A classroom is not a learning place

A  metro station (and most classrooms) are not learning places

Joshua Bell, one of the most celebrated violinists of our time, decided a few years ago to play in a Washington metro station pretending he was one more street performers. He played, thousand passed by and only 27 stopped and listened. At the time his concerts were sold out all over the world. An article by Pulitzer Prize Gene Weingarten gave this unique performance a worldwide coverage and helped question the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. Are we too busy to stop, listen and enjoy? Are we unable to open our eyes and look around? Have we all become bystanders, passively consuming predigested knowledge and unable to detect the value of the unknown, the emotions of beauty?

Bell alone on a corner went unnoticed as would have happened to most artists in the same conditions.

bell 1


In my understanding, Bell’s metro concert raises another question regarding the aesthetic or learning function of space.

Are we ready to accept that any place like a metro station be a concert’s place? Do we have enough “brain plasticity” to consider that any place like a metro station can be a learning place?

Aren’t we fully conditioned by the predetermined meaning of a place and therefore only able to accept that learning can take place in a classroom? Even the MOOCs haven’t fully succeeded in breaking this “glass ceiling” and remain secondary learning options.

Joshua Bell decided to come back a few years later and give it another try. But this time, the outcome was different. He brought with him a group of young musicians and publicized it. People came and listen… The venue was the same but the very meaning of the space had changed. Instead of standing alone in a corner, Bell was now the center of attention on a stage set for the occasion. We were told in advance that the metro for a few hours will be a concert’s hall and we got prepared to it.

bell 2

Bell’s announced success condemns in a way serendipity learning. It says that learning always happens in predetermined conditions. We all have in mind the picture of students sitting passively in a classroom and listening to their teacher, How many are really learning? How many are thousands of miles away lost in their dreams? How many of those listening to new Bell’s concerts were really listening to the music and how many were just enjoying the fact they were among the happy few in a once in a lifetime cultural event?

For me, nothing will substitute the exceptional experience lived once by 27 people that stopped and listened to the beautiful music of an unknown music star.

The problem is that hardly no one is prepared to listen when not told to do it or actively learn outside the classroom if not allowed to do it. No education system is ready to commission Joshua Bell to go and teach music in a metro station to students on their way to school… certainly for fear they’ll arrive late…

While learning is restricted to a classroom with four walls, students can’t be emotionally challenged to learn outside and get used to sit and stare.

Teacher Bricoleur or Teacher Entrepreneur

Are the teachers mere followers of innovative trends in the classroom or true entrepreneurs that deeply transform education everyday? Are they artisans that are reinventing their work everyday or visionaries that use technology to change the way we learn?

Are the teachers “bricoleurs” or “entrepreneurs”?

Bricoleur is a French word described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in ‘The Savage Mind’ as “someone who works with his hands, using devious means. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’”.


bricolage Levi Strauss

Alex Beard from TeachUK once argued that “teachers will be bricoleurs” and that by 2030 “adaptations, mash-ups and bricolages will be the norm”. The teachers-bricoleurs will be “continuously using, adding to or adapting new resources for new learning needs, inviting peer-review and providing evidence of learning results”.

“Whatever is at hand” is exactly what the Israeli artist and educator Hanoch Piven experiences when engaging teachers in thinking about their practices as if they were bricoleurs experiencing the art of mash-up with everyday objects. Hanoch asks teachers to use objects in a distorted way in order to think creatively about what they do in the classroom, and why.

Hanoch and Alex reinvent Huberman’s vision[1] of a teacher “who is always busy, creating or repairing learning activities of different kinds with a distinctive style or signature”.

Bricolage is not  a second best solution neither for the teachers or the students but has to be central to creative thinking. In the words of Seymour Papert, “bricolage is a way to learn and solve problems by trying, testing, playing around”.

How do we combine “bricolage” and technology?

The bricoleur-teacher stimulates creativity in the classroom, in a much more powerful and sustainable way than through the use of technology alone. Jim Groom, in his evocation of The Glass Bees, reminds us that “teaching and learning are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together”.

In his article ‘Mashing up the Institution’, Hanley argues that the bricoleur-teachers will have to disrupt existing representations of teaching and learning by asking “students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text”.

Hanley asks what happens when teachers within public school systems think of themselves as bricoleurs rather than the users and clients of sophisticated Learning Management System that are increasingly used in schools to connect with students and parentsAnd he answers: “we’ll have to abandon our institutional identities as users and clients to embrace more inventive, experimental, self-conscious identities”.

The bricoleur-teacher will emerge as a strong figure in these times of changes when technology tries to make its way in the classroom and when at the same times schools face lack of resources and “the daily scramble for a dry-board marker that still has some ink in it.”

Teachers can no longer be seen, as Eileen Honan states it, as “policy-users who compliantly follow instructions and programs laid down by policy developers” but as “bricoleurs” that design artisanal solutions that will fit individual and community needs.

In the end the teacher bricoleur is the true innovator, the closest representation of a teacher entrepreneur.

And the good news is that there are many of them!


 [1] Huberman: the model of the independent artisan in teachers’ professional relations in: J.W. Little & M W. McLaughlin (Eds) Teachers’ Work : individuals, colleagues, and contexts (New York, Teachers College Press) 1993

This post is a revised version of a text published in this blog in June 2013.

Innovate in the classroom: another children’s right

“Each one of us has the potential to bring about change if we channel our energies and our anger at injustices in the right way. Even a small spark can dispel darkness in a room. And each of us represents a small but critical spark if we act on the problems we see rather than just witness them”.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi wants to ignite the spark in each of us, in our capacity not to be just bystanders, helpless witnesses or spectators, but up standers: people who shout aloud and act.

November, 20 is the day of the Convention about the Rights of the Child. It reminds us that any transformation starts with children, acknowledging their capacity and their right to act.

The Convention establishes in it article 12 that “States Parties shall ensure to the child who is capable of forming a proper judgment the right to express his or her opinion freely in all matters affecting the child, taking due account of the views of the child, according to his age and maturity.”

How many children know about this fundamental right to stand up in a community, speak and act?

It is ironic, as educational expert Roger Hart says, that in many countries illiterate children who live basically on the streets, far from the influence of their families, know their rights better than those who live with their families in an accommodated situation.

Innovation in education has a lot to do with children participation. How can we promote adaptive children and projects base learning without endorsing the political consequences of giving children the right to participate in their communities?

Taking children participation seriously, means that we want to see them demonstrate and shout for the things that they personally believe to be true.

There is a great variety of forms of participation and means of expression. Several projects truly recognize the ability of young people to play a significant role in community-based sustainable development, especially through collaboration with adults.

P.A.U. Education‘s education project “Children write a book in school” has two main objectives: to enable students from schools around the world to express themselves creatively about their rights and, at the same time, to promote the Convention. This project has already been developed in more than 100 countries. Discover here the latest book of this unique collection written by children from a Sevillan school in Spain.

Cuento_St Marys School

Innovation in the classroom can be as simple as letting children write about their rights… Just as if innovation itself was a new children’s right.


The day after

What do we do the day after?

The day after. The day of wonder and contemplation. The day of apprehension and introspection. The day of dejection and courage.

What do we do the day after the year after? What do we do and what will we do the day after every November 13th?

bataclan 2

We must remember their names and their lives. We must reaffirm the values ​​of the Republic, the “common culture of mutual tolerance and respect”, as the French Minister of Education wrote in the aftermath of the attacks.

We must…

We must also look at the images of “the victims of after”. The list of victims continues to grow. We must ask why teachers can be attacked and why schools still burned in our cities. As if the example of the Bataclan destroyed then rebuilt were not enough to make us all feel fraternally united against ignorance and intolerance.

A class photo of “the friends from before” that could be picturing side by side the terrorists and their victims, born in the same city in the same year, would plunge us back into disbelief and despair.

It is surprising to look at us rewinding and re-watching the video of this minute of silence on the day of the reopening of the Bataclan, as we desperately seek a response to our feelings of impotence.

Yet there is an answer: education again and again, Education is the answer, and it goes far beyond the school and the teachers. Education is the only answer the following day, far from the incantations and “resources” that we hurriedly create in the hope that a single debate in a classroom could repel violence.

Education is the answer. It is an unceasingly renewed response, an individual and collective reply, as fragile as we are.

The fragility that Sting sang of, the “day before”:

“Like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are, how fragile we are. ”


Le jour d’après

Que fait-on le jour d’après?

Le jour d’après, le jour de la sidération et du recueillement, le jour de l’appréhension et du retour sur soi, le jour de l’abattement et du courage.

Que fait-on le jour d’après de l’année d’aprés? Que fait-on et que fera t’on le jour d’après chaque 13 novembre?

bataclan 2

Il faut rappeler les noms et le souvenir. Il faut réaffirmer les valeurs de la République, la “culture commune de la tolérance mutuelle et du respect” comme écrivait le ministre français de l’Education nationale au lendemain des attentats.

Il faut…

Il faut revoir aussi les images des “victimes d’après” car la liste n’a pas cessé de s’agrandir. Se demander encore comment des enseignants peuvent être agressés, des écoles incendiées dans nos villes. Comme si l’exemple du Bataclan détruit puis reconstruit ne devrait pas suffire pour se sentir tous fraternellement unis contre l’ignorance et l’intolérance.

Une photo de classe des “copains d’avant” qui aurait mise côte à côte les terroristes et leurs victimes pourtant nés la même année dans un même quartier, nous replongerait dans la stupeur.

Nous nous surprenons alors à revoir en boucle la vidéo de cette minute de silence le jour de la réouverture du Bataclan, cherchant une réponse à notre impuissance.

Il y a pourtant une réponse, l’éducation encore et encore, L’éducation est la réponse au-delà de l’école et des seuls enseignants. L’éducation est la seule réponse le jour d’après, loin des incantations et des “ressources” que nous nous empressons de créer en pensant qu’un débat dans une salle de classe pourrait seul repousser la violence

L’éducation est la réponse, une réponse sans cesse renouvellée, réponse individuelle et collective, aussi fragile que nous le sommes.

La fragilité que chantait Sting le “jour d’avant”:

“ Like tears from a star like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are how fragile we are.”




Change! Now!

Change! Now!

These keywords have been on the agenda of all education Ministries for the past years. Is it invocation? Empty promise? Visionary policies?

Technology has been around for the last 20 years in a way or another. Seymour Papert  at the very beginning of the internet era wrote that technology was “going to displace school and the way we have understood school.” He saw the “fundamental nature of school coming to an end” but 20 years later schools are still there and just about to change.

As inconceivable as it may seem, schools, as we have known them, have continued. The same buildings host the same classrooms with a standard spatial organization and the same “curriculum dictatorship” even though core curriculum has changed many times in every country. What is taught remains more important than what is learned and it is not enough to add coding to the curriculum to change the way we learn at school.

Schools have not changed enough when children have changed drastically. School children belong to the generations who have been raised in a context where digital technologies form an inextricable part of daily life. The so-called New Millenium Learners “NML” or Digital natives spend the same time on electronic media a week than an adult at the workplace.

When children come to school, they already know lots of things that schools will never teach them. We have (re)discovered that children have this incredible ability to learn by exploring and in specific contexts even to teach themselves. They can access knowledge when they want to, when they need to. But school is certainly the only place where they can’t exercise freely these abilities. Teachers in their vast majority are still unable to use the technology they have access to in a creative way for educative purposes. How come could these children still accept to study the French revolution when they have the possibility with a video game “Assassin’s Creed” to be french revolutionaries themselves

It is still unclear how schools should and could transform themselves to better respond to the needs of these “NML” and the society they live in.

On the organizational side, several questions are raised. Are we aiming at lesser pupils per classroom? Even in a no change context, classrooms will certainly experience a decrease in the number of students due to demographic trends. Will we be able to invest heavily on the teachers to recruit the best talents into teaching (and among the best, the very best in the most challenging schools as does Teach for All)? We have seen in the last 4 years how uncertainties regarding economic growth are rapidly translated into budgetary cuts in education and into less innovation.

resistance to change


On the pedagogical side, many question marks remain. How will we address the need for more creativity in the classroom? Do we advocate – as Paulo Freire did in the 80’s – for a pedagogy of the question (rather than of the answer)? Should we prioritize activity-based learning rather than traditional lecturing as in the flipped classroom model? Will we substitute – in words of John Seely Brown -  a school of “learning about”  by a school of “learning to be”? The answers will depend largely on our capacity to engage teachers in inventing new teaching practices to achieve these new pedagogical objectives and fully utilize the new teaching technologies made available to them.


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