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Learning off by Heart May 5, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

One subject I teach through the School of Education at UWS is Learning and Creativity, a Social Ecology unit undertaken by many pre-service teachers (about 250 each semester). It introduces students to engaged learning through creative pedagogies and instills how to be a creative teacher in all aspects of the curriculum. I happened to be taking an absent, sick tutor’s class just a week or so before a major creative piece of work was due. A young man with shining eyes stayed behind to ask me whether or not he was on track with his assignment.

His plan, as he explained to me, was to demonstrate to the class the impact of an intense learning experience he had gone through just a year or so earlier. It was learning the Koran off by heart. He told me it took him 3 years to memorise all the words of this ancient text, which also demanded knowing the meaning of every word written. Scholars had come to Sydney to conduct this teaching and it was every day for three years that he studied so intently. He showed me the Koran itself, in its exquisite detailed calligraphy, and demonstrated the process of his learning right from the beginning. He had learnt a page a day, line by line, then progressing to paragraph by paragraph. Within a very short time, he was able to put together and repeat a grouping of 3 paragraphs and so on, up to a whole page, then several pages. Each day began a series of new pages, but first with a testing of the previous day’s learning.

I was astounded by this singular feat of learning off by heart, since I can hardly recall the names of my current students in class, let alone the poems and songs of my childhood!

It made me think about the ‘noble art’ of rote learning and its fall from favour as a teaching strategy. When I was in primary school, the times tables in Maths were an absolute fixture of everyday lessons and the whole class would chant it out together like a mantra being exhorted by a pulsing fervent crowd. Alas, no real fervour here in class, just the terror of being caught out in not knowing the answer to 6×8! I must say, it had some sort of appeal to me then, even in its hollow recitation. There was definitely a rhythm to the sing-songy learning which most of us seemed to enjoy once we had it mastered. Of course, there were some who never managed to master it, despite the threats…!

Then I think back to my crazy High School French teacher, who fired herself into every class with a barrage of language. We would sit mute as the French words flowed from her into a fertile field of unknowing. She loved us to repeat out loud, after her, all our vocab for the day. Yes, vocab for the day, at least 10 words that she would duly test us on the very next lesson. This may not seem so unusual, to call upon rote learning in the acquisition of a new language, but somehow I think it had more to do with learning off by heart as her particular ‘je ne sais crois’! Did we learn via this method? We surely did, but was it again, more through fear, or the power of rote?

Perhaps I imbued some of these now archaic techniques in my own pedagogical practices unknowingly. A particularly difficult 9F Geography class (no, ‘F’ was not the teacher’s surname but the lowest level of streamed classes), convinced of their ineptitude for anything scholarly, and backed up by most teaching staff, had me confounded when I tried to get them to study the geography of Japan. Of course, first up, you have to know the names of the islands of Japan. Impossible! No matter what I tried, no recall. Blank wall! I finally, in sheer desperation, resorted to something familiar. Get a chant and a rhythm going:

‘Hon-shu Shik-ok-ku Ky-u-shu Hok-kai-do! ‘

And off we went stomping around the class, around and around with these words becoming familiars amidst much hilarity and stupidity. But they got it! And it stayed with them. Fixed in embodied learning that rarely disappears. Maybe hidden, but there to be plucked at some future time.

So I think it is time to take a long hard look at some of these Western educational outdated methods and reconsider if we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Is there no place for honing our memory through ongoing recitation? And what about poetry known and recited out loud? Children’s nursery rhymes that form a strong basis of literacy?

The lost art of learning off by heart… Now why was it called that? What has the heart to do with this process of memorizing?

The young man with shining eyes told me why he wanted to do this feat of memorising. The desire had been with him as a young kid, when first shown the Koran. He just knew he wanted to do it, for his love of God. As strong then as it was twenty or more years later when he finally achieved his dream. Now, he was learning through his heart. And with his heart.

I do know that in an embryo, when the organs are early developing, the heart and the ear lie close together, before the ear finally migrates to the top of the body, which becomes the head. So for some time, the intimacy between head and heart creates a template of relationship that may be remembered each time the word is spoken aloud to the heart.

The shining man cannot rest on his laurels once the deed has been accomplished, the total memorization of the Koran. He must one day a month go through that huge chunk of the Koran in total, to test his memory, to say it out loud, going over and over it for the rest of his life.

This, surely, is learning off by heart! Not all learning systems threw rote learning out, for good reason.

I am off to brush up on some poems, long ago learnt and forgotten. How hard can that be? And then after that, I’ll tackle the names of all my students…!!


Dr Carol Birrell is a Lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other contributions on this blog site.

There’s more to education than spelling and numbers November 4, 2014

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Associate Professor Sue Roffey

Headlines in newspapers on a recent Monday morning said much of the curriculum review that has been welcomed across Australia. The removal of the four “general capabilities” from the curriculum is a travesty many are yet to recognise.

The four “general capabilities” are personal and social capability, critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. Are thinking and creativity now considered irrelevant for education?

Research suggests these are critical skills for innovation, problem-solving, empathy, evaluation, knowledge application and mental health. These skills are also necessary for the promotion of a democratic society. Young people need to be able to think for themselves and make up their own minds about their values, who they become and what they do.

The reduced focus on personal and social capability also makes little sense.  Relationships are not the soft and fluffy end of education; they are the central plank of how we learn and how well we live our lives. They determine our ability to contribute to both the world of work and society.

Confederation of British Industry director-general John Cridland says that over half of British firms are concerned about the self-management and resilience of school leavers, who must be better prepared for life outside the school gates.

Eton College headmaster Tony Little has expressed concern over the narrowing of the curriculum:

A sharp focus on performance is a good thing, but there is a great deal more to an effective and good education than jostling for position in a league table … Most of us as parents want our children to become capable adults, able to look after themselves and their own families, but we want them to be good citizens, too.

The US Department of Defence funded research leading to the Wingspread Declaration on School Connections, a document highlighting the need for a sense of belonging for effective education.

There is now a raft of Australian and international evidence  for what constitutes authentic well-being for young people and how a focus on student well-being underpins universal learning outcomes, mental health for the vulnerable and pro-social behaviour. Healthy relationships with teachers, families and peers are integral to this.

Many of our young people are not learning the values and skills needed outside of school. Most teachers are doing a great job, despite the pressures on them to focus on test results. The evidence for the benefit of social and emotional learning in the curriculum is overwhelming. In the US a meta-analysis of 213 social and emotional learning programs showed that academic outcomes for participating students had an 11% improvement in academic skills compared to control groups.

It is hardly surprising that some of our most privileged and advantaged schools are taking student well-being – “learning to be” and “learning to live together” – seriously. Prestigious and successful schools such as Geelong Grammar, The Knox School and St Peters in Adelaide have a heavy focus on these attributes.

We need to go beyond the economic, rote-learning mindset, which is singularly concerned with the acquisition and regurgitation of facts. There is great concern that the race to the top in PISA rankings is undermining the education our children and our country really needs. What is the point of top marks in all subjects if you are unable to live a fulfilling life?

And what about valuing all of those children who are never going to be academic stars, but have other things to offer? Don’t they count?

Our education system is about the future of Australia, our democracy, our future mental health and our ability to contribute within our community. Relationships matter, resilience matters. Teachers, researchers and many parents know this, so why don’t the reviewers?

Sue Roffey is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is also Chair of Wellbeing Australia and co Lead Convenor of the Student Wellbeing Action Network which is part of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

A Geography of Hope. August 11, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Social Ecology.
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Dr Carol Birrell

 A few weeks ago when I was picking up my grandson from his pre-school, he was keen to show me their latest display on a large noticeboard in the centre of the indoor classroom. On it were posted pictures of extinct or near-extinct species of animals with accompanying statements listing surviving numbers and original numbers. It was enough to depress me in an instant! However, what dominated my thoughts was the impact on these young children of such devastating information. I had to ask myself, how do they manage such information, if it is barely possible for me as a mature adult to manage it?

Educator David Sobel has a solid critique of education that may do more harm than good:

 Lurking underneath ‘environmentally correct’ curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place and self are still forming… what’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds[1].

 In this contemporary world of impending planetary disaster, of economic and political collapse, of rampant fears around health, disease, invasion and war, to list just a few, we are immersed, in fact, in a culture of ‘doom and gloom’. No person is immune to it.

  I came across an expression in relation to this, but in fact its antithesis, that resonated deeply and that I wish to explore further, called ‘A Geography of Hope’. Wallace Stegner, an American author, coined the expression to address the value of ‘hope’ as an idea as well as a place.[2]

 I initially trained as a Geographer and taught this subject in high schools and primary schools for over 20 years. However, I am not sure of the shape of A Geography of Hope, of its look or feel, but I know it is something I need, both as a teacher and more generally, in my life. In the face of this powerful statement, I wish to explore it as an antidote to the pervasive negativity that infects all of us, our students included. And I want to ask the question,

 ‘How do we cultivate A Geography of Hope in our classrooms?’

 I believe this is crucial in our education systems in this moment of time. It demands a shift from negativity, of despair and disempowerment, to a vision of hope that can be owned and embodied in our classes. It is not a positioning that is trying to avoid the truth, to disguise reality under some sort of ‘Pollyanna’ ruse. It may be seen as essential to our mental/physical/emotional/spiritual health and hence to our learning and pedagogical practices.

 David Orr gives us some pointers here:

  ‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.’[3]

Take one example of what I would incorporate under the notion of A Geography of Hope: that of the fostering and understanding of beauty in our lives. How could we bring ‘beauty’ more into our classrooms? Of course, we could have more living plants, creatures, art works, images of beautiful natural scenes, poetry, music, planted in the everyday lives of our students (Alas! Far removed from university classrooms!!). It may also reside in our own beings, as a geographic location with its points of longitude and latitude clearly demarcated. If I can hold a map of beauty in my being, in the world, in others, in plants and animals, in the not-so beautiful, and hold that as a central fulcrum in my classes, then it has a tangible presence and can exert influence. It is the ‘still point of the turning world’ in T.S. Eliot’s poem from which waves continue to move outwards[4]. Beauty gives us hope.  

Some recent research in Finland inspired me. People were encouraged to write letters to friends about beauty in their everyday lives- this took place in a small Arctic village over one year. The researcher states:

 ‘Beauty, in these letters, became as if a verb: a continuous, open-ended process of articulating the ways in which one is interwoven with and conditioned by one’s surrounding environment. Articulating beauty in everyday life was proven a practice that sustains sensory attentiveness, openness and imaginative interest towards the material world [5].

Imagine if that kindy noticeboard took beauty as its environmental theme!

 My grandson Sam stops me to take in a particularly stunning sunset, a softly rounded smooth rock, a mosquito on his arm, a strange word that tickles his fancy. He continues to cultivate in me, this notion of beauty and through it, unmistakably, a notion of hope.

 When I begin to contemplate the contours of A Geography of Hope, I am thinking about love, joy, awe, friendship and beauty. I want a classroom brimming with these! Is it possible? I can only hope!   


[1] Sobel, D. (1996) Beyond Ecophobia, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA

2 Stegner, W. http://www.angelfire.com/journal/worldtour99/hope.html accessed 5/8/13

3Orr, D (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, USA.

4 Elliott, T.S. Four Quartets http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html accessed 8/8/13

5 Rautio, P. (2013)  Children who carry stones in their pockets. Children’s Geographies, DOI:10.1080/14733285.2013.812278

Dr Carol Birrell in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

Expos as sites for learning and engagement July 29, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Social Ecology.
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by Karin Mackay  

On a Sunday morning in 2008, I was standing at the front of a small community gallery in the midst of a women’s arts and ecology festival in The Blue Mountains. I was watching belly dancers, choirs and African Drummers and Dancers tell stories of place through movement and song. In the gallery behind me were over sixty diverse artworks and stories about life, love, loss and resilience from the diverse women’s community group I was part of.  This was “Earthspirit” festival day where all were invited to come and view creative work exploring relationship with water, people and place. Surprisingly the audience was not only women but younger guys and mature men, teenagers and young kids.

The opening addresses had just finished. One of these was a poem by an Aboriginal artist about her relationship to ancestral place at La Perouse. The other speaker was a local academic who had been asked to talk about the significance of water. The academic’s talk was not well received…..she lost people midway but barrelled on regardless. I felt terrible for her as I had asked her to come and talk but it seemed like it was not the right venue for her ideas to reach the light of day.  I mused on this, anxious about this mismatch and was thinking how I would reassure her, it was not her fault. Perhaps it was just not a receptive audience. Instead the words that came out of my mouth were very different. I turned to her and said, “This is how learning will happen in the future”.  She looked at me just as bemused as I was about what I had just said. What on earth did I mean? Why would people come to a festival to learn? This is not proper academic learning. Weren’t we just a few women mucking around with art and performance?

I had recently enrolled in a Doctorate with the Centre for Cultural Studies because I wanted to know what kept the women coming along to creative groups at The Women’s Room and what kept audiences returning to the community festival, beyond the superficial aspect of entertainment and curiosity. At the first showing of art works at the galley in 2006, the organising committee expected friends, family and a few curious passers-by to show up. Instead 300 people crammed into a small gallery space and overflowed into the gardens. The six women organisers of the event were totally overwhelmed but also ecstatic and invigorated by the whole process. There had been no plans to repeat this event however, after this success, they wanted to do it all over again.

It began to unfurl for me many years later, that what I had been doing in the community groups and festivals, was not just mucking around but was a powerful and potential site of learning and engagement. My own anxiety and shyness in an academic setting made this realisation slow in coming. It is only now, six years later and after teaching about diverse pedagogies to beginning teachers that I can reflect upon my initial comment and witness the emergence of expos, as valuable and legitimate pedagogical approaches in teacher education. Not only do creative project settings like festivals and expos develop important adaptive skills to cope with a rapidly changing globalised society, but learning in real life community settings develops highly desirable collaborative skills needed in 21st century classrooms.

 The expo format is an emerging assessment tool in several of the UWS academic units I am involved with such as a market place in the M.Ed. Learning and Creativity unit and the inaugural Education for Sustainability Unit Expo held in May 2013. What I witnessed in the organising of both the community festivals and expos in the university context was a nexus of concepts, challenges, ideas, problems, failures, tryouts, adaptions, solutions and hands on skills that culminated in one event. It seemed to be a messy chaotic process in the beginning but through careful planning and scaffolding, discussion and negotiation the expo or festival seemed to create itself into being. The end result was a synthesis of knowledge and responses, addressing and identifying specific problems or themes, which became manifest in a culturally constructed artefact. In other words the learning became visible in a physical three dimensional way and was reflective of who had made it and what cultural, religious and political values and discourses participants bought with them. Herein lays the value of expos and festivals as a legitimate pedagogical practice. Participants are able to construct learning from their own unique cultural and grounded perspective and bring their experiences into the community, opening a dialogue where aspects of “otherness”, diversity and place can be negotiated. Of course negotiation is still reliant on which leaders exert what kind of power and so there is the continual need for both teachers and students to “critique their social and institutional positionings” when engaged within community contexts (Gannon 2010: 9).

Using Expos as a pedagogical tool has the benefit for teachers, students and researchers of challenging us all to adapt content and present this in creative, engaging ways to a highly critical audience. This is clearly one of the important roles for all of us to develop as 21st century citizens where boundaries of supposed static systems require constant and timely adaption. This can be a ‘sink’ or ‘swim’ experience in an expo format. From my intimate experience of failure and flourishing in a community festival context, I have learnt that if people are not engaged they just walk away. You have to think on your feet quickly and find alternate ways that work to inspire interest. Once interested you need to hold an audience’s attention and give them something they will remember while not taking away from the depth of learning you want to encourage. I have also learnt that collaborative practice is necessarily challenging, requiring flexibility, strong leadership skills and mediation in relationship breakdown. It may seem like a tough gig but as evidenced in the recount of my community group experiences, satisfying, invigorating and empowering when it works.

 In a classroom, students may not be able to physically walk away when they feel disengaged but they will walk away mentally and the consequences of disengagement are well documented (McGregor 2011). To engage this generation we can choose to use culturally responsive and adaptive pedagogies to remain relevant in the visually saturated fast paced globalised life that young people are used to (Kea et al 2006). Using adaptive pedagogies is not a simply pandering to the next generation’s needs but a carefully thought out strategy to meditate the parallel words of disembodied cyberspace and the intimate sensory cues that face to face interaction expresses.  Expos allow participants face to face experience of the life story firsthand by becoming fully immersed in the moment, rather than being distracted by the promise of being at a better place in the past or the future by social media (Rushkoff 2013: 118). I also agree with McArthur (2010: 73) who suggests the need for embodied interactions alongside online communication as “face-to-face experience challenges the notion of cultural otherness by confronting students with the realities of one’s essential humanness”. McArthur’s (2010: 74) research suggests that;

Culturally adaptive pedagogy creates collaborative platforms and spaces where students, educators and institutions can begin to envision creative ‘whole world’ solutions to societal challenges via open-ended inclusive methodologies.

Perhaps instead of falling head over heels for the expo as peak sites for learning and engagement delivering an assured promise of open dialogue, congenial collaboration, equitable and deep learning, we also need to be aware that like any pedagogical tool it can be misunderstood or misused. An expo is not the learning itself. It is the container and the outward manifestation of a larger process. The expo or festival is a moment in time and its success is not the result of linear planning but rather systems thinking. When assessing the learning through the experience of the expo, it is important to remember that just assessing the expo moment or event will not be an authentic measure. The value of the expo experience lies in active participation, regular reflective practice before, during and after the event and a recognition that the assessment is for learning rather than of learning (Flowers 2010). In other words the expo assessment design needs to be able to facilitate learning in process, not just an allocation of a mark for an end result.

It is a philosophical leap to use expos in academic settings and one that I welcome whole heartedly. Reflecting back to my initial recount of the academic’s disengaged audience, we too need to heed the lesson of engagement and relevance. Our world is shifting from institutions being the only legitimate sources of knowledge to a radical pedagogy of knowing from below, a pedagogy of the people. In my experience, this pedagogy is still able to provide a critique of worthwhile ideas but the decider of what is worthwhile has shifted and the space where learning happens is not fixed in one location but is agile and flexible. The expo as assessment tool acknowledges that learning is part of life rather than something that only occurs in the classroom. Expos offer a way for us to put into practice theoretical ideas of learning, critique how power is played out, negotiate relationships and develop projects that may become active beyond university and school gates.

My immersive experience in the community Earthspirit festival has helped develop within me, a greater appreciation for expos and festivals as sites of learning and the inherent challenges they ultimately bring. In support of culturally adaptive pedagogy and open ended methodologies my next adventure into this arena now awaits me in the Simply Living Expo at the Winmalee Public School in the Blue Mountains on Saturday, 5th April, 2014. This project crosses the boundaries of community, academia, institution and social media to explore how one community engages in sustainable practice. It is not a research project but a passion that I share with others in my community. In the spirit of open ended inquiry and culturally adaptive pedagogy, I will remain curious and wondrous about what this new experience will unearth and what pathways this will lead me down. I’ll be sure to let you know.


Flowers. R. (2010). Climate advocacy and climate organizing: Should we be interrogating our theories and practices more? CARG Conference, 5th March 2010 Draft working paper for discussion 1. Available at: http://www.ccs.uts.edu.au/pdfs/flowers-2010-carg.pdf

 Gannon. S (2005). I’ll be a different sort of teacher because of this: Creating the Next generation. Australian Educational Research Association. Available at:  http://publications.aare.edu.au/05pap/gan05103.pdf

Kea. C., Campbell-Whatley. G. D., Richards H. V., and Peay, A.  (2006). Becoming Culturally Responsive Educators: Rethinking Teacher Education Pedagogy. The mission of the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (nccrest) http://www.nccrest.org/Briefs/Teacher_Ed_Brief.pdf

McArthur. P. (2010). Creating Adaptive Pedagogy. Cumulis Creative Thinking Conference proceedings. 69-79. Available at: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30857482/Cumulus_Proceedings_Shanghai.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIR6FSIMDFXPEERSA&Expires=1374985425&Signature=2F3Ws5BLlYp7PdF5BP5bM6gDr3I%3D&response-content-disposition=inline

McGregor. G. (2011).  Engaging Gen Y in schooling: the need for an egalitarian ethos of education Pedagogy, Culture & Society Vol. 19, Iss. 1. Retrieved from; http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14681366.2010.510803#.UfStYLF-_VI

Rushkoff. D. (2013). Present Shock: When everything happens now. Current: New York.

 Karin McKay is a Lecturer in Social Ecology in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

Education to Change the World: Learning for realising one’s personal, social and ecological potential [1] June 3, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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1 comment so far

from Professor Stuart Hill

Consider the points below as five preliminary provocations for reflection:

1. Anything that anyone has ever learned – and much, much more – can be learned by everyone.

2. Most of what is, is unknown. Whereas cleverness is concerned with the miniscule known, one requires wisdom, experience and intuition to engage with the unknown. Sadly current curricula, and the naive concept of ‘evidence-based decision making’, tend to neglect the unknown and the need to develop wisdom. The predictable catastrophic consequences, some of which – like species extinction – are irreversible.

 3. Throughout our history our species has evolved psychosocially[2] throughout most of the world to a ‘socialising’ culture, in which one generation designs and imposes the learning agenda on the next generation. The next step in our evolution is towards an ‘enabling’ culture, in which learners are enabled to clarify and achieve their unique (personal) and shared (social) learning agendas. Though we are a social species, rather than being socialised through education we need to be enabled to realise our social potential. Paradoxically, this is undermined by all socialising agendas, which learners respond to through diverse expressions of compliance, resistance, rebellion and withdrawal.

 4. Because of the above, strategies for motivating learning need to be recognised as part of this inappropriate ‘socialising’ approach to education – as our species is naturally passionate about learning (as learning organisms with personally relevant content, time and place specificities), and this needs to be recognised and effectively enabled .

 5. Money is just one of many tools that can be used in the service of achieving our ‘higher’ goals – such as enabling equitable and ongoing (resilient and sustainable) personal, social and ecological (and ‘spiritual’?) wellbeing. All institutional structures and processes, including those relating to money, urgently need to be collaboratively redesigned and managed (particularly regionally and locally – rather than just centrally) to reflect this understanding.

 Because of our limited understanding of the above (and many related other) ‘truths’, our species faces major personal, social and ecological challenges. It is important to ask: in what ways can education help us get out of the many messes we are in?  Most current education can’t.  In fact, it will definitely result in more mess.  So how can we learn our way forwards, and how might educators, at every level, from kindergarten to universities, be most helpful?  Well, this will require a number of important things to happen.  The first will be to dare to stop defending and perpetuating the status quo, which is what most educators do today; although usually without realising that they are doing this.  To change this we need to examine our educational systems critically; and to do this we need ‘testing questions’ related to the sort of lives it makes sense to hope to be able to live, and to the institutional structures and processes designed to support them.

Such institutions would need to effectively enable and nurture wellbeing and health (at every level), equity and social justice, peace and non-violence, love and compassion, sharing and collaboration, and ecological sustainability and healthy, species-rich ecosystems. These need to be the measures of our success, rather than growing productivity, consumption, profit and power.

At the personal level, ‘testing questions’ need to recognise individuals that are empowered, aware, with clear values and visions, in loving relationships, with a sense of purpose and meaning, and having competencies that enable them to make wise decisions and take effective, responsible actions that are life affirming[3].

Keeping all of this in mind, we should be in a position to ask the following two critical questions: ‘what in the current educational system is enabling any of this to happen?’ and ‘what is preventing this from happening?’  So, to improve things we would need to act in ways that nurture the former and phase out the latter.

We would also need to understand how each of us can best be enabled to learn.  My understanding of this is that we each have our own unique learning agenda and preferred ways of learning; and we tend to want to focus on one thing at a time, and pursue it obsessively until we have mastered it to our satisfaction.  This was particularly confirmed for me by the findings of a 15-year study called the Peckham Experiment[4]; and also in my work at the University of Western Sydney, where I aimed to enable students to learn about Social Ecology[5], which deals with all of the things I am discussing here.

So, organising learners into age groups, sticking them in classrooms, and subjecting them to imposed, diversified, daily curricula is clearly a recipe for disaster.  Predictably, most of the learners, for most of the time, are sitting there waiting for something to happen that is of relevance to their particular learning agenda.  It is a bit like roulette – with very few winners and lots of losers!

No wonder learners commonly don’t pay attention, misbehave, seek compensatory stimulation, go to sleep, drop out, and learn so little of what is being presented.  In such systems, learners really have only three choices: to go along with the agenda of the SYSTEM, and become ‘colonised’ and half dead in the process (which is what happened, and is still happening, to most of us); to rebel and tie up half of one’s energy in resisting the imposed learning agendas, and in trying to stay alive (this usually involves a diverse range of acting-out behaviours[6]); or to withdraw and drop out.    All of the world’s real geniuses, not surprisingly, were individuals who, in one way or another, were able to escape or recover from the ‘colonisation’ process.

It is not really very complex; indeed, it is actually profoundly simple: educators can be most effective by enabling learners to clarify what they want to learn, and in supporting them in their unique learning journeys.  This may involve empathetic, active listening, providing respectful, constructive feedback, appropriate challenging, facilitating access to relevant information and resources, mentoring, modelling and sharing (particularly of enabling stories from one’s own and other’s experiences, including from throughout history), acknowledging and celebrating efforts and achievements – and even, occasionally, when requested and appropriate, to actually do some ‘conventional’ teaching[7].

Because there is a limit to how much individual coaching our poorly paid and under-appreciated teachers can provide, a primary task of educators is to design, establish and maintain the structures and procedures that can provide the above ‘services’ through mutual support and collaboration within, and beyond, the school learning environment.

The underlying challenge, however, is to fundamentally transform our institutional structures and processes so that all of this can actually happen; and to be constantly ready to courageously take small meaningful initiatives whenever and wherever opportunities arise.

A visual comparison of key influencing variables within ‘transformative’ and ‘colonising’ educational systems is provided below in Figure 1. Thus, within the ‘transformative’ educational systems, equitable and respectful differentiation (valuing and working with difference) replaces hierarchical differentiation (with winners and losers); enabling spontaneity and deep subjectivity (and the associated development of wisdom) replaces an emphasis on control, predictability and naive objectivity (with its focus on memorisation and limited cleverness); and nurturing loving, mutualistic relationships (co-operacy[8]) replace a focus on individualism and competition[9].

Fig. 1.  Comparison of key elements of transformative and colonising education (modified from O’Sullivan 1999 ).

Fig. 1.  Comparison of key elements of transformative and colonising education (modified from O’Sullivan 1999[10]).

Yes, if we approached education in this way humans might actually be enabled to become much more fully human, and who knows what might happen!

Stuart Hill is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and was the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at UWS, a position he held with distinction for many years. His PowerPoint presentations on this may be downloaded from website: www.stuartbhill.com . His older publications may be found at: www.eap.mcgill.ca/general/home_frames.htm . His recent books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001) and Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008) and Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (with Dr David Wright and Dr Catherine Camden-Pratt;Hawthorn, 2011).

[1] This is an edited version of the transcript of a talk that was broadcast on ABC Radio National at 5.55 pm, 3rd August 2004; www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/perspective/stories/s1168070. See also:Hill SB (2001) Transformative outdoor education for healthy communities within sustainable environments. Pp. 7-19 in 12th National Outdoor Education Conference: Education Outdoors – Our Sense of PlaceConference Proceedings. Victorian Outdoor Education Association, Carlton, VIC; and Hill SB, Wilson S, Watson K (2004) Learning ecology: a new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness: experiences from social ecology in Australia. Pp. 47-64 in O’Sullivan EV, Taylor M (eds), Learning Toward An Ecological Consciousness: Selected Transformative Practices. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.    [2] deMause L (2002) The Emotional Life of Nations. Other Press, New York. (See also: www.psychohistory.com).    [3] There is now an extensive literature on the paradigm shifts required for this cultural transformation; the following is one of the clearest recent statements: Drengson A (2011) Shifting paradigms: from technocrat to planetary person. Anthropology of Consciousness 22 (1): 9-32.    [4] Stallibrass, A (1989) Being Me and Also Us: Lessons From the Peckham Experiment. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, UK. See also: www.thephf.org; www.ru.org/stalib.htm    [5] I define social ecology as: the study and practice of personal, social [including all economic, political and other institutional considerations], and ecological sustainability and change, based on the critical application and integration of ecological, humanistic, relational, community and ‘spiritual’ values to enable the sustained wellbeing of all. See also: Wright D, Camden-Pratt C, Hill S (eds) 2011. Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet. Hawthorn Press, Stroud, UK. Powerpoint presentations on applied social ecology are available at: www.stuartbhill.com and www.scribd.com/doc/55937783; my latest publication on this is: Hill SB (2012 – in press). Considerations for enabling the ecological redesign of organic and conventional agriculture: a social ecology and psychological perspective. In: Penvern S, Bellon S, Savini I (eds). Organic Farming:  Prototype for Sustainable Agricultures. Springer, London.    [6] These are invariably addressed through ‘behaviour management’ strategies, which by focussing on the symptoms of the problem, and aiming to achieve compliance, fail to recognise, and thereby help perpetuate the underlying causes.    [7] Currently, this is being most effectively done in the best of the ‘democratic (alternative) schools’; see, for example, Hecht Y (2010) Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story. Alternative Education Resource Organization, Roslyn Heights, NY.  See also:  www.yaacovhecht.com; www.educationrevolution.org;  www.idenetwork.orgwww.aapae.edu.au (the last two sites list the 14 ‘democratic schools’ in Australia).    [8] Collaborative pluralism in the service of wellbeing for all; Hunter D, Bailey A, Taylor B (1997) Co-operacy: A New Way of Being at Work. Tandem Press, Birkenhead, NZ.    [9] In the Peckham Experiment (mentioned earlier), when children were enabled to follow their own learning agendas, rather than those of adults, they showed little interest in competition, and focussed on improving their own performance over time.    [10] O’Sullivan, E (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational Vision for the 21st Century. Zed Books, London. See also: Sattmann-Frese W, Hill SB (2008) Learning for Sustainability: Psychology of Ecological Transformation. Lulu, Morrisville, NC www.lulu.com

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