A step, that a child can make only by himself.

This is the translation of the article by Isaak Frumin, published on the website “1st of September”. Original article here.

Isaak Frumin, educational projects coordinator, Moscow branch of the World Bank.

I remember the collective discussion about ‘Developmental Learning’ moderated by V. Davydov. At that time I switched from Math to Pedagogy and was super excited about automation. I wanted to find a simple algorithm in the method — «a — b — … — a child is developed!». On the 3rd day I got what I waited for — Davydov started to tell about the ‘learning problem’s structure’. And in his story everything was simple. «A» is done — and a child has slightly developed. «B» is done — more progress. And suddenly he says: «now a child should find a purpose». We were discussing the well known problem, where a child measures a big amount of something using a small measurement tool. So, the purpose appears when a child starts to protest. When he says: «I’m not going to measure water in a basket using a thimble anymore». Again — there is a moment, when a child should stop doing it. And he has to stop by himself. If you will ask him a helping question or give him a bigger cup beforehand — nothing’s gonna work. For me that was hugely disappointing, because in this case a teacher turns out to depend on this uncontrolled, not-guaranteed action of a child. This disappointment still follows me in my work. How, on earth, do we turn out to depend on a learner? I think that this child’s own, weird action is the essence of the whole pedagogy. To figure it out, let’s take a look on a history of pedagogical failures.

In our school we had a student. He graduated from the middle school with the mediocre results: Bs and Cs. Getting to our high school is extremely tough. On the commission the teachers of English were specifically against this child. They said: «He is just not able to learn English. Period». They were trying to convince me not to accept him, saying «You, for example, are never gonna be an ballet artist. Not because you are bad, but your body doesn’t fit it, even if you will train 24/7. So, this child is also not going to learn English under any circumstances».

Well, I took personal responsibility on him and accepted the child. Do you expect him to improve in English after it? No way. He kept fighting with the teachers and graduated with C, just because he knew alphabet. He got to psychological university, which didn’t require English exam and was excellent there.

But on a second year of study, the students there got a chance to take part in a yearly internship in Australia. And he wanted to go there badly. But obviously, for that he needed to know English on proficient level to communicate well and pass a difficult language exam. He approached me for an advise and I clarified: «Do you realize you need to pass the English test?». «Let me try» — he replied. Well, here’s how the story goes. He passed the exam. He lives in Melbourne, and recently I got to know that he’s publishing a book of his letters to a bribe.

The letters were in English…

This is the mystery! What happened to the child, who managed to do, what government and caring «innovative teachers» couldn’t do, even after spending tremendous amount of money and time? I believe such situations are the biggest challenge to the modern education system. After all, if learners are able to learn without us, what are we needed for? What kind of resource (or resourcefulness?) activates within them? Can we use this resource?

In fact, the Davydov’s note and this story are 2 main problems of teaching for me. First focus is absolute inability to discover and automize learning, the second one is it’s amazing effectiveness. If it would be just not-discoverable, we wouldn’t care. It would be interesting, but only from the point of view of scientific research. But what about this indescribable effectiveness, when a child starts to learn something intensively on his own?

Classically in soviet pedagogy, teaching is a unity of teacher’s and learner’s actions. And uniting those things leads to the modern struggles. Uniting those two actions, you hide the possibility of independent learning efforts of a learner, a teacher is assumed to be a source of these efforts. What does this unity mean? It means that teacher is the main energizer,activator of the learning activity. Learner’s own energy and initiative is assumed to be, at best, a reply to the teacher’s special actions. This is the root of so-called «Active learning formats», that basically look similar to the electroshock. Due to different reasons, in 60s in Western pedagogy (thanks to psychologists like J. Bruner) the terms «teaching» and «learning» were distinguished, and learning became an independent subject to study.

My first argument is that to figure out the phenomenas mentioned above we need to distinguish teaching and learning in out theoretical models. Teaching as a process does not guarantee learning. Let’s take a look at how practice in pedagogy currently activates learning.

There are 3 «magical» recipes:

a) decrease the amount of children in the classroom to empower a teacher b) decrease the diversity of children in the classroom c) just eliminate the children who don’t want to learn in a way we organize for them. By the way, the option «c» has it’s western democratic analogy. It’s called «if a child doesn’t want to learn, pretend that it learns». In this case quasi-learning activity pretends to be a serious learning.

I don’t propose to follow the western pedagogics in this way. This leads to my second statement: in western pedagogy learning is assumed to be equal to adoption and processing information. Obviously, adoption of information is important and interesting. For instance, we need to keep in mind the researches in adoption differences (that helped to build the theory of teaching styles). I.e. if a child processes information visually, show more; audibly — speak more. But why do we call this pedagogy «child-centric»? I think this is just the next stage of child-manipulative pedagogy. So, what’s so different between learning and adoption? Seemingly obvious answer is more independency. But we shouldn’t be teaching while encouraging independent learning work. That’s a dangerous mix.

Here is my statement. Learning is a unity of independent learning activity and organizational (managing) attitude towards it.
*which means that learning consists of two parts. The first one is the learning activity one is doing. The second is the attitude he has towards it: not «co-existing» with the activity, not «allowing it to happen to him», not «accepting» it, but initiating and managing this activity [note from the translator] *

Independent learning activity is not the only feature of learning. The most crucial part is this built-up process a child does to manage the activity, to set the goals and tasks. You can argue either a child does it consciously — I bet, not always. But it builds this complex structure, when a person does an activity and organize it at the same time. It doesn’t exclude organizing function of a teacher, but doesn’t delegate it to him completely, either.

That raises the question: what are the drivers of learning, what are the sources of it’s energy? What are the reasons for a child to acquire this attitude and hold this activity? I don’t have an answer for that.

Finally, here is the 3rd difference. The difference between a «child-centric» and a «learning-centric» pedagogy. It’s trendy nowadays to say that we put a child in the centre of a pedagogical action. But should we? To be clear, we should distinguish the developmental pedagogy and co-called «humanistic pedagogy». Humanists (who talks a lot about subject<->subject interaction) claim that a teacher should be just a facilitator, a conductor — but not an expert at all. Unlike, when we organize learning, the teacher’s role as an expert is extremely important. A child approaches him as a professional, who can help to solve the problem — not as a methodist, who knows how to present it.

In this sense, the learning-centric pedagogy doesn’t eliminate inequality of a learner and a teacher.

But it transforms this inequality from formal to the natural meaning, when a leaner needs more experienced and knowledgable expert.

To follow up, I mentioned 3 ways to approach the phenomena of learning, through comparing it with the close therms. The first one is about the economical effectiveness of education. Back to the story with the kid who learned English. The example shows that the learning and learner’s own energy are not considered as an effective resource. When we discuss economical drivers of education, we try to improve the effectiveness of a teacher, so that he can work more and teach more children. I.e. the teacher is considered to be the only resource. Now we assume that computers are additional resources, but that’s obviously absurd.

The second statement highlights that modern focus on learning follows the trends of open education — the one where institutionalized structures like schools (which puts a kid through an algorithm of acquiring new knowledge and skills) are less important.

In 1968 the whole world didn’t take I. Illich’s book «Deschooling society» seriously, but now after 30 years many of his predictions turned out to be right.

More and more children switch to homeschooling or spent the majority of their time not in schools but in additional education centers, that basically activate active learning.

Today constant knowledge and «hard skills» are less and less valuable. What we do value is the ability to get new knowledge independently, to get rid of old patterns and activities and to switch to new ones. And I think the the only way to make it happen is to focus on studying and empowering learning. After all, if a person didn’t experience learning, how is he supposed to «re-learn»? Especially if his employer doesn’t provide special trainings for him. We should consider learning as the main resource to get educational results. Unfortunately, it means that we have to get rid of the illusion of what «innovative pedagogy» is. The illusion that calls an «innovation» anything that improves the teacher’s work, gives him new teaching resources or makes teaching more fun and entertaining.

Every single innovative idea should be checked by the simple criteria if it increases effectiveness of learning or not.

Original article by Isaak Frumin, translated by Vlad Sakovich.