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Participatory Learning in Schools: Square Peg, Round Hole?

Participatory Learning in Schools: Square Peg, Round Hole?

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Published by Derek E. Baird
Participatory Learning in Schools: Square Peg, Round Hole? | Handout by James Bosco from the Participatory Media Learning session held at the 2010 Digital Media Learning Conference at the University of California at San Diego.
Participatory Learning in Schools: Square Peg, Round Hole? | Handout by James Bosco from the Participatory Media Learning session held at the 2010 Digital Media Learning Conference at the University of California at San Diego.

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Published by: Derek E. Baird on Jun 19, 2010
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Participatory Learningi n Schools: Square Pegi n Round Hole
James Bosco-Digital Media in Learning Conference San Diego; Feb.20,2010
The title for this session is a question: Is participatory learning a square peg in a round hole?

Is there incompatibility between participatory learning and the structure of schools as they typically exist? My answer is: yes. The follow up questions is: Can this incompatibility be overcome? My answer to this question is: Yes butit is not an easy task or certain to be accomplished if we are speaking of this on a wide scale district level basis rather than as individual schools here and there. This leads to three more focused questions: What does

"participatory learning" mean? How is it incompatible with the existing nature of schools? What
needs to be done to overcome the incompatibility?
Information and communications technologies have provoked deep and wide changes in how
information and knowledge are produced, disseminated, and used as well as in how, when,

and where we learn. All sectors of society have been profoundly affected with the exception of formal education. While economic status still affects accessibility, there has never been a era in human civilization with as much widespread access to the intellectual or learning resources of the culture than there is at this moment. It is perversely ironic that so many young people in our society continue to have more access to vibrant learning experiences via the Internet in their lives outside of school than they do when they are in school.

The Meaning of Participatory Learning

There are a number of definitions of participatory learning. All definitions of participatory
learning are stipulative. As such, there is no correct or incorrect definition but, that does not
mean that one definition is as good as any other. The criterion for assessing the quality of a
given definition is the extent to whichit is grounded in sound learning research and theory
andlor the extent to which it contributes to establishing good schooling practices. Several
papers have been helpful to me in forming my thinking about participatory learning (A listing of
them is in the bibliography of this paper.) andIbelieve the definitionI offer fits with what is

happening in best practice situations.
In a participatory learning environment the learner:

Is intrinsically motivated to learn and engaged in the learning process.
Actively pursues a personal, rather than imposed, agenda for learning based on their
own needs, interests, capabilities, and goals.
Makes abundant and effective use of Collaboration and involvement in learning

Produces and shares products that play a critical role in the learning process for
themselves and other learners.

Encounters learning in tasks that have meaning and relevance for the learner by
connecting the learning to their own frame of reference and to "real world" physical,
social, and cultural contexts

Constructs their knowledge and competencies experientially through authentic engagements with objects, persons, ideas and other cultural artifacts rather than through didactic instruction

None of the six elements in the definition are new in the digital media era. There is a long line
of champions of educational reform over past centuries who wanted schools to be that way.

What is new is that ICT has provided resources that make such learning environments in
schools not only far more plausible than has even been the case but also enable schools to be
congruent with the texture of contemporary culture which is increasingly participatory.

Participatory Learning vs. Schoolsas They Exist
Folk wisdom has it that our schools are modeled after factories but, the greatl g mcentury

school reformers, Horace Mann, James Carter, Henry Barnard, who established the type of we have were not factory builders; they were System thinkers. In the wake of the industrial revolution their metaphor was the machine. Machines were systems comprised of well

articulated components that efficiently and successfully accomplished a task. That is what
they wanted the system of schooling to be. The key componentsin the system were age
grading, standardized, discrete subject/discipline curricula, teacher-centered group instruction,

timed class periods, formal teacher training, and a bureaucratized organizational structure. Those components are well articulated with one another and together maintain homeostasis for the system.

The key aspects of a participatory learning environment in the above definition are discordant
with the nature of the schooling system as it has existed since thel g mcentury. Also, the
curriculum has become increasingly over-burdened; time is a scarce commodity in schools.
When we move from "covering content" to creating a situation where kids come to understand
and even appreciate what they are learning, the time that is needed is determined by the
learning situation rather than by a pre-set time allocation.

The history of school innovation over the past century shows that contrary to conventional

wisdom, schools actually have rather pemeable boundaries with regard to innovations. The list of innovations that schools have adopted over the years is long but, innovations that are accepted tend to be tuned to the existing school system structure. Schools do not reject innovations: they "tame" them. Innovations get "blended in" with prevailing practices in a manner which does not alter the basic nature and functioning of schools. Every school can point to instances, some more than others, where the elements of participatory learning are

occurring but situations where participatory learning represents the dominant character of the
learning are, as one might expect, rare. The way in which teaching and learning
conventionally occurs in schools is exactly what one would expect to see given the nature of
the system.
It is also important to recognize how the publlc feels about the current adequacy of our

schools. The2009 Phi Delta Kappa Gallup poll reported that25% of Americans rated the Nation's schools as poor or failing. Parents were more satisfied with the school their child attended with only8 % giving the school a poor or failing grade. These data do not indicate that the public supports major changes in our schools.

Overcoming the Incompatibility
The challenge is to transform rather than tinker with the existing ideological context and
organizational structure of the schools. In order to do this,I believe we need to:
Recognize that active intervention rather than trust in an evolutionary process is the
needed posture.

Provoke revisions in the federal, state, and local school policies that are inimical to best practice in establishing the learning environments that our children need and deserve. Enlist the active involvement in such efforts of teachers and administrators who working to create participatory learning environments for their students.

Enlist and support the leadership of district school administrators in making the needed
paradigm shift of the organizational structure in their districts.
Promote and support efforts to develop schools and classrooms that are "real world
exemplars of participatory learning eveni f they are anomalies in their district.

Embrace the realization that the hegemony of formal education in the learning domain
no longer exists and that the distinction between formal and informal education is invalid
in the learning lives of our children and dysfunctional in establishing appropriate

learning environments.
Expand efforts in pre and in service professional development for teachers and
administrators to develop the dispositions and competencies required to implement
participatory learning.
Reach out to the parents and the public at large to expand perspectives on what
constitutes a good schooling experience for their children.

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