CCK08 Short Paper 2: Changing roles of educators

(I must admit to be really surprised, here you have the translation in Italian but look at the history:
    November 4, 2008 at 2:44:43 am by michele
    November 4, 2008 at 2:41:15 am by michele
    November 4, 2008 at 2:29:18 am by Giulia
    November 3, 2008 at 10:53:45 pm by Andreas Formiconi
Do my students sleep sometimes 😉 ?)

I’d like to tell you the story of Don Milani. A priest active in Tuscany, next to Florence, in the sixties. He was in the church against the church, his basic point being: “We tell people that we want to explain them the Gospel but if people are illiterate they cannot grasp the meaning of what we are trying to say. Therefore, to begin with we must give them an education, and a lay education, not a religious one. If we don’t care about people’s lay education first, then we are hypocritical.”

Don Milani was sourly accused and prosecuted by the church. Therefore, he was placed in a very small village, Barbiana, at the top of a mountain (Monte Giovi), inhabited by a handful of peasants. He did not give up. He created the “school of Barbiana” were he taught the peasants’ kids. The school became incredibly famous. Teachers, professors, journalists, politicians, intellectuals form all Italy went to visit his school. Don Milani put all of them among their young students and all these relevant people were not allowed to talk from a cattedra (chair) as they were used to do but they could only participate in the lessons together with the students.

In order to understand the work of Don Milani it is worthwhile to have a look to a book written by eight students of him, Letter to a Teacher (pdf), which became very famous. Incidentally and interestingly, I found this English translation in an Indian site, called Shikshantar, The Peoples’ Institute for rethinking Education and Development, devoted to education and development in India. This book is a sharp accusation of a public compulsory school system conceived for rich people against poor people.

Don Milani’s school was an all-day school. The alternative for those poor young peasants would have been to work from dawn to sunset for almost nothing, just poverty for all their life. Don Milani’s school meant to strive for growth all day. To catch any possible hint to make sense of things. In Don Milani’s school to grow was hard but fun and extremely rewarding. Boundaries among school subjects were fuzzy. Focus was not on covering a given number of points in a set of subjects. Focus was on thoroughly experiencing facts relevant for those pupils life by traversing all subjects related to those facts in some way. You could begin by reading a poem, then focusing on a single word, analysing its meaning, etymology, its translation in some foreign languages; you could end to do something practical related to that word found in the poem, may be working a piece of wood with a lathe. Pupils could learn a lot of manual works in the school. They experienced collective writing, a kind of wiki ante litteram, by writing concepts on pieces of papers, grouping and ordering them, discarding the less relevant, regrouping and so on. Letter to a Teacher was written in this way. Nobody was left alone; as soon as someone learned something new he was supposed to help the others.

It was a great experience. Those pupils learnt French, English, German. They went abroad during the summer to work and learn. They became educated people. The conventional school would have condemned them to their historical role of poor people. Don Milani understood that the school system was unable to give “the word” to poor people. He emphasised the role of the school system as a power instrument of the establishment. What did change after this stunning experience? Almost nothing. The inertia of the school system is incredibly strong.


Nowadays the context is very different but the school system is equally unfit to answer basic social needs. Society is changing very fast, knowledge grows exponentially, schools of any degree struggle in giving people what they actually need. Basically, curricula and teaching methods assume a very simplified vision of the world. They completely miss the overwhelming complexity of a world composed of structures and networks, from the molecular level to the cultural one, as Fritjof Capra described nicely in the essay (pdf) we read last week.

It is imperative to change the role of educators. They should give up a lot of control and become much more sensitive to spontaneous growth but this requires an awareness that is still quite rare. Organizations are not naturally prone to innovation. Consolidated business models tend to persist. Feedbacks are difficult to evaluate in the field of education. It is much easier to get feedback from a software application: you run it and you correct bugs. But how to evaluate the outcome of a learning method? You should apply the new method on a large and representative population and at the same time you should apply an old reference method on a different but equally representative population. Then you should monitor the life of all these individuals and then compare the results … admittedly this is not very feasible … In absence of true feedback the evolution of the education system is driven by other forces. Look at what is going on here in Italy, Nature 455, 835-836 (16 October 2008).


Deschooling society could be the answer but how?

I believe that, at this stage, we can only foster grassroots movements based on hacking approaches. I see my own teaching activity as a hacking activity where all those classes have ben hacked to obtain a blogroom: a fuzzy place where different classrooms and other communities blend, where the teacher monitors activities related to a subject, where contents provided by the teacher and OER are simply available and used when the students need it for their learning activities. A place where the teacher is available when needed and if needed. A place where time is no more a constraint, a place where the constraint is a given minimum quantity of learning activities, a place were people are supposed to cooperate and not to compete.

How to create a grassroot movement:

  1. Every time that it is possible let us try to force the state of affairs by hacking our classes.
  2. Let us be careful to do this taking great care of the actual needs of our students. Not be afraid do teach something different if it is worthwhile.
  3. Let us exploit the Internet by sharing our practices and our results as much as we can.

Don Milani was a great hacker in the field of education but he was alone. The Internet allows people that otherwise would be alone to create a network and, as we are learning in this course, it is just from a network that we can expect the birth of something new.

5 thoughts on “CCK08 Short Paper 2: Changing roles of educators

  1. ilariabu says:

    As a student, I feel almost at a loss. I take my train everyday to attend my classes, but I don’t know how much these can catch my attention. Sometimes, when you’re obliged to do something, that something can steal you the strenght and the will to learn… 😦

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