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The Learning Sweet Spot and How to Find It

The Learning Sweet Spot And How to Find It
by Paul Henderson

An overview of the sometimes contradictory aspects of the contemporary educational discussion . . . all of which show that conventional classroom learning (or school-at-home), even at their very best, really do not meet the needs of most learners very well and that school-free learning does (and why).

Achieving optimal learning conditions for every young person is the holy grail of education. Finding such educational nirvana, if it exists, would surely require the resolution of myriad counter balancing or contrary philosophies and ideologies. It may seem an impossible task to balance and reconcile all of the often contradictory, contentious, and multidimensional ideas affecting education and learning, but education is so important that it has to be worth trying. It may even be the case that all of these ideas can be interpolated, approximated, and rounded to a general and easy rule, in the same way that the highly complex set of variables affecting general well-being can.

There have been a million-and-one self-help books written on health and happiness involving a zillion-and-one fad diets, exercise regimes, and pop-psychology theories, all filled to the brim with scholarly references to recent research studies, but it all boils down to the general rule of eating a balanced diet and getting a reasonable amount of exercise, sleep, and social/community interaction in whichever way suits best. Can a similar common sense guideline be found for education? That is what this piece aims to explore.

Some of the most important contentious, divergent, contradictory, or differing educational issues which would need to be resolved in order to arrive at a general guideline for optimal learning are in the following paragraphs:

Progressive Versus Traditional Learning

The debate on this is over and the result is that both are needed. If you want to teach soldiers how to march, or any group of people how to perform any specific task with military precision, using learner centric techniques would quickly descend into a somewhat comical farce – traditional techniques are far better for these types of activities. If you want to teach anything that is personally meaningful and has anything remotely to do with self-motivation, self-discipline and working in groups to collaboratively arrive at creative solutions as part of fulfilling the aims of a larger organization or purpose, then progressive learning techniques are essential. Finding the right balance between progressive and traditional learning and knowing when to utilize each philosophy is very important.

Mastery Learning Versus Pace

In 1984 the world renowned educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom defined his “two sigma problem.” It showed, through a series of carefully controlled experiments, that learners taught one-to-one using mastery learning techniques achieved results two standard deviations better than similar learners taught in classrooms using standard classroom learning techniques. That meant that “the average tutored student was above ninety-eight percent of the students in the control class.”

Studies from MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] have shown that mass learning can significantly improve on standard classroom learning when a combination of mastery learning and immediate feedback formative assessment is utilized. It must be remembered that MOOC learners are highly self-motivated volunteers, not conscripts.

“Almost every time the word ‘education’ is used in the media or in general conversation, what is really meant is formal learning. The vast majority of learning that informs most professional and personal identities came from informal or on-the-job learning.”

One-to-one or small group personalized learning wins out overall because it can utilize an individualized bespoke mix of blended mastery learning (where new concepts can be introduced before previous ones have been completely mastered as long as the unmastered concepts are consolidated and mastered within the learning of the new material – thus gaining mastery and pace).

Asynchronous Versus Synchronous Learning

It has been noted in unschooling and democratic free school alternative learning environments that the natural learning process appears chaotic to the outside observer. It seems to progress in fits and starts with learners flying ahead in some areas while others seem to stagnate for long periods of time then jump forward abruptly. Asynchronous learning is also a characteristic of the way gifted people learn and has been noted as a key ingredient in successful learning from studying detailed data from the individual learning maps utilized in MOOCs.

This evidence suggests that learning environments that are adaptable enough to facilitate asynchronous learning have significant benefits over those that utilize age-stage-locked or any other type of synchronous learning. Asynchronous learning may be linked to readiness, in that individuals naturally develop in an asynchronous fashion and therefore some people may become naturally ready to accomplish different things at starkly different times in their development rather than at prescribed age-stage-locked stages.

Formal and Informal Learning

Almost every time the word “education” is used in the media or in general conversation, what is really meant is formal learning. A more inclusive and accurate definition of education might be “the means by which a society transmits its culture, values, principles, and knowledge in a way that can be learned.” The vast majority of learning that informs most professional and personal identities came from informal or on-the-job learning. (Even people in highly technical jobs often find that practice is very different from theory.) Therefore, to conflate any kind of formal learning such as conventional schooling with education is a big mistake that most pupils, students, parents, teachers, educationists (or should I say schoolists?), and governments make on a daily basis.

It is well understood that the fastest rate of learning happens under the age of three and learning actually starts in the womb. If education has anything to do with learning, then it is a huge mistake to conflate schooling with education and much, much more credit should be given to informal learning or natural life learning, which is where most of our formative learning experiences occur throughout our lives, no matter how many formal learning certificates we accumulate. Sometimes, more importance is given to formal learning because of the correlation between formal learning achievements and income. This is often used to imply that there is a causal relationship between the two. However, the fact that there is no correlation between a country’s educational world ranking and its GDP per capita proves that the correlation between formal educational achievement and earnings is not directly causal. It is more likely to be associated with a complex web of confounding variables, one of which may well be the significant positive influence that natural informal autodidactic learning has on successful formal learning.

It is inevitable that a high proportion of those who gain academic certification in areas of study that lead to high income jobs have the good autodidactic learning skills required for tertiary education, therefore a more plausible explanation for the correlation between formal learning achievements and income is that it is due primarily to good autodidactic learning skills. In other words, highly driven self-motivated individuals often do well whether they achieve formal academic certificates or not, however many of them realize that they have to go down the formal learning route at some point in order to gain the certification required to fulfil their self-defined aims.

Saying that there is a causal relationship between formal learning achievements and income is like saying that driving licenses cause people to drive because everyone who drives has one. There is a one hundred percent correlation between those holding a license and those driving legally on public roads but licenses do not cause people to become successful legal drivers. The vast majority of drivers taught themselves how to drive, by utilizing a balance of formal and informal learning sources in the form of friends and family taking them out with learner plates on and some private lessons.

It is not learning sources or the acquisition of certification that causes successful learning; it happens entirely due to the efforts of the individual learner through actively seeking out and engaging with learning sources, formal or informal, with optimal learning occurring through utilizing the most suitable and efficient balance between the two.

Classroom learning is a factory model industrial revolution solution to mass formal learning. MOOCs and the like are a 21st century information revolution solution to mass formal learning which has proven to yield results one standard deviation (a significant amount) better than conventional classroom learning. If the learning sweet spot is to be found by striking a bespoke individualized balance between formal and informal learning, is there any rationale for the existence of intracurricular schooling in the 21st century except to provide a venue for candidates to sit the exams required for academic certification and for the “free” childcare it provides?

Formal Learning Strategies

The five strategies for formative assessment are a ready-made solution for optimal learning, however a bias towards the cognitive domain and linguistic and mathematical intelligences is likely when they are utilized coercively merely to deliver a curriculum and achieve prescribed learning outcomes set out by exam boards. This would only suit the minority of people whose aptitudes are similarly biased. Ironically, such formal learning strategies are more likely to result in a learning environment adaptable enough to suit most people when they are applied in convivial voluntary or informal settings in which learners define their own learning intentions and success criteria, and then share them with their teachers/mentors who can then apply the strategies.

Our brains have been prewired through millions of years of evolution to be naturally intent on learning how to make the best of ourselves through our personal interests, passions, aptitudes, and attitudes, and by learning optimal survival strategies on a need-to-know basis. It is only in relatively recent times that governments have conceitedly hijacked our innate biological learning agenda by replacing our natural learning intentions with state prescriptions. That might be fine if politicians and schoolists know more than Nature and educationists do about the type of learning that has enabled the human species to thrive for hundreds of thousands of years – not so good for the future of mankind if they don’t! Healthy people don’t need public “servants” to intervene in the way their lungs or hearts work, so why is it all-of-a-sudden okay for the state to meddle with the way their brains work by prescribing what they learn and how they learn it?

Low and High Order Learning

Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning states that creating is the highest order of learning; therefore the pinnacle of any learning process ought to be for newly acquired knowledge and skill to be applied creatively. A common misunderstanding stemming from Bloom’s taxonomy is that creating is only possible when there is assessable linguistic (usually written) evidence that an agreed body of knowledge has been satisfactorily and fully learned at the lower orders of learning associated with a particular creative endeavor, according to prescribed criteria, before the creative process can begin. This contradicts instances where artists create intuitively. Intuitive creators don’t create out of a vacuum; they remember, understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate what they are doing intuitively rather than in a way that can be easily verbally articulated for exam purposes.

For example, an intuitive musical artist may use his musical intelligence to evaluate a work in progress rather than his linguistic intelligence. He may even see the process of having to demonstrate his remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating in a verbal fashion (the process used to assess music candidates’ formal musical knowledge) as distracting and flow spoiling. In other words, intuitive musical artists may have a highly developed musical intelligence but low levels of linguistic and logical mathematical intelligence. That is why many of the most popular music artists of all time would in all likelihood fail a fairly low level formal standard musical assessment, yet their creative musical endeavors earned them international success, critical acclaim, fame, and wealth. This begs the question: To what extent are standard written assessments fit for purpose?

Convergent Versus Divergent Thinking

Again, both are required. But formal learning environments are all about convergent thinking, making them very unbalanced and not conducive to creativity. It is well understood that the creative process requires divergent thinking but studying for exams requires convergent thinking. However, if teachers could adopt a strategy for teaching through the test rather than to the test then perhaps learners could experience a more balanced and creative learning path.

“All things considered, conventional classroom learning does not even suit the minority of people that it is statistically geared towards!”

If you think of the teach-to-the test process as a lens that focuses learning in a convergent manner onto an assessment, which could be thought of as a focal point of learning, just as light is refracted by a lens to converge at a focal point then, then just as light diverges after leaving the focal point, so too may thinking, if given the right conditions. Instead of summative assessments being a full stop in the thinking process, perhaps they could be seen as a crossing point where convergent thinking turns into divergent thinking. This may be done by considering the learning gained through studying for a summative assessment as a creative tool kit with which learners, through the support of resources and mentors, can create.

For example, let’s say the criteria for passing a music exam is that learners must demonstrate the ability to play a three-minute song using six chords. To prepare for this exam, learners must learn the skills required and learn to perform the song well enough to pass the exam. But rather than the learning experience ending with a solo performance assessment, what if learners were encouraged to think of their newfound skill set as a creative tool kit with which to create entirely new music? After their exam, a period of time could be set aside for learners to take their newfound skill set and project it forward in a divergent fashion in directions that only they can imagine, thus encouraging blue skies creative thinking.

Cynics may say that this would only work with genuinely interested, intrinsically motivated learners and not with those who are intent purely on gaining enough academic credits to allow them to proceed to the next stage in a course of study perceived to lead to a happy future in a well-paid job – they may have a point.

Flow – A Delicately Balanced Mental State

Much has already been said of the desirability of flow in the learning process. Flow is the opposite of boredom. Experiencing flow is rewarding and experiencing boredom is punishing. It may well be that this innate punishment and reward stimuli acts as a natural self-regulating learning thermostat, negating any traditionally perceived need for extrinsic behaviorist stimuli.

Hierarchy Versus Anarchy

As author Sir Ken Robinson says, life is organic, not linear. So too is natural life learning, which is a leaderless process not directed according to the prescribed criteria of any recognized authority. There will always be a need for an institutionalized, formally certificated, hierarchical approach to learning, which should always be available to those who wish to use it to further their self-defined aims. But, if that approach is all learners ever experience, and the only reason for them to experience it is for the sake of experiencing it as dictated by social and cultural expectations, there is a real danger of their learning skills becoming institutionally dependent. And that will do them no favors whatsoever if they ever intend to spend any significant time living and learning outside the hierarchical formal structures of institutions.

Strictly hierarchical learning institutions are very good when it comes to implementing traditional teaching methods and learning content that requires convergent thinking and military style drilling and discipline. That may very well be the sort of “tough love” environment that some parents wish for their children, but it doesn’t suit everybody and it doesn’t reflect the organic nature of life.

The Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor Domains

Formal learning environments are heavily biased towards the cognitive domain, whereas in life learning these domains can be far more naturally balanced to suit the needs of every individual. The bias towards the cognitive domain found in formal learning environments does not get the best out of most learners, whose unique proclivities will usually be balanced more evenly across all three domains. By the law of averages, people with natural aptitudes dependent primarily on the cognitive domain will be in a minority, therefore a learning environment tuned to suit this minority will not suit most people. And for the people whose strengths lie in the cognitive domain, Bloom’s 2-sigma research strongly indicates that classroom learning cannot meet their needs efficiently relative to the efficiency of one-to one (or online) tuition. In other words, all things considered, conventional classroom learning does not even suit the minority of people that it is statistically geared towards!

Multiple Intelligences

Everything that has just been said regarding the cognitive domain also applies to linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences. Consequently, from a multiple intelligences point of view, it transpires, yet again, that conventional classroom learning does not even suit the minority of people that it is actually geared towards!

Attitude and Aptitude

It is has been said that attitude plus aptitude equals altitude. This is a very true saying (as long as there are opportunities to gain a bit of lift!) and in informal learning environments learners have more freedom than they do in formal learning institutions to fully explore areas of learning biased towards developing their personal attitudes, aptitudes, and passions through whatever balance of domains or intelligences suits them best.

Coercion Versus Free Will

Coercion en masse has a lot in common with fascism. Classroom coercion does not generally manifest itself in the stereotypical image of the screaming school teacher doling out punishment exercises every two seconds to miserable browbeaten children. The reality can be quite different. A lot of kids really enjoy school these days, and there are extremely gifted classroom teachers who can consistently teach engaging and flowing lessons period by period, day by day, year in year out, without ever raising their voices or using the school discipline system. These highly competent individuals seem to be able to cast a kind of magic spell over kids, which appears to make them willingly learn state prescribed learning intentions almost without realizing that they are doing it. Highly sophisticated behaviorist techniques utilize cunning tricks such as video game culture to manipulate students into gaining satisfaction by getting to the next level in their learning by beating the teacher in the game, but all the time playing into his or her hands.

It’s all clever stuff and even though it’s not overt coercion, the use of kid-friendly gaming psychology through gaining reward points through level ascension is still insidious punishment by rewards. Coercion of any type, no matter how covert, is not conducive to deep and lasting learning and is therefore undesirable in any learning environment; persuasion, on the other hand, is often very useful. Just like traditional and progressive teaching methods, it is very important to know when persuasion can be productive.

Coercing people to learn a prescribed curriculum that they are not necessarily interested in can often kill motivation, creativity, and the ability to learn in an independent autodidactic fashion, but there are instances where carefully controlled and caring persuasion can be beneficial. For instance where self-motivated learners are pursuing a passionately held interest in a very specialized and narrow field, sometimes their mentor may realize that pushing them slightly outside of their comfort zone will open the door to other areas of learning that learners may not even know exist. These are things that mentors know from experience tend to be strongly beneficial in gaining a deeper understanding of the original narrow area of interest.

This is where a mentor who really knows the personal proclivities of learners and their personal history and interests can take what learners are passionate about and, through gentle nudging, can deepen and broaden learners’ understanding in ways that they themselves could never have done due to their lack of experience. Learning driven by free will enhances the natural learning drive, and careful mentoring can deepen and widen learners’ interests and passions, sometimes through strong persuasion, which over time learners begin to trust.

Sometimes learners are stopped in their self-defined learning tracks because of fear of failure. In such instances, a firm but supportive nudge in the right direction may not be what’s wanted, but it may be what’s required just to get over a perceived hurdle.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Psychologists often extol the virtues of finding self-concordance through intrinsically motivated activity. Yet all too often, the type of motivation necessitated by an inflexible curriculum and assessment deadlines is extrinsic, sometimes with an overt utilization of the crude behaviorist stimuli of punishments and rewards, and more often through a far more sophisticated ethos of positive reward-driven reinforcement. Thus, the balance found in the conventional classroom learning environment is often heavily biased towards extrinsic motivation, making it a highly unsuitable place to experience the virtues of finding self-concordance through intrinsically motivated activity.

Libertarianism Versus Utilitarianism

Anything that is designed to have a formative influence on entire populations, such as an education policy, cannot be divorced from politics, which in turn cannot be divorced from political philosophy. It would seem reasonable to adopt a utilitarian attitude to formal education, advocating that resources and curricula should be designed to meet the needs of, and provide maximum happiness for, the maximum number of people. The only problem with such ideas, as Michael Sandel pointed out in his excellent book and TV series Justice, is that utilitarian influenced policies designed to benefit the majority are often categorically wrong for the individual. While some may argue that the design for schooling may be politically reasonable and well-intended, the reality of its impact on societies may very well be categorically wrong, not just for a minority of individuals but, as advocates of alternative learning have been illustrating over the last hundred years, for the vast majority.

Totalitarian Democracy Versus Liberal Democracy

Any educational reform, initiative, or policy designed to include all young people or to leave no learner excluded (left behind) without any obvious alternative choices or opt-outs is totalitarian in that it is clearly and unambiguously intended for compulsory imposition on its stated target group in total, without exception. The things that governments decide to impose on entire populations are sometimes slightly odd. For instance, in Germany you can drive your car any speed you like down the autobahn (potentially risking life and limb) but you cannot legally partake in the relatively harmless activity of home education.

The German law banning home education was created during Hitler’s reign of terror. The idea of people learning and thinking for themselves was clearly not popular with Nazi law makers. Oddly, even in this day and age, it would seem that modern day Germany regards home education as being more dangerous to society than high risk, life threatening motorway speeding.

“Based purely on the harm it does to society, perhaps it is schooling, rather than home education, that is far more eligible to be banned due to the tragic number of bullycide and abuse cases that have been associated with it since its inception.”

It would seem reasonable to assume that a good indicator of a liberal democracy is one in which citizens are allowed to learn, think, and behave the way they want to as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. Based purely on the harm it does to society, perhaps it is schooling, rather than home education, that is far more eligible to be banned due to the tragic number of bullycide and abuse cases that have been associated with it since its inception.

Specialist Versus Generalist

General exam board, age-stage expectations, and their corresponding intracurricular learning intentions are designed around what is achievable using classroom teaching methods. Benjamin Bloom’s 2-sigma research shows that the realistic expectations of classroom teaching are very far removed from what individuals are actually capable of achieving if they are motivated and have access to one-to-one tutoring (or perhaps online virtual tutoring such as Khan Academy or MOOCs, which are freely available to all those with Internet access).

Classroom learning may suit learners who have a passing interest in the subjects they are studying in a general sense. But the pace of learning most certainly would not suit those who have a special interest, unless provision can be made to study special areas of interest two, three, or even four years in advance of average classroom expectations – the knock-on implication being that students studying subjects they have a special interest in could start studying them at degree level around two or three years earlier than would normally be expected. It may be argued that students can try out lots of subjects at school from a general interest viewpoint before specializing when they get to the usual ages for starting university. But that does nothing for those who find their element around the age of eleven or twelve.

Educating Versus Instructing

The root meaning of the word “educate” is to draw out, and the root meaning of the word “instruct” is to fill up. Teaching may be regarded as the art of finding exactly the right balance between drawing out the best in learners and filling them up with the knowledge. The balance point varies dramatically depending on learning intentions (from military drills near one end of the spectrum to modern art near the other) and from learner to learner. Finding it is an art, not a science.

Some may say that success is largely dependent on teachers’ scientifically informed and formulated teaching strategies. However, outside of a controlled environment, it is impossible to tell whether excellent learning achievements originate from formal learning strategies or from a smorgasbord of informal sources (online tuition, parents, caregivers, mentors, communities, etc.). It would be hard to deny that a rich informal learning environment offers learners significant advantages, and advocates of alternative learning often put forward strong scholarly and evidentially substantiated arguments that even the very best of formal teaching strategies utilizing the very best of resources are the cause of dependent learning, poor intrinsic motivation, and atrophied creative abilities.

Service Providers Versus Service Users

A teacher once told me a story of some parents who got so dissatisfied with the service the school was providing for their children that they, getting no answers from the school, went to the media. When the director of education heard about it he called a meeting with the parents and bawled them out. He told them that if they ever went to the media again he would personally see to it that their children would be permanently excluded from every school in the entire region. The parents subserviently acquiesced to his diktat and the matter ended there.

Who was serving who in this scenario? Some public servants have a very strange way of serving the public. It sometimes seems that conventional schooling, like our banking system, is deemed to be too big to fail, therefore when it gets it wrong and wreaks havoc in peoples’ lives we respond by meekly acquiescing to its further demands. It sometimes seems that the organizations and institutions we have created to serve us are now our masters, bringing to mind the classic quote from Frankenstein’s monster, “You are my creator but I am your master – obey.”

“The educational sweet spot is different for every learner and is dependent on finding a balance between many differing ideologies and philosophies. The best people to try to find that balance for young learners is undoubtedly parents, since they know their children best.”

Conventional classroom learning continues on and on, despite more than a century of some of the world’s leading thinkers exposing its tragic truths. Perhaps too many people regard it as too big to fail; perhaps too many influential people enjoy the status quo, which feathers their own nests at the expense of the taxpayers. Perhaps the organizations and institutions designed to serve our needs, but which appear to enslave us through our cultural compulsion to consume their mostly unnecessary products and services, are here to stay. Do we have any choice other than to meekly acquiesce to the ever increasing demands of our so called “servants”?

The above list of contentious issues is by no means complete but it is enough for the purposes of this piece.

Finding the Educational Sweet Spot

It would seem that the educational sweet spot is different for every learner and is dependent on finding a balancing resolution point between many differing ideologies and philosophies. The best people to try to find that balance for young learners is undoubtedly parents, since they know their children best. In finding a balance between informal and formal learning, some parents may decide to delay formal classroom learning for a year or two, others for six or seven years, or even as many as eleven years. It has been noted that home educated children generally integrate well into schooling at whatever stage they enter it, if they enter at all, which seems counterintuitive.

Secondary school teachers say that if a child misses two weeks of schooling it will have a detrimental effect on progress, since end of unit assessments are often carried out every six weeks or so and the results of those assessments may be used to stream classes; so if a student misses the first two out of a six week course of study, he or she will most likely get a lower mark in the corresponding test since the learning leading to the test is often cumulative. This means that the first two weeks of a course of study may provide a foundation on which the rest sits and if the foundations are shaky, so too will be whatever sits on them. A low test score may in turn result in poorer end of term results and a placement in a lower achieving class, which in turn may lead to lowered expectations overall. This type of downward spiraling, false academic labeling, and subsequent knock-on effects is not a problem in unschooling or democratic free school learning environments because those are adaptable enough for learning to progress with impunity in a far more natural, asynchronous fashion.

Results from research studies on those in developed countries who have learned by means other than conventional classroom learning have clearly shown that formal learning environments are often essential if specific certification is required for learners to further their self-defined aims, but other than that are necessary only for the “free” childcare they provide to working parents.

 If parents don’t need the childcare but still decide to send their children to school, then they should be careful to make sure that their children use school rather than school using their children. It often seems as if schools use the results of all the tests and exams that their students take in order to justify their own existence and politicians’ policies rather than pupils using schools to gain useful knowledge and deep learning that they can retain for more than a day or two after an exam. If all that learners need from classroom learning are the certificates to gain entrance to the university course of their choice at the age of eighteen, then home educators have shown that any classroom learning before the age of sixteen is unnecessary from an educational perspective. Any preparation work leading to such exams can be easily done using a home-based educational approach. If learners decide to miss school altogether, they can gain the prerequisite qualifications for university at a local college or take an entrepreneurial approach through starting their own business, thus bypassing formal learning altogether.

“Taking all of the above into consideration, it would seem that parents would do well to adopt an all-inclusive, pragmatic, “whatever works” approach to educating their children rather than following any exclusive traditional, progressive, or alternative educational dogma.”

After careful consideration of all of the above, what is the general rule of thumb for finding the optimal educational environment for your child? To find the educational sweet spot, parents need to take a pragmatic, open-minded, and inclusive approach to education rather than a subservient, tunnel vision approach that excludes all educational options except classroom learning. Parents may feel compelled by our “comply or die” culture to consume what everyone else is consuming at the same time and place that everyone else is consuming it.

However there is a strong, evidentially substantiated argument, consistently put forward by leading thinkers and academics over the last century, some of whom are regarded as amongst the greatest educationists of all time, such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Benjamin Bloom, Paulo Freire, Howard Gardner, Ken Robinson, John Holt, Peter Gray, Maria Montessori, Edward Holmes, Roland Meighan, Ivan Illich, Sugata Mitra, John Taylor Gatto, Wendy Priesnitz, and their great many associates. They have all effectively said, some more explicitly than others, that conventional school classrooms are not optimal learning environments.

Perhaps the relative inefficiency of conventional classroom learning is its saving grace because it allows just enough wiggle room for some students to think for themselves despite the best efforts of schooling. But what if the dreams and aspirations of schoolists and politicians came true and the schooling process became one hundred percent efficient and successful? What if entire state prescribed compulsory core curricula could be directly transferred to the brains of the world’s young people, in total, without exception, in a way that enabled total recall and achieved one hundred percent scores for every candidate in every exam? This would make league tables and educational world rankings for such subjects redundant since every school from every country would achieve one hundred percent in every subject.

This might sound great to some people, but considering that the greatest advances, contributions, and achievements from the greatest minds in human history all came from creative original thinkers with a diversity of knowledge and thought processes, perhaps the perfect state-controlled homogenization of human thought might not be such a good idea after all. If perfectly efficient schooling is not a very appealing idea, then what is so attractive about the highly imperfect version of schooling that hundreds of millions of families currently buy into? Would it not be better to grant young people their rightful freedom to reclaim their biological destiny by making the best of themselves through their interests, pursuits, passions, and proclivities? This would require the whole notion of compulsory core subjects to be abandoned in favor of making the study of all areas of learning equally and freely available to all learners on request. Surely a diverse voluntary, convivial, and non-coercive educational landscape utilizing modern and efficient methods of formal learning at the request of learners and catering for all sorts of different types of people ought to be the most suitable overall provision for optimal learning and diversity of thought.

Full-time mainstream schooling, democratic free schooling, or part-time flexischooling may well be the perfect optimal learning environment for some children. For others, it may consist entirely of unschooling or an individualized mixture of all of the above. But determining the exact right balancing point between formal and informal learning settings can only be decided by parents, in consultation with their children, having fully explored all of the options with an open mind. It cannot be determined by the state. It is parents’ duty, by law, to educate their children; not the state’s. This parental duty is too important to be meekly shied away from in deferential acquiescence to social, cultural, and political expectations, which are often arrived at through groupthink or adversarial majoritarianism (as author Alfie Kohn might say), rather than genuine fully informed consensus democracy, if such a thing truly exists.

As a general guideline, taking all of the above into consideration, it would seem that parents would do well to adopt an all-inclusive, pragmatic, “whatever works” approach to educating their children rather than following any exclusive traditional, progressive, or alternative educational dogma. It is important to differentiate between a “whatever works” approach and an “anything goes” or a “follow the herd” approach. The “whatever works” approach means that families are granted their rightful freedom to actively seek out and fully exploit suitable opportunities and learning environments or sources that are truly in line with their children’s needs.

Sometimes conventional schooling gives the impression that it is offering a standardized, budget-priced, ready meal approach to formal education instead of an approach more in line with wholesome home cooking that utilizes fresh, local ingredients and is tailored to suit individual tastes.

Formal education, at its best, is supposed to serve learners’ needs; learners do not exist to serve the needs of schooling; children do not exist to serve the state. Therefore, when children reach school age, the people more qualified than anyone else to really know what makes them tick should not subserviently and meekly acquiesce to the distant diktats of conventional schooling without first fully considering what educational options would truly and genuinely meet their children’s needs. Certain aspects of schooling, such as instrumental music instruction and extracurricular activities, can genuinely meet the needs of those who  participate in them, mainly because they are voluntary, convivial, and non-coercive; however such activities are add-ons and as such could be added to any alternative learning environment.

Walking Away from Conventional Learning

If conventional classroom learning, even at its very best, really does not meet the needs of most learners very well, then history has shown through its catalog of failed educational reforms that the nature of institutionalized formal learning has never and can never be substantially changed by voting at the ballot box. History has also shown that immensely liberating and empowering change has come for millions of families living in information-rich societies who have finally found their educational nirvana through summoning the courage to stand up for their children’s education by voting with their feet and cheerfully, triumphantly, and successfully walking away from conventional classroom learning altogether.

Paul Henderson is a home educating parent living and working in Scotland. He resigned from teaching physics in 1994 after coming to the conclusion that learning ought to be experienced in a convivial, voluntary, and non-coercive environment. He has spent most of his working life performing music and teaching the guitar to students from beginners to honors degree level in primary, secondary, and tertiary formal learning establishments.

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