Reflections on Education. EPILOGUE – Hey! Teachers! Leave them Kids Alone

This is the conclusion of a three-blog series about education. The idea is to discuss some current views and basically make you reflect. Don’t forget to check out the prologue and the apologue before you read this.

Walls everywhere

Unlike the parallel universe version of me, who could travel through dimensions, who was not limited by the physical world, this is André Hedlund from planet earth where we are surrounded by walls we cannot walk through. Everywhere you look, you’ll see a wall blocking the view, defining our spaces, and limiting our free movement. Ancient civilizations built large walls around their cities to stop invaders. The world’s longest wall is The Great Wall of China, which extends for nearly 3,500km – more than 6,000km if we consider all the branches. More recently, we can think of the Wall of Berlin, which was much more modest – around 150km long – but it served the same purpose: separation.

Walls are not only physical. We have metaphorical walls all over the place too. The walls in someone’s mind, or to put someone up against the wall, or even to talk to a brick wall. Pink Floyd’s eleventh album The Wall certainly explored these metaphors in what some might consider a revolutionary way. In Another Brick in the Wall Pink Floyd tells us that:

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers leave us kids alone

Hey! Teachers! Leave us kids alone!

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall
The Wall, released in 1979

The song is about isolation, pain, but it is also a hard critique of an educational system that controls minds and kills creativity. There’s a scene in the video clip where faceless kids wearing school uniforms march into a meat grinder without hesitation to become raw material for sausages. The system leads them towards their slaughter, like animals for consumption, with no individuality, dreams, and no voice.

Think about the typical school building. It’s surrounded by large walls, divided into classrooms with four walls. These walls are meant to control where students can be and isolate them from other students and the external world. They impose barriers, which have been part of the educational system since the Industrial Revolution. MIT Media Lab professor Mitchel Resnick classifies these barriers into four categories: subjects, age, space, and time. Kids are grouped according to their age, they stay in the classroom where a specific subject is being taught and then move to another. These students are removed from their community and homes in what feels like a prison, where a bell tells them when to have a break and to have some food. The ask for permission to go to the bathroom and they have around 50min – the length of one lesson – to get something done.

The wall as a creative space

Photo by Paula Schmidt on

For Mitchel Resnick, wide and empty walls are actually exciting and symbolize precisely what education needs: creative learning in a more inclusive way. Resnick has been working with LEGO for over 30 years, collaborating with projects such as the LEGO Mindstorms robot kit, he’s the co-founder of Clubhouse Network, an extracurricular learning center for low-income youth around the world, and his group develops the Scratch programming software, the world’s leading coding platform for kids.

Mitchel Resnick

Before going back to Resnick, let’s go back to the last time you moved or decorated your place. Have you ever felt paralyzed in front of a wide white wall? Have you ever found yourself staring at it for minutes – maybe even an hour – trying to figure out what to hang or what color to paint it? You might’ve felt powerless, with no creativity. On the other hand, you might’ve felt incredibly empowered. It’s your wall, your new home, and you can make it look the way you want. You may not necessarily have all the skills or resources but at this point, the sky is the limit.

In Resnick’s book Lifelong Kindergarten, he discusses how what education might be missing is what we can find in kindergartens. Resnick actually claims that the most important invention of the last one thousand years, attributed to German educator Friedrich Froebel, was the idea of a kindergarten. Think about it. Kindergartens are known for their constructivist approach to teaching and learning. They’re more student-centered, they focus on student-student and teacher-student interaction, as well as exploration – including their environment, toys, and nature. They knock down some walls, allowing kids outside the classroom, or expand them – making classrooms larger like huge art studios where kids can play, create and hang their “art” on the walls:

Creative Learning Spiral (Resnick, 2017)

Resnick believes that creative learning’s engine is represented by the spiral above. Kids in kindergarten repeat this process a number of times to accomplish creative outcomes. He discusses the role of technology in creative learning:

When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Mitchel Resnick

In this sense, schools need to have the space, the subject, the time, and mixed-age groups to allow kids coming from different backgrounds to work on projects they’re passionate about with their peers through play. As a matter of fact, Resnick’s group in charge of Scratch bases their beliefs of creative learning and how to promote it on four principles, the Four Ps of Creative Learning:

  1. Projects – to help students explore in depth subjects they’re interested in and develop new ideas
  2. Passion – to keep students motivated for longer and more committed to finding solutions to their problem
  3. Peers – to have students collaborate, share, and build through meaningful interactions
  4. Play – to encourage students to tinker with, experiment, and take chances together

Given the right tools and nudge, a white wall in an empty room can become what the photos below show. Walls can expand and can give us creative ideas. The can also, instead of separating us, connect us to the world as I discuss ahead.

The Hole in the Wall

That’s what I did. I just took a computer and gave it to them. I stuck it in a wall because there wasn’t any other place to put it. And I didn’t tell them to do anything and I turned it on and just left it there. […] Then the rest is history. They started using it, they started downloading stuff, they started doing all sorts of thing in a language that they didn’t know: English

Sugata Mitra talking about his experiment

In the late 90s, professor Sugata Mitra, an Indian educator and computer scientist, decided to conduct an unusual experiment in rural India. He placed a computer inside a wall and, as described in his quote above, kids began to use it without instructions and supervision. Soon enough they were able to figure out how computers work, download music, play games, create drawings, send and receive emails. This experiment was replicated many times and achieved similar results.

Sugata Mitra

This is what Mitra calls Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The premise here is simple: education should capitalize on students’ natural curiosity and simply provide the right tools and the right environment as to reduce teachers’ intervention. It’s aligned with the ideas proposed by Maria Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi (Reggio Emilia).

In 2013, Sugata Mitra received the acclaimed TED Prize from none other than Sir Ken Robinson, a fierce advocate of bringing creativity back to schools. Before announcing the winner, Sir Robinson said:

So many kids are disengaged from education and there’s a tendency to confuse testing with learning […] What drives learning is curiosity, questioning … What fires people up to learn is having their mind opened up by possibilities.

Sir Ken Robinson at the TED2013 Prize

Sir Ken Robinson has also offered his quite insightful ideas on creativity in his own talk.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original

Sir Ken Robinson in his Do schools Kill Creativity? TED Talk

What the hole in the wall experiment showed us, which Sir Ken Robinson reinforces, is that education should have room for exploration, being wrong, and creativity. Perhaps as much room as the other stuff we normally teach. With that in mind, how do we move away from the educational system depicted in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall and not fall into the learnification trap? Our recent History and a particular wall can hold some answers.

Berlin Wall: Leave the kids alone – sometimes

Graffiti on the Wall of Berlin

The Wall of Berlin was a symbol of a divided world. A world torn into two different ideologies of how life should be lived. It stood tall for 30 years separating families, friends, perspectives on the economy, politics, and dreams. When it finally came down in 1991, many people felt like some important paradigms were broken along with the concrete used to build the wall. This might be true for many sectors, but it doesn’t seem to have reached education as one might wish.

The interesting thing about this wall is that, even though it symbolized segregation, rigidity, and violence, it was used by many artists as a blank canvas. Messages and beautiful designs were painted all over the Wall of Berlin. What was once a straightjacket became a stage for creativity.

We can think of our educational system as a huge building with many walls of possibilities. It extend for miles, both up and sideways. It usually separates people from what they want to achieve in life. Some of us are on the inside and others are on the other side of those walls. Many of us want to make the walls as beautiful as we can but each one of us has different ideas about what they should look like. Maybe some of us don’t have the resources like paint, paintbrushes, frames, vases, mirrors, shelves, and other things to decorate them. Perhaps we don’t have the skills to make beautiful designs, to put up a shelf with books or even to build a beautiful inner garden with a fountain.

The way I see it, we need to add more holes to the walls of this building like Sugata Mitra did. The walls need to give passage to those who want to go to the other side on their own. But leaving them alone, unsupervised the entire time won’t do the trick. As Biesta defends when he talks about learninfication, there are certain contents and roles students must learn and relationships they must create, which means we need to have a structured educational system just like a building with solid foundations and spaces.

We want people to be creative thinkers and come up with interesting solutions to our walls/building problem. But we can’t completely break the barriers of subjects, age, space, and time. I don’t think that’s what Resnick proposed in his book. We need more inter- and multidisciplinarity, certainly, but we also need to offer introductory (low floor) and more advanced (high ceiling) subjects. We should offer a Painting 101 or Introduction to Geometric Figures class for those who have no idea how to get started. But we should also have lectures on building bridges and domes.

Grouping people according to age can continue as they might be have lots in common, but we can allow mixed-age groups to form and work in creative projects as well. We need to have a basic schedule for activities to help guide people who choose where to be and when but also to make sure the fundamentals become mandatory. Like in a building, everyone needs to go through the lobby and get elevators or escalators to get to certain rooms.

We want to see independent work but not always. Sometimes we need direct instruction and group work to help people achieve the task: making the walls as beautiful as possible or transforming this building into a modern eco-friendly building.

We also need those who know about engineering and construction to help us make sure that the building and its walls are solid. The main purpose of a wall is to keep unwanted things and people away. It protects us from bad weather too. Our walls should separate us from ideas that may lead to the destruction of our building or the construction of even bigger and more rigid walls that can’t be breached. Our walls should not be like the Wall of Berlin or the Great Wall of China. Our walls must go beyond the notion of separation. They have to be more like millions of murals in an art studio or a design room. Our walls should be built of concrete but also wood, metal, and glass. We want them to be flexible but well structured.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that education/schooling does have the power to kill creativity as proposed by Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, and Mitchel Resnick. Nevertheless, as discussed by Biesta, it serves a higher purpose and not all work is creative work. The walls of a school, the traditional brick and mortar, need some decoration no doubt, but we don’t need to completely demolish the building. I believe our decoration can help divide school time roughly into three parts:

  1. The first part can be dedicated to teacher-centered, instruction-based teaching. This is what Biesta emphasizes in his work. This will be focused on content, purpose, and relationships. Groups can be divided according to age, interests, prior knowledge. This is the foundation of the building and its first floors.
  2. The other part can be based on Mitchel Resnick’s Clubhouses and the idea of low floor, wide walls, and high ceiling. More student-centered, driven by projects and peer-tutoring – with mentors available to encourage and give a hand. Here students can get mixed based on their skills and interests. They can work on their own and in teams and they should embrace the idea of inter- and multidisciplinarity, which means having people from different backgrounds, knowledge and skills on the team. Think of the middle section of our building. Here people can easily go back to the first floors or go up to the top floors.
  3. The third part can be based on Sugata Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall experiment. Teachers don’t need to interfere. They might not even be present depending on students’ age. The enviroment plays a big role here as it needs to be prepared with different resources, self-explanatory materials, and diversified work/study stations. This is like the top floors of our building. Imagine being at the top and having an incredibly privileged view. It allows people to see far and break barriers.

In this building, not everything can be made visible, like what Hattie proposes. Some of the inner structures and the foundation are beyond our eyes, buried underground or inside other structures. But they are paramount. Without them, everything else falls apart. In education, we can’t always see learning taking place in the same lesson or even weeks, months or years after. Nevertheless, we need this foundation and, above all, to make sure it’s solid so we can trust it.

Historically, when we look at education, we normally see an almost impenetrable building, made of bricks, uninviting, rigid and cold. There are some creative rooms at the ground floor, a few in the middle section, even fewer at the top floors, but most of it can be considered dull. There are no elevators or escalators, just stairs. People inside look like bureaucrats dressed in suits mindlessly performing similar tasks controlled by a clock.

What I believe can be done to transform education is aligned with the idea of a green building. We still need walls. But they can be built differently with different materials and be better integrated with the environment. We can have multipurpose rooms and increased mobility. We can adapt the building to the needs of its users without disrespecting its foundation, made of brick, concrete, and steel. We can add overpasses, empty lounges, inner gardens, fountains and many wide walls.

Most importantly: whenever we come across walls such as the Wall of Berlin near this building of ours, we need to repurpose them. We can use them as our blank canvas. I truly believe that by repurposing them, we might have an opportunity of a future in which we don’t need too many walls that divide us, physically and metaphorically speaking.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Education. EPILOGUE – Hey! Teachers! Leave them Kids Alone”

  1. Pingback: What if…? Learning in an Alternate Reality – EDCrocks

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