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Approaches for enabling invisible learning

Note: This is the final article of a three-part series on a new theory for invisible learning.

The Theory for Invisible Learning is that we learn more, and do so invisibly, when we separate structures of control that restrict freedom and self-determination from learning experiences.

Invisible learning can emerge in many ways, and often manifests through bits and pieces here and there. The examples of approaches to invisible learning provided here are not exhaustive, and are meant to be illustrative only. Each of these approaches embrace participation, play, and exploration.

Schools for invisible learning

Democratic education schools are arguably the most visible examples of enabling self-determination. From the 2005 EUDEC guidance document, students in democratic schools have the right:

to make their own choices regarding learning and all other areas of everyday life. In particular, they may individually determine what to do, when, where, how and with whom, so long as their decisions do not infringe on the liberty of others to do the same.

Sudbury-type schools embrace this principle at their core, providing each student an equal voice and vote along side staff members and other stakeholders as to what they learn and how their schools are run. Students spend their time together without age or grade separation and they decide how to spend their time at the school. Central to the school’s operation are school meetings in which students and staff members make key decisions in a process focused on participatory democracy. In these schools, students are afforded tremendous freedom together with the personal and collective responsibility to make the best decisions possible.

These schools are part of a broader category of free schools which developed over the past century, with many approaches that interpret “free” schooling differently. Some operate as full democracies, and others as anarchist collectives. Of particular importance is the Summerhill School (UK), which permits each student to develop their own lesson plans within a structured timetable. Students have the freedom to pursue their own learning interests, based on offerings, and like the Sudbury model, they operate within a framework of participatory democracy with shared responsibilities.

There is very little research on democratic and free schools compared to mainstream education, but my hunch is they best serve students of at least middle-class or better-educated families, where students have greater flexibility and support to pursue their own interests. For students in economically disadvantaged families, we can look into liberation pedagogies such as critical pedagogy, eco schools, and praxis-type schools as pathways. While their foci are often connected with particular ideologies, they share core themes of socioeconomic liberation for students and the communities in which they live.

Finally, youth organizations and community participation opportunities that exist, often connected to formal schools, provide pathways toward invisible learning. Most often, we see this through scouting, clubs, and extension programs where students are not evaluated on a rigorous program, but instead earn badges, develop creative products, and create community-relevant outcomes that are based on their own interests.

Free play and exploration

Free play is a natural human activity where invisible learning flourishes. Through play, children discover their interests and aptitudes. Play inspires curiosity to test boundaries and learn social rules and norms, together with the development of many soft skills. Unfortunately, mainstream approaches to education ignore or underplay its importance in learning. Psychologist Peter Gray defines play as:

“first and foremost, self-chosen and self-directed. Players choose freely whether or not to play, make and change the rules as they go along, and are always free to quit. Second, play is intrinsically motivated; that is, it is done for its own sake, not for external rewards such as trophies, improved résumés, or praise from parents or other adults. Third, play is guided by mental rules (which provide structure to the activity), but the rules always leave room for creativity. Fourth, play is imaginative; that is, it is seen by the players as in some sense not real, separate from the serious world. And last, play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively unstressed frame of mind” (from an interview in Journal of Play, Spring 2013).

Play is separate from sports and other organized activities in that it is explorative and satisfies an individual’s curiosity to try new ideas or simulate different possibilities in the world. Through play, a learner’s environment becomes his or her laboratory. This satisfaction of curiosity encourages the development of auto-didacticism, the practice of learning by one’s self.

Similar to free play is free exploration within our own communities and beyond to learn from others. What happens, for example, when children explore a culture beyond their own? What do they discover? How does it change them? What skills, competencies, or insights might they develop? Many of the answers to these questions are difficult to quantify or measure, but research suggests they can be related through the development of soft skills (i.e., intercultural competence, capabilities to handle ambiguity, empathy), which are critical outputs of invisible learning. This is learning beyond codifiable curricula, and places trust in kids that they can develop their own skills.

Building cultures of trust

To break free from the structures of control, we need to build cultures of trust. We need to trust children to learn without being told what to learn. Democracies are built on trust and shared responsibility. Free play and exploration are built on trusting others to help us learn from each other.

Teachers and school leaders have many opportunities to develop pathways toward invisible learning through participation, play, and exploration. These can be realized through their own development and praxis as well as through their work with students. But, the bottom line is enabling invisible learning is centered on trust, and trusting that children always learn — no matter what. As we wrote in Manifesto 15:

“The thrill of jumping off a cliff by deciding to do so yourself is a high you will never have if someone else pushes you off of it. In other words, the top-down, teacher-student model of learning does not maximize learning as it devours curiosity and eliminates intrinsic motivation. We need to embrace flat, horizontalized, and distributed approaches to learning, including peer learning and peer teaching, and empower students to realize the authentic practice of these modes. Educators must create space to allow students to determine if, and when, to jump off the cliff. Failing is a natural part of learning where we can always try again. In a flat learning environment, the teacher’s role is to help make sure the learner makes a well-balanced decision. Failing is okay, but the creation of failures is not.”


Posts in this series

  1. The need for invisible learning
  2. A theory for invisible learning
  3. Approaches for enabling invisible learning

McCain and Obama on educational change

Few topics are as political as education, in which at least basic schooling is compulsory for all Americans. It is fitting, then, that we conclude this week’s focus on change with a look at the changes that presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama each propose for U.S. education. After analyzing educational policy statements on each candidate’s website, one contender clearly presents an agenda for educational change: Barack Obama. Unfortunately, Sen. McCain only provides a short statement on his educational stance, while Sen. Obama, in addition to an outline for action he proposes, provides a comprehensive plan for lifetime success through education.

McCain focuses his statements on education on school choice –that is, if a school fails a student, then the student should have the freedom to move to a different school. McCain believes that many schools are failing, and No Child Left Behind helps to illustrate the problem. Obama believes that public education was broken before NCLB –and that NCLB was intended to fix the problem, but was poorly conceived, never properly funded, and was poorly implemented.

Excerpts from statements made by each campaign:

On No Child Left Behind

McCain: No Child Left Behind has focused our attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard. John McCain believes that we can no longer accept low standards for some students and high standards for others. In this age of honest reporting, we finally see what is happening to students who were previously invisible. While that is progress all its own, it compels us to seek and find solutions to the dismal facts before us.

Obama: Reform NCLB, by funding the law. Obama believes teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. He will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama will also improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.

On Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (STEM)

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession and will support efforts to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. He will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.

On Non-Formal Education

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve one million more children.

Obama’s “STEP UP” plan addresses the achievement gap by supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children through partnerships between local schools and community organizations.

On Higher Education

McCain: Unknown.

Obama: Obama will make college affordable for all Americans by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit. This universal and fully refundable credit will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans, and will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college tuition completely free for most students. Obama will also ensure that the tax credit is available to families at the time of enrollment by using prior year’s tax data to deliver the credit when tuition is due.

Obama will streamline the financial aid process by eliminating the current federal financial aid application and enabling families to apply simply by checking a box on their tax form, authorizing their tax information to be used, and eliminating the need for a separate application.

On Responsibility for Education

McCain: If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools. John McCain believes parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children. He finds it beyond hypocritical that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child’s school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe. They can make another choice. John McCain believes that is a fundamental and essential right we should honor for all parents.

Obama: The Obama plan will encourage schools and parents to work together to establish a school-family contract laying out expectations for student attendance, behavior, and homework. These contracts would be provided to families in their native language when possible and would include information on tutoring, academic support, and public school choice options for students.

Right now, Sen. Obama is the only candidate who shares a plan for educational reform. As the election nears, we will revisit the positions on the two candidates. If the McCain campaign comes forward with a plan for educational change, we will share it with you at EducationFutures.com as the election nears.

Top ten list #8: Ways to transform schools into centers of knowledge production and innovation

ten-days-sm.pngToday’s list discusses how to move beyond the failures of U.S. education and transform our schools, communities, and families into centers of knowledge production and innovation.

  1. Schools of the agricultural and industrial ages produced graduates suitable for their economies and societies. Change is accelerating, and students that are being prepared for old society jobs cannot be expected to succeed in a rapidly evolving socioeconomic environment. Today’s schools must reorient themselves toward producing graduates that will adapt and lead in societies that do not yet exist.
  2. Knowledge is meaning, and meaning is knowledge. A new emphasis on the production of knowledge/meaning in formal education will mean students should not be viewed merely as vessels to into whom knowledge is downloaded, but should be vigorously involved in new knowledge co-creation. A good starting point toward creating new meanings is to bring dialogue and dialogical approaches to education back into the classroom.
  3. No Child Left Behind undercuts the quest for meaning that is part of every intelligent human life. To reverse this damage, the schools must leave behind NCLB and psychometric-centric school cultures behind.
  4. Many new ways of attending formal education are now available in a number of societies. The major implication of this is that families have greater choices in determining blends of educational contexts, and can contribute to the further development of new knowledge-producing contexts
  5. Innovation is derived from the timely and effective use of knowledge. To help produce both knowledge/meaning and innovation, the schools will have to routinely seek out new contexts, problems, and experiences to bring into each classroom.
  6. Schools routinely firewall the Internet. The simplest ways to minimize the losses to imagination and creativity generated by this practice are to stop fighting information and open access to the net; and develop improved ICT tools to help students harness their creative potential.
  7. Generally, families are sources of educational conservatism. Such squeamishness about potential changes of school missions from download education to the production of knowledge/meaning and innovation can be abated by engaging parents in future-oriented storytelling conversations, such as StoryTech.
  8. Schools in America tend to ignore or even denigrate creative, imaginative students. A quick fix for this problem is to remove creative students immediately, and place them in supportive contexts where they can build upon their individual knowledge and begin to innovate immediately.
  9. Production of knowledge/meaning and innovation in the schools can vastly increase the choices available to society. The problem with this is that the choices quickly may quickly become overwhelming. New technologies must be developed and embraced to help support and mediate personal and social decision-making.
  10. To further overcome the problem of “knowledge and innovation overload,” a minority of students may have to partner with adaptive technologies to maintain cognitive competitiveness with their more choice-comfortable peers.