Find meaning through participatory education?

In the spirit of Jane Jacobs and the “In My Lifetime” meme, I thought I would highlight the issue of education. In the last book she published before her death, the cautionary Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs’ points to modern western civilization’s obsession with credentialing and certification, driven by professional aspirations or systems of qualification, at the expense of education. To Jacobs, the decline of broad-minded education is reducing our civilization’s ability to adapt to change, at the same time that change is accelerating and our problems becoming increasingly complex. We would be wise to heed her warnings, as we would have been to heed her warnings about modern/rationalist urban planning in 1961.

I am interested in educational and lifelong learning alternatives that enhance our human capacity for creativity and integrative thinking, which is so sorely lacking and so crucial to our future. Economists and environmentalists must bridge intellectual and dogmatic divides in order to integrate their perspectives on the world and solve some of our most pressing challenges. In a radically globalized “world is flat” economy, any job can be outsourced, not just manufacturing jobs. Value creation increasingly will become contingent on individuals creating unique jobs and new social roles for themselves, rather than following a predesigned career pattern.

Every individual born into this world needs to develop the tools and and skills to navigate this chaos and complexity in order carve out a meaningful and highly individuated path through life. To find meaning. This calls for creativity to be made a central, not marginalized, element of our education system. This student documentary about an open/participatory/experiential/free school is inspirational. (via Boing Boing)

There are interesting parallels to how Open Space unconference practices provide a platform for creativity and inspiration, as evidenced in a community of practice we call BarCamp. And in how Open-Source software projects govern themselves. Participation versus the lecture method; leadership that can come from anywhere; self-organized and self-governing; the close connections between learning, play and the creative moment. Practices such as these are exciting innovations that are gaining increasing attention and momentum. These practices may yet undo the damage of industrial-age education methods and prepare us for a radically altered future and its rapidly accelerating rate of change.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

3 thoughts on “Find meaning through participatory education?”

  1. Mark,
    Good comments and I agree except my personal feeling is we need to deconstruct the current educational system at it’s base level. This is a monumental task given the vested group involved.The effective use of discussion and dialog and intellectual argument are paramount to effective continual learning and this is where BarCamp and such like groups have excelled.
    I am also encouraged by such projects as the open university such as conducted by MIT and Tufts to name a few, Josh Kaufmans project on a Personal MBA is really gathering speed.The piece that is missing is the ability for spirited dialog. On the creative side I have used open space workshops to affectively handle corporate problems. I should not be, and and always amazed as I see the creative capacity of people released.
    We need to do it far sooner in formal education rather than stifling it as we now do.

  2. I’m afraid that some of the comments here confirm in my mind the continuing need for formal education. It is important, when discussing ideas (or stresses on roofs of buildings, for that matter), to be able to express onesself accurately. Without the precision borne of a proper understanding of such unfashionable concepts as grammar, meaning is lost and a debate can become unproductive.

    Many of the concepts above (“Participation versus the lecture method; the close connections between learning, play and the creative moment.”) are now accepted as fairly mainstream pedagological techniques. Children, however, cannot be expected to be “self-organised and self-governing”. They are not little adults. Some degree of leadership, or guidance, must be present to ensure that people are able (or forced!) to learn correct punctuation, for example. (Not to mention the importance of structure and authority in socialisation. We have all read our Golding, haven’t we…?)

    In my opinion, the great value of Jane Jacobs’ observation is that she has indentified another area where a purely “economic” perception of the world falls down. It may make greater economic sense for an individual to pursue an MBA or a Microsoft certification than a general arts degree. Political and cultural norms have made it increasingly acceptable to think of education in those “economic” terms. The demand for specialisation has led to supply in a self-perpetuating loop. In the process, we risk losing the generalists, renaissance (wo)men and jacks-of-all trades – the ones who, in fact, are able to make valuable connections between disciplines.

    So, if we could de-bunk the idea that economic value is measurable only in dollar terms, and find other, more complete, ways of assessing it, the trend to specialisation could moderate itself as the benefits of more broad-minded thinking are identified and realised.

    Re-visiting Lord of the Flies is not the answer!

  3. Andrew K:

    I am an open space facilitator, and until I read your post, I never considered these collaborative learning events in relation to children. You are right… it’s not an appropriate technique for the main education of children. I see it as a very adult approach – so if we want to incorporate it into formal childhood education, it would be better as a “rite of passage” – something introduced in measured amounts as children are ready to understand it.

    Collaborative learning requires self-control, measured risk taking, other social skills. Children have not learned these sufficiently to participate constructively… though I don’t think they need as long to learn these things as some would have us think.

    Collaborative learning also requires that we each bring skills, knowledge and questions to the table. This is suitable for a mix of more experienced and less experienced participants, but in the context of school, though there is much knowledge being imparted, real experience is limited, and so use of something like Open Space would only be appropriate in measured doses, perhaps increasing over time until children reach a place where they can understand and fully contribute to the event. This presupposes that children are having REAL experiences during their education – volunteering, participating, interacting, which too many schools don’t foster now, what with cutbacks and other resource constraints.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *