Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Time for a rethink

I came across a wonderful blog the other day by @JudithKingston over at Clean Slate (http://wp.me/p2QYex-lP). If you're at all interested in education, and in how we might improve it, please please please go and take a look. As regular readers will know, I have a bit of bee in my bonnet about education, and am particularly taken by the idea of self organised learning. Judith's ideas chime perfectly in tune with my own. 

I don't think anyone still believes our existing educational system is a good one. Whether, like SuperGove, you're a fan of the rote learning of the fifties (in which case all this touchy feely context based learning nonsense needs to go) or you have a belief, as I do, that creativity and interest need to be stimulated and encouraged in a way that the national curriculum simply does not allow, I do think that we need to re-imagine the way we teach our children. 

Quite apart from anything else, the world has changed (and is continuing to change) in ways that our education system struggles to keep up with. 20 years ago a Calvin and Hobbes strip made the point that a cheap calculator could provide answers to more complex mathematical problems than the average school leaver could do if his life depended on it. 


20 years on we have access to more information more quickly than we can make use of. Google is your friend; it can tell me the name of the sixth wife of Henry VIII in less than a sixth of a second. It can list every King of England, it can tell me whether Alfred was in fact the first or not, it can teach me double entry book keeping and how to play bass guitar. I don't even have to be at a desk to ask a question; an iPhone and a half decent 3G signal will do.

Having taken La Child out of mainstream education we've been keen to see what support there may be for home schooling, and the weekend before last we visited a small school in Hampshire called The Heartwood Project. It started out life as an 'educational cooperative', a support group for home schooling, and as its initial cohort has grown so has its aspirations and the services it provides. Please do take a look at their website here: http://www.heartwoodproject.org.uk

The school adopts the self organised learning principle, allowing its children free reign in terms of what they want to learn and how. As they are all officially home schooled, there is no need for (and certainly no pressure on) the children to study towards or take any exams, but for those who do want to study towards exams tutors are brought in for specific subjects. Generally speaking, freedom and flexibility is the order of the day, and it seems to lead to a child led environment that the children themselves love.

And it works. The children are all either (at worst) on a level with those in mainstream education or (more frequently) well ahead of it. The idea that if left to their own devices children will veer off into some Lord of the Flies subculture and learn nothing is demonstrably nonsense. If anything, better results are achieved by a less pressured, less structured environment. But somewhere like the Heartwood Project wouldn't work without parental involvement. Being home schooled, the children are all from homes where the parents have, very obviously, taken a more active role in their child's education, so there is a question mark over how well this might work in more mainstream schooling where parents have less time to devote. But I don't think it would make a huge difference. The Clean Slate blog suggests that all learning is really down to three motivating factors:

1. survival - we learn to communicate our need for food early on, for example;

2. goals - how do I reach those tasty shoes? I have to learn to crawl. How do I become a pilot? I have to learn to fly; and

3. interest - I like this, I don't like that, I learn to avoid what I dislike, and learn how to do the things that I find enjoyable.

The point being made, of course, is that children will, almost out of necessity, be drawn to learning irrespective of whether they're formally taught. Children need less teaching and more guidance; less being told, more being asked. 

I'd love to hear from anyone who is either involved with, or has come across, real life examples of self organised learning in the UK, so please do get in touch by leaving a comment below or on twitter (@marcosbranza).