Gormenghast Education

 In the Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake paints a vivid picture of a huge and crumbling castle looming over a community. Within Gormenghast Castle the residents perform endless ritualized activities which have no relevance to the population around the castle, and even the residents of the castle can’t remember why, they just believe them to be important and not to be broken. Once a year the citizens of the village outside the walls were allowed to enter the castle and display their carvings for the castle residents. This quote describes that annual event.

Very little communication passed between the denizens of these outer quarters and those who lived within the walls, save when, on the first June morning of each year, the population of the clay swellings had sanction to enter the Grounds in order to display the wooden carvings on which they have been working during the year.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

While Gormenghast is clearly a fantasy I can see certain similarities between it and our current schools. Classrooms are strange places which bear little resemblance to the world outside the school. They have their own rituals and practices which are rarely questioned.

When parents visit a classroom there is something of the atmosphere of the village people visiting Gormenghast. The atmosphere is that of people entering a space where they don’t belong. The education space is separate from their day-to-day life. Children enter this space to get an education before emerging (graduating) to enter the real adult world. Rather like butterflies emerging from the chrysalis.

Teachers find these analogies confronting. As a teacher we see schools as vibrant social spaces where children and young adults grow and develop, but this is the view from within the castle. For those looking in from the outside it appears quite different. When someone in the community thinks about a class room they often imagine something like this:

As teachers we know this is outdated. Modern secondary classrooms look like this:

The students look happier, but in my opinion, functionally the difference is small. The fact is that our K-12 schools are still based on an industrial model. They are essentially production lines where students enter in kinder and work through the curriculum in lock step, coming out the other at a graduation. It comes a surprise to many that education has not always been like this. Schools  as we know them appeared as a way of providing mass education in the 1800’s. Prior to that time education was based around community tradesmen and experts passing skills on to the young people (professional teachers were rare) and usually look more like this:

When asked to provide mass education to the community in the industrial age, the educational leaders of the time used an industrial model. They essentially developed an education factory and in industrial societies it was, and continues to be, spectacularly successful. In Australia we have emerged into a post-industrial 21st Century world. The most valued traits are now creativity, individuality, problem solving skills, communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship. We need an educational model which encourages these 21st Century skills.

At this point you might think I am going to advocate doing away with traditional schooling. Actually no, I happen to believe that traditional/industrial schools are still a very effective way of mass educating basic skills and starting to teach 21st Century skills. They are also an excellent way for young people to develop social skills vital for surviving in our overcrowded world. In our schools students learn the limits to individuality and the communication skills and social customs which are the glue for our society. What I do want to see, however, is a change in community attitude which recognizes that learning is an integral part of life. Schools provide one type of learning important in the early years of life, but there is learning which continues outside school throughout life. This life learning allows people to adapt and enriches their life. Life learning is needed to hone and further develop 21st Century skills and learn new skills as the employment market changes. It is the life learning where people further develop their creativity, problem solving and communication skills in a real world context. In saying this I don’t want you to confuse life learning with life experience. Life experience is certainly valuable, but life learning can also be structured learning. Attending short courses, reading, practicing new skills, etc. these are the life learning experiences I am referring to.

There are a number of reasons why many in the community do not see learning as part of their life. Their experience in school, the opportunities available, cultural factors and many other things contribute to community attitudes to learning. To cover them all would require a text book rather than this short blog post. One aspect I would like to focus on is recognition of learning. Modern society places high importance on evidence and the measurement of learning. This gives institutions like schools an advantage, as they have the infrastructure to provide robust credit for the courses they offer. This in turn means that formal school-based learning is more highly valued by the community. The life learning, which is often  not supported in this way, is considered of less value and more of a hobby activity. In fact as we grow older it is the life learning that becomes more important.

To raise respect for life learning and encourage more participation, one important step, therefore, is to democratize recognition for learning. The giving of credit needs to be taken out of the exclusive control of the learning institutions and distributed to the community. One effective way of doing this is to facilitate and promote open badges in the community. Open badges are a computer image or icon which links to information about what the badge was awarded for, the issuer, the recipient and supporting evidence provided by the recipient. The badges can be shared online (social media and blogs) and through email. Using open badges it is possible to give robust credit for skills and achievements in a non-institutional context. I believe that providing an open badges infrastructure to a community so that non-institutionalized learning is recognized equally with institutional learning we will take a big step towards a learning community. A community that sees learning as a part of living rather than something associated with a period in their early life. Some communities are beginning to embrace this idea to great effect. Perhaps the best known are the Cities of Learning in the USA. Even there, however, the emphasis is on youth and I would like to see programs develop that encompass all life stages. So, in summary:

  • Our schools do their job, but they are an uncomfortable environment for most adults.
  • If we are to have a learning community, a community which views learning as part of life we need to break the association learning has with schooling.
  • In turn we need to democratize recognition and credit for learning within the community (pre-industrial model learning) so that learning outside institutions is seen on an equal footing with school learning. Open badges are an effective way of achieving that.
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