Purpose in learning is sometimes proposed to come from ‘real-life’ and ‘relevant’ curriculum. I argue that there is no replacement for learners developing purpose based on their interests, and the effectiveness and relevance will follow.
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- ‘Real world’ in learning is not necessarily motivational or compelling;
- Learners can begin with their interests but will ultimately look outwards, seeking the best;
- Learners benefit from a critical negotiation to focus their learning;
- A learning community and a process curriculum can make it purposeful learning work!
About Richard Millwood
I am an educational designer, having made everything from apps to universities. I am now finding fulfilment with families in rural places all over Ireland, trying to encourage an interest in creative computing. The job is as a Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin tied to an SFI ‘Discover’ project – OurKidsCode – to design and develop workshops which encourage parents to see computing as a fulfilling choice for their children’s future.
Contacting Richard Millwood
By Richard Millwood
I had no purpose when, at the age of 20, I joined the teaching profession without any training as a mathematics teacher in an inner London secondary school. The school was desperate, I had given up on being an astronaut, the job was only four days a week so I felt it a good transition from full time higher education while I pondered what I would do for the rest of my life.
Forty six years later, I am still in education, having experienced every level as a teacher and as an educational designer, completely hooked by the harsh experience of those early days teaching bolshy kids, not much younger than myself.
Those early days, the late seventies, were full of the pioneering efforts to improve education. Mixed-ability classes, real world curriculum and independent learning were discussed and developed in the staff room, not handed down from governments. Teachers were actively and collaboratively designing materials and systems to tackle the problem of purposeless learners. The best of them, like the SMILE Mathematics project, enjoyed huge popularity in the London schools and further afield, but ultimately failed as the expense in teacher time and organisation of such a complex projective way to simpler, but no better solutions. My small part in SMILE was to make a computer game which (unintentionally) proved to give learners purposeful practice with angles.
It took me a while to discover that our attempts to use real world ‘relevant’ materials, like bus timetables to teach time, were failing. The theory sounded good, but our learners just weren’t interested, for the most part, in how long a bus would take to go from Tower Bridge to Rotherhithe.
Fast forward to the mid nineties. A decade had been spent creating decision-making simulations on the computer which learners could control the economy, a production line or a biology experiment. Despite the interactivity, some worked, others failed, for similar reasons as the earlier bus timetable. I came across a new challenge – to improve the education of a challenging group: truants, school-refusers, ill children, travellers, agoraphobics and others for whom school did not fit. We called it NotsSchool (in Ireland a current derivative is called iScoil) and did it fully online. Such children had thus far been dealt with by visits from individual tutors – expensive, disjointed and ultimately failing. The tutors’ purpose was to return such children to school – doomed, for the same reasons they had abandoned school! We explicitly made it clear that was not NotSchool’s purpose, and did our best to avoid the trappings of school that some learners rejected. We focussed first on learners’ personal interests, helping them to research those interests and create, in the media and genre of their choice, artefacts that pleased them. We called them researchers. We helped them to fulfil their own purpose.
Fast forward to the mid noughties. We found ourselves looking to expand our university student numbers by addressing those for whom university did not fit. We called it Ultraversity. Fully online, it helped those who could not afford to go to university, had no confidence in their ability to do exams, were working full time, were caring full time etc. We used all the experience we had gained from NotSchool, but this time we invited our ‘researchers’ (students) to investigate and improve their work (or caring) practice, a purpose they readily identified with. We helped them fulfil this purpose, negotiating appropriate tasks, whilst developing the knowledge, craft and character of a researcher.
Finally, in the mid teens, it was my turn to fulfil my purpose through a PhD by Practice – I had been too busy to stop what I was doing earlier in my career and do a PhD in the traditional manner. Instead I now focussed on my own professional portfolio and my development of design heuristics, which I formulated as theses for my claim for doctorate. My evidence was my contribution to a collaborative practice over a lifetime.
Some think I am talking about ‘discovery learning’ when I describe these approaches to education, often argued to be too challenging. I believe learning is always a challenge, but acknowledge that the craft of learning through research must be supported. In fact I am simply making a simple point clear: learning is most effective when it is purposeful in the mind of the learner. Each case has demonstrated to me that study will inevitably gravitate to the authority and value of the bodies of knowledge that humanity has recorded as effective, as learners seek solutions to problems they care about, and then make that knowledge their own. The deeper they are drawn in, the more ready they are to tackle theory and generalised knowledge, as they learn to love learning itself.
At Christmas, in a month’s time, I plan to visit my first grandson, aged four months. I expect to be part of his first steps in learning, deeply driven by his immediate purpose to move, communicate and play. There’ll be no doubt about who own’s the purpose in learning to walk, talk to his loved ones and enjoy life to the full.