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The following article was originally based on a talk I gave at Xchange 2006 in Belfast and on discussion about the concept of the next curve in educational policy-making that took place in European Schoolnet's Policy and Innovation Committee that met in Belfast prior to Xchange. The title of my talk was “Thinking out of the box … but how big is the box?” For some reason I found it difficult to put the final touches to this article and it is only now, a year later, that I have finished it as a suitable backdrop to thought about the relationship between school and life-long learning in an article entitled: “Schools challenged by Life Long Learning”.

Nine lessons of schooling
… or why school isn't what you think it is

On one level, school is about learning Maths or Physics or English and about preparing young people for future work and society. On a quite different level, that of the nature and purpose of learning, school is about imprinting a number of strong lessons (1) in children. The following text takes up some of those lessons and explores how they relate to efforts made to change education, in particular by the use of new technologies. More importantly, these deep-seated lessons need to be considered in the light of life-long learning. If we want to introduce life long learning where individuals or groups handle their own learning process, assessing progress in terms of real goals (not artificial tests) and related knowledge needs and develop strategies to learn from what goes on around them, then we have to seriously question these “lessons” embedded in schooling as they may well be leading us in the wrong direction.

1. Learning requires a institution

It may sound self-evident, but the underlying lesson of schooling is that schools are essential to leaning! Ivan Ilych spoke of the way that major institutions like the health service, the transport system, the energy supply and schools seek to self-perpetuate and to cover ever-increasing territories. The institutional message about learning that comes from school is somewhat different: an institution like school is imperative to learning. In other words, it stresses the dependence of the individual on the institution for learning. Before schools, people may well have known much less about certain things that are now given priority in school, but they knew a lot more than we do about their surroundings and how to handle them. They also knew exactly who to go to if they needed to know something. The concept of life long learning would seem to challenge the institutional anchorage of learning. Yet, whenever I read about lifelong learning, I often suspect that the authors see that on-going learning largely in institutional terms (even if they talk of informal learning) and they see technology as prolonging the institutional arm to accomplish the impossible and bring “all” learning under the banner of learning institutions. Little is done to support learners as independent individuals and groups. Various developments, however, have challenged the image that learning requires an institution. The realisation of the importance of non-formal and informal learning is one. The increasing interest in self-organising peer exchange and peer learning is another.

2. Information and knowledge are interchangeable

Possibly the next most insidious lesson of schooling about learning is to confuse information with knowledge making it possible to treat knowledge as if it were an object. Traditionally, school provides information about various subjects and teaches children how to handle that information, and as such, school has long been a place of teaching rather than a place of learning. Teaching and learning were seen as two sides of the same coin. The teacher provided and explained information and the learner took it in and then rendered it as “proof” of learning. It was so much easier to handle information in such a way with large groups of pupils than to foster knowledge in individuals and groups. Looking to the marketplace, knowledge can't be sold, but you can package and sell information. Why can't you sell knowledge? Because it is intimately linked to you, to your experience and to your understanding. Developing knowledge is both a personal and a collective process (2). If the boundary between information and knowledge is blurred, in particular by the underlying logic of school, purveyors of information can have people believe they can acquire knowledge for their money. Just like school would have you believe that learning lists of vocabulary, for example, has something to do with mastering a language. They are selling illusions.

3. Knowledge is scarce

Another of the “lessons” of school is that knowledge is necessarily scarce. School artificially rarefies and pre-digests knowledge supposedly to make it easier for children to learn. Textbooks are a classic example. A cynic might speculate about whether this attempted rarefaction is due to the influence of marketplace logic according to which the scarcer a thing is, the higher its value is. School would then be seen as preparing young people to accept market logic. For those who haven't been struck by the contrast between this rarefied knowledge and the complexity of modern life, the advent of the Internet acts as a forceful reminder. The Internet increasingly reflects the complexity and the diversity of the world in a way that is permanently present. In many places schools counter this complexity by filtering out much of the Internet or creating an “internal” Internet with only selected material available. One of the major arguments for such an approach is to protect children from undesirable material. Whatever the reason and however justified it may be, the underlying message remains. Note that it is not actually knowledge that school seeks to make rare, but information.

4. Learning needs a specific place and a specific time

School also teaches children that knowledge is best acquired in a specific place dedicated to learning and that that place is only open at specific times. This is one facet of institutionalised learning. You will no doubt argue that this has to do with the guardianship role of schools, and although that is true, it doesn't change the message about the place and time of learning. Note that the architecture of these places of learning groups children together not so that they can learn together or from each other but rather that it is cheaper to teach them all in one go. If you think this is cynical just remember how policy-makers reduce the cost of education: by increasing the number of children per class. To what extent is this paradigm of the fixed time and play of learning driven by echoes from early industrial work - in those “dark satanic mills” as William Blake put it - where the newly arrived workers coming from the surrounding countryside also worked at fixed times in a fixed place? In the prior agricultural period, work was also constrained by external factors such as the lay of the land, the weather and tradition but not by the dictates of arbitrary decisions of the few.

Ambient learning, in which learning is made possible in any place at any time, thanks to the help of communication technologies, seems to challenge the schooling tenet that learning best takes place in a specific place at a given time. On careful thought, however, the expression “ambient learning” seems somewhat strange? Does not learning already take place everywhere and all the time? Why do we need a new expression for it? What promise does this new packaging of an existing reality purvey? Is it possible that “ambient learning” contributes to a drive to harness informal learning to goals and structures fixed by institutions?

5. Knowledge is best learnt in discrete little pieces

School teaches pupils that they can best learn when knowledge, or rather information, is cut up into manageable, discrete elements (subjects, courses, lessons, units, …). School filters out the “irrelevant”, simplifies things to crystallise out the “essential” and then packages information for learning. This is not just a question of making “knowledge” rare, as mentioned about, but of pre-digesting and dividing it up in the belief that doing so helps pupils learn. This state of affairs is reinforced by the advent of ICT. A major technological thrust in the drive to generalise elearning is the concept of “learning objects” - a modular approach to learning in which small reusable “bits” of “learning” can be assembled according to needs. Should the use of learning objects become widespread, it will further reinforce the impression that learning is necessarily done piece-wise, a little chunk at a time. You might call it the ultimate industrialisation of learning, with lessons assembled from a shared pool of modifiable spare parts. The move theoretically opens the way to so-called mass customisation where each individual can be served up with his or her own learning menu according to needs. This individualisation of learning is a seductive idea. But what price must we pay for the necessary heightened fragmentation of knowledge? Outside of schools, knowledge is not divided up into such discrete elements. It is a complex, interwoven web of changing fields and forces. Dividing knowledge up into discrete parts robs it of the essential meaning that comes from the natural connectedness of all knowledge.

The use of learning objects to prepare learning material should not lead to an obsession with the objects themselves to the detriment of a holistic understanding on the part of the learner. An example of such a dominance of learning objects over the act of learning would be a series of exercises that fragment what is being learnt and make it devoid of context. Much second language learning is based on this practice.

6. To learn you need the help of an approved expert

The school paradigm teaches young people that they need expert help if they are to learn, someone who will tell them what to do, when to do it and how it should be done. Paradoxically, having made pupils entirely dependant on teachers for learning (at least as it is done in school), the institution then sets out to try to undo part of what it has done by striving to teach pupils how to do some learning for themselves.

This paradigm also tells pupils that only those learning experts that are certified by the state as appropriate to do the job can be trusted to help them learn. Just think of the way teachers' trade unions fight against having untrained teachers in schools. This is not a criticism of the understandable effort of a profession to defend the seriousness with which its members go about their work and the body of knowledge the profession has accumulated. Rather, I seek to underline how putting emphasis on such learning experts draws attention away from the fact that something can be learned from everybody, including our peers. With the advent of intense online networking, peer learning is attracting more and more attention.

7. You need to follow a path determined by an expert

Most institutionalised learning follows a pre-set path. The degree to which that path is dictated depends on the will of the education system to control what knowledge is acquired and when and where that should take place. These constraints on learning are sometimes justified by what are perceived as society's needs. However, in terms of learning, the underlying lesson here is that if pupils want to learn efficiently they need to follow a pre-set learning path that has been determined by experts. As Andy Hargreaves mentions in his book about Sustainable Leadership (3), educational outcomes are being increasingly standardised. He fustigates standardised testing as the enemy of diversity. Diversity is one of the fundamental riches of society, but it is also a fragile resource. Fixing the same path for all or even the same goals saps diversity. Moves to shift to personalisation in learning would seem to counter the drive to standardisation, but much so-called personalisation goes little beyond choosing the learning package you take down off the shelf. Even if there is talk of “mass-customisation” in which each individual obtains tailor-made educational solutions, personalisation remains tightly bound with goals and paths fixed by others. Despite the appearance of richness, in reality you have even less freedom than the customer in a supermarket. At least he or she can shop elsewhere.

8. You need experts to assess your progress

School teaches pupils that their work is ultimately of no value unless assessed by an external expert. The job market reinforces this lesson by rewarding those with official diplomas. At the same time, teachers continually pass judgement on the work of their pupils and that judgement has far reaching consequences on the child's future. As a result of this practice pupils are discouraged from assessing the inherent value and appropriateness of their own work but rather seek to comply with the expectations of their teachers that may have nothing to do with the pertinence of their work. In many cases, evaluation is predominantly summative. Many pupils are not conversant with formative or empowerment evaluation that would help them in self-evaluation, one of the main pillars of autonomous learning.

9. Numerical value can be attributed meaningfully to the quality of your learning

Summative evaluation, aimed at determining if individuals have attained pre-set standards, generally ascribes a numerical value to performance. The fundamental message of these marks or grades is to equate quantity with quality. Cynically, this could be seen as their apprenticeship of market logic. They learn that a composition or a painting can be attributed with a number that expresses its value, just as a person has a monetary value on the job market or a piece of music can be sold for a certain sum of money. This assessment logic is at the heart of schooling. Just listen to a group of young people talking on a bus going home from school, if you don't believe me. They can make the most complicated calculation to work out their average and what margin they have to meet required standards. A cynic might say, marks have taken the place of learning as the major incentive for school children, just like wages have long replaced satisfaction with work well done. No wonder, schools deplore the lack of motivation and interest of many schoolchildren.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.


(1) Haralambos called it the hidden curriculum and defined it as “… those things pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the stated educational objectives of such institutions.” See Haralambos M., Heald R.M., Holborn M., "Sociology Themes and Perspectives", 1991

(2) Herein lies the major slight-of-hand of those experts that purport to sell their knowledge. Rather they sell information based on their knowledge. That information then requires a considerable effort on the part of those people receiving it to transform it back into knowledge and there is no guarantee of success.

(3) Hargreaves A. Fink D., Sustainable Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2006.

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Created: August 29th, 2007 - Last up-dated: August 20th, 2007