Monday, 28 April 2014

Learning Creative Learning: Adult Education and a Fifth 'P'

We are coming to the end of the 'Learning Creative Learning' not-quite-a-MOOC with MIT Media Labs. 

I have not been as active as I would have liked. I enjoyed experimenting with 'Scratch'; watching the videos about the four P's of creative learning (more of that later); reading the suggested articles and occasionally chatting to fellow students.

However, the one thing that it has done is that it has enabled me to reflect on my own ideas and practice in the field of informal adult learning. 

Last time I looked at how the four P's of 'Learning Creative Learning' might apply to the principles of Trade School. This time I want to broaden things out slightly (actually quite a lot) and talk about the four P's in relation to adult learning theory.

Adult Learning Theory
A blog like this is not really the right place to go through all of the idea that revolve around adult learning. The fact that such theories exist at all suggests that adult learning is different from the world of children's learning. Much of the 'Learning Creative Learning' course has focussed very heavily on the learning needs and experiences of children. That's fine. It could be argued that the education of children should take priority over the learning needs of adults but it does beg the question. Do the four P's of Creative Learning work as well in an adult learning environment as they do in one geared towards kids.

I am going to concentrate on the doyen of adult learning theory: Malcolm Knowles (1913-1977).

Malcolm Knowles

Knowles came up with a theory of adult learning that he called andragogy. Those of you whoknow your Classical Greek will instantly see the difference between this and pedagogy. 'Andragogy' means 'man-leading' (apologies for the gender-specific language - I guess that Knowles remained untouched by Third Wave Feminism) and 'pedagogy' which means 'child-leading'.

Andragogy is based on six assumptions:

A Need to Know. Adults have to have a reason for learning something

Foundation. Adults bring their previous experiences to learning

Self-Concept. Adults make their own decisions about their learning, including the planning and evaluation of that learning

Readiness. Adults are most interested in learning that has some relevance to their lives - whether that is professional or personal

Orientation. Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-centred

Motivation. The adult motivation to learn is internal rather than external

You've probably read through that and thought to yourself that these six assumptions cannot hold true for all adult learners. Somebody doing an MBA at Harvard will have very different learning needs from somebody learning to cross-stitch with some friends round a camp fire. Yet broadly both of these examples work within the assumptions of andragogy. Having said that, many contemporary theorists of adult learning acknowledge the strength of Knowles' ideas but have come up with some more nuanced theories...that's a whole blog all by itself. 

I hope you can also see where there are significant differences between the assumptions of andragogy and many of the ideas revolving around the teaching of children. To me the most important difference revolves around the voluntary nature of adult learning. Of course children also learn voluntarily such as in after-school clubs, 'maker spaces' or whilst playing multiplayer online game but the bulk of their learning takes place within a compulsory environment (whether that is school or parents 'encouraging' them to take violin lessons).

Adult Learning and the Four P's
Let go through each of the four P's and see where they fit in with the six assumptions of Knowles' theory of angragogy.

A hit straight away! The most effective adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-centred. For instance, if you are teaching a child about grammar then you would explore sentence and paragraph construction. For adults wanting to finesse their understanding of grammar then this could be done through writing a job application or a marketing plan straight away. 

Don't forget that adult learning is voluntary. An adult learning is doing that learning because they want to learn about that particular subject. That means the passion is there right at the start. Coming from the perspective of informal adult learning, this passion is even more important. Nobody is going to learn about bird-watching, woodwork, tap dancing or gardening without an interest in the subject before the learning actually begins.

I've had a quick trawl through Knowles' writings and found nothing that mentions peer-based learning. In a sense, this may be simply because Knowles was a product of his time and ideas around peer-to-peer learning are a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course adults learning from peers is as old as adult learning itself. This is especially true of informal adult learning networks - whether that is online or face-to-face. Special interest groups on social media websites or hobbyist get-togethers are all examples of peer-to-peer learning. 

One of the assumptions of angragogy is that adults bring their own knowledge and experiences to their learning and will be able to share those experiences with others who have different experiences.

Let;s take this 18th century sampler on display in a local museum as an example:

A group of adults have the opportunity to examine the sampler in detail. One is an expert in social history, another is a needlework enthusiast and a third is a materials scientist. All three of them have a particular expertise and knowledge that they will bring along and share with the others. In another scenario, all three are interested in needlework but they experiences will still be different enough for them to learn from each other.

This to me is the one P that may sit less comfortably with adult learning. I suspect that  many adult learners will see 'play' in their learning as something that is either frivolous or a waste of learning time. If adult learning is directed by the learners by themselves and they have a view of their learning as something that should be taken seriously then trying to introduce a sense of 'play' or 'playfulness' in their learning may be difficult. 

This does not mean that it does not happen already. My experience is that if it does happen then it most likely happens if the adults in a group where everybody is familiar with each other and are willing to temporarily relinquish their sense of adulthood in front of each other. Teachers of adults could encourage a sense of playfulness into their teaching but it might be better if the learners are told well in advance.

Also Knowles believed that adult learning is more problem-centred. This may be a way in to introduce a sense of 'play' into adult learning.

My Fifth P
With all due modesty and with deference to the staff at MIT Media Lab, I would like to propose a fifth 'P' which I think would make the ideas of Creative Learning more applicable to adult learning.

That fifth P is Purpose

This covers several of the assumptions of andragogy and to me is at the core of adult learning, whether this is a structured formal course in college or a less hierarchical informal learning environment in a local community centre. At it's heart is the belief that adults who are learning are mostly looking for a specific goal to be met. An adult learning how to use PowerPoint, for example, is more likely to learn because they have to give a presentation or to help their children with their homework. There is also a strong cross-over here with Projects.

I think that Learning Creative Learning does have a lot to recommend itself to the world of adult learning. Two out of the four P's are more or less done already and the other two can be introduced by the teachers of adults if the learners want it to happen. The introduction of Purpose as a fifth 'P' may act as the lynch-pin around which the other four could easily revolve.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Creative Learning and Trade School

Activity Details

As part of the "Learning Creative Learning" course that I am currently doing with the MIT Media Lab, I have been asked to write about a visit to a local creative learning space and to discuss how it supports creative learning experiences.

I have decided to take this is a slightly different direction. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the kind of creative learning spaces that the course organisers have in mind ('Maker Spaces', computer clubs etc.) are more common in the United States than on this side of the Atlantic. I am also far more interested in informal adult education and how the idea of creative learning might be applied to post-compulsory education.

For that reason, the local 'creative learning space' that I have chosen is a building in my home town in Norwich. St. Laurence's Church was built between 1460 and 1472. It is one of many redundant medieval churches in Norwich that is in search of a new role.

Exterior of St Laurence's Church, Norwich, Norfolk
St. Laurence's Church, Norwich
An umbrella organisation called the Common Room is now using the church to create a community and learning space. One of the groups that uses this space is Trade School Norwich.

The Trade School idea is a simple one. People offer classes in anything that they have an interest or passion about. Students then sign up for the course in exchange for bartered items that the teacher has specified. Here's a recent example from Trade School Norwich.

The range of classes that have been offered can only be described as very wide. Trade School Norwich has had classes in drumming, knitting and crochet, shorthand, Greek language and herbalism. These are only a small selection of classes that have been run in the past few months. Most of them focus on teaching on fairly narrow and specific skills (try getting more narrow and specific than medieval board games). In the educational field, this kind of learning is known as granular.

The important thing is that whilst the courses are not free, at no point does money ever change hands. This creates a flatter, less hierarchical form of learning and makes the relationship between teacher and learner quite different. 

I also like the fact that many of the Trade School Norwich classes take place inside a greenhouse inside a 15th century church.

Learning knitting and crochet in a greenhouse in a medieval church

There are Trade Schools all over the world, including Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Rotterdam, QuitoGeneva and Paris

Creative Learning and Trade School

At it's heart Creative Learning is a pedagogy that tries to address the issue of learning in a rapidly changing social, technological and economic world (it's not alone in this area - there's also Connected Learning and Rhizomatic Learning). For some reason I'm reminded of a talk I went to at last October's Mozilla Festival in London. The speaker was talking about education and technology and asked "Are we learning as fast as the world is changing?" It was generally agreed afterwards (and not just by the pessimistic Brits) that this was a scary question.

Anyway, in a nutshell, Creative Learning suggests that if we want a flexible basis for learning then we should look to the kindergarten and the way that young children learn and then apply that to the wider educational field - including adult education.

Let's go through the four 'Ps' of Creative Learning (Projects, Passion, Peers and Play) as a way of exploring the theory of Creative Learning and see how it might fit into Trade School (using the example of the medieval board games class as an example).

Project-based learning works on the premise that people can learn through doing something specific, concrete and meaningful and through that discovering something larger and more abstract. This kind of learning fits in very well with the way that Trade School works. It helps that the courses are usually very short from start to finish (about an hour or two) and that the courses on offer tend to encourage project-based learning. So, for instance, with the medieval board game course students learnt about the games simply by playing them and from there creating the layout of the board games to take home with them.

This is about finding ways of tapping into the interests and concerns of students so that wider educational goals can be reached. This does not have to be directly related to the subject that the student is supposed to be learning about. For instance, somebody who is keen on horticulture might use that interest to create an app that would be useful to gardeners. His/her interest led to them finding out about coding in Java in order to create the app. This "passion" can be taken as read within Trade School. One of the most important things to remember about adult education is that it is usually voluntary so the interest is there before the course starts. With the medieval board game course this interest might be come from somebody interested in medieval or social history or even a keen board game player who wanted to try some unfamiliar games.

I am a great advocate for peer-based learning. Much of the learning that I have picked up over the past couple of years (on various MOOCs and other online courses) is from fellow students through Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, Facebook postings and even good old email. I've lost count of the number of times peers have pointed me towards resources I was not aware of or discussed with me essays/digital artefacts that we have created. The teacher now took on a new role. He/she is there to encourage and facilitate this kind of learning and to provide some guidance when needed. 

Peer-based learning is, in my experience, less common within Trade School. Much of this is probably due to the constraints of time. Some teachers may feel that they have a lot of get through in an hour or two. Peer-based learning can be time-consuming and so some teachers might be nervous about giving it a try. Also, given the variety of Trade School courses, some classes will lend themselves better to peer-based learning than others. There will also be some dependence on the prior knowledge and experience of the students. When it came to the medieval board games course there was some peer-to-peer learning as some of the participants had an interest in medieval history and others were keen board game players. As the course progressed they talked and learnt from each other.

This is not a reference to actual playing when learning (although that can happen) but rather an exploration of an attitude of playfulness (or just simple enjoyment) as a part of learning. It goes without saying the people learn better if they are enjoying what they are doing. This idea is gaining traction within education anyway through gamification. Many of the Trade School classes that I have participated in have had built into them a real sense of play. Much of this is due to the barter system creates a less rigid relationship between the teacher and the student and between the students themselves. Trade School also lends itself to a greater informality and sense of playfulness in ways of learning.

Expanding Creative Learning

An important principle of Trade School is that all teachers are not told how to teach their classes. This is from the 'Information  for Teachers' page on the Trade School website:
Your class can be about anything and can be structured in any way you like. Just be sure that you feel comfortable setting the tone and sharing information.
However, it then goes on to say:
We find that students want to get to know each other, so classes work best with break-out groups, work in pairs and lots of student participation. 
It seems to me lots of the ways in which Trade School Norwich (and other Trade Schools) operates fits in nicely with the ideas of Creative Learning. The relationships between teacher and student and between students encourage Creative Learning. The short duration of the courses can also be a positive (as well as a negative) when it comes to promoting Creative Learning.

Creative Learning and Adult Education
As a final word, I have been giving a lot of thought as to how Creative Learning could link in with adult learning theory and this will be the subject of a further blog towards the end of the course. Just to tempt you all, I will be proposing a fifth P!