Learning in a Culture of Possibility: 3 Essential Books

A visitor to our school recently asked if I could recommend the three most inspiring books I have read on education. If someone asked me to name my favourite novel, film, song or poem, I’d struggle to respond definitively, but I was surprised by my ability to answer this question with ease. This was my response:

How Children Fail (1964) by John Holt.
Learning by Heart (2001) by Roland S. Barth.
Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future (2013) by David Price.

Why do these particular titles resonate so strongly? Spanning half a century, they contain some particularly thought-provoking ideas on learning:

Holt: “This idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, ‘positive and negative reinforcements,’ usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true.”

Barth: “Because the world outside and the students inside are changing so fast and in such unpredictable ways, the most important change to bring to the schoolhouse is a culture of continual adaptability, ability, experimentation, and invention.”

Price: “We face a complex set of possible futures and no one can authoritatively predict how things will look in ten years, let alone by the end of the century. We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty, because this age of uncertainty could become permanent. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn.”

In thinking about it, Holt, Barth and Price have several things in common. They speak from the heart about the essence of learning. Their perspectives are firmly rooted in the fundamental needs of students and they understand that they are, first and foremost, children, not small adults or college kids in training camps. There is no jargon, no ornate attempt to impress: these works are free of pretension or any attempt to pander to a pseudo-intellectual elite. If anything, most critically, all three challenge the status quo with an intimate knowledge and empathy for the teachers in the trenches. All three essentially explore the concept of possibility.

Many of the most inspirational books on education actually seek to address a common thread articulated by Holt in 1964 when he described education as a profession with a culture characterised by “pathological caution”. This was a bold statement at the time, one still relevant when Barth was writing at the turn of this century, and one echoed more recently by Price. For too long educational systems have neglected to place the genuine needs of the learner in a human context, in an environment that naturally reflects the conditions in which people learn best. This is how children fail. As society continues to go through a transformation accelerated by technology, we now have opportunities to engage learners in ways that can transcend the lethargic hesitancy that has been the hallmark of many school systems for generations. This will require an unwavering trust in talented teachers who, when empowered and supported, are always inclined to put the learner first.

I am privileged to work in an environment that is thoughtful and empowering. We have spent a lot of time recently discussing goals designed to improve student learning. The work involved has been impressive in the scope of its ambition, reflection, diversity and impact. It is humbling to hear teachers speak about how they put their heart into what they do each day, how their work is informed by what we now know about how children learn, what their emotional needs are, and what their limitless capacities can be if we create the right environment in which they can take risks, express themselves, and take increasing ownership of their learning. The journey from Holt to Barth to Price traces a compelling story about how far education has come, an evolution from conformity to possibility and beyond. There’s a long way to go, but we know the direction we need to follow. Learners before systems.

I heard someone recently remark that children need to know their place in the world as early as possible. The words were jarring. In the absence of a hopeful context, some qualification that might have made these anachronistic words more palatable, I was struck by a bleak image that represents the very worst that we can aspire to as educators. This is education as a place of stratification, of sorting, of limitation, of caution. Learning should be about the very opposite. How can we make sure this is the case?

If we care, we must resist.

When systemic caution gives way to an open culture of empowerment, anything is possible.

Holt, John. How Children Fail (1964)
Bart, Roland S. Learning by Heart (2001)
Price, David. Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future (2013)

Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash