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Unleashing the instinct to play for learning

Free play is our focus for this episode of the Education Futures Podcast. Adults often assume that it is their job to keep children busy all the time, but evidence suggests that children learn best when afforded great amounts of free time and opportunities for free play: activities that are freely chosen and directed by participants for their own sake. This can involve exploring, making new friends, playing games, being bored, and rescuing one’s self from boredom.

We wanted to learn more. And so we interviewed Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. In his book, Peter Gray argues it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with our children, and start asking what’s wrong with the system. Is schooling the most responsible thing we can provide?

NEW: Once you’ve listened to this episode, why not earn an hour of continuing professional education? After all, you’ve already done half the work. Just go to educationfutures.com/learn, and sign up for the Moodle course that corresponds with this episode. After you post your thoughts in response to the questions we have for you in the “sound off” forum, you can download your certificate of completion.

It’s free, and it’s our gift to you for listening and for supporting us. Simply visit educationfutures.com/learn to earn your free continuing professional education credit.

This is an open conversation, and your participation is invited! Email your stories and responses to us at info@educationfutures.com.

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New episodes are released approximately every two weeks. Here’s how to follow along:

Education in Finland – Part I

The Finnish approach to education is our focus for this two-part series. Finland has received a lot of attention lately for its top performance in comparative, international assessments of its students and schools.

In this episode, we interview Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a world-renowned expert on the country’s approach to education. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy advisor in Finland and has examined education systems around the world. His expertise includes school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. He is the author of the best-selling book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, and numerous professional articles and book chapters.

We ask, what works in the Finnish approach to schooling that we can learn from? What misconceptions are out there? And, to take what we’ve learned from Finland a reality elsewhere, would it take a revolution? Or is there another way?

NEW: Once you’ve listened to this episode, why not earn an hour of continuing professional education? After all, you’ve already done half the work. Just go to educationfutures.com/learn, and sign up for the Moodle course that corresponds with this episode. After you post your thoughts in response to the questions we have for you in the “sound off” forum, you can download your certificate of completion.

It’s free, and it’s our gift to you for listening and for supporting us. Simply visit educationfutures.com/learn to earn your free continuing professional education credit.

We would love to have your voice in these conversations! To encourage participation, we are offering a special promotion within the next few podcast episodes. Listen for the details, and email your response to program hosts John and Kelly Moravec at info@educationfutures.com for your chance to win something extraordinary!

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New episodes are released every two weeks. Here’s how to follow along:

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

A theory for invisible learning

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

Theory for Invisible Learning

When Cristóbal Cobo and I set out to write the book Aprendizaje Invisible (“Invisible learning”) five years ago, we sought to take a 360° and 3D view of the educational landscape—with an eye toward the future. We found the gap between formal learning and informal and non-formal modes of learning is becoming increasingly apparent.

We initially structured invisible learning as a metatheory, which recognizes that most of the learning we do is “invisible” —that is, it is through informal, non-formal, and serendipitous experiences rather than through formal instruction. We learn alone, or in a group, through individual and shared experiences. We learn more through experimentation, exploration, and through the consequences of enabling serendipity. Even though we cannot measure the knowledge in our heads, the consensus is that the vast majority of our knowledge is developed through invisible or informal means (see esp. this classic article by Jay Cross).

Invisible learning is not a theory for learning, itself. It is an end point or state of learning that emerges when we remove structures that control or direct our experiences. Therefore:

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.

The purpose of controlling an educational experience is to make learning visible. It is built on distrust of the learner – the false assumption that students will not learn unless they are told what to learn. In this sense, invisible learning is the end product of a theory which predicts that learning may blossom when we eliminate authoritarian control or direction of a learning experience by an “other” (i.e., teacher).

Removing structures of control opens possibilities. The end outcomes or goals of an experience are neither dictated nor determined from the start, but instead emerge as learning develops. Such experiences include free play, self-organized learning communities, authentic problem-based learning, and experimentation to acquire new knowledge.

Theory for Invisible Learning is focused on the development of personal knowledge: blends of tacit and explicit elements that embrace a portfolio of skills such as cooperation, empathy, and critical thinking as much as retaining facts. The implication is that there is no master template for enabling invisible learning, but rather we need to attend to the formation of an ecology of options for individuals to find their own ways. This suggests a growing need for bottom-up approaches to learning. By removing the rigidity of top-down control, and placing trust in learners, invisible learning can be made visible.


Posts in this series

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

Manifesto 15: A handbook for leading change

On January 1, 2015, Manifesto 15 was released: a statement that inspired a conversation about principles for building positive education futures, grounded on the idea that we urgently need to evolve learning. This is a public declaration of a vision for better education futures. In the months since its release, it’s been read and discussed by thousands of people, signed by hundreds, featured in various media and conferences, and teams of volunteers around the world have translated it into a growing number of languages (and visual notes!) – and the movement continues to grow!

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We are thankful for the interest in this project and the support we have received around the world. To help continue the conversation, we have drafted a handbook for leading change, which is available at the Manifesto 15 website.

This handbook presents some guidelines on how we can move forward, including hosting conversations, workshops, and starting local Manifesto 15 groups. The guide is an invitation to join us and build community, centered on trust and open dialogue, as we work to change the face of education. And, it contains some posters to help you get started with your own messaging.

Please take Manifesto 15 as a starting point, and build in your own ideas and practices. Or, create and share your own sets of principles. The manifesto and the emerging movement is open for discussion, remixing, and sharing – and we encourage you to drive the conversation with your own networks.

If there’s any way that we can help with conversations in your own community, please do not hesitate to contact us: manifesto15@educationfutures.com.

Manifesto 15: Evolving learning

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From John Moravec:

Like many of us, I did some reflecting over the New Year. It seemed it was time to re-center, and get back to basics. It’s too easy to get distracted and lose track of our principles and where we want to go with them. It was time to write a manifesto on what we’ve learned so far.

Read Manifesto 15 at manifesto15.org.

All of the manifestos that have inspired me are strongly associated with a date. The U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Charter 77 emerged in January 1977. Dogme 95 was crafted in 1995. Also, as ideas transform and develop over time, Manifesto 15 represents a snapshot of our ideas, visions, and what we have learned to date on January 1, 2015. It serves as a reference point to help us understand how we’ve done so far, and what actions we need to take next.

As I wrote Manifesto 15 at the beginning of last week, I opened it for public edits, contributions, and comments via Google Docs as soon as the first draft was completed. The response has been phenomenal. In just the first few days since being released on January 1, it has received thousands of views and offers for translation into various languages. As I receive the translated (and proofread) documents, I will post them as well.

Please give Manifesto 15 a read. If you would like to sign or have thoughts to share on our principles for education as we move forward, please do share. Let’s see what conversations we can spark and what initiatives we can inspire.

To my collaborators on the project, and to our supporters, thank you!

What if schools trusted us?

Watch this great talk from TEDxCopenhagen 2012:

Many institutions we take for granted are designed from a basis of mistrust. Skip school too often? Go to jail. Run that red light, even when nobody is around for blocks? Ticket.

Why do we do it? According to Jerry Michalski: to avoid chaos, dealing with scale of a growing world, a lack of trust, and the need to retain docile consumers.

The fix: Unschooling, free-range kids, and edupunks.

Again, watch Michalski’s talk.