Paul Henderson. Thinking aloud on Alternative Learning.

Paul challenges mainstream schooling to wake up.

When Will the Sleeping Giant Wake Up?

Research into alternative learning has shown us many things. It has shown us that conventional schooling is not the same thing as education. It has also shown us far more economical, suitable and efficient means by which people can become educated compared to conventional schooling. For example it has been estimated that democratic free schools such as Sudbury Valley cost about half as much per student to run as conventional schools, and home education costs governments very little, yet it is well documented that the levels of emotional and psychological well being, social skill, academic achievement and future career prospects gained from alternative learning environments compare very favourably indeed to those of mainstream schooling.

Consider the following facts while keeping in mind the prospect of the vast potential economic savings and educational gains to be had by the mass acceptance of what is now called alternative learning;

  • According to UNESCO global government spending on education in 2004 was the equivalent of 1.97 trillion US dollars.
  • According to WHO, one third of deaths – some 18 million people a year or 50,000 per day – are due to poverty-related causes.
  • In total 270 million people, most of them women and children, have died as a result of poverty since 1990.

Keeping these disturbing facts in mind and with the knowledge that research into alternative learning has revealed more suitable, efficient and far cheaper ways to educate people than our present method of mass education, surely the wisdom of utilising conventional schooling as the main means by which our global populace is educated must be called into question. The global education budget could be halved resulting in a saving of around a trillion US dollars per year by employing the techniques of alternative learning globally while enjoying the benefits of a better educated populace. It may be naively optimistic but I would suggest that part of the trillion dollars saved could surely go some way to decreasing the tragic number of deaths caused by poverty each year. Thanks to the general misconception of conventional schooling as an irreproachable cultural imperative we pay the staggering price of two trillion dollars a year for a one-way ticket to an educational landscape that is demonstrably far from optimal. Over the last hundred years there has been a small band of visionary individuals who have been able to see ‘what is and what might be.’ They are the champions of what is known as alternative learning and it now seems very likely that the inevitable final realisation of the culmination of around a century’s worth of their noble and visionary work now lies well within our grasp.

 Every country throughout the world is reforming its education system as a means to compete in an increasingly ruthless global struggle for economic buoyancy. The current overwhelming consensus of cultural, sociological and academic wisdom points to the belief that the most important and effective way to do this is to increase teaching quality in schools. While there is a lot to be learned from popular cultural and social attitudes and well intended and highly rigorous mainstream academic research, the evidence that their conclusions are drawn from consistently and wrongly conflates education with schooling. Some mainstream pedagogical researchers may regard research on alternative learning as irrelevant, but they are wrong if they do. The often flippantly dismissed research that has been conducted into the results and methods of alternative learning point to a very different path to success which may not serve the needs of those with a vested interests in the perpetuation of conventional schooling very well, but may lead to far greater happiness and prosperity for the entire human race. Whose needs are more important?

While research into alternative learning should certainly not be dismissed, neither should mainstream pedagogical research. All of the evidence should be considered inclusively in order to arrive at a fully informed optimal educational landscape. Mainstream academic research is still very useful in a general educational sense. For example it has resulted in five key learning strategies that are transferable to all learning environments. Up until now these strategies have only been thought to be applicable in the traditional classroom settings for which they were designed. In this piece I intend to explain how these strategies are applied in alternative learning environments to achieve learning much more suitable and efficient than can be achieved in standard school classrooms, even in those where the key strategies are well implemented. The five key strategies are;

 Clarifying, Sharing, and Understanding Learning Intentions and Success Criteria

  1. Eliciting Evidence of Learners’ Achievement
  2. Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward
  3. Activating Students as Instructional Resources for One Another
  4. Activating Students as Owners of Their Own Learning

These strategies are the key elements of what is known as ‘formative assessment’ or ‘assessment for learning.’

All research into alternative learning environments has shown that they are educationally at least as, if not much more, suitable, efficient and effective than conventional schooling, whether they utilise a formal curriculum fully, partially or not at all. My explanatory hypothesis for part of this success, based on deductive reasoning, is that in alternative learning environments learners interact with their learning sources in a continuous rather than continual fashion and therefore the most prevalent type of self, peer or mentor formative assessment is dynamic rather than static, but a lot more research needs to be done to confirm this hypothesis. For the purposes of this piece I will be referring to alternative learning environments which do not utilise a curriculum but instead harness the power of intrinsically motivated autonomous learning, since these are the ones which contrast the most starkly with conventional schooling. The key learning strategies found to be the most successful in conventional schooling manifest themselves very well in such alternative learning environments as follows;

 Clarifying, Sharing, and Understanding Learning Intentions and Success Criteria

The key difference between the learning intentions and success criteria of conventional schooling and those often found in alternative learning environments (ALEs) is that in conventional schooling they are compulsory and state prescribed whereas in ALEs they are often voluntarily learner defined. In ALEs the fact is clearly shared and understood that learners are naturally intent on learning for its own sake; their intention to learn is an inherent human capacity and learning content reflects the interests of the learner. In other words learners are naturally intent on learning what interests them. The process of evolution has guaranteed that healthy humans will learn successfully as long as they live in a stimulating learning environment. The brain is a human organ which has evolved to function in a specific way. Just as the heart has evolved to pump blood and the lungs have evolved to breath air, the brain has evolved to learn. The notion that all children’s brains need institutionalised artificial intervention in the form of the compulsory imposition of state prescribed learning intentions from the age of five upwards is as absurd as fitting all healthy children with heart pacemakers and hooking them up to ventilating machines at the age of five in order for their heart and lungs to function properly. The human brain is as intent on learning as the heart is intent on pumping and the lungs are intent on breathing; just like all healthy human organs it doesn’t need institutionalised clinical intervention to function optimally. Just as the heart needs blood to pump and the lungs need air to breath, the brain needs a stimulating learning environment to learn from, which is provided in ubiquitous bountiful abundance in today’s information rich society. The need for artificial stimulation in the form of intra-curricular schooling is not only absurd, it is detrimental to the natural way in which the brain has evolved to learn. The more that learners’ learning content is prescribed and sourced and their learning planned and evaluated by others, the more dependent learners become on those things being done for them. The more that learning is extrinsically motivated, the less it is intrinsically motivated. Curiosity and the desire to learn stems from intrinsic motivation therefore the more time learners spend in an environment where learning is extrinsically motivated, the less time they have for intrinsically motivated activity, the inevitable results of which lead to the decreased desire to learn for learning’s sake, decreased metagognitive ability and the increased dependence on being taught commonly observed in schoolchildren.

 Eliciting Evidence of Learners’ Achievement

In many ALEs the evidence of learners’ achievement can be clearly observed in their dynamic purposive interaction with their environment. Through continuous interaction with their learning sources learners benefit from dynamic formative self, peer and mentor assessment. This contrasts starkly with the considerably less effective nature of classroom formative assessment which is static and continual as opposed to the vastly more efficient dynamic and continuous formative assessment commonly found in ALEs

 Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward

In alternative learning there are many mechanisms that provide feedback that moves learning forward. One of the most important ones is boredom. When children master the art of walking they get bored with it and learn to run, then hop, skip, jump, pogo etc. When they master the art of reading simple picture books they get bored and want to read more challenging material. In every task they set themselves boredom with the level they are at moves them forward. Boredom also drives metagognitive awareness and the ability to independently source new learning sources, materials, content, peers and mentors. Where learners are allowed to source any learning content through any medium of their choice boredom does not lead to disengagement the way it does in classrooms where learners are dependent on waiting for their teachers to source new learning materials for them. Where learning is allowed to flourish as evolution intended, boredom drives it forward from the rear while playfulness and curiosity lead it from the front. Boredom is a very healthy and natural thing in learner environments where learners are free to source their own new learning materials but highly destructive leading to disengagement in environments where learners are dependent on being taught.

 Activating students as the owners of their own learning

 All learners own their own learning. Who else could it possibly belong to? If you own your own then it is yours by definition. The most satisfying form of ownership is when you own something that you previously didn’t have and really wanted. Quenching a thirst for learning is deeply fulfilling and confirms, consolidates and enhances learners’ self-belief in their own abilities to learn useful, pertinent and personally meaningful things at will. This is hugely self-empowering. From a learning environment perspective this translates to one which is flexible and adaptable enough to allow learners to determine their own learning intentions with a view to enjoying the deep satisfaction of ownership over them. This is when learning and the acquisition of knowledge, skill and understanding becomes a highly satisfying activity and students are strongly activated to learn more and more by the ever increasing gains in satisfaction.

 The least satisfying form of ownership is one in which you own something that you don’t want and have never wanted. This incurs unwanted costs in the form of time – regarded by many as every human’s most precious commodity. This kind of ownership leads to the resentment of unwanted responsibility for something that is no more than a liability. There is no satisfaction in owning learning that you never wanted in the first place which was chosen for you to learn by some unelected and distant ultimate authority that knows or cares nothing about your personal interests and pursuits. It is readily observable in ALEs in which learning intentions are learner defined that learning is a joy. In formal learning institutions where learning intentions are imposed without the consultation of learners, and where learners are coerced to learn through increasingly sophisticated psychological behaviourist techniques, the learning process can quite easily become thoroughly dissatisfying drudgery, the results of which no learner previously wanted or presently wants to own.

 Activating Students as Instructional Resources for One Another

With internet forums and websites on all topics imaginable freely accessible to all, there has never been a better time for peer to peer learning on whatever casual interest, hobby, formal academic subject or specialised niche you can care to think of. These forums are moderated by experts to ensure quality and are often utilised by a heady global mix of professional experts, pro-am enthusiasts and recognised aficionados eager to discuss and explain the things that captivate their interests and imaginations. As well as learning online learners in alternative learning communities can seek out recognised experts and benefit from unhindered access to groups of mixed age who share the same passions and interests. This exhilarating whirlwind of genuinely active and interactive learning contrasts starkly to the sterile environments of formal learning institutions in which pupils in state custody are coerced and manipulated into helping each other or checking each other’s work which has been forced on them without consultation or consideration of their interests under the guise of ‘activating’ them.

 In summary, with careful consideration of the findings of research into alternative learning, it can be established beyond doubt that the five key strategies of formative assessment can be implemented far more effectively and successfully than they are presently implemented in school classrooms. This can be done by adherence to the following concepts.

 Utilise learning environments flexible enough to allow learners to define their own learning intentions.

  1. Utilise learning environments that are flexible and adaptable enough for learners to explore and interact with at will in a continuous, dynamic and purposive fashion without flow spoiling interruptions such as ringing bells.
  2. Allow learners as much freedom as possible to choose and source their own fresh new learning materials, content, peers and mentors when they get bored.
  3. Empower learners to learn what interests them and in turn bestow the deep satisfaction and richly self-motivating achievement of owning learning that is personally meaningful, pertinent, relevant, useful and wanted.
  4. Allow learners to form interactive learning bonds with peer groups not necessarily defined by age but by common interests and pursuits, whether directly within their learning communities or online.

 Global conventional schooling is like a massive slumbering giant sleepwalking towards a precipice. Proponents of alternative learning are like little flies buzzing in its ear desperately trying to wake it up before it’s too late, but instead of listening the giant rouses just enough to swat the flies away then carries on along its tragic path. The outspoken proponents of alternative learning are small in size and few in number but they are without doubt the super heroes and heroines of our time. It is beginning to look very much like their valiant transformational ideas are on the cusp of reaching the very real potential they have to contribute towards significant improvements in global human happiness and prosperity. With the undeniable proven success of the Sudbury Valley model of schooling and home education, and the astonishing popularity of websites such as Khan Academy and initiatives such as NovoEd, it appears that the educational landscape is changing whether we like it or not. There are definitely some aspects of conventional schooling involving the voluntary participation of students which are worth saving, such as instrumental music services, which could be incorporated into future convivial all-age non-coercive learning centres in exactly the same way as they are currently incorporated into conventional schooling. We should be careful not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ In fact instrumental music services that employ peripatetic music instructors may provide a useful model to provide professional teaching on request to future learning centres in any area of learning requested by students, not just musical instrument instruction. Except from this type of ‘treasure in the wreck,’ it would seem, after a full, frank, non-biased and inclusive consideration of all of the available evidence, that the moral, philosophical, intellectual, educational, political and economic foundations of conventional institutionalised learning as we know it today have crumbled away to such an extent that it is no longer an educationally credible, politically justifiable or economically viable option.

The trillion dollar question is: When will the sleeping giant wake up?


Paul Henderson, April, 2013

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