduling.
The OPERI pilot eliminates the bells, but otherwise maintains as much familiarity as possible. Students remain in their community schools, they participate in extra-curricular activities as always, they meet up with their friends at lunch, they follow the same school rules as always, they work on approved courses, and they write the same final exams as their counterparts.
Despite how little is changed, students gain more control over their learning. They become more self-directed and learn to make efficient use of their time.
The emphasis on learning shifts to acquiring the 21st century skills required for lifelong learning, which they practise while studying their course materials. Course content therefore becomes a byproduct of students working on their learning skills.
Although the program offers these benefits for students, OPERI claims its power to stimulate people’s imaginations about the infinite learning possibilities inherent in democratic learning is most important.
A vision of what this new age of learning can become is provided in the LRNG video titled Evolution of Learning. OPERI contends that when people see the pilot program in action, they will be able to start imagining how self-directed learning is the way to realize the vision.
Given that the program can be easily implemented at no additional funding and with no downside for students, OPERI asks, “Why wouldn’t people want to explore it?”
To learn more about OPERI and the pilot program, visit its website at www.operi.ca. If you agree with its effort, you might want to sign its petition, which is designed to demonstrate public support for innovative educators who want to pursue the democratic learning model, and to build general awareness of what it sees as the future of public education and how to transition to it.
Whether or not the OPERI pilot can live up to its promise remains to be seen, but one thing is clear — we need to pursue every lead that can take us into a new age of learning.
We have imaginations. We don’t need to remain stuck like fish. We already have many thoughtful people imagining how we can provide for each student to obtain the education he or she needs.
As more people imagine the infinite learning possibilities our world offers, the excitement for learning that seems to diminish as children grow older may again flourish.
Richard Fransham lives with his wife in Ottawa. They have two children and five grandchildren. Together they have over 70 years of experience in education. His has included all grade levels and several subject areas in both public and Catholic school systems. He obtained a Master in Computer Applications in Education degree from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and taught a series of courses titled Computers in the Classroom for the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. Early in his career he came to believe that schools are failing our children and went searching for an alternative. He is a founding member of the Ottawa Public Education Remake Initiative (OPERI) and now spends his time building public awareness of an alternative way to better support children’s learning and well-being, and how to manage an orderly transition to it.