In the process of exploring what is emerging in terms of new ideas for the education of children I found so many examples of future-oriented schools and innovative programmes and ideas and organic thinking about education all over the place. Not all of these ideas are new – some of them have been around for almost as long as our mechanistic education system has, but many of them ARE new and are rapidly evolving and enormously exciting.
I believe that an organic education system is not only attainable, but actually it is in the process of emerging everywhere already. The more I read and explore what is going on in the world of education at the moment, the more I realise that organic education is exploding everywhere – sometimes still small and niche, and sometimes already quite large and mainstream. To use my earlier analogy, this is the Iron Age replacing the Stone Age in education, or the dawn of the motor-age replacing the horse, but society has not yet become consciously aware of this emerging shift.
As evidence of the emergence of organic education, and in some cases as specific examples of how to do organic education, I will be documenting some of the examples that I have identified on this blog. I am hoping that by my defining and classifying this process, newcomers to organic education can consciously recognise what is happening and can therefore choose to participate more consciously and easily than they might have before.
The examples I have found are just a smattering of what is in the process of emerging. I’m sure that anybody who attempts this exercise will come up with a whole lot of different examples –I have not found all of the examples that exist, or even the best of the best examples, rather I aim to highlight how much organic education is unfolding everywhere.
To use the analogy of the hundred monkeys – perhaps these examples of organic education in practice are the first groups of monkeys in various different locations all starting to wash their potatoes before they eat them. There is not yet coherence in the emerging new way of doing education. The majority of monkeys are still eating dirty potatoes, but it is my belief that once the new way is clearly identified, defined and explained it will become much easier for others to emulate it much more quickly and effortlessly. This is why change does not happen linearly, but rather exponentially and quantum leaps can happen in a moment.
An example of non-linear change that I have always liked is the example of the four minute mile. Roger Bannister was the first human to run a recorded four minute mile, which was something that had before that time been considered to be impossible. However, within weeks of his having run a four minute mile, at least three others succeeded too. Bannister broke the limiting belief that ‘it is impossible to run a mile in faster than four minutes’ and when people saw that it was possible – many more could suddenly do it. This is my hope for how organic education will start to emerge everywhere. By identifying how much organic education is already happening effectively, we might enable the system as a whole to shift more quickly and successfully. Maybe this is bringing us closer to the hundredth monkey.
It is ironic to observe that almost all of the examples of organic approaches to educating children that I found in the course of my research are loosely connected under the banner of ‘alternative education’, which means education “other than the mainstream”. Sadly the mainstream is still very wedded to mechanistic education.
According to Ron Miller, in his speech ‘What are schools for? Alternative Philosophies for Education’ (found at www.pathsoflearning.net), whilst there are various styles and methods of alternative education, what they hold in common – what makes them ‘alternative’ to the mainstream education system – ‘is that they begin with a genuine, passionate concern for the essential nature of the human being, rather than with an abstract programme of managing or controlling human energies in the service of a vast, impersonal, mechanistic system’.
All of the alternatives Miller goes on to describe in this speech (including the humanist educators of the 1800s, Maria Montessori, Celestin Freinet, Rudolf Steiner, John Dewey, the Reggio Emilia approach, the libertarians (Leo Tolstoy, Fransisco Ferrer, A.S.Neill from Summerhill School), Ivan Illich and Deschooling, the free-schoolers and un-schoolers, and many spiritual educators from all religions) are rooted in a view of children as highly capable, diverse, multi-faceted, creative beings (who self-assemble their own learning).
I would add to Miller’s list the thinking of Sir Ken Robinson and many others in the twenty first century who believe in the inherent creativity and natural learning capability of all children and are designing education approaches to suit this understanding of who children are and how they learn. I will be discussing many of these on this blog going forwards.
I do want to make one comment about some of these so-called alternative education systems. I do not know enough about the deep philosophy behind all of them to comment in depth about why these systems have determined and evolved their own specific methods, or whether these truly are better than any other specific method. My one personal concern about both Montessori and Waldorf, for example, is that these methods are very strictly defined and I find many of their proponents become fixated with sticking to the letter of the law as laid down by the founder of the system more than a hundred years ago, rather than exploring its underlying intention and being a bit more flexible (allowing it to adapt organically) as the global context shifts.
In the course of my research into these systems I found many people who were very defensive about their system of choice, and who spent a lot of time justifying why it had to continue that way rather than adapt with the times (like on the issue of technology – Waldorf is very anti-technology, and a lot of time is spent justifying this position rather than being open to exploring technology in an organic way). It is my belief that, rather than being wedded to a system as it was laid down by a charismatic leader long ago, we need to seek the underlying truths of the system and apply them to the current context in ways that make sense today. I read somewhere on the internet that ‘The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself’. This is certainly my philosophy on education – I am not interested in proposing and supporting specific systems so much as I am interested in distilling the underlying organic ‘truths’ from a variety of systems, so that I can apply them in a flexible way to the context at hand. I know this pits me against many people who are firmly wedded to one of the education alternatives that exist out there. I am not saying that any system is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, I have only sought to define an organic approach that can be applied anywhere and work globally at a systemic level. Thus I choose to steer clear of prescribing any one subjective philosophy over any other.
Interestingly, although a lot of people have explored and described the advantages of the well-known alternative education philosophies and systems over the years, particularly Montessori and Waldorf, yet learnings from these systems have never succeeded in replacing or (in most cases) even enhancing the mainstream or dominant education philosophy. They remain only an “alternative” to the mainstream, possibly because they are like religions – focused on their differences rather than on their commonalities.
It is pointless to continue focusing on their differences in the same vein as this will always keep the alternative ‘alternative’. Instead by exploring these systems from the perspective of their underlying DNA (operating principles) I hope readers will see the enormous commonality between them. Whilst all are unique, these alternative perspectives share many of the same organic characteristics. They have broadly similar views on who children are and how they learn, and therefore display many common functional features in their practice.
One of the questions I asked myself when I first examined these alternative approaches to education is whether it would be possible to systematise some of the features of these alternative approaches so that the mainstream would be able to absorb them better. I believe my organic operating principles do exactly that, so later on this blog I will describe some of these approaches from the perspective of the organic operating principles that they illustrate.
Some of the other examples of organic education in practice that I found are specific processes of learning and teaching organically. These include such ideas as inquiry-based learning (or enquiry-based for non-USA countries), Self-organised learning environments (SOLES), Awareness Through the Body (ATB), as well as a lot of technology innovations. As with the alternative philosophies, instead of just listing and describing all of these processes, I am interested in all of these examples from the perspective of how they illustrate my fundamental operating principles for organic education in action.