A LEARNING SYSTEM FIT FOR A DEMOCRACY?
For many years, I was a double-agent in education. On the one hand, I have been researching home-based education since 1975 here in the British Isles, and on the other hand, I was involved in the school learning system itself: training teachers, but trying to produce a different type of teacher who would share power with learners. This double-agent role gave me a very interesting basis of comparison between the two learning systems.
From our home in Nottinghamshire, we run two organizations. One is called Educational Heretics Press and, with my wife Janet, we have produced 91 publications. We have spent some of our time commissioning books and writing books, which are of a radical nature asking questions about education and what we should do with it, and where it should go. One exciting thing about our press is that we have commissioned writers to write books for us who would never have had their books published by the normal commercial publishers. In fact, I do not think any of our books and booklets would ever have been published, but for us. We are rather proud of what we have managed to do, in terms of keeping ideas flowing that the mainstream presses do not want to know about.
The other organization we run from here is called The Centre for Personalised Education. This is a trust that has been devoted now for many years to the idea of promoting and developing all of the logistics of personalised learning. One of the things about personalised learning is that home-based education is one of the contexts where you are most likely to find it. There is no guarantee that you will find it in home-based education, because some home educators work to quite formal programs. But there are plenty of home educators who do personalize the learning, and the learners do take over the management of it and have a great deal of say in what is learned, when it is learned, how it is learned, and why it is learned.
Democracy and Learning Systems
One has to say quite a few things about democracy, because it is much more complicated than meets the eye. First, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, is that democracy is the worst form of organization except for all the others. I think that is quite an interesting observation, because it proposes that we cannot expect democracy to be an ideal or perfect system, but it is, nevertheless, an improvement on the other forms of organization, which can be any of the standard tyrannies of dictatorship or totalitarianism or fascism or theocracy or monarchy or bureaucracy or capitalism. All of these are forms of authoritarian domination and dictatorship, and if you do not have democracy, you have one of these. Despite the limitations of democracy, you are usually worse off with any of the others.
There are perhaps three or four things you can say about democracy and education. The first is that there will be a variety of provision for learning rather than uniformity. In a democracy, we are talking about taking choice seriously. If you are involved in something, for example if you are a tax payer then you should have some involvement in the government that taxes you; you should be able to vote it in or vote it out. In education, if there are options to what you can learn, then these should be made available to you rather than imposing one set of ideas on you whether you chose them or not.
The second idea is that in a democracy you are allowed to have critical thought, rather than just believe what the rulers tell you. You are able to question what is on offer, and to question the questioners. The other systems do not encourage that. Whether it is totalitarianism, monarchy, theocracy, or bureaucracy, they do not encourage question-asking. They actually want you to believe that there is one right answer and that they, the people in charge, know it.
Then, in democratic education, you operate some form of power sharing rather than having things imposed on learners from above. You will be looking at the situation where people can choose from a catalogue of ideas, what it is they learn, and maybe choose to learn it together, or maybe choose to learn it on their own.
The fourth feature of democracy in education is that it promotes flexibility, rather than rigidity. I think one of the things we experience here in the United Kingdom is the enormous rigidity in the system, and very little flexibility, and it’s getting more rigid rather than less. Professor Bengu, Nelson Mandela’s minister of education, made this observation about democracy, which I really treasure: “Democracy means the absence of domination.” You can go on to say the maximization of consent. The schools here in the United Kingdom are riddled with domination. First you are forced to go there, then you are forced to learn the curriculum, which you have imposed on you, then you are punished if you do not learn it properly, then you are tested. The school-based learning system is riddled with domination, from start to finish, and I am sure that there are elements of this in Canada, too.
This is the whole point of democratizing education, that children are people too, that is, they deserve human rights, they deserve consultation, they deserve the dignity of doing things with consent rather than by being bullied into it. It is a radical idea, but we have to regard children as people worthy of consultation and worthy of being involved in democratic processes, and worthy of having choices in a variety of things on offer to them.
There are many other things you can say about democracy. One of the important things is that democracy can be around in a very shallow form and it can be a deeper form, and a very deep form. There are degrees of democracy, and this is the kind of thing that politicians hate us to say, but we have in Britain a very shallow form of democracy: indeed very little power sharing, and very little participation in decision-making in society in general, let alone inside institutions like schools.
If we wanted to make a deeper democracy, then we have to take power-sharing seriously, and take participation seriously, however inconvenient this is to the people who rule. Indeed, one of our politicians says that our rulers in Britain actually hate democracy, because it is so inconvenient having to consult people and involve them in decision-making. It is so much more convenient to be a dictator and to say “this is what we will do.”
This extends to parenting. One of our writers, Jan Fortune Wood, has written a book called With Consent: Parenting for All to Win (2002). It is about parenting. She is advocating that parenting should be about the whole idea of achieving consent from all concerned: the parents and the children agreeing on the rules, agreeing how they can do things together. Operating on the basis of consent and agreed rules and not on the parents saying “because I tell you so.”
Democratic institutions do exist. I think the most prominent example of a democratic institution is the public library. The point about the public library is, first of all, it is professionally organized. It is not a random collection of books and learning resources. Professionally trained people properly organize it, but the professional activity stops there, at the point of having organized the places where books and things are available in a systematic way. The librarians then say, “It is over to you now, you are the learner, here are the resources, we have organized it for you. You choose what you want to learn, when you want to learn it and take the books away, or read them here. We shall not be testing you, we are not keeping records of what you are learning and it is your private business what you learn.” This is a deep-democratic learning institution which says, “We respect you as the learner to decide what to learn, and how to learn it, and when to learn it.” The librarians do not devise a national curriculum. They actually organize a catalogue curriculum, and you make your own way through it as fast as you like, at any age, via any pathway, any time, and any place. That is the philosophy of the public library. That should be the slogan of all the education systems, in my view. The best home educators do it that way.
I am a great fan of John Holt, and met him over here in England and we became good friends. We were collaborating on a few projects before he suddenly died of cancer. I have written two books about his ideas: John Holt: Personalised Education and the Reconstruction of Schooling (1995), and John Holt: Personalised Learning Instead of ‘Uninvited Teaching’ (2002). I think John Holt was one of the people who are committed to this idea of taking personalized learning, and personalized education, and making it the cornerstone of education.
We have to point out to people that we are not talking dreamland here. We do have public libraries; they have been going for over 100 years operating on exactly this principle. We just have to adopt those principles to the other places of learning. I do think this means that we have to, eventually, recycle all our schools into better learning places. Places that are learner-friendly, places that invite people to come and learn rather than command them to come and learn.
Now that takes a big shift in thinking, but the idea that we cannot do it is nonsense when you think the public library does it without even blinking. We can do this, but it does mean that we have to abandon some of the ideas that currently operate within the system.
The Centre for Personalised Learning had an inspiring weekend on the whole theme of recycling our schools. We came up with many different ideas for increasing the variety of choices for learners. Some of these ideas are very familiar: First, we should make home-based education properly available and supported rather than a kind of odd thing that some odd people do, and it should be declared that this is a valid form of education. People can choose to do some home-based education anytime they want to. Second, home-based educators working in cooperatives are also a valid form of education. There are arrangements operating in North America called the City Colleges. They are places that do not have an actual building because they are organized on the basis that people will learn in the city and in the places for employment, in the museums, and library, and elsewhere. They will choose the kind of experiences in the city that they think are important and construct a program out of that.
Then, there was the idea of flexi-schooling, where people can spend some days in school and some days learning at home and work the two together as a program.
There is currently a program here in Britain called Notschoolnet. It is interesting because it takes people who have been rejected from the system, or excluded from it, and starts by consulting them, asking what they would like to learn. Then it says, “We are not going to call you students anymore, we are going to call you researchers. As researchers why not start researching the kinds of things you want to find out about. Now, we will help you. We have got people we can contact and put you in touch with, we have got resources that we can put over the Internet to you. Start learning the things you want to learn, in the way you want to learn them and we will help and support you.” The interesting thing is how this program turns ugly duckling into swans. It takes people who are supposedly hopeless in learning, and by using the personalized learning approach, they gradually become turned on to learning and become better and better at it. Some end up where you would not have expected, in colleges and universities later on. There again is evidence that we can do it. The Notschoolnet program is not an impossible dream: it has been going for over ten years.
The other idea I would like to see adopted, on the basis of personalised education, is an idea used in a number of USA schools called Year-round Education. Year-round Education recycles schools by being open 8am until 8pm everyday of the year, weekends as well, and offer choices about the kinds of things learners can come to learn, sign up for, and get interested in. Learners choose which they want to do. But also, say at the moment the program is not offering a certain thing, and some would like to have that, learners can ask for them to organize it. The answer has to be, “Yes, we will make it available to you if we possibly can.” When I was at school, I wanted to learn Esperanto, but Latin was imposed on me instead. Now, I would hope my choice would be made available to me.
I think when you start doing all these things together, properly supporting home-based education, supporting home-based education cooperatives, and supporting the public libraries, the City as School (again, this is not the same as City Colleges, and the only references I could find on Google were for bricks-and-mortar campuses—it’s a cool idea, but I’m pretty sure there is no real example of it yet), the Notschoolnet programs, flexi-schooling projects, and Year-round Education, you can see that this can offer the learners a whole portfolio of ideas they can build into their learning programs.
Over a period of time, say ten years, they might include quite a few of these into their own learning.
There is another idea that I would like to see, which is from Denmark, where adolescents and others are invited to spend a year in a residential community focusing on one activity. It could be dance, it could be music, it could be ecology, it could be drama, it could be languages, or it could be one or two of these.
Another idea is that a learner could choose to study their locality. Their program would be for a year studying everything in the area: the history of it, the operation of it, the businesses, the facilities, and going to places of interest and seeing what’s going on there. The project would be to get to know the locality in more breadth and depth rather than the young learners spending yet another year in the day prison.
I regard schools as day prisons, a really unimaginative and dull and anti-democratic kind of idea. As John Holt put it, school is not a good idea gone wrong, but a bad idea from the start. The best we have achieved so far is a national chain of day prisons in the name of education. Why are we fooled into thinking this is a good idea? Well, as Everett Reimer observed, some true educational experiences are bound to occur in schools, but they occur despite school rather than because of it.
School is such a convenient place for parents to leave their children and teenagers, that critically thinking about what is happening there is suppressed. As the contemporary writer John Taylor Gatto says, schools operate to dumb us down using weapons of mass instruction. I think we come back to home-based education because it does some learning very effectively, not always. Home-based education is much more part of a solution when it operates as personalized education than when it tries to ape schools. When it is practicing personalized education, it is pointing to all sorts of things about the way we can go about things: how the learners can understand learning; how they can be involved in consent-based program, an invitation-based program; how they can use a catalogue curriculum to make their way around the whole world of learning; how they can operate a learner-friendly situation as against learner-hostile situation; and how they can use purposive conversation as a tool of learning, which is a much more efficient way of learning than, say, formal instruction.
Formal instruction has an efficiency rating of between 5% and 10%. Purposive conversation, which is used a lot by home-based educators, has a 50% efficiency rating. You remember 50% on average, of what goes on in a purposive conversation, whereas you only remember 5% to 10% of a formally taught presentation.
There are many things in home-based education that are pointing the way and becoming part of the solution. Unfortunately, I do not think school is part of the solution, it is actually part of the problem. This is why we have to consider the whole idea of recycling schools into more intelligent arrangements for learning, developing a learning system fit for a democracy.
An audio version of this piece appears in podcast and can be found at: Meighan, R. (2006, December 13). Interview by B. Ekwa Ekoko [Podcast]. Edu-ocracy: Education Fit for Democracy, Radio Free School. Hamilton, Ontario.
Retrieved from http://radio4all.net/index.php/program/20894
Fortune-Wood, J. (2002). With consent: Parenting for all to
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Now Publishing Co-Operative (ceased to trade). Available at Educational Heretics Press.
Meighan. R. (1995). John Holt: Personalised education and
the reconstruction of schooling. Nottingham, UK:
Educational Heretics Press.
Meighan. R. (2002). John Holt: Personalised learning
instead of ‘uninvited teaching.’ Nottingham, UK:
Educational Heretics Press.
Roland Meighan is a writer, publisher, and consultant/researcher on learning systems, past present and future. His work on The Next Learning System has been translated into more than twelve languages. He is Director of Educational Heretics Press, and Director/Trustee of the Centre for Personalised Education Trust Ltd. Roland began researching home-based education in 1977, appearing as an expert witness in key legal hearings. He continued as a ‘double agent’ by training teachers for the school system at the same time. This gave him a unique comparative perspective on the two learning systems.