Could a 16th century metaphor point the way to 21st century learning?


In the Learning Futures programme, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and writing, about the idea of schools as ‘Learning Commons’.


By using the metaphor of the commons, we’re hoping to encourage people to see the purpose of schooling in a different light. Historically, ‘commons’ has been used to define land which is a shared resource to which everyone has equal access, balanced by equal responsibility for its sustainability. The ‘tragedy of the commons’, refers to the detrimental effects of self-interest and over-exploitation of common land, which created a justification for fencing off land into separate ‘enclosures’.


The ‘tragedy of the learning commons’ could be seen as our inability to see  beyond the demands of the industrial revolution – sadly, those factory schools are still with us, hence Anthony Seldon’s recent call for their end. Schools, during the 20th century, became progressively more ‘enclosed’: 10 separate subjects, carefully separated classrooms, and a gradual fencing-off of schools from their communities.


The world doesn’t work like that anymore – in the real world, we learn in cross-disciplinary teams, we’re constantly connected, even though we don’t share the same physical space, and we desperately need learning to reconnect with community. It’s one reason why students have become disengaged: they can’t see how learning  will improve where they live, and the people they live with.


We’re lucky to have great schools involved in Learning Futures, and they share three cultures which seem to make them engaged, and engaging, places to learn:
1. A culture of co-construction – students have a vested interest in what, and how they learn, because they helped to design it;
2. A culture of collaborative enquiry – students, staff, parents/carers, and community groups are all invited to see learning as a shifting, developing, responsive activity, not as tablets of truth, dispensed by ‘the experts’. The process of learning becomes the shared obsession.
3 A culture of democratic community –  more than just a nod to  ‘student voice’, the great schools operate on a human scale, fuelled by mutual respect. They are inescapably hierarchical places, but the edifice won’t collapse if students offer observations on the quality of the teaching they’re getting.


When schools become learning commons, all kinds of benefits follow. School becomes a base-camp for learning, not the destination. Students are able to learn in all kinds of places, setting out from, and coming back to, the classroom, but not held captive there. And all those people who are welcomed into the commons (external experts, mentors and coaches) mean that teachers are no longer the (over-exploited) funnels through which all teaching and learning must pass. Instead they become managers of a diverse set of learning relationships, including the learning which takes place informally – with friends, at home, or online.


Trying to re-imagine schools as learning commons may seem anachronistic, but education is one of the few areas of 21st century life where the commons isn’t being talked about, and fought over: think copyright, the environment,  politics (as we saw recently with Wikileak’s Pentagon papers), and of course, the internet itself.


So why not education? Chris Anderson (TED curator) recently spoke about the incredible power of online video as a tool for learning. But it is just a tool, one mechanism which can help promote a ‘global learning commons’ (remember you heard it here first, folks).


We’ll be publishing more on school as learning commons and school as base-camp in the next Learning Futures pamphlet, due out in a few weeks. In the meantime, help me out. Does the concept of the learning commons work for you? Does it help you see the future of enlightened learning, or is it an anachronistic distraction? Is it confusing, or is it just, well, common sense?


(Sorry, I couldn’t resist, it was just sitting there….)



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