This post includes my reflections after listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s talk “How to Change Education”. In particular, I’ll focus on two ideas that I believe will have a growing impact on education, including learning and collaborating online. They’re spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. (NB. I’m focusing here on adult education as different principles may apply to children’s education.)
As usual in his talks, Sir Ken notes that much of current alienation of teachers and learners in educational systems is the result of top-down governance where educational authorities issue rules and regulations which the rest of the system is supposed to implement and follow. He advocates a bottom-up approach focused on the teacher-learner relationship, which he believes is the cornerstone of education. As he shows using a theatre analogy, when we strip education of all that has been built around it throughout centuries and go back to the basics, we are left with the teacher-learner relationship, which should be the focus of any reforming efforts.
This bottom-up approach should be based on two concepts: spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. I take spontaneous learning to mean learning that is not forced in any way but emerges as a result of an individual’s intrinsic motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills. Adult learning is a goal-oriented activity: people engage in an activity when they clearly see its purpose and this purpose is linked to how they see themselves at the end of the learning process. It is hardly possible to teach somebody something they don’t want to know or they don’t see the relevance of, which university lecturers are often reminded of when students seem to forget everything they’ve learnt a day after their exam.
In other words, spontaneous learning is about an individual’s active engagement with the learning content, which is the result of individual motivation. Therefore it is important to establish what learners’ needs and motivations are at the start of the learning process, which gives the teacher the flexibility to (a) dynamically adapt the content to these needs, (b) develop ways of finding a common ground between learners’ expressed needs and the content the teacher believes learners should master before continuing to the next step in their education process.
How are the two concepts linked to learning and collaborating online? On one hand, online modes of delivery provide flexibility that can enhance access to learning for various groups of learners, allowing them to pursue knowledge they see as most relevant and therefore increasing their motivation. As exemplified by e.g. the recent success of MOOCs as a learning concept, such flexible modes of delivery appeal to large numbers of people and feed on their intrinsic motivation to learn. At the same time, the teacher’s role as a facilitator becomes extremely important in online settings in order to sustain learners’ motivation and encourage them to work collaboratively. Neither spontaneous and collaborative learning nor online delivery play down the role of the teacher – quite the contrary, although no longer in the foreground, at the lectern in the middle of a lecture theatre, the teacher as facilitator becomes a crucial element of a successful learning process.