Monday, February 20, 2012

The Big Change - A Community Learning Project

Guest post by Jo-Anne Tracey | Cross posted at Journey to Discovery
We are still enacting Horace Mann's
Prusian schooling model from the 1800s

Most students, and many of their parents, will agree that school has taken the fun and purpose out of learning. We have lost touch with the understanding that learning is a natural process. Those who’ve studied the history of compulsory schooling understand that education was never the priority in the current “school for all model.” Policymakers like Horace Mann (Massachusetts, 1952 - credited as
Father of the Common School Movement) believed that “universal public education was the best way to turn the nation's unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens”. This model was begun at a time when resources, such as books and educated mentors were not readily available.  

"If you want to influence the student at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."- Horace Mann
Now, with the Internet, a mentor does not need to be in the same room, the same city or even speak the same language. Libraries are found in every community for those who still find that they learn best from print resources.  

For the sake of the students, we, the adults, must let go of learning models that are familiar. We must develop systems with a purpose of learning for the future. We must allow change to happen. Not small slow change, but change which allows students to prepare for the 21st century which is NOW.  We must strive for a system that allows our societies, communities, regions and countries to regain their competitive edge.  The ability to change, rapidly, to the needs of the people and the environment is what made North America great.  But, we can not dwell on past glories. We need to continue to change and to move on. Let this Big Change begin with today’s students.

Here’s how.

The Big Change project can begin by letting students of all ages start to think about learning options that are currently available and those they would like to see. Introduce them to new options. Show them models that they are not familiar with. Show them that learning can involve interaction with adults is numerous ways.  There may be supervisors, instructors, facilitators, learning coaches, mentors or others.  Let them know that learning does not always require interaction with adults, that learning from peers in collaborative projects or learning from solo projects is just as valuable as learning from “teachers”.  

Allow them to start to dream.  Encourage discussion forums.  As an interdisciplinary project, let those interested, design a new learning community, with the necessary constraints such as buildings and costs. What type of programs and facilities do the members of the community want?  What is the process needed to bring these dreams and ideas to reality?  What adult assistance is required to begin the process? What rules will be needed for the community to function effectively? Allow them construct a community that fits the needs of the users, the students.  Then follow through.  Give them the environment that they need to learn and develop.  

Each community will develop differently. Each will have a unique mix of students, community resources, physical structure and budget constraints.  Some may develop complex systems with mixed learning environments.  Other communities could develop several smaller programs that function independently sharing services with others, such as the gym, science labs and libraries. Some will function well from the beginning and others will learn from these communities.

Learning communities, like other communities, need to be dynamic. Change in technologies, in the economy, in the makeup of neighbourhoods and of the student population will require each community to continually assess whether it is meeting the needs of the users.  However, the lessons involved when students learn to assess situations for needed change will prepare them well for the 21st century workplace.

Once the community has begun to develop, introduce the students to personal success plans.  Allow them to set their own goals, with input from those who know them best, their parents, peers and others who know them well.  Soon, each student will come to the realization that their current efforts will affect their own future.  They will begin to take ownership of their learning.

Meaningful academics
To develop these skills in all students, we need to continually challenge them to think about ways to bring their personal passions to their home, their community, their nation and the world.   The subject knowledge, that we traditionally think of as academics will fall naturally into place in a way that is meaningful to the student.   A student who enjoys the arts will learn history and geography through the art of the past or works from different regions, cultures and religions.   A student who is passionate about technologies will learn how past generations used innovative thinking to create new methods of completing tedious tasks, gaining a recognition of past lifestyles.   A student skilled at calculations could be challenged to solve the problems of Pythagoras, Omar Al-Khayyam and Descartes.  The ways each child will be challenged and gain knowledge will be as varied as their passions.  

Preparing students for the future
One question that will undoubtedly be asked is how can we ensure that each student has the knowledge that they need for the future.  Most would agree that sitting at desks filling in bubble tests is not the way.  However, my response to that question is that we do not know what the future will be. How can we best prepare our children for rapid changes in technology and the fluid career paths of an ever changing economy? The best preparation we can give them is the tools needed to accept change and find the resources that they need to grow. The tools of creativity, critical thinking, research skills are important to all.  

In a system as varied and as fluid as learning communities of the Big Change will be, how will we know that students are prepared for future endeavours.  That,  too, will be determined by the learning communities as a whole.  Perhaps each student is asked to develop and defend a dissertation that they have prepared themselves for adulthood.   The panel who hears and challenges the dissertation might possibly be made up of people chosen by the individual student, members selected by the family, others selected by the learning community and for those hoping to further their knowledge in a college environment, representatives from the admissions departments at schools of the students choice.

These changes are possible today.
We can inform students and teachers about alternative learning environments. They can work individually, in small groups as classes and as school communities to redefine their own learning environment.  They can take these presentations to the administrator, legislators and others unconvinced that students can be responsible for their own learning.   The depth of critical thinking and the creativity of these presentations should convince everyone that the change is not only possible, but easily attained within the physical & budget constraints that the students have been given.   

The adults who have known only one method of education must make the change in our thinking.   Today’s students are already prepared for the Big Change.   Already, they search out their passions in the wider world, through the Internet and social networks.   The World Wide Web has introduced them to knowledge in ways that we never dreamed of.   These students are not only prepared for the Big Change, they are beginning to force these changes on the educators and legislators.   We, those who are passionate about education communities in any form, must work to facilitate theses changes to prepare the students for the 21st century, before it has passed us by.


  1. While I may agree with your overarching premise, I wonder if you had a couple typos.

    Horace Mann wasn't alive in 1952. Do you mean 1852?
    Also, I don't think Horace Mann was who said, "If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more ...."
    I think it was the Prussian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his "Addresses to the German Nation," 1806-1807. I'd not bet my life on it, however.

    While those two pieces initially distracted me from properly reading the rest of your post I finally got to it and can definitely get on board with the main points of the blog post. Good job!

  2. I enjoyed the article. I had a similar idea for my master's thesis in 2010. We have started mentoring program at my school and I am hoping for next year to have it include an online portion as well.

    Here is my thesis, if you would care to read it, along with a video presentation as well.