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It Begins With Us
A Fortnight in The Life Of #7
This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is “Beginnings”.
Thank you to Jodie, Artemis, Bess, and Caitlin for conversations on beginnings in the context of self-directed education.
We are at that point in the year where half of all New Year’s resolutions have failed. I wonder why people think that every year needs a grand gesture towards improvement as a beginning? I ask the young people I work with about it. They don’t understand New Year’s resolutions, and they sure as hell don’t make them. I imagine it is because they believe in the present because that is where they live. So to them New Year’s resolutions are odd.
But us adults, even though we know most fail, persist anyway. Yet if we stepped back from life for a second and reflected we could see almost everything that we have learnt didn’t come about due to a prior triumphant announcement, it came about through a life lived, but we persist anyway hanging meaning on this particular change that is certain to occur miraculously from this day forward.
We are meaning making machines. This is our greatest skill as humans, but also our greatest weakness. We can hijack ourselves through story as much as open the world up to unimaginable possibilities.
As an example, here in the UK successive governments have become more and more obsessed with targets. The hospital’s infamous four hour wait time in A&E is a classic. Everyone knows it exists, everyone knows that the hospital find ways around it, and everyone knows that by doing so, by playing that game, they are producing worse outcomes for patients than if they just ignored it. But the target is just a story.
When we hang meaning on targets, on ends, we are almost by default led to the beginning. And through our meaning making compulsion we make the means justify the meaning made ends.
Education has targets galore too. It starts with reading and phonics in the early years and concludes with G.C.S.E exams and their results at the end. But this fascination with ends that leads us to focus on beginnings means that being the story loving creatures we are our desire to map the journey from here to there, from beginning to end, is only natural. We can’t help but chart the path through the middle. In education this is foolish and though we know it, we seemingly can’t see it.
When we look at beginnings and how children come to school and find them all in different places we don’t see that this is a mid-point, that they have all been on different journeys and hence arrive different. We see it as a beginning because that is what we expected to conceive of beforehand.
But to declare it a beginning is to declare, for some, what went before unnatural. It is natural for the child who is ready for phonics to start school, but those whose journey has led them to this point not able or wanting to pursue phonics have not journeyed enough - that is the implicit argument that schools make when they say we can help them catch up. And boy do they need to catch up or they will fall behind, and we already know that those who fall behind at the first hurdle generally stay behind. The end of reading proficiency takes the beginning of school as the first point on the journey of reading and decides that it makes sense to map a progression through all the Biff, Chip and Kipper books so that we can measure ourselves up against that predetermined end as we go.
This says that the natural learning journey that young people have gone through before school is only natural if they are now ready to start learning how to read, and crucially it doesn’t meet many people where they are and accept them for where they have come from. The beginning of school is rather abruptly an end to a lot of young people’s sense that learning is natural and enjoyable. And this is only the start.
When I was training to be a teacher I was given possession of two Year 7 classes. These comparatively tiny young people were brand new in secondary school and for the first three weeks I handed them out homework and attempted to collect it a week or so later. Often a handful of young people forgot it was due. After week three however the teacher who was mentoring me told me orientation was over and the grace period for homework was gone and from this day forward it was an after school detention. The ends of good G.C.S.E results dictated that this abrupt beginning was necessary, again regardless of where young people might be on the preparedness of getting homework in on time and uninterested in any question of how settled they felt in this big new environment. I still grieve for the unexpected shame that this sudden rupture in empathy entailed as discipline was being forced into these new cracks and how that manifested itself in hurt for a number of young people.
But it is not just in the biggest changes of starting new schools that we see this pattern, it is everywhere at every level, a fractal pattern of ends leading to focusing on beginnings leading to the mapping of middles. At school it is presumed that learning happens best within hour blocks with defined beginnings and ends. Schemes of work lay out the termly plan and yearly plan with defined journeys and a pathway for all from here to there. A dozen years of carefully constructed plans.
But learning is messy, always unfolding along multiple different paths, converging, diverging, verging on the unidentifiable; is it happening or not? (It is and it is not, at least never as we imagine or perceive it to be and it is arrogant to assume that we could).
We know that those who learn to read without formal instruction learn through a variety of different modalities and they learn at a variety of ages ranging from four to fourteen.1 The only commonality is that, even with hindsight, their parent can’t define the beginning, the middle and often sometimes the end. You can’t write the story of someone’s learning journey because it is their experience and only their story to tell. And children live in the present so they can’t even do it for us.
We know this about children’s learning journeys and schools know it too frustratingly. Every child is self-directed. You can’t teach a child what they don’t want to learn no matter how the good the starter and plenary from your lesson plan is.
What pedagogy is is a fool’s errand to tap into the greatest percentage of self-direction and hijack it. That is what I was taught to do when I trained as a teacher. A good captivating starter increases the chance of learning, here’s how that looks. Copy, rinse, repeat and in a year of practice you will qualify as competent. A competent storyteller of hour long yarns that most young people don’t care for about quadratic equations.
At our learning community we celebrate beginnings but we do so with a complete detachment from the certainty of ends. Ends exist and are important but what is most important is the relationship between beginnings and ends. Instead of starting from ends we always start from beginnings. And we have many more beginnings than ends. A beginning is an indication that there has been a rupture and in this opening of space something can initiate. Without a predetermined end this rupture is broad and deep and the possibilities of imagined futures that beginnings allow can rush in and fill that space. It is important to entertain and hold these imaginal futures, in some ways as important as turning a few of them into ends. This is the nuts and bolts of creativity. But it’s also freedom. This is process over product. That mantra of the pre-school years that dissipates with actual school.
For every towering oak tree you could build a house out of thousands of acorns would have rooted, hundreds would have been browsed back as saplings, dozens would have risen but then been crowded out or blown over or attacked by fungus, leaving only one remaining. Creativity is ecological. Many beginnings are required for ends to emerge.
This is not to say that we foreclose on ends, but that we don’t hold them tightly coupled to beginnings. We set intentions at the start of the day and we always reflect on whether or not they were met, and why or why not, at the end of the day. And as young people get older product starts to become more important relative to process and to help with that we have a more structured learning programme for those ten years old plus to help assist in that gradual reorientation. But ends are always in negotiation and not predetermined as in school. These are cycles that we go through, not linear journeys from a start to a predetermined end.
And a bicycle is a metaphor for how learning takes place in this interchange of process and product that I have utilised with young people who join our learning programme and are questioning why it is so much more structured. And it goes a little like this:
Learning is like a bike. It has two wheels, the front wheel is process and the back one is product. When you are young and you want to paint a tree and you go get the paints and then on the way to the tree notice your shoe is red and that that is nice and then you think I should paint that instead, that is fine. That is process over product. When you are young it is normal to sit on the bike and only see the front wheel, but at some point, such as where you are now, you might want to start focusing on product a little more. You might want to set out aims and work towards them methodically. Then you need to know that you have two wheels on your bike.
But that is not enough information because what you need to know, and this is the purpose of the continuous intention/reflection cycles, is that the two wheels are connected. As you move the front wheel of process, you move the wheel of product. Every time you do something towards that goal you move not only yourself, but the goal too, move where that goal resides in the coordinate space of your capabilities and your desire. Everything is shifting all the time, the wheels are moving all the time and you are always riding the bike. And here we see that learning is continuous. Every step of process moves the product and every beginning shifts the end; we are always in the middle pedaling.
How do you mark something continuous then? Arbitrarily. But that is not to say that arbitrariness has no purpose. We are, as I said, meaning making machines and the arbitrary marking is how we make meaning. We are pattern seeking and pattern matching is arbitrary in a sense, good pattern matching is less and less arbitrary and more and more salient, but salience is only relative to us; our salience landscape allows us to determine that which is relevant to us. Or in other words it is only through interpreting that which is salient to us can we begin to tell our stories, define our beginnings and frame our endings.
Self-directed learning is a continuous process. Yes, there will be moments of greater salience, moments that in hindsight seem to be important as to what led you on this journey to this place, but only in hindsight can we make claims about which beginnings or endings hold meaning for us.
But instead of turning young people loose and letting this emergent process unfold we fear it. Fear its messiness, its inherently variable pace, its sidestepping, the many unfinished beginnings, the far too few ends and we hold them tightly. Hold something too tight for too long and you begin to think that restriction is natural and essential.
We have turned everything on its head. Instead of beginnings we start with ends, instead of learning being natural and the problem being how to allow access to the breadth of culture, learning is now the problem and the subject materials have been easily defined. To every teacher every child is a pedagogy problem. Hammer sees nail. If you hammer a nail for a dozen years all you will have is a mess of metal.
A hammer and application of force is an apt metaphorical tool for this predicament. Because it is not only metaphors that we live by, but metaphors we can die by too. This is what the hijacking of our meaning making and inverting our greatest strength against us looks like. A metaphor gone awry. A myth of who we are that has infested everything and is slowly, but for those of us with skin in the game, and children especially, far too slowly fading away.
This problem is not educational. It is cultural. Mapping of ends, surety of beginnings, every step measured out along the way, these are all indicative of a society that believes solidly in notions of Newtonian force, a Cartesian separate self, where reductionism says that stories should not only be contained, but made certain, for it is with certainty that we can apply force safely and wisely and achieve the goals we set out to.
So we try it. But a child is not a point mass, the classroom cannot be rendered a frictionless surface, learning does not occur in the perfect vacuum, and the teacher and child do not meet in a perfectly elastic collision. The methods of rendering the world intellectually tractable is a projection and a myth that has overran our understanding of ourselves.
The schooled mind craves certainty. But as Matt Crawford points out this is at odds with childhood and play, and maybe even the origins of civilisation itself.
The risk of failure is intrinsic to the nature of play. Here I am talking about the most serious kind of play, such as music or sport. In his indispensable book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga convinces us that in play lie the origins of civilisation. He writes: “To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension — these are the essence of the play-spirit.” Thus understood, play sits uncomfortably with the contemporary taste for order, and our attempts to bring the world fully under rational control.
One way we do that is, again, by filtering reality through representations.2
The Oxford Reading Tree is a series of books published by Oxford University Press, for teaching children to read using phonics. There are over 800 books in the series and they are carefully ordered to help young people progress in their reading. This is a representation of reality filtered through the idea that progression can be controlled and it is always proceeding it small steps.
Ours is a culture that sees time as linear and not cyclical. Linear time invites us to consider stories in terms of progression, and culturally we understand progress to be only natural, and “it seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one's own time to be in extraordinary relation to it.”3 The future is just around the corner, progress is always marching on and always almost in grasp.
This view of time is “baked into the grammar of our cognition”4 and therefore informs our ideas on learning.
This is why teachers do not accept my answer when I am asked whether my seven year old is reading and I say, well sort of.5 To them reading is either happening or not; and at her age it should be happening full stop. It is either climbing the reading tree, loafing in the sun at the top of the canopy with a Penguin classic, or scratching around in the undergrowth having not started yet. But if learning is emergent who are we to say what reading emerges out of?
They insist when I say that she can read probably a handful of words and that sometimes she takes thirty Biff, Chip and Kipper books to her bedroom, lays them out on the bed and immerses herself in studying them for hours that that is not reading.
But is she sounding out the words?
The meta-metaphor of bringing the world under rational control and our desire for certainty and order leads us to decide that learning to read should be viewed through the metaphor of acquisition. Learning the skills, constructing knowledge, a separate subject and a Cartesian objective out there of knowledge to acquire. Anna Sfard6 argues that the other metaphor of participation is a lens through which the ways in which unschoolers, and most literate people before enforced schooling, learnt to read is best understood. A group endeavour and an ongoing activity in a literacy community of practice. This is a relational metaphor that can be understood to lean on a meta-metaphor of complexity theory and systems thinking.
Tyson Yunkaporta7 says that in Aboriginal worldviews nothing exists outside of a relationship to something else, and when physicists started exploring the quantum world they found that to be true at the sub-atomic level. Electrons behave both as waves and particles, and this discovery broke down the understanding that the scientist can stand apart from the Science, the subject-object distinction was suddenly queered. The scientist and the electron existed in relationship to each other and it appeared that the scientist influenced whether the electron was perceived as a wave or a particle. This isn’t to say that Newtonian physics was suddenly disregarded but that it was no longer held to be an objective capital T “Truth” but a representation that worked at the appropriate level of physics.
Here we see that the metaphors that school systems are built on are representations of representations and we can ask ourselves anew. Should our metaphors of learning be based on reductionism or should we view learning through the lens of relationships and emergence?
This is the ironic thing. Our metaphors are built on the back of Science; of the great developments made a couple of hundred years ago. But contemporary science is pointing us in a different direction. We know that learning is emergent. We know that children learn exponentially faster and easier if they encounter that to be learnt whilst playing. We know the brain is firing on more cylinders whilst young people are playing. We know that play is daring, risky, bears uncertainty and always enduring tensions because play is a relational way of being. Young people playing is a complex system but it is the only evolutionary adaptive way in which humans learn.
Unschooling is a term coined in the 1970’s by radical educator John Holt. But as people are now recognising and acknowledging the philosophy is as old as time. Some people prefer to recognise this fact by renaming unschooling as ancestral learning, or other similar terms, because the science of evolutionary anthropology is pointing us to the knowledge that this way of learning has deep roots in time; ethnography is demonstrating it has broad reach across cultures, most Indigenous cultures raise their children to be autonomous agents, unschooled if you will; and written history indicates that the way that most knowledge was transmitted in our culture before the introduction of state education was not through didactic teaching. And cognitive science is showing these widely held self-evident notions to be truths.
This is not a white movement, but a returning to the beginning. It is radical in the strict sense of what it means to be radical, returning to the roots. Back to the beginning.
Anybody who thinks they've got a solution or they have a plan or a design or anything like that – they're an idiot. You can't. Dynamic systems don't operate like that. You have a thing called emergence. We know this. We know the science on it and emergence is the only thing that can deal with these kind of complexities. All you can do is foster the conditions for emergence.8
There is great trust required that out of a child, literally from within them alone, learning will materialise, at least to the colonised and schooled mind. Our cultural metaphors run so deep that fear is an appropriate response. But as Tyson Yunkaporta points out in the above quote you can’t have a plan. That is why New Year’s resolutions fail. This quest for the certainty of an objective that can change my life for the better forgets the most important part of the equation: my life. Because life is messy and can’t be controlled. Which is why I think there is a trend for eschewing resolutions and instead picking a New Year’s Theme. A word or a phrase that will guide changes in your life. The thinking being that from this broad theme the actual changes can emerge. The theme fosters the conditions for emergence.
The etymology of the word resolution comes from the Latin resolvere: to loosen, relax; set free. Maybe we need to loosen our grip on the certainty of resolutions and move towards the more relaxed notion of themes.
This is certainly what we need to do to education. Let go of the hammer and start to trust. Set the child free to emerge as the unique individual that they are. And the way to do that is to start to question the metaphors that our understanding of life, learning and the child are based upon.
In the first week of every term we get the young people who are undertaking our structured learning programme to answer five questions on themselves and built out a learning plan from that.
Often parents will ask at the gate on how it is going. Had they progressed well? Were they achieving as the parent had hoped? Are they going to be able to learn in this environment? How are they getting on with the structure of the programme?
I explain to them. Look, this first time round they don’t answer the questions very much. In fact, it only really begins when they answer the questions the second time round. And in fact every time they answer the questions again is like a new beginning as they are always getting better at answering them. The first time round it is new, a new social group of peers, a new adult to get to know (many have school trauma and are suspicious of adults with perceived authority), new questions that they will not have experienced anything like before and they are spending a lot of their energy feeling this newness out.
But actually, I proceed, my job over the rest of this term is to slowly draw out of them their interests, and build up enough trust that they will share more about themselves. And that begins in stages. It begins when they first recognise one of their peers going through the process and a shift happens as they realise how this process works and how it can help you proceed towards goals, imagining their progress through the lens of someone’s success. Seeing that my job is to support that process.
The first time they whisper to me, I actually like to draw is a beginning in of itself, the first time they talk animatedly about it for five minutes another, and the time when they bring in some artwork to share another. Trust is building and they are on the bike directing it and we both feel those little bumps in the metaphorical pavement as the rupture of a new beginning opens up a little crack, the shift is a sign that our relationship is emerging.
Because there are multiple unfolding beginnings and all of the beginnings are always in relation to each other. That’s how learning that is continuous proceeds and if we accept that, and that often it is slow, and not seek to rush towards predetermined ends, we can allow learning to become emergent.
Often I look at the parent and I recognise that they see this particular beginning as being important (it very much is) and I sense some fear in them. So I speak again. Look, they are doing exactly what I expect and have already shared a few things with us (our programme is confidential so I can’t share the details with them without the child’s consent) and I am getting the feeling they are enjoying it.
Often they say some variant of thank you and that is all I needed to know. They leave no less concerned but the fear shifts. Sometimes they say I just needed to verbalise my worries to get them out of my body, thanks for listening.
To the schooled mind certainty and order are natural bedfellows, and a lack of certainty and order can lead to fear. Shedding those fears can be hard, even temporarily, and I must admit that as a parent of a unschooled children I have my doubts at times too. But fear almost always comes from a place of selfishness, of centering yourself too much. Concern, however, is different. The same worries can instigate themselves but concern comes from a place of care, of considering those worries in the context of an I-Thou relationship.
And in essence that is where it all begins, because children don’t learn in a vacuum, they learn in the context of the adults around them. All of these essays that call for changes to education and society are never directed at children. Children need us to change for them. When I ask that we question the metaphors that we live by what I am really saying is that as adults we need to deschool ourselves if we want to help our young people to unschool themselves. It begins with us. And it begins with us letting go of our fears and trusting our young people, and if we have to speak them to get them off our chest to do so then so be it. Those words will be the most important words we will ever say.
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Dr Harriet Pattison - Rethinking Learning to Read
Matt Crawford - Can Gratitude Save Humanity: https://unherd.com/2023/01/can-gratitude-save-humanity/
Frank Kermode- The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction
John Vervaeke - Awakening From The Meaning Crisis:
The answer of well sort of is not ambiguous in relation to my understanding of my daughter’s reading experience but ambiguous in relation to the question being asked. I don’t know if she is reading, because I don’t know what you mean by reading.
On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One by Anna Sfard: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1176193
Tyson Yunkaporta - Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World
Tyson Yunkaporta - Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World