Learning Takes Place in an Ecology

Richard Garner (" School with no rules is forced to lay down law because of spoilt pupils", Independent) reports on how Summerhill has lately had to enact rules for its students.

For years, Summerhill, the "free" school founded by the philosopher A S Neill in the 1920s, gained notoriety for its pupils skipping lessons, outdoor bathing in the nude and voting for their own school rules. It was, in fact, the very epitome of the kind of liberal progressive school so frowned upon by education traditionalists such as Chris Woodhead, the former schools inspector.

Now, in a new book, its current head, Zoe Neill Redhead, the founder's daughter, reveals the school is having to adopt a more disciplinarian tone towards its current pupils, who have been so pampered by their parents, she says, that they no longer know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Such a situation highlights that change is inevitable and that change in cultures can undermine traditional approaches to educational development. Unlike "The Three Tradesmen" who in seeking solutions to their city's imminent demise were chained by the materials of their trade ecologies, Ms. Redhead apparently has moved away from aspects of a completely libertarian approach to education.

As with Redhead, it usually takes a crisis to shake us up and take a new look at an old subject. As they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, sometimes waiting for a crisis can result in a catastrophe. From complexity theory, any single change in an environment can, at least theoretically, trigger a cascade of interactions that result in the emergence of a new ecology (or the destruction of the old one). Consider, for example, the effect of digital media on print books, as noted in Motoko Rich's article "Digital publishing is scrambling the industry's rules" (New York Times).

Right now, education appears poised on the edge of a crisis. Barbara Ganning on her talk at the UK's First Edublogging Conference points to "the deepening divide between what students need and what schools allow." Ganning seems to be one of those small changers who may trigger others in the system to change.

Let’s face it. It’s hopeless for us to think we can change a behemoth like our educational system—it reflects, after all, the fine fix we find ourselves in, and because it very elegantly keeps those with power in power. And so what we do for the time being will continue to be tense, strained even—except with our students in the classroom and on the blogs. They can practice for citizenship at the very least in a learning culture that fosters empathy on the part of the powerful and privileged, and a voice and a say as well as important skills and connections for those clumped into the faceless middle or the marginalized reaches. As M. Scott Peck tells us, “It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task-- to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.” (The Different Drum) We can take a page from civil rights and women’s rights movements.

Ganning believes that blogs can help us in our learning endeavors, writing, "Because learning is both a social and solitary activity, it is important to have both collaborative and personal blogging spaces."

In other words, learning takes place in an ecology. We need to give more thought on how to structure the interactions of social and individual learning to faciliate learning at both levels. Otherwise, one or both can collapse.

"Teacher in Development" writes about the death of a program in his post "Reinvent or Die":

2006 saw something different. A disconnect between program and staff. A disconnect that I didn’t notice until a month or two ago. Interest and staff "buy-in" seem to have parted company, but the program marched onward.  

I just had a meeting with my bosses about it, and they are feeling the same: the program seems to have lost it’s usefullness. I sort of felt the same way, but didn’t know if I wanted to come to terms with that.

That comment sounds quite similar to the disconnect between "interest and student 'buy-in'". He also notes that even great programs don't last forever unless they're relevant and ends with

Reinvent yourself, your programs, your lesson plans, your class content, or find yourself in the place of being irrelevant.

While re-inventing yourself, keep in mind that relevance means keeping one eye on individual learning and the other on the ecology of learning.