CCK08: Reflection for Week 2: Part 2

Two weeks ago, the rhizomatic education discussion resonated with me for two reasons; first, because I think that there is great strength in using analogies from the biological sciences to understand learning, and second, because I was pleased to hear Stephen Downes discuss motivation as a key factor in motivating learners. Related to the material that I will discuss below, I have found Downes’ subtle and articulate elaboration on his views about homeschooling vs. community schooling (see the video post included about halfway down the page) most intriguing. 

Part 2: Motivation is Key

Prior to my present job, I worked part time as a Learning Consultant (LC) for the SelfDesign Learning Community (SDLC). SDLC is a K-10 Distributed Learning (DL) program, funded through the Independent Schools Branch of the BC Ministry of Education. The program began as a pilot project with 100 children and their families participating, and now supports over 900 learners. FirstClass is the platform that is used for the SelfDesign Village of Conversations, the locus of dialogue and online interaction between parents and children enrolled in the program. The network is secure, and blog and website functionality exists within the FirstClass environment.

No formal grades are applied to students’ learning progress as it is tracked in the program, nor are any formal credits provided for learning that is realized along the way, unless a learner chooses to formally register for a class. Parents are able to invoice for learning activities and materials that are used during the year, up to the total amount allocated to each learner as part of the program funding. LCs in turn can approve or decline allowing funding to be applied towards these expenses, according to the soundness of the request in terms of its educational relevance.

Brent Cameron, Michael Maser and Kathleen Forsythe were awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in BC for the creation of the SelfDesign Learning Community program. Cameron is the longtime director of the Wondertree Foundation for Natural Learning, a learning centre, which advocates a deschooled or unschooled approach to learning consistent with the work of the Sudbury Valley Schools, among other similar venues.

At the beginning of the school year, Learning Consultants go into the homes of participating learners and develop a SelfDesign Learning Plan with the children and parents with whom  they are working. The children are free to identify whatever learning experiences or activities they desire to realize during the course of the year, in as much or as little detail as they wish. Generally speaking, the Learning Plans are an educational Magna Carta or sorts, a manifesto of living and learning, a declaration of wonder, passion and play.

As the year unfolds, parents communicate regular (generally weekly) Observing for Learning reports to LCs, and it is the LCs’ job to then identify whatever alignment can be conducted between the learners’ learning activities and experiences, and the formal curriculum documents mandated by the Ministry of Education as the intended (and expected) deliverables of the school system. SelfDesign learners, however, are afforded the flexibility to realize outcomes using as much of an ad hoc, chaotic approach as they choose.

One of my learners, with whom I worked for four years, chose not to read until she was ten years old. When she finally began learning to read under the tutelage of her mother, she went from identifying single syllable words to reading young adult fiction in the span of three months. Some learners were especially strong in some areas, and weak in others. So long as the assessment for learning conducted by the LCs (all of whom are certified teachers) is rigorous in these cases, and so long as demonstrable educational support is being provided, the learner is free to pursue his or her interests without intervention over and above that of the parents themselves, in communication with the learning consultants.

This is one of the few programs of its kind that is (in this case, partially) government funded. The attraction to the program for parents and learners is their ability to transverse geographical boundaries and communicate with one another in a secure network environment, on the subject of their personal and collective passions.

The SelfDesign methodology draws inspiration from the work of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana in The Tree of Knowledge:The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, among others. It assumes love, the acceptance of the legitimacy of the other, as the starting point of the program, and the basis of natural learning. This is not to be confused with the characterization of being in love described below (although there can be overlap and similarities, to varying degrees) by Marvin Minsky. I would describe this state as grasping and pathological, and to an extent, perfectly normal for human beings:

Wonderful. Indescribable.
— (I can’t figure out what attracts me to her.)
I scarcely can think of anything else.
— (Most of my mind has stopped working.)
Unbelievably perfect. Incredible.
— (No sensible person believes such things.)
She has a flawless character.
— (I’ve abandoned my critical faculties.)
There is nothing i would not do for her.
— (I’ve forsaken most of my usual goals.)

Here is a quotation from Kathleen Forsythe, one of the founders of SelfDesign, on this subject:

 The Natural Way of Learning

by Kathleen Forsythe

 At birth, for a moment, two persons exist simultaneously as one physical embodiment. Birth separates, distinguishes as persons-the parent and the child-a composite unity. From this moment, the human infant, as a whole unity, constantly unfolds a world through making distinctions, cleaving into relevance whenever he is moved to act by the disposition for wonder. It is the unique history of these distinctions both within the child’s structural organization and within her actions as a living system that define the child as a unique person.

This dynamic web of events which produces a new person from the distinction and coherence of two other persons demonstrates the mutual consistency of the pattern that is at the heart of the natural way of learning.

…The natural way of learning of human beings is to compose new patterns through making distinctions and forming coherences in a self-organizing manner. From what we know, we are always constructing new “knowing” by seeing how what we know is different or the same as what we have known before or what another knows or what a new situation or context suggests.

Love is the emotion that generates the social space of coexistence with others. This space is one of trust, safety and openness that leads to self-awareness and self-respect. At the same time it leads to respect for others, the basis of community.

In Africa, there is a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Inherent in this proverb is the description of th environment, necessary to unfold our natural way of learning – the interactions in the intimate, tender and consensual domain of the family, the interaction of the self and others in the consensual domains of community. We are forming our village of conversations to support children and their families to nurture natural learning and to conserve the disposition for wonder within a space of love (1).

This is not to suggest that “love is all you need.” However, I feel that there are tremendous similarities between the approach that is being advocated by the SelfDesign methodology, and the Connectivist framework for understanding learning. I also think that a powerful ethical framework for Connectivism can be posited, treating love as the the foundation for learning, its origins existing as part of our fundamental biology and cognition.

Recall one of the main tenets attributed to Connectivism:

  • The integration of cognition and emotions in meaning-making is important. Thinking and emotions influence each other. A theory of learning that only considers one dimension excludes a large part of how learning happens.

More on this subject in future posts…

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