The  incidental effects of online learning

This is not much more than a thought at the moment. Perhaps a suspicion is a better description. But I wonder if others have had experiences that lead to the same suspicions and can contribute some anecdotes or thoughts to help make this a proper idea.

In Peru, we have been in educational lockdown since March 15th 2020. For us, being in the southern hemisphere, that was the start of the school year, a mere two weeks into the school year in fact. A full year and ¾ online left us returning to school at around 40% of occupancy, and children coming in for 40% of the time, in October 2021.

Academically, most of our children have done very well throughout the period. We have just received the results of the November IBDP entry and have some of the best results we have had in 28 years of doing the diploma. That seems true throughout the school, all the way down to the 3 year olds. 

Social education has, of course, been much more restricted. For most of the 18 month lockdown, children were not even allowed outside their homes: no meeting friends, no trips to the playground, not even shopping with parents! We have noticed a social reluctance to engage since they have been back in school part-time, or perhaps an ignorance of how to engage might be a better description. For the youngest, there is a physical retardation in their development as well. They do not have the confidence to climb to the top of the climbing frame, and even show a reluctance to bump into each other in the ways you would expect from 3 to 5 year olds.

All of that is quite normal and I imagine that many professionals in many schools have seen the same things, although perhaps to different degrees. So what is my suspicion?

What I have also noticed is that being away from the day to day life of school has taken the children away from the structures of school life. The hierarchies and the formulas of respect and relationship have not been part of their daily experience. I have seen signs of them coming back without the restrictions that those preconceptions hold them to and that inhibit their behaviour. Let me give you an example.

Our school is fairly traditional. We have a team of four “School Captains” or “Senior Prefects”. Students in their penultimate year apply for the posts. They write their proposals, they get interviewed and, in the end, get appointed. Once appointed they lead the school for the following year. They sit on the Board of Governors. They will join the Senior Leadership Team this year. They create and lead service projects. They organise other older students working as big brothers and sisters to the younger ones. Recently they have written the school code of conduct. None of this is revolutionary and many schools do similar things. What was interesting this year is that, for the first time, students in the year below the penultimate year also applied for the posts. In the past, it would not have occurred to them, or they wouldn’t have dared. Why the change? Is it because, without the day to day reinforcement of implicit hierarchy, they didn’t see why they shouldn’t apply?

This got me thinking about the ways in which the structures we practice fix children in their actions and behaviour. Without those structures, they are free to take on more and different challenges. In this case, it was the daily reinforcement of horizontality that glued the children to the band they are in.

So, we are hoping to go back to full-time school for the coming year that starts in March. Will we see other structures diluted or ignored? Horizontality certainly, but what about gender-based structures, or the relationships between children and teachers? Perhaps most poignant is the question of how long it will take to re-establish the old norms and what can we do to prevent that from happening. I have long thought that the structures that we teachers work within constrain the way we work but of course, it must be true for children as well. The covert curriculum is not just about the way we behave but the structures we impose. Can we use the freedom from some of these that online learning has allowed us to give children more freedom to define themselves as they grow?

I would be very interested to hear from others of ways in which the breakdown of the old normal school structures has enabled students to define their school life in a different and perhaps more liberating way. Please share any thoughts either as a reply to this, or on LinkedIn. 


Banking Education

My reactions to the Freire article accessed here, that was shared on Learnfest Beta by Nick Thody.

First, let me be clear that I agree with a lot of what I have read by Freire. I certainly accept that the model of education that we tend to adopt is based on an unhealthy dichotomy between the roles of the teacher and the taught. I further agree that the structures of schooling reinforce that dichotomy, and that this process is unhealthy for the individuals involved and the cause of most of the problems that we find in schools. 

My concerns about this article are that he appears to create a different dichotomy, and then paints one side of that so bleakly that the chance is missed for those between his poles to question their own practice. Banking Education has become a straw man that allows us all to say that we are not so bad, therefore we must be on the good side. I also note that the way in which Frieie writes the article is didactic, assuming the void of understanding in his readers needs to be filled by his greater knowledge. He adopts exactly the banking style he decries. For me this prevents self criticism from the reader, and serves only to force us to choose whether we are good or bad. Let me explain why.

Large Glass.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors

Marcel Duchamps

My concerns about this article are that he appears to create a different dichotomy, and then paints one side of that so bleakly that the chance is missed for those between his poles to question their own practice. Banking Education has become a straw man that allows us all to say that we are not so bad, therefore we must be on the good side. I also note that the way in which Freire writes the article is didactic, assuming the void of understanding in his readers needs to be filled by his greater knowledge. He adopts exactly the banking style he decries. For me this prevents self criticism from the reader, and serves only to force us to choose whether we are good or bad. Let me explain why.

On page 2, he paints the picture of Banking Education with properties a to j. I know of no teacher in the school where I work who would be prepared to see that as a description of their practice. It is Dickensian in the extreme. There may be teachers who operate like that, but I have met very few of them as I have travelled around the world. Now, that may be because I have worked in excellent schools with libertarian attitudes who would all adhere more to problem solving education than banking education. But it does not mean that these schools, nor these teachers, have no aspects of banking tendencies in them. Freire’s approach allows them, and us, and certainly me, to stand back from the horrors of the banking model he describes and smugly claim our seats on the libertarian side of the argument.

And yet, when I look at my own classes, and my relationships with students, the dichotomies are still there. However much I try to teach through problem solving, to share my ignorance with theirs, to engage them in discussion, to bring out the creative constructive nature of learning, I still operate in an unequal relationship. Where we sit, who stands up when, who speaks when, who defines the curriculum and the tasks, the language we use, the clothes they wear, who decides when the bells ring, what subjects they can be offered, what they must study when, how they use their technology, and on and on and on. These all stem from an unequal relationship. It is still a banking model even if it has very few of the aibutes described by Freire.

In terms of methodology, I would see some questions and challenges to teachers and school leaders to identify the aspects of inequality in their relationships and structures. Then, of course, we get to the nub of the problem. Many, if not most, teachers and  certainly most parents believe that this inequality is both inevitable and right. The answer is not a Freireian dichotomy. It is not either complete equality or oppression. We need to challenge the holy cows of inequality and ask whether they are a necessary function of the existence of a school and the desire for education, or whether they are a fiction or a prop to establish the false importance of a teacher to give them control.

I would suggest that the school, rather than the students, deciding what hours it should be open is probably a necessary inequality, however much we might consult them. However, my students calling me “Sir” all the time, despite how often I ask them not to, is an unnecessary prop which serves purely to flatter my ego.

How do you view education and the teacher’s role during the pandemic. 

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Peruvian daily newspaper, El Comercio.

If you would rather read it in Spanish the published version is here.



Never, more than now, are we called upon to examine the role of schools in the lives of young people, their parents and society in general. It is when an institution is under stress that we need to examine what it is for, what it does well and what, if anything, makes it indispensable. Schools have been under tremendous stress since the state of emergency began and their doors were closed way back in March. So, what has this perspective led us to understand differently or better?

Those of us who work in education have always known that schools provide multiple functions in the community. The complete change in the way we function has led us to ask two questions. What can we, as a school, do without physically going into school? And, What is so important that we need to find a way of doing it, however badly? Following on from these answers are two supplementary questions. What is the role of the teacher in all this? And How can schools use all this experience to be better in the future when some new normal is established?

Let us start with what is often cited as the main purpose for school; academic education. We have found, at Markham College and many other schools in Peru and around the world, that we can actually do this very well without being in school. There are variations of course that depend on the subject. It is hard to teach a science curriculum based on practical experimentation without having a laboratory to do it in. But in the humanities, the languages and mathematics, even in some cases the arts, children can actually achieve better than they would in school. I will examine the reasons for this later on. There are also variations that depend on the resources available. I cannot deny that a school like ours has tremendous advantages when every family and every teacher is connected to the internet, and we have the tools to make it work. But I have tremendous respect for the Peruvian government initiative to make resources available for children to learn at home in the most difficult circumstances. This has put the efforts of many more affluent countries to shame.

Why do I say that have achieved better in some areas? This is because school is not just about academic education. It is about social interaction, psychological development and the general process of going through youth to become an adult. With regard to academic education, these aspects are a distraction. Teachers will suggest that children talking, playing, relating with each other over issues other than the ones the teacher is trying to teach wastes time and focus. At home, in isolation, these distractions are not there. What else is there to do, to get away from the family, but work?

For this reason, children will come out of this process as more responsible, independent, focussed learners, better equipped for an adulthood where most of their learning is online anyway. But, they will have a gap in their social and emotional development that relies on being with people and mixing with them. Our challenge, as teachers, when we return to school is to fill that gap. Our challenge now is to provide the support to reduce its negative effects. At the moment we are supplementing our academic programme with a wide range of different activities. Last week, I watched a large group of 12 year olds, wearing swimming gear and helmets, doing white water rafting and camping out. Of course, the rafting was on a chair in their living room. The helmet was often an upturned wastepaper basket. The paddle was a broomstick and the tent was a blanket strung over their bed. But they loved it because they were doing it with their friends and teachers, and they could see and hear them all through the conference online. This kind of experience does not replace the actual rafting and camping they would have been doing, but it does a great deal to preserve their emotional, social and psychological wellbeing.

So as teachers we have, as always, multiple roles. They have changed in the tools we use, and we are probably working longer hours, but the aims are the same. Once we return to school we must make sure we keep the skills we have learned, keep the best of the online experience, and work hard in the areas we have missed out on.

Can online learning save lives?

Well, here we are, four weeks of online learning are done and we enter the fifth. I know some colleagues around the world have endured a lot longer than we have. My son, teaching in Hong Kong has been teaching from home since mid-January. In Peru, the clampdown came quite suddenly. On one Wednesday, we were told the students wouldn’t be coming in the next day. On the following Sunday afternoon, the whole country was put in lockdown. We are only allowed out between 5am and 6pm to buy food or pharmaceuticals, go to the bank or the hospital. Nobody outside these professions can work from anywhere but home. The police were quite draconian. The number of arrests and jailings far exceeds the confirmed Covid cases at the moment!

At Markham College we have been learning as we go along, and continually surveying students, parents and staff to see how we are doing. So, I thought it was time to reflect on the value of what we have been doing. The reflection is based on my current experiences as a teacher and a leader, the copious survey data as well as contact with colleagues around the world in outstanding schools who have been doing this since mid-January.

We were a bit ahead of the game and had been preparing for a shutdown since mid-February. This involved planning which platforms to use, setting up the data and training teachers in their use. When the announcement of school closure eventually came, it was still sudden and a bit of a shock, but at least we had some preparation under our belt. Once we started online learning, it probably took about a week for all the teachers to be confident and for routines to be settled at school (virtual school that is) and at home.

By then I was completely confident that the academic aspect of learning was going really well. Students are learning as much as they would at school and their skills are progressing as quickly. They are hitting the assessment targets across the board, and completing assessed work on time. We have been clear to ensure that we are replicating the full curriculum at Markham. This means that alongside the core subjects we are also teaching everything else from Arts to Sport, from project-based trans-disciplinary learning to personal and social education. Teachers are working incredibly hard to make this work. In most cases, we are putting in more hours than we would at school!

Of course, school is more than this. When we are in session, important parts of the educational process are social and outside the timetable. This includes the extracurricular activities, the outdoor education programme and the basic social interaction that happens on a school campus. We are steadily introducing more extracurricular education, with sports coaches giving video classes, instrumental music lessons starting up, and online sessions in yoga, chess and other activities now in place. The outdoor education is tricky of course, but we are introducing different challenges through our connections with schools across the world. The Round Square Schools Leadership Challenge and Service Challenge are examples.

The social issue is a bit more complex to understand. Of course, in normal times students meet and interact with other students and adults in school on a continuing basis. This is part of what makes them want to come to school and a great deal of what they get out of it. Is this just lost in a time of quarantine and isolation? We don’t think so. The demands are different, but what the school offers is just as important, perhaps even more so.

When children are isolated with their family, that social interaction is the most important missing element. These days, of course, they can communicate with friends over social media but we know that can also be negative and limiting. They need to be with people who are not just close friends and not just their age group. Without that problems of depression and anxiety will set in. The relationships between members of a family can easily become strained, and they are strained enough in this situation as it is. So the online communal sessions with classes, interest groups and teachers, that the school prepares, provides and manages are absolutely vital to help young people and their families keep their equanimity. Is it the same as normal school? No, but these are not normal times and we believe strongly that what we are doing is as important for isolated children and families as normal school is in normal times. Studies around the world show that isolation endangers mental health, and there is a rise in suicide rates and domestic violence. Are we saving lives? I don’t know. But we are certainly providing a service that helps include young people in a community and stave off some of the risk of depression.

As I mentioned at the start, we have done several surveys, which our community have been keen to respond to. For the first parent survey after the first week, 81% of families responded and the vast majority felt the experience of online learning is a positive one, even then. The second survey this week shows that there is a recognition, from parents and students, of significant improvement across the board since then.

All this having been said, we are all keen to get back to school and back to normal as soon as we can. I wish you all the best during this challenging time.

Some thoughts about using technology in schools

There is no doubt that the use of technology presents problems to us as educators. The environment in which our students, and indeed we ourselves, live has changed dramatically in recent years with relation to technology. The question for us is how to react to this change. I think this means we need to try to answer the following questions.

  • What are we trying to get the children to learn?
  • What can we say about the world our children are growing into?
  • What is our role in equipping children for the world they currently live in as children?
  • Are there better and worse ways of doing this?

The answers to these questions are broad and diverse. My problem with a lot that is written about the use of technology is that it is narrow and context specific. It often relates to a context that is different from ours, and we can make mistakes by simply taking an experience elsewhere and moving it to our context.

Let me take for example the repeated suggestion that research shows that technology means students have lower performance in schools. My three questions about this statement are: 1. What do you mean by lower performance, what are you testing? 2. Is the context of your studies relevant to ours? 3. Is the technology in the study being used in a good way?

My own research into this was a small study done several years ago. The time was different, the technology was different and the school was different. So the result, which clearly showed that the grades of the “laptop class” we had introduced improved more over the year than the rest of the school on average, may not be relevant to us. The biggest changes were for those students with identified learning difficulties such as dyslexia for whom writing was a significant problem.

Here are some thoughts on each of the questions above.

What are we trying to get the children to learn?

Well, this is the big question, isn’t it? The lack of breadth in answering this question leads, in my opinion, to most of the faulty research results that are published and shared. I am reminded of the comment probably miscredited to Einstein that if you measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree it is complete failure. What am I trying to say here? If you assess children on their ability to do things that technology doesn’t help, and you don’t allow the use of technology in the assessment, then it is likely that students who have spent more time concentrating on these things rather than learning how to use technology will be better at it.

So, clearly, there are things that we want students to know, to understand and to be able to do without technology. I don’t want them to have to look up the capital of the United States, the answer to 5 x 6 or whether leaving plastic bottles on the beach is good for the environment. I want them to know these things.

But, I also want them to know how to research a complex question by finding resources and being able to judge their relative value, look for bias, for misleading errors and spot propaganda. I want them to understand how to use their computer and their phone as a useful tool because they need to be able to do this. Otherwise, they will accept any claim made on social media, and stop at the first thing they find on a google search.

This leads to the second question

What can we say about the world our children are growing into?

There is no doubt that technology will pay an increasingly important part in every aspect of people’s lives in the coming years. Complaining that it shouldn’t do so will not change the trends. Nearly all adults have some technology in their lives. The sort of adults that come out of our school will have a great deal. They will manage their lives through phones and computers. There will be computers in more and more of the things they use, from the car to the cooker. They will communicate with friends and families, with banks and businesses through their phones. These are all rather functional, but there are more and deeper issues.

They will engage with important issues in their lives and issues of the day through technology. How many people already consult an online medical resource to find out what the pain in their chest is, before going to see a doctor? A more dramatic example is of young parents deciding whether to vaccinate their child against measles. If you look in the wrong place for the answer then you risk your child’s life and contribute to a growing worldwide epidemic.

Increasingly, democracy is subverted by fake news, environmental concern by propaganda and healthy eating by advertising.

So for question three.

What is our role in equipping children for the world they currently live in as children?

Let me answer this in the negative first. Our role is not to ignore the society we live in. It is not to pretend we can live without these things. Worse, it is not to divide the children’s lives into a technology free zone where we can learn technology free things and to let a secret second life take place in the virtual world that all of these children are part of.

We need to teach wise research skills, responsible social media use, critical thinking about claims made in the virtual world and that the values we uphold are just as relevant there.

We need to design a curriculum of activities that challenge our students to make positive decisions about all these questions. The earlier we do this the more chance we have of protecting them from the damage can happen to them.

Now to the practical aspects.

Are there better and worse ways of doing this?

There are good practices that we can follow that are available. Here are some of my favourites.

Try to avoid one student per device all the time. In particular when setting a research project, insist that groups of five share a computer. Learning needs to be social as well as individual. They must communicate and collaborate over all aspects of the research. From deciding where to look to how to value different sources, they need to talk about it. At some point, you may want them to move from social learning to individual learning. They may do separate write ups, or better still write separate parts of a joint paper, but be aware that this is a one way street. Once they all have a device, communication has stopped and you cannot get it back.

Differentiate clearly between using and not using. Be firm with “screens down, phones face up on the table”. Don’t let them hide phones in their pockets or bags. They will sneak looks at them when you cannot see.

Which leads to openness at all times. Any device brought into the classroom is there to be shared. If you are not prepared to let anyone in the room use your phone, don’t bring it in. We know that bullying, victimization and random abuse happen through social media. Are these likely to be reduced or to stop if we never see it happening, and we insist that the devices are only used when we are not watching? Or would we have a better chance if we encourage students to show their media feeds to their form teacher and their parents at an early age. Nasty things happen in dark places. The light helps us clean them out.

Use the tools to vary the learning. Taking a video with their phone, a quick edit, knowing how to compact it and upload it is a great learning experience. Children not only learn the technology, but learn to speak more clearly, to prepare for speaking through rehearsal, to edit and improve their performance exactly because it is a technological artifact. They know it won’t go away, that they can share it peers, teachers and parents, so they make more of an effort to get it right.

Whenever you as children to do research, ask for their evaluation of the source as well as the result. Why is it to be trusted?

Academic honesty is certainly an issue. Students have more opportunity to cheat certainly. They can take from innumerable sources and claim authorship directly or through modest paraphrasing. They can use online services that offer to write essays for them. I am led to believe that this is more prevalent in universities than in schools, but we need to be aware of it. The opportunities will grow rather than reduce. But, the increasing number of sources also creates confusion and a different kind of problem. Children don’t realise the difference between what is acceptable and what is not. It is not a black and white issue and we cannot blame children for making mistakes if we have not put significant time and effort into educating them about the correct practices. Of course we need to use technology to teach this, and we need to do it young rather than wait until the crucial piece of coursework is set or due.

Starting early with sharing documents with a teacher is an excellent practice. Google makes this trivially easy. We can see what students are producing at the various stages of its development. This avoids the shock of the final piece arriving fully formed on the deadline day. It affords opportunities to explain how to reference citations properly. Again, the younger we start with this the better.

I am keen to hear of any other general ideas we can all use with technology in schools

My Learning Journey

I was prompted by a couple of articles that I read recently to reflect on one of the processes that I was most proud of when I left Island School in Hong Kong in 2017. The first article was one suggested by Nick Thody, head of St Nicholas School in Sao Paulo about an interesting school in the Netherlands, the Agora School. The second was an article in the latest International School Leader Magazine by Gabriel Rshaid about The Global School he has opened in Buenos Aires. Nick and Gabriel are great champions of change in schools

Both the examples, the Agora School and the Global School demonstrate how you can do things differently if you start from scratch. This echoes an assertion I heard at a recent conference that for a school to be “Innovation Ready” it is best for it to be brand new. This is not the challenge for most of us who are in a position of leading or working in schools that have the baggage of history and tradition creating an inertia that makes change harder. I am not suggesting that this baggage is all negative. Far from it. Where I am now, in Markham College in Lima, our tradition provides a stability based on excellent achievement in a wide number of areas of the school. We have a reputation for excellence in the region that is well founded in our 75 year history. But like any school in the world, we can do some things better and differently. My challenge, our challenge, is to make the changes without breaking the thread.. To replace the dirty bath water without losing the baby.

This brings me back to Island School in Hong Kong. When Daniel Trump (now in Bangkok) was a Director of Studies there, he started a group of students called the Senior Learning Advisors. First it was two students who worked with senior management and offered student views, based on their research, on what learning was actually like in the school. They surprised us, enlightened us, sometimes challenged us and sometimes confirmed our thinking on a number of the experiences students went through. The group grew and when Daniel left us, it was taken on by Vice Principal, Monica Gilbert Saez (now Head of Rotterdam IS). The Learning Journey Project began when we decided to update our 10 year old teaching and Learning Policy. Previously this had been written by teachers, but we asked why shouldn’t we consult the Senior Learning Advisors? The group was now about 12 students, and their consultation role soon developed into an ownership of the project. They worked with teachers, certainly, but most of the final wording was the students’. It was called a document that was both descriptive of what we do now, and aspirational for what we should be doing. The tension between the parts of the educational programme where the Learning Journey described what we did, and where we needed to aspire to get closer to it, was the catalyst for the changes we needed in the school.

I am proud of it because I think it is a fantastic description of what learning should be about, probably as good as any by the IB, The Common Ground, the IPC or whoever. But it is better because of the ownership of it by the school, and particularly the students. You can see it at the bottom of this article. It is on the Island School website here. The next group of Learning Advisors took on a different challenge. There were now around 20 of them. The challenge was to take aspects of the Learning Journey and see where they described what was happening. Where could they see students owning their learning, where was it authentic, where it is social and where it is individual etc. The school’s challenge is to aspire to incorporating these aspects of learning wherever possible and appropriate. This provides a direction of travel through change that builds on the successful aspects of the history.

Many schools take an off-the-shelf description of learning such as the IB Learner Profile and aspire to it, and it is a fine document. Some schools give students more control over what and how they learn such as the examples above. I know of no other school where the students actually create the description of what learning is and what it should be. If you know of one please tell me.

Our Learning Journey

was written by students and  teachers of Island School, Hong Kong. It describes the way students learn and the active role they must take in their learning

We own our learning

As we become confident with how we learn, we take more and more responsibility to define who we are and what we want to achieve. This is enhanced by the opportunities we have, from early on, to select our own learning pathways. This enables us to excel in our learning, and pursue the things we are good at and enjoy. We grow into active and engaged learners.

We learn through challenge

We believe that learning is best when it is varied and achieves a range of outcomes. We acknowledge that not all learning has a visible, measurable or immediate outcome and as learners, we will go through experiences that develop our confidence, skills, help us acquire conceptual knowledge and enhance our character. The process of learning is not always linear, yet we maintain a resilient, healthy and positive approach to the challenges of learning.

Our learning is authentic

Authentic learning aims to increase our awareness of the local and global community around us. Learning becomes more authentic when it is purposeful, relevant and solution focused and the boundary between school and community is dissolved. These aspects are integrated into the learning process in order for us to engage with and solve real world problems.

Our learning is connected

Learning has no boundaries and takes place everywhere. We establish connections between the different facets of our learning, and transfer and apply understandings and skills from context to context. We use the understanding from the knowledge we have remembered to apply to problems and situation in the future. We learn to thrive in conditions of complexity, uncertainty and opportunity.  We want to be critical and creative thinkers.

Our learning is social and individual

We thrive on a balance of working individually and in groups. We recognise our ability and capacity to make our own decisions about leading our own learning. Our learning is enhanced through engagement with others. For this, we are committed to be effective communicators and collaborative contributors across all aspects of our school life. We choose when to learn individually and when to learn collectively. These vital skills are explicitly taught, learned and practised.

We respect others through our learning

We strive to value and understand different contexts and perspectives in the world. We respect and embrace a variety of cultures as a reflection of our rich and common humanity. At the same time, we foster the critical and discerning formation of opinions, and we express ourselves in creative and thought-provoking ways. We learn to appreciate the implications of our actions and viewpoints, and to take responsibility for them.

We learn about the needs of our world

Being a responsible global citizen implies the need to create strong ties to relate to others who are distinctively different. We foster cohesion, collaboration and agreement to ensure the wellbeing and sustainability of our planet and everything on it.

We believe in the value of childhood

We believe that childhood is an integral part of a person’s life and not just a preparation for adulthood. Therefore we respect the wellbeing of all students and it is everybody’s business to make sure they feel safe, secure and validated. We endorse the idea of ‘living in the moment’. Education, school and childhood should be engaging, formative, inspiring and fun.


Alice in Educationland Live in Mexico

Illustration by Liesbeth Zweiger

I was very pleased to be invited to read some Chapters of the Alice stories at the Latin American Heads conference in Mexico City yesterday. We had some interesting discussions based around the questions posed by each chapter. The feedback was generous and we all had a few laughs as well.

The presentation I used contains the questions as well as some excellent illustrations of Alice from a number of different artists from Tenniel to Dali and Steadman. There is also some Alice related music from Jefferson Airplane, to Avril Lavigne via Tom Waits. The special treat in chapter 5, or is it 4 is some pictures from Suman Vaze that have nothing to do with Alice!

Illustration Ralph Steadman



The presentation is here (posted by popular demand). Probably download to see it. Let the frames run for about 5 minutes each if you want to see the pictures. The text is not there but here. And, in true Alice style the chapter numbering is different on the presentation from the website.

Happy reading.




Existential Education

Image result for existential painting

The Scream: Munch showing the Existential Angst that comes from Bad Faith, Rubrics and Uniforms

“Existence precedes Essence” said Sartre. Well, he would have said it in French of course, but you get the idea. You can read lots of books about what this means for life but I started to wonder what it means for education, and it does seem to question a lot of the current dogma and lead to a more open way of learning. It is amazing how often what you read confirms what you already thought to be true isn’t it? I guess Trump would say the same, if he does read that is.

Back to existential education.

The point is that unlike a crafted object that is created for a purpose we exist as humans first and our essence of who we are comes later. We have both the freedom and the responsibility to define that essence. We are, in Sartre’s memorable phrase “Condemned to be free”. His example is that a paper knife is created to cut paper. Its role, or its shape, or sharpness or any other properties come after the decision that it will be a paper knife. Indeed its very existence depends on someone deciding that they need to create a paper knife. The existence comes after the essence.

For existentialists we humans are the other way round. There is nothing in the creation of a human being that decides that we will take on a certain role or personality. We must use our terrible freedom to do that. For Sartre this was an atheist point of view because there was no God to predefine our essence. However, for the Christian Existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, the freedom is still an obligation, but also one we must recognise in others. To classify someone by a perceived essence is objectification, and his example is of a father who is disappointed that his daughter does not live up to the image of a young girl that he expects. He considers her as object rather than subject of her existence.

Enough Philosophy, let’s look at education. And now I am going to sound like a cracked record repeating the same scratch. The freedom our philosophers describe is often called our subjectivity. We are the subject of our own creation. This is the very act of learning. It is the gradual creation of our essence. Humans are condemned to learn, the are the subjects of learning to be what their freedom condemns them to choose.

So, when we spend too much time and energy restricting the freedom that our students should have in their learning, we are guilty of objectification in the language of Marcel. We are turning our students from being subjects that must create their essence through their learning into objects that fulfil a role defined by others such as teachers. Sartre would call this “bad faith” (actually he would call it Mauvaise Foi, but I suspect the translation loses something). We are condemning students to be too like our vision of students. Bad faith leads to anxiety and angst.

An existential education allows students to be “authentic” and prevents us resorting to blaming others for our lack of freedom. There will be fewer goals and targets, certainly no rubrics and there won’t be a uniform in site!