Sunday, May 16, 2010

From the archive - The new pedagogy: Feral learning

This was originally posted in Mary's M.Ed. Journal, Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Several threads have come together for me during e-Fest, and the feral learning model is beginning to take on more definition.

Feral Learning is a phrase coined by Ted Nunan (1996) [see below]. My interpretation of the concept draws on constructivist and transformative learning theory.

Lert's start with an acknowledgement that learning (as opposed to being taught) is a basic, instinctual survival skill.

From before their birth human beings learn more, better and faster than any other species on the face of the planet. This characteristic of the species is cited as the reason why human young take such an absurdly long time to reach sexual maturity. The extra time is available for learning - assimilating information into our disproportionately large brains. The ability to learn, and to mainipulate thoughts, is what we humans have instead of strength or speed or size. An infant (and not only the human infant) learns - assimilates information and uses it to manipulate its environment - or it does not thrive.

This is the natural condition of children up to the age at which we put them into a formal eduation setting. For the next 12 years or more of that child's life, we have traditionally proceeded to alienate them from their own learning process. Pupils are socialised not to enquire for the sake of it, because they want to know, because it's fun finding out - but to channel their learning into the narrow curriculum that someone else has determined they OUGHT TO be interested in. The compliant survive this system - some survive well, and some of them go on to become the next generation of teachers. Those who don't learn (in Marc Prensky's words) to "play school" become alienated and drop out.

We continue to socialise students throughout primary and secondary school and on into undergraduate study, to accept that someone other than themselves is the best arbiter of what they need to learn, what they ought to learn, and what they will learn. Anything they pursue for themselves outside of their formal education curriculum is scorned. They are labelled as "off-task", "un-co-operative", or worse. Of course, those who do reach the giddy heuights of post-graduate study are then expected to be self-motivated, reflective, critical thinkers in spite of the training that has got them to that point.

Feral learning is alive and well. What Wayne Mackintosh referred to as the future that has already happened. For the most part, it does not reside in formal education centres. It lives in early childhood, (the pre-school sector) and in the social interactions and interests of people outside of formal eduacation. Most of all, it rules the internet. This is not, as some have suggested, a problem to be overcome. It is the energy that powers the new pedagogy. Rather than farmers taming the landscape, the educators of the new age must learn to be conservators of the natural world.

Feral learning is
  • holistic
  • student-led
  • seamless
  • a-curricular.
Holistic: The pedagogy of feral learning is less concerned with reducing the scope of knowledge to a modular series of disciplines or curriculum areas than with acknowledging the validity of learning as and when it occurs.
Student-led: Transformative learning, even more than constructivist, describes learning in terms of the contribution it makes to an individual's personal development. A transformative learning experience is one that changes (transforms) the learner's understanding of their world.
The roles of the educator in a feral learning environment are in many respects the same as those described in existing student-centred models of learning: mentor, coach, facilitator, guide, assessor, co-constructor of knowledge. There is a strong overlap here with the roles of a professional counsellor. This is no coincidence. Like constructivism, transformative learning and feral learning, counselling theory and practice is rooted in the writings of theorists such as Jung, Berne and Carl Rogers.
The one role that is no longer appropriate is Dictator of what is relevant. Rather than prescribe curriculum content, the educator's job is to assess how the content selected by the learner may speed them on their learning journey.
Seamless: Because feral learning describes a lifelong process of growth and adaptation it is a seamless process. It is not helpful to base learning models on arbitrary distinctions between how an eight year-old, an eighteen year-old and an eighty year-old learn. It is not the process of learning that changes, but the social context in which those learners are placed. Anyone familiar with the New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum, Te Whariki, will know that it is based on an acknowledgement that young children are critical, self-directed, reflective learners. If we as educators provide a learning environment throughout their later years that enables students to retain those characteristics, there is no need to create pedagogical models of how we learn when ownership of our own learning is alienatd from us. The infant can mature incrementally into a critical, reflective, self-motivated post-grad student.
A-curricular: Feral learning is a-curricular in that all learning is acknowledged as valid. In a formal education context, the only vestige of curriculum that is required in a feral learning pedagogy is an assessment framework. How or where a learner acquires their learning (the content) is not the point. The point is whether they have done it. Again, this is simply an extension of existing pedagogical principles. A primary school student's integrated studies project on a topic of their choice is a feral learning strategy. A secondary or tertiary student referencing texts or theories not presented in the learning material presented to them, or drawing an analogy from a different curriculum area because it makes sense to them, is using a feral learning strategy. As these discussions clearly indicate, feral learning can, in fact, cope with some level of prescribed curricula, so long as they are a means to the learning experience rather than the end point of it.
Sandy Britain's discussion from yesterday of the different approaches to managing complexity - attenuation (filtering information/stimuli from the environment down to a level that you can comfortably deal with - as a 'discipline' or 'course', for example) or amplification (disseminating thoughts or ideas out into the environment as a blog or discussion, for example) blends into it along the way, as does the concept of "learning nuggets" from Elizabeth Valentine's presentation on m-learning.
There, though, I have to stop for now or I shall never drag myself out of gbed in the morning.

Nunan, T. Flexible Delivery - What is it and Why a part of current educational debate? Paper presented at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Annual Conference Different Approaches: Theory and Practice in Higher Education Perth, Western Australia, 8-12 July, 1996.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The teaching of science and the science of teaching

Why is it that science has such a low profile in our formal education system?

Into the mouths of babes

Babies and young children are natural scientists. They spend their lives conducting experiments - testing the world around them in order to understand it.

What was the first experiment you (or your babies) conducted? Perhaps it was putting your thumb in your mouth to see what it was, what it tasted like, what shape it was, whether it would stop you feeling hungry. Perhaps it was something else... smiling at the face in front of you to see if it would smile back; seeing if you could move a limb to an intended destination; biting a nipple to see if it made the milk flow faster ;making a certain sound and waiting to see if it prompted someone to meet your need....Whatever it was, your first five years, like everyone else's, were shaped by a series of "scientific" experiments - an ongoing series of situations where you interacted with the world around you in a purposeful way in order to refine or expand your understanding of it. Taste. Observation. Manipulation. Interaction. An ongoing and vitally important process of trial and error. Of course, you were unlikely to formulate or rationalise the process with the level of verbal sophistication you would use now, or that I am using now, but the integrity of the scientific process was there none the less.

It's no wonder that children love science. It has been their constant companion since before they could talk.

And then they go to school...

So, why does it languish in so much of our formal education system?

It's not (all) rocket science

Here's a challenge: see if you can capture the internal dialogue you go through when someone says the word "science". What does that label conjure in the recesses of your subconscious? I'm betting that for many of us, it goes something like this:

"H'mm - science. That means laboratories and equations and test tubes...'s things I don't understand....
... writing things in notebooks and diagrams of bunsen burners and things... sounded like it should be fun before I started doing it. Why wasn' it fun?...
... so many rules and don'ts ... hard to get the right answers first time. Never long enough to figure out why..."
 One of the things I realised in reflecting on this, is that part of my subconscious framing of 'science' is that it is, by definition, things I don't already know about. The the things I know already or can do, aren't 'science', they're facts of life, folklore, skills, habits... something other than 'science'.  Science is the scary unknown.  As in: "It's not rocket science."

Good grief! How did that happen? I love science - the idea of it, anyway. I'm fascinated by the ideas, the cutting edge theorising about how things are, what they are, and why they are. I even carry a little book called The Little Book of Big Ideas - Science in my briefcase to read on the bus. When my kids were at  ECE I used to love setting up experiments for them to explore ideas - wave theory, floating and sinking, gases, all the usual 'science games'.

So what is 'science' if it's not the big scary unknown stuff?
Back to ECE days, my working definition of a scientist for  my 3- and 4-year-olds was "someone who finds out the answers to questions".  I've recently had that amended to "someone who does something to find out the answers to questions".  Which, by extension, makes science the process of doing something that helps you find out answers to questions. 

Now, doesn't that sound suspiciously like a definition of learning?

So why is science languishing in our schools? I suspect that it's at least in part a victory of form over substance.  'Science' in school isn't really about developing a robust process of trial-and-error that will provide answers to our questions - satisfying our natural curiosity about what, how, why, and so on. It's
about being right. Keeping the 'right' records, getting the 'right' results in your classroom experiments, labelling the 'right' parts of the diagram, looking up the 'right' part of the textbook (or internet site).

How ironic.  Real science isn't about being right first time. It's about asking the questions we can't answer, learning from the things we didn't get right the first time when we try again (there's no "trial and error" if you don't allow "error").  In trying to ensure that we direct students to the right answer in the shortest possible time, we have quite literally schooled curiosity out of our education system, and out of many of our students.

The science of teaching
This idea of science as a process of doing something concrete - interacting with the world around us - in a purposeful way that will increase our understanding, is pretty much the same as the idea of 'action research' or, in this year's jargon, "evidence-based practice". It's what we ask our teachers to do when they collect information about student achievement to evaluate the effectiveness of their classroom programmes and practices.

So why does it seem so hard to transfer those ideas to  physical sciences?  I'm not sure I have the answers -  but perhaps we should be  looking a bit harder for ways to join the dots.

From the archive: Transformative learning (2)

Transformative Learning
This was originally posted in Mary's M.Ed. Journal, Friday, September 10, 2004 as part of a larger post, Discussion: Design & development phase
 Transformative learning is based on humanist principles and is in many ways an extension of the constructivist framework. With roots in the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow about self-direction and self- actualisation, it spans the fields of education and counselling. The critical difference is that transformative learning not only perceives the learner (client) as being at the centre of the process, it also explicitly frames the learning process as an aspect of the lifelong process of personal growth and development. The learner learns because they have a natural inclination and an intrinsic motivation to do so. It is a natural part of the human condition.

According to Hiemstra and Brockett (1994),
Humanism generally is associated with beliefs about freedom and autonomy and notions that "human beings are capable of making significant personal choices within the constraints imposed by heredity, personal history, and environment" (Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 118). Humanist principles stress the importance of the individual and specific human needs. Among the major assumptions underlying humanism are the following: (a) human nature is inherently good; (b) individuals are free and autonomous, thus they are capable of making major personal choices; (c) human potential for growth and development is virtually unlimited; (d) self-concept plays an important role in growth and development; (e) individuals have an urge toward self-actualization; (f) reality is defined by each person; and (g) individuals have responsibility to both themselves and to others (Elias & Merriam, 1980).

From the archive: Transformative learning (1)

This is a post from my original Mary's M.Ed. Journal blog which I've since discontinued. Much of that blog is specifically related to my study at USQ, however some of the posts contain thoughts, links, and insights that are key to ideas I'm developing here. Rather than flick between the two, I've decided to re-post teh relevant ones here.

Shirley put me onto the concept of transformative learning in her feedback on my project proposal. Bloody brilliant!

Here's one take on it from the Wikipedia link above [accessed 2Sept04] that sums it up quite well:
Perhaps one of the best definitions of transformative learning was put forward by O'Sullivan (2003):
"Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep,structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy." [My emphasis.]
Great stuff, eh?

In other words, transformative learning gives us a model of learning as personal growth - which is what I believe true learning always is. So, what I want to know now is:

Isn't this the very essence of childhood and adolescence - to learn in ways that transform us from child to the adult we choose to be?

Two answers come to mind, and both of them quite cynical.

1 - Preserving academic power structures.
Academia takes itself quite seriously. And, in the world of academia, it's academics who define what's worth knowing and doing. And, not surprisingly, academics historically have tended to be older, male, use reductionist frameworks, and fit the definition of 'specialists' as those who know more and more about less and less, until finally they know everything about nothing.
(As opposed to 'generalists' who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything.)

In other words, what's worth knowing is defined in terms of what those at the top of the heap think they already know. And because of the way academia has evolved, what those at the top of the heap think they already know is defined in terms of domain, discipline, reductionism, and precedent. (All of which is perfectly valid as far as it goes, but still only one way of knowing.)

And what people like this know best is people like them. Older. Who learn the way they learned. Because that's how the system is set up, so to succeed in it you have to work the way it works. What people like this know least is - children.

So, the most important and relevant models are models of how successful academics have been taught. The least important and relevant models are the ones that deal with how children and young people grow and assimilate learning to become useful functioning adults.


2 - Preserving adult power structures.
In our society - in New Zealand anyway, formal education is defined in terms of teaching activity, not learning activity. When we think of the "education" of children and young people it is as something that is imposed on them, compulsorily, for 30 hours a week, whether they like it (or value it, or benefit from it) or not.

Now, before you start with the hate mail, let me hasten to say that this is my perception of the social and institutional aspect of our "education" system, not necessarily of individual teachers within it. There are some schools, some teachers, and some students, who do very well at creating meaning and transforming students' lives, in spite of the way the system is set up. But the structure and financing of formal "education" in New Zealand is institutionalised and collective - about the greatest good for the greatest number, NOT, as the rhetoric would suggest, about individual achievement of potential, about identifying and meeting individual needs, about nurturing the individual, about achieving personal growth.

The exception is the early childhood sector, (which isn't really regarded as "formal" education anyway) where the curriculum document, Te Whariki is framed in terms of the value and transformative effect of the curriculum on the learner. As the introduction to the curriculum explains,

This curriculum about the individual child. Its starting point is the learner and the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the child brings to their experiences. ...
Each community to which a child belongs, whether it is a family home or an early childhood setting outside the home, provides opportunities for new learning to
be fostered: for children to reflect on alternative ways of doing things; make connections across time and place; establish different kinds of relationship;
and encounter different points of view. These experiences enrich children’s lives and provide them with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to tackle
new challenges. ...

The learning environment in the early childhood years is different from that in the school sector. ...This curriculum emphasises the critical role of socially and culturally mediated learning and of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people, places, and things. Children learn through collaboration with adults and peers, through guided participation and observation of others, as well as through individual exploration and reflection.
Te Whariki, page 9
Gosh, it makes them sound almost human!

Then they enter the school sector, and we spend the next decade or so training them out of the responsibility for their own learning and way of being. The emphasis changes, from who they are and who they can be, to what they know, and whether they can prove it.

Children and young people intrinsically have all the qualities required for genuine, reflective, transfoirmative, constructive learning. We just train it out of them until they get to graduate level. And then we wonder why they're not mature enough learners to take responsibility for themselves and their own learning. How ironic! It's our socialisation that erodes these qualities in children as they grow up, not any intrinsic lack of them. So, if you want to understand the essential nature of learning and teaching, take a look at early childhood.

And for God's sake, let's put an end to this patronising nonsense about old and young learners being different - it's not the learners that are different, it's how we treat them. 

Thursday, September 02, 2004