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Third Schools: Our Next Public Education

Back in a time when trains pulled by steam were still new, dusty black Model T’s stuttered and barked along Canada’s dirt roads, cooking was fueled by wood, and people read by the fluttering light of candles and coal oil, we created a shared mindset about what life in a public school was like. Our basic ideas of what schools ought to look like have changed little since then, even with the addition of computer technology. The classic ingredients are classrooms with students sitting in rows, a neatly dressed teacher in charge of instruction at the front of the room, a quantity of textbooks, instructive displays on the wall (if you’re my age, you’ll remember those maps with the chocolate bars in the corners), and an atmosphere of quiet industry dappled with energetic teacher-led discussions.

These were what I call our “First Schools”.

Around the turn of the last century, the story of reality that shaped our system was narrow in scope and widely shared. Schools were meant to be crucibles of character turning young men into reliable and trainable workers and young women into dedicated and skillful homemakers. Without having to consult or compare notes with each other, churches, youth groups and schools could support each other. They worked from similar assumptions. Where I grew up, they often shared the same leadership. The core values were obedience, discipline, good character and a grasp of the basic book learnings that would prepare youth for family and work. A very small percentage went on to finish secondary schooling and higher education.

Our First Schools had a good run until the late fifties and early sixties where we see the beginnings of the ideas and forces that have shaped the last several decades of public education. Two themes of reform, reaching back to John Dewey and Frederick Taylor, began surfacing into public view. Their twin struggles began in the late 1950’s with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 and the emergence of the counter-culture on North American campuses in the early 1960’s. On the one hand, the schools were accused of failing to teach the traditional disciplines with rigour. On the other hand, schools were accused of being mind-numbing and irrelevant to the lived lives of students.

In the late 1950’s, Goodlad and Anderson published their book The Nongraded Elementary School. Goodlad and Anderson proposed that students should move through the curriculum at their own pace, not in lock step with the rest of the students in a graded classroom. It was a daring departure from the industrial model of schooling. Non-gradedness was not new, but the idea that all public schools should be urgently reformed in accordance with a bold new organizational model, not just a few experimented with, was new. The book had a major impact and launched reforms in hundreds of schools, mostly elementary, around North America.

In 1960 in the United States, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded initiating some years of intense activism peaking on December 2, 1964 when 1500 people at Berkeley occupied Sproule hall and refused to leave until student activists previously arrested were released. Instead 773 more students were arrested. Students battled onward for guarantees of greater choice in programs and participation in the running of the university. The impact of this trickled into Canada. It even affected my efforts in the mid-sixties to be the staff advisor to a high school student newspaper. I found myself caught in the middle of a huge and growing gulf between traditional administration (my school principal) and student power (my student editor).

When the Soviets launched the gleaming little basketball-sized satellite called Sputnik, they also unintentionally launched the first great postwar outcry about the deficiencies and failures of the North American high schools. Waves of new curricula, particularly math and science, began to hit the schools. By the end of the 1950’s, reforms were rolling across school districts all over North America. Most of the waves originated in the USA, but many of the shores they washed up on were Canadian.

Within a decade the two themes, caught in the ongoing 20 th century struggle of learning to transcend schooling, had morphed into the now familiar reform agendas. On the one hand, reform as community building and teacher empowerment. On the other hand, reform as scientific and business management.

These were our “Second Schools.”

As one who started school in 1945 and started teaching in 1963, I can claim to have been there for both rounds. Time, however, is running out for round two.

Public education in the early part of the 21 st century is an unparalleled success story. Since World War II, it has held an increasing percentage of students, absorbed cultural diversity, expanded the range of things taught, responded to technology, survived the battles over reform, sustained overall performance, delivered greater percentages of graduates to post-secondary and remained open and accountable. As Michael Barber says about teachers in the U.K., and he could be describing teachers in Canada or the U.S.: “…there are teachers up and down the country who are changing the world. The sheer, determined professionalism of many teachers is magnificent and rarely conveyed convincingly to the public.” ( The Learning Game, pg. 224)

The problem is not that the schools failed. The problem is that they succeeded. They adapted, and are trapped by their success.

The ideal, the common good, and the indivisible benefits are all still valid and contemporary to most Canadians. The problem is that the era in which a 19th century system design worked to deliver the goods is ending. Our world, the lived reality we share and our great legacy, the institution of the public schools, are drifting further apart. Our success at doing schooling was necessary and appropriate in the 20 th century. But the amazing resilience and adaptiveness of our schools now works against us as the clock ticks us further into the 21 st century and we struggle to repair and renew a system born ahead of the previous century.

And now we are ready for the arrival of our “Third Schools.”

Before I describe a scenario of what our Third Schools might look like, let me summarize some of the forces that are bringing them to life.

The Times We Are In Invite Us to This Work

We have a clear and present opportunity to create something better – better learning for us and for our children. And the best news is that better is not only possible, but also probable. I write in the hope not of staving off some disastrous turn of events, but of drawing our attention, earlier than it might otherwise be drawn, to the good and exciting work that lies ahead. A new kind of learning “will out.” The signals are there and the transition to a new level of learning in Canada has already begun. Parents and teachers are making some remarkable efforts and taking on huge challenges. Some pain is inevitable. There have been and will continue to be false starts and seeming failures. A new map will help us to see some directionality in these efforts, how they connect, and where our efforts should next focus.

We Know What We Want

Many times over the years, I have attended parent meetings that so often occurred under the fluorescent lights and around the trapezoidal tables of the school library where talk turned to kids and learning. I have, equally many times, listened in on conversations among friends or in coffee shops where parents, and often students, talked openly with each other about the schools they desired. I believe there was and is still considerable agreement on what schools should be like. It takes a bit of digging into, sometimes beneath the language and behind the complaints about the behaviour of teachers, the problems of their children, or the zany rules of schools, but some common themes do emerge.

We all want schools that increase, not diminish, our natural curiosity and motivation to learn. We want schools that know the difference between learning and training, between educating and schooling. We of course want schools that get results. But we also crave schools that embrace the mystery and complexity of each child’s or adult’s learning.

The Parents Want Back In

Well, maybe not all, but a growing number of them do.

In spite of some media portrayals, parents today have not turned their backs on their public schools. They are not all walking away in anger, looking for choices outside the system. Many parents are saying, in effect, “Don’t give us more, give us different.” They seek adaptations, bordering on the transformational, that are beyond public education’s capacity to deliver. P arents are not looking for ways to return their trust and allegiance to the public schools; they are looking for ways to return the promise and potential of public education to parents, families and communities. The system never stopped delivering public education as it was designed to do. It never stopped improving and adapting to learners. Rather, the world in which these efforts worked has faded away far more rapidly than any of us could have imagined.

Now, in a new century, parents are saying as loudly and as clearly as they can that they want to be co-creators of learning for their children, as they are increasingly co-creators in their work, careers, health, recreation and spiritual life. Amazingly, they are saying this in a world of new family and economic pressures that will make the goal very hard to achieve. Yet, through endless phone calls and parent-teacher conferences, and hours invested in home or charter schools, they are seeking new ways to do learning together at home and in the public space. They are asking for new ways that are consistent with current pressures and demands on families and the emerging demands on the minds of our learners. They believe it can be done. They are looking for and will flock to schools and systems that figure it out.

The Search for More Conscious Modes of Learning is On

Conscious learning might be another way of saying that the lid of the mind must be open before anything can be poured in. However, we all know that much more is needed for the new challenge of learning than passively insuring the lid of the mind is open. What we are searching for, I think, are those unique and rare contexts for learning that awaken our minds and engage our consciousness fully. This means more than just being on heightened alert. This means the mind is engaged with learning in new ways, ways that are more deeply thoughtful and interactive.

As ideal-seeking critters, we know that better is possible in our own lives, and many, if not most of us, become relentless seekers of the better, of an improved state of affairs for us and for the world we live in. And because we’ve been given the gift of reflexivity, the capacity to see ourselves as actors in our own lives, we can learn to see how we do the seeking, how we create and develop theories of our own life stories, and test them in our lived lives. And because we’re wired to solve problems, to figure things out, we like to learn how to learn and how to dig out good learning, to sift and excavate it like gold from the rivers and caverns of our lives. We seek new systems that support learning towards reflexivity, higher consciousness and self-management.

Schools are Struggling to be Healthy Places to Grow Up In

In the teen years the 19 th century clashes most violently with the 21 st. Students appear to be withdrawing their participation in the fiction of needing to be somewhere specific every day at a very specific time so that one specific person can impart some specific bits of knowledge and information to them. They are increasingly angry and frightened at being forced into the company of other young people who feel the same – equally frustrated about having to be there every day. Almost every school now has some kind of program or student engagement aimed at raising awareness about the damage of bullying and at taking steps to stem the tide. Their efforts are being met with calls to do more and invoke criminal prosecution. But the tide is strong and deep, and has been running the other way for some time. And now the problem has leapt onto the Internet with the rising incidence of cyber bullying.

Schools are becoming emotionally and intellectually toxic. In medical parlance, they are becoming iatrogenic, producers of the very conditions they seek to overcome, conditions that are toxic to learning. The very qualities of mind and flourishing of consciousness that our culture is now lifting its eyes and its expectations toward are being defeated by the design principles of the public schools. And the pressures are wearing out our teachers, especially our most skilled, passionate and committed ones.

“Tinkering Toward Utopia” Won’t Do

The words in quotes are the title of a book by Cuban and Tyack. They argue, and I agree, that continuing to tinker with and reform the public schools we have will not deliver the kind of systems we need to support learning in the 21 st century. At best, it would be simply a classic case of too little, too late. At worst, it would distract us from the real work and ensure that opportunities are squandered. The efforts through the last few decades have been heroic, but we are stuck with outdated and, by contemporary standards, seriously flawed system design assumptions.

The attention being paid to learning as a cultural value and asset is at an all time high. It is being connected to prosperity and social survival. But there is also a warning here.

“Education is one of society’s most important endeavours and the key to economic success, social transformation and opportunities for individuals to enhance their existence. But it is also one of society’s most fossilized, rigid and change-averse institutions. It is still rooted in a medieval model that does not serve all students, or society, as well as it could. But a fundamental shift is easier than most people realize. It is not just about sprinkling a bunch of personal computers into classrooms. It’s also not about uniforms, standardized tests, breaking the stranglehold of teachers’ unions or eliminating tenured professors. What must happen to education is that its very modus operandi must change. And those nations that realize this will leave all others in their dust, economically and socially.” (Diane Francis, Maclean’s, March 5, 2001)

It’s Time to Break the Promise/Failure Cycles of Reform

It would be unwise if not impossible to dismiss the storms of conflict and controversy that have swirled around public education for the last several decades. They have consumed huge amounts of space in the public press, innumerable conference agendas and the minds and hearts of those who care about our school systems. This wall of rhetoric has shut off the light and obscures the heart of the matter. It is this: We fight over how to build a better yesterday and ignore the common ground we stand on and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

We stomp around angrily on the very puzzle pieces that could be used to create a picture of tomorrow.

These are some of the reasons I believe that the timing is right to begin doing serious work on our next public schools, our Third Schools. In summary:

  • Mature uses of the mind and higher levels of consciousness are being called forth by the needs of our society and the planet. The need is urgent. It is connected with our future quality of living, if not our survival. As Robert Kegan has put it, “the mental demands of modern life” have given us all a new curriculum.
  • Modes of learning are emerging in response to this need that are in fundamental conflict with the old and institutionalized modes of schooling. Nothing less than a new concept of public education is required to speed up the emergence of our Third Schools.

It is important to keep in mind the ultimate purpose and driving force behind these changes. It is becoming increasingly urgent that young people develop the deep and enduring capacity to take charge of their own learning in a way that leads to more mature, self-aware and socially integrated uses of the mind. This is the “learning project’ for Canada for the 21 st century. I call it co-created learning – learning that is developed by the learner and the family in concert with the disciplines to be mastered and the authorities that must be satisfied.

In our contemporary world, we are reaching for yet higher levels of cultural maturity. We know that we require new uses of the mind and an increasingly robust and adaptive intelligence to enable us to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities of our times and our unique place in history. We need young minds that are willing not only to take responsibility for their own learning but also to learn how to create learning for themselves, both new learning and adapting the existing stores of learning already out there. We need young minds that, as they mature, embody a kind of 21 st century version of traditional wisdom – minds that see what needs to be done for the greater good and set about doing it without having to be given permission. After all, many feel that young people are far too adept at finding out all the wrong things. Let’s give them the credit and the opportunity to direct their talent and energy toward a better future for all of us.

And so, back to the question: What might our next public schools, our Third Schools, be like?

I am going to pull out some elements of a more detailed scenario in order to paint a “what if” picture of our next public education. For me, it is also a “why not” picture, a “let’s just get on with it” picture. In my saner moments I reflect on the improbability of what I’m about to describe and acknowledge that it will be complex and difficult work. Thankfully, if we can get the conversation about new systems of learning started, others will assemble different elements or strategies to deal with the issues I have identified.

Hello, I’m Your Family Learnist

The moment the family with a young learner or a mature learner contacts the Third Schools, a learning advisor, who is a certificated learnist, will be assigned. For families, the role will parallel the traditional role of a family doctor, in this case a family learnist or general learning practitioner.

The first and most vital assignment of the learning advisor is to develop with the family and the learner a statement of the central outcomes of learning, specifically for the learner, and more generally for the family. It is to answer the question, “Why is this individual to go to school?” What are the central reasons in the mind of the parents initially, and in the mind of the learner eventually, for taking on more formally the task of learning in partnership with a large and complex learning support system?

The learning advisor will be assigned to the family or learner, but from the first time they meet, the relationship becomes voluntary. A new learning advisor can be requested at any time. The intention is that the learning advisor will develop a close and ongoing relationship with families and learners and will develop a long-term knowledge and understanding of their needs and experiences. Most important, they will act as an interpreter and an advocate as the learners, young or old, encounter a system filled with choices and possibilities. For reasons that will become apparent, third schools will leave room for much more negotiation with and by the learners. There will be limits of course, but it will be essential to have a system guide or navigator who is readily accessible.

We’re Entering a Commitment to Learn, Not a Classroom to be Taught

Well, I’ve overstated it somewhat. There may even be classrooms in the some learners’ futures.

The key idea is that the new system design supports the co-creation of learning by the learner, the family and the teacher. This means that the entry to the system is a process of mutual agreement around a plan and a design for learning.

The statement of commitment is essentially the core contractual agreement the family makes with the system. It outlines three key family commitments: participating in the design and implementation of the learning plan, supporting the child’s learning and learning together as a family, and helping the system monitor the child’s progress toward specific outcomes. The statement of commitment will always have one very important statement, even if it’s somewhat modified. That statement will address the fundamental outcome of reflexive conscious learners fully capable, at some point, of taking over at least in part, the design and management of their own learning.

The statement of commitment and learning plan could someday become law and replace compulsory school attendance and the idea of “seat time” as an assurance of learning.

Next Meeting – The Learning Design Studio

The next step is to meet with a learning design specialist who works in a learning design studio located in a school not far from the home. Learning design studios will be available throughout a school district so that they are accessible for families and learners and their learning designs can be linked to the regions and communities where families live and work.

The work of the learning design studio is at the core of the third schools. The studios and their specialists ensure that a unique design for learning is created by the parents for their young learners and, as they grow older, by the learners themselves. The unique design is based on the learning goals of the family and the learner. At this point, the strategies and tactics are put in place.

A unique and critical balancing act now comes into play. The learning design will wrap itself around the needs of the family and the learner. It will probe at and be sensitive to the preferred modes and styles of learning for that family and learner. It will reach into a massive resource of design possibilities, and provide individual designs that are suited to that learner and are tested and practical. But it will also begin the process of gently pushing learners toward the central goal of the third schools, the development of reflexive self-understanding and design skills that will enable the learners to take over the controls at some point and create their own learning for the rest of their lives.

Getting Into the Co-Creating Learning Game

The learning design specialist, supported by learning designers at the whole-system level, will have at hand a vast repertoire or resource bank of learning possibilities. The design process will initially take the form of probes or questions that the family and learner, with the assistance of the family learnist, respond to. There will be questions about the role the family would like to play; for example, how much home education will be provided. Learning modes will be explored. How much learning would the family like to be delivered by technology, and how will the social needs of the learner be met? The family may have access to special settings for learning such as a workplace school, and these will be drawn in to the design process. And of course, the option of directed group learning (the classroom) will still be there.

It is important to note here that the unique designs for learning are not aggregations of small fragments of schooling such as units of content or field trips. They are sets of specifications for one person’s learning that then call into play complex sets of resources and patterns of delivery. For example, learning in the community will not mean a greater emphasis on traditional field trips. It will mean determining the substantial learning outcomes that will be met by learning in and with the community, perhaps over extended periods of time, potentially requiring the creation of a secure support system in the community for that learner. Other learning modes, such as traditional classroom work, will already have a support system.

The possibilities are endless. Some learners may have a learning program that is primarily supported out of the home, with some community and school involvement. Technology may play a lesser or greater role, depending on learning style preferences and the content to be delivered. Others may base their learning on school-supported experiences, but again, with variation in the amount of whole group and individual experience and technology support and delivery. The mix will be adjusted, as learners develop and mature, to match the emerging needs and preferences of learners and their families.

Detailing the Learning Plan – Deep Maps and Unifying Themes

Deep maps and unifying themes are fundamental projects that act both as a propellant and a magnet, providing a push (the learner is accountable) and a pull (the learner is attracted and engaged), through many years of learning. These themes and projects will make the relationship between the family learnist, the family and the learner richer and more meaningful and will tie the learning together in ways that illuminate the significance of content and skills building blocks. The deep maps and unifying themes are one of the most important ways that reflexive learning and the capacity to reflect on the uses of one’s own mind will emerge.

The most basic deepening of the map of learning would involve gradually increasing the child’s, then the young person’s capacity to extract learning interactively from their immediate environments. Starting with the very young child, it might involve asking the question, “What if my family were my school?” and working the implications out for and with the child. We know that families are a huge source of informal learning. This theme would explore all the family has to offer to learning and committing to some longer projects such as a family history or “story line”, or a cookbook, or a series of photographs and collages that communicate what it means to be in “my” family. The resources of the family would be catalogued in some informal way and linked to the outcomes in the learning plan. The next stages would be an expansion of the “what if…” proposition outlined above. What if my community or my city or region were my school? The learner would be taught strategies such as digging out sources, conducting interviews, designing activities, and enlisting partners in specific areas of learning. While the family will always provide deep and natural sources of learning, sometimes for a lifetime, the community, city or region will have to be deepened as a source of learning through deliberate actions that can be taught.

The unifying themes will draw in a range of traditional subject areas and gradually evolve a rich array of knowledge and skills. Ideally, two or three deep themes will operate together for long but perhaps different periods of time, wrap up, and evolve into new themes that touch on each other. The whole family can be involved, but each theme will usually require reaching out to good sources, knowledgeable people and other learners. The themes must be integrated into and explicitly defined by the learning plan. Some examples would be citizenship and community, caring for others, nature and environment, entrepreneurship, creative arts or some branch of science and technology. The culmination of these themes might be a series of challenges that are designed into the senior or final year of the learning plan. I draw this suggestion from a section in Paul Ray’s and Sherry Anderson’s book The Cultural Creatives entitled “Preventing Ophelia.” Ray and Anderson describe how Laure Katz and her parents worked together to create a “year of challenges” based on a “menu of possibilities,” (pg. 282) twenty of them, from which Laure chose twelve. The challenges gave the parents an opportunity to pass on knowledge, arts and skills that were part of the family’s and Jewish traditions. Some were “quite arduous and others just interesting and new.” (Pg. 283) They involved carpentry, hiking, cooking, meditation and community service. In one instance, roles were reversed as Laure taught her mother how to read the Torah in Hebrew in order to accompany Laure at her bat mitzvah, the culmination of the year of challenges.

The Home – The Real Learning Centre

The home is returning to the centre of our lives in many ways. A lot of that has to do with dwindling public resources and for some, streets and playgrounds that are less than inviting. But for many, it is a natural outcome of changes in values and lifestyles that lead people to being manufacturers and suppliers of experiences central to the quality of their own lives. The home is becoming a re-creation centre and is being further centred into home business and home schooling. Learning at home is becoming a multi-aged pursuit. In the Third Schools, the home will be the base camp and maybe even the advanced camp and summit of learning careers in the family. Even for families that choose a learning plan that emphasizes classroom instruction, the home will be a key environment for practicing the art of co-creating learning. In my book I describe a number of simple steps families can take to expand the effectiveness of the home as a learning centre.

If the learning plan emphasizes home learning to the exclusion of almost all other activities, there will be unhealthy imbalance. The home learning centre could become a cocoon, which is not a natural situation for healthy people even if they are interacting with so-called virtual communities. The learning design centre will have guidelines and checklists, but parents and learners need to make sure that there is sustained and appropriate interaction with other learners and families, neighbours and communities. Social cohesion will slip away if there is no effort to learn from other communities and systems of values and beliefs. The home learning centre should expand at times to accommodate groups of various kinds working, learning, enjoying shared challenges and just having fun together. Parents will find ways to collaborate on the hosting of special learning events quite apart from the myriad of learning opportunities that exist in communities and cities.

These Communities of Learning Are Out There

Quite often, the term “learning community” has been appropriated to describe segments of the bureaucracy or the culture of schools. In the Third Schools, the learning community will be “out there” in the community and will be supported by and will support the learner. The learning community is about the little but rapidly enlarging communities that children and young people engage with interactively and help create, as they grow older, make friends and add their energy to community and youth activities. It is about the small scale commons and general good that even very young children can see themselves influencing at home and on the playground as they deal with issues of caring, fair play, and shared expectations. It is about children’s learning being expressed in and influencing their lived lives at the earliest possible age. It is also about the development of communities that actively and intentionally support learning, even in the face of our rapid urbanization and preoccupation with safety and security. This means finding new ways to cultivate, nurture, and safely shelter good learning in the sometimes harsh and unresponsive wildernesses that communities have become.

The kind of positive impacts that learners will make on their communities can start at a very young age. The nature of this learner engagement with community will be an important part of the family’s learning plan. The deeper meaning of supporting communities will arise and be embodied in kids that are truly engaged. It will be expressed in a growing sense of satisfaction and pride in volunteerism and participatory citizenship. The connection with the learning plan will be about outcomes. What new competencies, attitudes and elements of character will the family and the learner be looking for? What forms of engagement and support with the community will be most likely to create these outcomes? These questions should be addressed in the family and individual learning plans. This will require serious commitment as the community support strand will continue right through the learner’s journey to graduation.

Communities are too rich a resource to be left out of the learning equation. It is hard to imagine a community so monochrome, insular or intensely private that there would be no opportunities for engagement with a rich array of learning opportunities. The history of school and business partnerships gives many examples of the kinds of knowledge, skills and areas of interest that groups of employees have been able to bring into the schools. Expand the possibilities out to the hundreds or even thousands of people in an urban community and many good things become possible for learners. The trick is to design not only for good learning, but also for safety and consistency. The community learnists will play an important design and leadership role here.

Without question, one of the most exciting developments in expanding the community’s role in learning is the work done by Luis C. Moll and his colleagues in the Funds of Knowledge Project at the University of Arizona. The research was done to enrich and empower the efforts of teachers working in public schools, dealing with traditional assumptions about curricula and organization, and trying to respond to students needing much more than some extra time and effort. There are powerful and promising implications for the community learning that will be part of the shift to the Third Schools. The Funds of Knowledge Project found fertile and abundant resources for learning hidden in the homes and communities that were studied. According to the U.S. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory’s online material on Luis Moll, he and his colleagues “have studied Mexican-American families who have survived successfully in spite of debilitating circumstances such as poverty and discrimination. Particular constellations of cultural patterns – strategies if you will – that value learning and the transmission of knowledge to children distinguish these families.” (NCREL, Luis Moll)

It turns out that the families studied have impressive funds of knowledge. Another article calls them “impressive and diverse” and adds that they “may include such areas as farming and animal husbandry, construction, trade, business, and finance.” (ERIC L & L Digest, February 1994) Some of the exciting findings revolved around the transformation of teachers’ work and the high level of trust and understanding created with the households that were part of the project. The community learnists will almost certainly want to have training in some of the attitudes and skills, resident in anthropology and ethnography, which Moll’s teacher researchers acquired. As the teachers in the project pointed out, the extra work involved in field notes, journals and follow-up meetings was more than a typical teacher’s workload can handle.

Funds of knowledge! Wonderful language and a great example. The Third School approach to learning is intended to capitalize on just such possibilities for co-creating learning and accommodating the novel but crucial learning commitments that will be contained in many learning plans.

A New Career Path – The Learnist

The strategies and tactics of conscious learning are forming in the minds of teachers everywhere and the structures and organization of schooling are increasingly seen as a deterrent to effectiveness. Yet, like knowledge workers everywhere, teachers cannot do their work without some kind of organizational scaffolding. They require a new design for supporting learning with new roles and structures, not tinkering. One of the symptoms of these changes, as far as the role of teachers is concerned, is the emergence of many variations on and substitutes for the word teacher – learning facilitator, guide, mentor, skills coach and so on. We will need a new word to capture the unique roles that learning designers and advisors and deliverers will play in the third schools. Although there will be specific roles, I call this new breed of professional people “learnists” to distinguish their roles from all that has gone before. In my book, I describe six possible learnist career paths – probably a minimum.

It is likely that those who will be working participatively with parents and learners and designing learning plans for individual learners aimed at creating conscious, reflexive and self-managing learners will seek to get to their professional qualification by a similar route. They will want to be designers and developers of their own learning plans that will lead them to professional certification as a learnist. For practical reasons, this will likely require including a mixture of traditional courses and credits, perhaps grounded in learning theory, psychology and sociology, some new off-campus programs such as the remarkable and significant work done in Calgary by Ken Low at his Action Studies Institute, and some learner initiated inquiries and action learning, particularly in the areas of technology and community development, all with the guidance of an academic mentor and a practicing learnist.

In other words, inevitably, the learning of a learnist will come to mirror, as much as possible, the learning to be co-created by the learnist.

Possibilities in the World of the Third Schools

Walking into a Third School learning situation, it should be both difficult and unnecessary to see the positions or hierarchies of the people involved. This will be chaotic at times, but like any complex system harnessing human intelligence to deep purpose, some meaningful and practical patterns should begin to settle out. Many new and exciting possibilities will emerge. Let me briefly discuss just one example.

Because of the non-graded structure of the Third Schools, students will move along at an individual pace and will incorporate many life-enriching experiences into their program. Many learners will be ready around the age of sixteen to take on a greater challenge than working at a fast food outlet. Once they stop earning credits, the system will stop receiving grants. But, what if some of these bright and capable young people were willing to work as learnist’s aides, in a kind of youth practicum, in the Third Schools? It would be a case to government of “let’s make a deal,” but what a deal. The provincial or state authority would continue the foundation grant either as a stipend to the learnist’s aide or deposit it to an account to be used for post-secondary education. The Third Schools would get an additional resource, the learner would get a new challenge, and the learnist preparation programs might eventually get new candidates and entries to the profession.

More needs to be said about leadership and governance, resources, and legal and legislative issues. I am still working through some of these issues in the latter section of my book.

To conclude, some of the places and spaces of learning will look the same on the surface. But the processes of creating learning will be strikingly different, from the foundations on up. The processes will be redesigned to ensure that every young learner has the best possible chance to develop 21 st Century and not 19 th Century uses of the mind, as the best teachers have dreamt of for years. A new way of living the learning will create new levels of engagement for young minds, an experience that currently happens only to the lucky minority in very special schools and classrooms.

These efforts will transcend current issues about preparing students for the workplace or for active citizenship. We now have the opportunity to create the kind of learning that will prepare adaptive minds to operate in new contexts where old assumptions about work and citizenship and other current categories are under challenge or are no longer valid. The public learning systems of the future will align with the growing cultural need for good minds and lively intelligence, or they will be pushed aside and circumvented even more rapidly than is happening now.


  • Barber, Michael, The Learning Game, Indigo, London, 1997
  • ERIC L & L (CAL) Digest, EDO-FL-94-08, February 1994
  • Francis, Diane, “A Learning Revolution.” Maclean’s, March 5, 2001
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