Learn for Tomorrow. Now.

Parents and the State have an obligation to provide education for all children. To this end, compulsory education has been institutionalised and, depending on the country, it may take place elsewhere than in a school.

At the moment, with the Covid-19 lockdown, almost all children are being taught at home. It’s a paradox: compulsory education is intended to make children free, but they’ve become freer due to this disruption.

Indeed, the right to education is intended to protect fundamental rights and thus individual freedoms. It must enable each person to form his or her own opinions, to develop critical thinking, and to exercise discernment. Thus can young people become autonomous adults, capable of caring for themselves in the world of tomorrow by receiving a pluralistic education. To preserve this autonomy, a fine balance must be struck between individual sovereignty and the economic and even ecological needs of society.

Most people therefore find it legitimate for states and adults to impose on young people, in a conventionally non-negotiable way, what and how they should learn. However, it is high time to take stock of such contemporary educational practices and to ask whether they really meet the needs of tomorrow’s citizens.

Alternatives to the Current System

Now, thanks to COVID-19, we are forced to homeschool. This is similar to the many families who leave the education system when school is no longer suitable for their children. They begin by doing what they know: school but at home. Then, they often realise that it doesn’t work out as they imagined it would. As the saying goes, “Just because you take the horse to the river, doesn’t mean it will want to drink.” So these families observe, learn, and adapt, groping, making mistakes, each in their own way.

Thankfully, in confinement families have a considerable advantage: time.

Derry Hannam, former inspector and education adviser at the Council of Europe, is calling for 20% of school time to be turned into self-directed education time with his campaign 20%SDE (Self-Directed Education):

“It seems to me that the crucial commodity that children and young people need in order to find and deepen their interests and identity is time. Time to think, time to wonder, time to create, time to hang out with their friends, time to find out who they are, time to relax and just be idle for a while – and a space to do it in.”

Derry Hannam

Outside of school, families do not necessarily have a dedicated space for contemplation. Rather, as Mélissa Plavis puts it, learning takes place “by oneself, with others and in the world”, in the diversity of situations and social mix, in mixed-age. This is more natural than an educational institution, where young people are artificially separated from social life as a whole and segregated by age group.

It was while studying the effectiveness of personalised courses in family education that Dr Alan Thomas, a researcher in psychology, discovered the full potential of such informal learning, despite being unable to explain how it works. After all, even quantum computers, by surpassing the binary system, are unable to capture the intelligence of a human baby’s brain! However, this particular approach is cause for scepticism: will young people learn what they need if they are not forced to? This must be put into perspective: the formal approach is not a panacea either. After 12 years of schooling, in 2018, 12.1%  of the German-speaking population between 18 and 64 years of age still struggle to read and write in a basic way.

Indeed, as the philosopher Bertrand Stern pointed out at a UNESCO conference on Education 2030, learning is often confused with school. Learning is, however, a natural process of experience, understanding and discovery, unfortunately deprived of its essence in order to meet educational criteria. Learning is associated with repetitive exercises, examination, and knowledge that will soon be forgotten.

Stern considers the institutional school obsolete and defends the right of every individual, whatever his or her age, to learn freely, possibly with the support of public centres with dedicated facilitators, like in the film CaRabA#Lifewithoutschool.

Can we then avoid what can be felt or considered as oppression, alienation or even pedagogical violence? Can we avoid imposing learning in a non-negotiable way? Educational researcher, Eugene Matusov examines the legitimacy of non-negotiable imposition in various approaches to education, noting that traditional approaches tend to be counter-productive.

Instead of focusing on real learning, students focus on how to correctly guess what the school expects of them and how to successfully comply with arbitrary requirements. It is intended to prepare students for their future participation in a liberal democracy and a capitalist economy based on active decision-making that requires intelligent and responsible choices. Why could this not happen without the crutches of educational totalitarianism?

Matusov also examines approaches that do not impose learning, and experiments with them even with his university students. Empirically, such approaches have proven to be very successful. Indeed, they value the individual’s own experiences since they start from his or her interests, from what really drives him or her. According to him, this libertarian approach responds more to the needs of society, which tends to automate and roboticize everything, and to the skills that will be necessary in such a context.

Another former teacher and educational innovator, Kenneth Danford, proposes to transform schools along the lines of North Star, an alternative educational concept for teenagers he co-founded and has been running since 1996. Under this model, school would be optional, thus responding to the diversity of learners’ needs:

“Let’s transform schools by abandoning the assumption that we need to make students learn, but by being convinced that children want to learn. Keep the buildings, the teachers, the equipment, let them choose how they use these resources: no reprimand, no judgment, no pressure. Making school optional could be a way to keep more people more involved for a longer period of time. There would be fewer dropouts and these schools, accessible to all, would not cost more.”

Needs in the Future

In our increasingly digital, robotic and hyper-automated world, even if technology will be increasingly easy to use, it will still be useful to develop technical skills to fully exploit it. This already requires the ability to solve problems that are both vague and complex, to have the time to explore and discover, and to do so quickly. Students need leadership, strong emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate, debate, cooperate, think and defend their ideas effectively and tactfully. They will also need to be creative, responsive and multi-disciplinary if they do not want to be left behind, regardless of their social class.

Unless you are exceptional or have been able to grow up in a particular environment, do you really think it is possible to develop such skills in an authoritarian, standardised, and rigid education system such as it exists?

At a parents’ meeting in a conventional middle school, a teacher praised the curiosity of his class who had wondered whether Mein Kampf should have been censored. This spontaneous discussion was entirely within the framework of the right to education and the safeguarding of democratic values, but it was not deepened, so as not to fall behind schedule! The questioning persisted at home, and one teenager wanted to read Mein Kampf. His mother feared it would give him strange ideas, and proposed that he read The Wave by Tod Strasser instead, which convinced him that authoritarian populism arises not from ideology but from the fear of oneself, the lack of self-confidence.

In the meantime, this same teenager had moved on, preferring to play with the modern tools of our culture, in this case his mobile phone. His mother admits to being impressed by his technical skills in video graphics, communication strategies and critical analysis of social networks, whereas nobody “taught” them to him. The discussion about totalitarianism has been interrupted, but there is a time for everything and she knows that one day, at the turn of a discussion, she will be able to share and pass on what she learned from this episode about Mein Kampf.

In ancient Greece there was not one time, but two times: Chronos and Kairos, with duration and intensity as the respective criteria. With the uncertainties linked to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is reason to question more intensely the information given by mathematics and to appreciate its limits. Today, like everyone else, by questioning freely, everyone can learn in their own way at the right time.

However, despite the mostly free accessibility of a great deal of knowledge, whether in public libraries or via the internet, critical thinking remains more essential than ever at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution. In a 2006 TED conference entitled “What worries me, what makes me excited” on the subject of new technologies, computer expert Bill Joy rightly warns against pandemics. After raising $200 million to work on bio-defense, his team found that the world is not at all prepared, and is looking for innovations and solutions to address it.

Along the way, he discovered that pandemics are not limited to viral pathogens: pandemic power, i.e. self-replicating technologies, are even more dangerous. Robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology pose a different threat from previous technologies. In concrete terms, robots, genetically modified organisms and “nanorobots” share a common multiplying factor: they have the capacity to self-replicate. A bomb explodes only once; a robot, on the other hand, can proliferate and quickly spiral out of control, threatening the human species with extinction, unless at the controls of this future we find not robots, but human beings with ethics. Says Joy:

“We’re in a century where we have a really powerful technology and we don’t have the moral and ethical governance we need to manage it properly.”

Brigette Hyacynth. a renowned international speaker on human resources management in tomorrow’s world, which is coming faster than we think, confirms Joy’s diagnosis: it is essential to bring the “human” back into human resources. She says that according to many studies, empathy is already the greatest leadership skill needed today.

Beyond technological skills, it is therefore above all critical thinking and ethical conscience that we will need to preserve the human being. The conventional education system does not really prepare for this, which is one of the reasons why many families decide to leave the school system. It is not so much for religious reasons, as some political discourses are concerned about—Philippe Bongrand’s French university team has begun to demonstrate this by analysing municipal reports. We should also soon know more about the educational practices of non-schooling families, beyond certain hidden discourses.

Are home educating parents, often perceived as simply anti-conformist, the pioneers of tomorrow’s education?

What We Can Do Right Now

From a holistic point of view, let us have courage in the face of the unknown by overcoming our difficulties, our fears and our laziness. Let’s try to trust without being naive and let go without being lax. Let’s strive to de-condition ourselves from social norms that have lost all meaning.

There is a multitude of possible paths; it is up to each one to find his own.

For this reason, in states governed by the rule of law, imperfect though they may be, there is a remedy which, combined with lovingkindness, can be formidable: integrity. It is a matter of daring to recognise our own needs and limitations, taking them seriously and also defending them against the outside world.

Let’s stop trying to exceed our own limits, so as not to fall into authoritarianism. Let’s have the self-confidence to say NO to what is not acceptable, and to allow this for every child, regardless of age. Otherwise, how will they be able to do so as adults?

It is possible to challenge all forms of authority by holding the people accountable, by demanding respect for fundamental values, and by working together to find solutions to problems, whatever they are and however insurmountable they may seem.

Teachers should also set an example by daring to truly apply the ethical principles of the Comenius Oath, as in this excerpt:

“I will strive to protect the children and young people under my care from all forms of political and economic exploitation and to defend the right of every individual to form his or her own religious and political convictions.”

Comenius Oath

Imagine each teacher taking the time to respond intensely, passionately, but without insistence, to questions asked by students, rather than stressing himself or herself with a non-negotiable imposed curriculum that does not respond to the interests of the learners.

It is time to dismantle all the obstacles that prevent innovation and prevent us from achieving what we really want.

Article written by Katy Zago, an unschooling mum, accountant and fundamental rights advocate.