Schools challenged by Life Long Learning

The following text provides my personal thoughts on the European Commission’s Working Paper entitled “Schools for the 21st Century” SEC(2007)1009 published early July 2007 (link no longer available). The consultation paper took the form of an introduction followed by a series of eight questions, each accompanied by a short text. The deadline for contributions about the consultation to the Commission was October 15th, 2007. 

school building

Schools challenged by Life Long Learning

“Do not confine your children to your own learning for they were born in another time.”

The Commission’s text begins by quoting the above Hebrew proverb. As delightfully enlightening as it is, the proverb could be construed as referring to traditional content-based learning. Should one not go further and say: “Do not confine your children to your own ways of learning for they were born in another time.”

It is not possible to answer the European Commission’s eight questions about schools if we don’t first ask ourselves what we understand by “life long learning”. If we think of life long learning in terms of the familiar paradigm of institutionalised learning, we get a picture of people periodically learning throughout their lives in institutions or their online equivalents, taking organised courses designed by experts and provided “à la carte”. Given the quantity and complexity of probable demand, should such a system be successful, it is highly unlikely that the institutional model would be sustainable even with the support of massive use of ICT. The purely institutional response to life long learning also fails to take into account the fact that the majority of human learning does not take place in institutions but is rather the fruit of a great diversity of encounters (both formal and informal) and accumulated experience. 

What happens to the natural inquisitiveness of most children when they start school? Just listen to a group of older schoolchildren talking on the bus home from school and you will soon notice that school rarely supports that early thirst for learning. The constraints of school organisation in terms of space and time and subjects and curriculum and evaluation and expert opinions constitute hefty barriers to spontaneous interest and informal learning. The quest for better marks rapidly replaces the desire to learn and the will to provide the “right” answer required by the teacher replaces the human drive to explore and understand. The natural inquisitiveness of the young child should be the basis for life-long learning. What then should we conclude from the statement, mentioned in the EU text, that the earlier children enter learning institutions the better they learn?

“The institution of the school cannot remain static if it is to serve as a foundation for life long learning…”

There is a growing pressure from society on schools to support life long learning. This is a major challenge for schools if life long learning is seen to embrace the many facets of learning. Schools champion (explicitly or implicitly) an institutionalised approach to learning in which the autonomy of learners is limited in many respects (see “Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is” ). Life long learning in comparison depends largely on the individual’s capacity to capitalise autonomously on all sorts of experiences and encounters that mostly lie outside the locus of learning institutions. To what extent can those steeped in the institutional learning paradigm encourage young people to develop the competences necessary to improve and heighten non-institutionalised learning?

1. How can schools be organised in such a way as to provide all students with the full range of key competences? 

Forms of assessment in schools are one of the key bottlenecks to providing a satisfactory range of competences because they do not focus (both in their content and their form) on the competences required for life long learning. In addition, certain key assessments like those leading to diplomas necessary to enter higher education continue to be heavily biased in favour of academic content rather than learning and social skills and their strategic importance strongly influences much of the work done in schools.

In addition, the required competences cannot be provided if teachers’ roles are not modified accordingly.

2. How can schools equip young people with the competences and motivation to make learning a lifelong activity? 

There needs to be a paradigm shift in schools if they are to be able to fully support LLL such as to enable the inclusion and the recognition of many forms of learning other than institutionalised, expert-driven learning. Schools need to support the natural inquisitiveness of the young as a major source of motivation to learn at all levels rather than trying to channel it into predetermined paths.

3. How can school systems contribute to supporting long-term sustainable economic growth in Europe? 

What is sorely lacking in our school system is the ability to encourage amongst the young new kinds of responsible leadership that would be required for a sustainable world (see “Leadership, information gathering and the future – What if we’ve got it wrong?” ). In addition, schools themselves are often governed using forms of leadership and organisation that are not exemplary.

4. How can school systems best respond to the need to promote equity, to respond to cultural diversity and to reduce early school leaving? 

Schools cannot hope to promote equity as long as they continue to privilege certain types of learning and certain competences while, by default, stigmatising those whose ability lies elsewhere and otherwise. From the perspective of a sustainable knowledge economy, schools are criminally wasteful in the way they implicitly reject any form of learning or any competence that does not fit their paradigm of learning.

5. If schools are to respond to each pupil’s individual learning needs, what can be done as regards curricula, school organisation and the roles of teachers? 

Try setting two of the required conditions for inclusion mentioned in the Commission’s Working Paper (cooperative working and collaborative problem-solving) at the heart of the school system, and ask yourself what they imply in terms of the organisation of learning and the role of those who are to facilitate that learning. Caution is required with the words we use: such notions as “curriculum” carry a heavy load of pre-suppositions and unchallenged assumptions. Ask yourselves, for example, what impact a pre-determined learning path fixed by external experts (and whose outcomes are judged by other external experts) as epitomised by the curriculum might have on the rich experiences and encounters of the autonomous learner? 

6. How can school communities help to prepare young people to be responsible citizens, in line with fundamental values such as peace and tolerance of diversity? 

School must cease to be cut off from the world. One of the ways school isolates itself from “reality” is by seeking to simplify the complexity of the world believing that young learners need their intellectual food carefully selected and pre-digested for them. Such an approach is hardly a preparation for life long learning where complexity is a necessary ingredient of any learning context.

If the learner is to be a responsible citizen, he or she must also be responsible for his or her learning. You cannot preach that young people take on full responsibility in society without granting them responsibility for what and how they learn.

7. How can school staff be trained and supported to meet the challenges they face? 

The Commission texts states: “It is teachers who mediate between a rapidly evolving world and the pupils who are about to enter it.” Should this be so? The statement pursues the metaphor that school (and pupils) are outside the world. Teachers can’t mediate between pupils and the complex, fast changing world. They have more difficulties with those changes than most of the pupils. 

Much too much responsibility is put on teachers. Their role needs to be reviewed. They can’t be social workers, police, guardians, baby-sitters, animators and teachers at one time. One of the keys to changing teachers’ roles lies in their training which inappropriately continues to shape them as subject experts.

In preparing teachers to facilitate other less-formal forms of learning, they should be encouraged as life long learners themselves to learn through informal peer-exchange and non-institutionalised networks.

8. How can school communities best receive the leadership and motivation they need to succeed? How can they be empowered to develop in response to changing needs and demands?

The word “receive” rings strange here. It is not the “natural” choice. Is this strangeness due to the fact that the word seeks to indicate a different perspective, possibly one in which these things are not imposed on but adopted by school as a community. The policy-makers dilemma in all policy-making is that the policy-maker is not the person who creates the practice that the policy-maker is trying to shape and modify. I suspect that it is to some extent the recognition of this dilemma that is expressed by the word “receive”. We know so little about the relationship between policy and practice in a dynamic, living system. It is to that relationship between policy and practice in connection with knowledge (including R&D results) that we need to turn our attention if we are to be able to answer the question asked above.

Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, 20th Aug. 2007.