Brazil is magical. I’ve been here three and a half months now and I live in a kind of magical realism a bit like being in a novel (apologies to writers who use the literary technique of the same name). Last weekend I had the enormous pleasure of being a guest at that most beautiful of places (after Port Alegre, of course) here in Brazil, Campos do Jordão. If I had any doubts that I lived a life of magical realism, they were completely washed away in Campos do Jordão. For me it was magic yet it was also so real, very real… magical realism. I love magical experiences!
In this paper I want to explore the idea of learning as serendipitous and anarchic in nature, not systematic and predicatable as we have been led to believe. It is that sense of magic that comes with personally discovering “how the world works” that is so engaging, so enchanting and so delightful to experience. Paradoxically, it is the magical experience or reality that can be so confounding for learners. It is when the magic is arbitrarily delivered or contrived that the opportunity for real learning is frequently lost. How can this be, and be described in the same terms as how real learning occurs? Let me describe some of my learing experiences as a child, an adult, an educator, psychologist and founder of a democratic school in Australia.
Let me return, initially, though, to my experiences in Brazil…
Firstly, I do not speak other than a few basic words and sentences in broken Portuguese which I have learned since I arrived here in October last year. Learning a second, or in my case, a third language as a mature adult is meant to be difficult. I agree it is not so easy. However, I have found a “systematic” approach to learning Portuguese not particularly useful. On the contrary, an anarchic approach in which contexts, usefulness and relativity play more rapidly facilitating roles in me learning a new language. The process is not dissimilar to how I believe most people can and do learn every day so long as well-meaning “others” do not get in their way.
Now, to some of my Brazilian experiences,
Most of my time in Brazil has been spent in another magical place, São Paulo. After my spiel about Campos do Jordão, many people might question my sanity when I suggest São Paulo is magical, but it is. The first thing I noticed, as a person from the very flat land of Aus, about São Paulo was the enormous number of high rise. Then I noticed the incredible amount of graffiti not just at street level, but thirty floors up. It appears in seemingly inaccessible places as if, by magic. New graffiti also appears magically. I never see it being done. How else could they do it so many floors up? I still have no idea. It truly is amazing to me. And there are more magical experiences. Bus stops move and/or disappear without notice, personal items vanish, meals appear or do not appear, people arrive and everyone else expects them but I have no idea who they are or why they have come or why they have come right now, bus fares go up and I find out when I hand over the old amount only to be told the I need to pay more now. Are Brazilians really poor communicators? Am I unintelligent? Am I a poor listener and reader? Do I really experience a reality filled with magical events? None of these is true. The problem is that I experience things I do not understand because I do not sufficiently understand the culture and cultural practices yet.
For many learners this is an everyday experience. Things happen without any apparent logical connection to the rest of their experiences. Schools have tried to “systematise” and “institutionalise” everything to ensure learners do not miss important “learnings” yet they still do. As a young adolescent, I missed a fundamental construct in mathematics: that unity equals one and that this construct is used in so many calculations as a given. How confused was I when this kept creating problems for me. Clearly, it had been taught but I had not learned it. Perhaps I was not at school, was daydreaming, not listening or doing something else that day. This is not an uncommon experience of learners. I had a similar experience with learning to read. Below are some stories of the real magic of learning based on my experiences.
One young boy, Liam, found new learning, like literacy, very threatening. So threatening that he would kick and scream, abuse others and run away. Literacy was frigtheningly magical for him. Understanding why this was so, resulted in a magical transformation for him. He stopped feeling so threatened and started to read and write.
Barry, a young teenage boy, was so lacking in self confidence that he would wear a hood over his head all year round. He never participated in anything academic at school, nor did his friends. Barry loves anything to do with computers. We gave him a room and some old computers and within weeks he was beginning to look different. The room became a busy hub of a computer construction, deconstruction and reconstruction for Barry and his friends. Months later Barry had his hood off, was wearing a broad grin and engaging in conversational banter with others.
Cathy was 16 years old and had been “diagnosed” with dyslexia (identified specifically as an auditory processing problem). “Her” dyslexia meant we could not expect her to be very competent at reading. This is how she presented herself when she came to inquire about enroling at a school where I was working. Ten months later, her mother rang me to say her daughter was now avidly reading anything she could get her hands on and what had we done.
“Just gave her space,” I said. I had strongly suspected the dyslexia was just a lable after speaking with Cathy and her mother prior to her enrolment at the school. I suspected anxiety was her greatest issue. We just let her settle in and did not push her to read or do anything else she did not want to do for that matter. When she felt relaxed and comfortable and “her” anxiety had been significantly reduced, she had emotional space to read. And read she did!
Sally frequently lashed out at others, especially other children with serious consequences for the targeted child. During one such occasion I quietly acknowledged her personal anger but firmly said that didn’t mean she could through things around the place and at others. I suggested we could talk about what the issue was for her. She stopped. She climbed up onto a small table. With her back to me said, “Problem is I don’t see enough of my mummy.”
“That’s easily fixed,” I assured her. “Let’s go and call your mum and see what we can do.”
That was the last time Sally ever lashed out at others in anger. Prior to this it was an unpredictable but reasonably frequent occurrence.
Michaela had just started university. She had been to democratic schools but only completed one year of high school. She entered university by enrolling in one subject, a second language of which she was a near native speaker. She was not eligible to enrol in a degree programme. Writing essays was her major hurdle. Initially she wanted to do it all her self. After finding it very difficult she sought assistance. Within a couple of sessions she was able to target the required reading to develop and understanding of her subject and ultimately to write an excellent essay which, most of all, was very rewarding for her. She did not need her lecturer to tell her she had done a “good job”. She was sufficiently satisfied with what she had done. In reality she was not encumbered with institutionalised learning from school. Michaela rapidly learned what she needed to learn, when she needed to learn it in the way that was most useful for her.
James is an interesting person. Shy around others, he rarely seemed to enjoy going out. He acted very young presumably because of his shyness. When his behaviour took on elements of socially uncomfortable behaviour for him, his family sought professional help. Being the youngest child in a large family might predisose him to “childish” behaviour some might say. However, his “childish” “shy” behaviour disappeared in an “instant” when his parents realised life from James’ perspective. He was not expected to do things like other members of his family because he was “so young”. On closer examination his siblings did much more in the family that James at the same age. They had been expected to feed pets, put soiled clothes out to be washed and set the table. When James got some idea of what we had been discussing he took control of the situation. Upon arriving home he assertively advised his parents that he would feed the pets and be responsible for taking out the rubbish on Sunday evenings. James’ behaviour grew up, too. Nothing else was requried, no star charts, no rewards or punishments, no stern talking to him, just a bit of the magic that comes from understanding through our day to day learning.
I really shudder when I hear of “remedial” programmes for children with “learning difficulties”. That we have such a high frequency of such programmes manifesting is an excellent example of projection à la Freud. That we do not attempt to understand the “magical” connections we, as human beings, make within our daily lived realities and those of others, is astounding. That we project our own understandings and do not attempt to perceive the situation from the perspective of others is an extraordinarily powerful form of a defence mechanism, again à la Freud.
I would describe it differently. I would describe it in terms of intercontextuality. Intercontextuality is the process by which we use our learning in one context to help us make meaning in another context. This conceptualisation radically shifts our understanding of what happens when we think about learning. How intercontextuality works may be better understood from the following extract adapted from Huber (1995):
Belief knowledge, and all knowledge derived from it, is knowledge which may be considered to have been internalized. In this sense it is the most immediate knowledge base from which a child can make sense of her or his experiences across contexts over time and through space. It is the intercontextual nature of embedded symbolic information which may be fundamental to understanding any processes involved in the transfer of embedded symbolic information between experiential contexts. The successful transfer of knowledge across contexts (such as home-school) further adds to the child’s body of knowledge about how the world works and how they fit into it relative to others (i.e., self concept and ultimately, self esteem, as systems of belief within the individual, may be involved here; Ref.: Heathington, 1994; Johns, & VanLeirsburg, 1994; Athey, 1985; Bettleheim & Zelan, 1982).
The phenomenon of intercontextuality infers some carryover effect of making meaning in one context to making meaning in one or more other contexts. It also infers the possibility of other meaning making systems functioning as contexts and contexts functioning as meaning making systems in their own right. In this sense the construction of literacy may constitute a meaning making context or system in much the same way as intergenerational family acculturation (i.e., development of cultural understandings as a result of lived experiences across generations within families) or a classroom might.
Intercontextuality provides a way of appreciating learning from many different perspectives – lateral and creative thinking is inherent. The real magic of learning only manifested when the learner is able to make their our connections through intercontextuality, design and choose their own learning experiences and how they will respond to them. What may be seem “systematic” for educators and other professionals may indeed be the very opposite for learners. Me learning to speak, read and write Portuguese, Michaela learning to write essays, Barry’s burgeoning confidence, Cathy’s literacy development and concommitant learning, Sally’s emotional and relationship learning, James’ assertiveness and his family’s wellbeing and Liam’s achievements were not things which could have been “treated” “systematically”. Each person constructs their own ideosyncratic understandings of “how the world works” (Huber, 1995). These understandings are not necessarily well understood by others because everyone brings our own intercontextual understandings to a situation.
How can we understand and do things differently?
Firstly, get rid of schools as we now know them. Deschool. An-educate. Develop anarchic collectives. Get young people back into our communities, into our daily lives. Stop reacting to child labour experiences. Do not expect children to become workers but let them find their own level of contribution and participation when and where they choose in their communities. Young people are already fully participating in virtual communities, running internet businesses, dispensing advice on-line and generally living very rich, culturally embedded lives. Learning comes naturally the way it is intended to come.
In Perth, Western Australia, I designed a new school, Sowilo. I had to comply with various state and federal laws to start the school. However, I designed a radical “structure” which looks more like a morphing cell that an “organisation”. A democratically elected and legally responsible body, the Community Council, has no direct decision making powers. It can only ratify decisions made by the Whole School Meeting which consists of all stakeholders in the school and other interested persons who seek and are granted membership. Learning clusters form, disband, and reform only when there is a specific purpose for which a group of people has agreed to come together. Agreed purposes may included working bees, wanting to explore a particular subject, learning a craft, discussing topics of interest, raising funds, etc. How each learning cluster is conducted is up to the participants, as long as it is democratic and does not affect others in unwelcome ways, it can do what it likes (within the law!!). Once the learning cluster ceases to have an active purpose it, by definition, no longer exists since the learning in that area has ceased. All activities are considered to be learning activities including traditionally framed “working groups” and “committees”. The emphasis being on life is living and learning. All learning clusters are open to everyone from the school and the wider community. The lines between what is learning for people according age, gender, race, ability, etc. also cease to exist. Similarly, any distinctions between life, living and learning. Potentially, learning does not necessarily happen in any one place but in a variety of real life situations with a range of people (mentors) passionate about what they do and know and who want to share it with others. There are no set criteria for a person to be a mentor. They may be of almost any description imaginable. And the learning can be magically real and really magic!
Athey, I. (1985) Reading research in the affective domain, in Singer, H. & Ruddell, R. B. (Eds) Theoretical models and processes of reading, pp527-557, Third edtion, Newark, Del: IRA.
Bettelheim, B. & Zelan, K. (1982) On learning to read: The child’s fascination with meaning, London: Thames & Hudson.
Heathington, B. S. (1994) Affect versus skills: Choices for teachers, in E. H. Cramer & M. Castle (Eds) Fostering the love of reading: The affective domain in reading education, Chapter 14, pp199-208, Newark, Del.: IRA.
Huber, A.S. (1995) Transfer of embedded symbolic information between home and school: A grounded theory of how young children develop idiosyncratic responses during the construction of literacy in the classroom, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Wollongong, Australia
Johns, J. L. & VanLeirsburg, P. (1994). Promoting the reading habit: Considerations and strategies, in E. H. Cramer & M. Castle (Eds) Fostering the love of reading: The affective domain in reading education, Chapter 7, pp91-103, Newark, Del.: IRA.
McKenzie, J. (2003) From Now On [on-line] January 22 2003 <http://www.fno.org>
Sowilo Curriculum 21
Community, Mentors, Other Resources and Enterprises
Sowilo is a non-denominational democratic independent community school. The school operates on a very flexible basis so it can respond efficiently and effectively to students’ needs. The school’s organisation varies from time to time depending on students needs, availability of mentors and other resources, community events and activities, and opportunities that arise to extend students’ knowledge of themselves, others, the world around them and beyond.
The Sowilo Community has been designed to comply with legal requirements in the state of Western Australia.
Sowilo is a Nordic word for the sun Z and is the letter “s” in the Nordic alphabet. It connotes success and victory, guidance, hope, goals achieved, great power, life force, health, contact between the higher self and the unconscious. These connotations of the name epitomise the endeavours of Sowilo.
The school organisation, philosophy and practice is underpinned by a powerful set of guiding principles.
Sowilo is a democratic community. The Guiding Principles on which Sowilo has been founded contain many implicit values made explicit in its stated beliefs and aims and most importantly in its practices. However, while Sowilo may conduct itself according to those guiding principles, there is no expectation for all members of the Sowilo community to share the same values. On the contrary, Sowilo aims to support people in developing their own guiding principles and values based on democratic principles.
· learning is a whole-of-life lived experience not naturally compartmentalised which is what occurs in a disciplinary approach to curriculum development and delivery;
· learning is most effective and sustained when it occurs at the time it is needed rather than “just in case” it is needed. Educators recognise this as the “teachable” moment. We call it the point of learning;
· regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, ability, background, people who are trusted with their own learning will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it; and
· learning is made most effective when the learner is able to realistically reflect on the efficacy of that learning for themselves and are given opportunities to share their learning with others if they so chose.
To provide choices and opportunities that allow students to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests.
Sowilo does not aim to produce specific types of young people, with specific, assessed skills and knowledge. It does aim to provide an environment in which young people can define who they are and what they want to be.
To allow students to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement through self and collaborative assessments and evaluations
In order to truly develop their own skills and abilities, both innate and nurtured, learners need to be free from the pressure to conform to artificial standards of success based on predominant theories of child learning and academic achievement.
To allow young people to be completely free to design their own time and direct their own whole-of-life participation
Everyone learns best by being actively involved in their own learning. So it is with young people that they need to be able to plan, reflect on and direct their whole-of-life experiences including their time, their own learning and recreation pursuits.
To allow young people to experience the full range of feelings free from the judgement and intervention of an adult
Freedom to make decisions always involves risk and requires the possibility of negative outcomes. Apparently negative consequences such as boredom, stress, anger, disappointment and failure are a necessary part of individual development. Young people need strong support to develop emotionally but they do not always need intervention. Part of sound mental health and emotional development is to know when to seek help, when to work through things alone and when to move on. Persistent intervention by others circumvents this learning process.
To allow young people to live in a community that supports them and for which they are responsible; in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through democratic process
All individuals create their own set of values based on their experiences in the family and community within which they live. Sowilo is a community which takes responsibility for itself. Problems are discussed