Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Co-operation in Education

As a child of a “bog standard” comprehensive and an advocate of comprehensive education I have been horrified by the return to a class based selective education system. Selection achieved not by examination but by geography. Living in the right street or going to the right church gets your child into the ‘right’ school.

We never had a truly comprehensive system - the pernicious influence of the public schools and the church was always felt. Now the changes that began under the Tories, reinforced by New Labour, are reaching fruition with the Condems and can be seen for what they are privatisation and rationing. The mantra of ‘choice’ means schools choose pupils rather than pupils’ schools and the tyranny of testing means there is precious little time for any real education to take place during school time.

Working class education is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was on New Years Day in 1816 that Robert Owen opened, the Institute for the Formation of Character, in New Lanark, establishing Britain’s first primary school.

We can see how out of touch Owen was, he set no targets, children where controlled by kindness and affection with no punishments permitted, there where no prizes given that might encourage individual emulation, instead the emphasis was on a co-operative search for knowledge that would be its own reward. Today these ideas will not even get you the keys to a “Free School”.

As far back as the formation of the Rochdale Pioneers Society back in 1844 education has been one of the co-op principles. Yet despite the movement establishing its own college in 1919 the idea of ‘co-operative education’ in its more holistic sense has been an aspiration rather than a reality because it goes against most educational practice. Co-operative learning has two sides on one is the pedagogy, the way to learn co-operatively, the other is as a way of learning about co-operation as part of an alternative social and economic system.

These complex multi-facetted ideas about co-operative education have been bought together in a special issue of the Co-operative Studies Journal. Guest edited by Maureen Breeze, Co-President of the International Association for the Study of Co-operation in Education, with support from Alan Wilkins of Co-operative Learning and Development Associates and Richard Bickle Secretary of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

It contains some substantial articles that put co-operation in education into focus and are followed by 27 accounts of the huge range of practice here in the UK. It is gratifying that there is so much thinking about an alternative educational philosophy in these troubled times.

Maureen in her introduction argues, that “The intention of the Journal is to provide a platform from which to investigate and develop understandings of the breadth of meanings and representations variously described as co-operation in education as well as bringing some coherence to those approaches.”

Many contributors and practitioners in the field have found themselves isolated but by bringing so many together to produce the special issue of the journal co-operatively something really special has been achieved.

Owen was right that education has for its object the formation of character. But so too was Bertrand Russell when in his seminal book, On Education in 1928, he wrote “We must have some conception of the type of person we wish to produce, before we can have a definite opinion as to the education we consider best.”

Our present system does seem to propel those from the “best” schools and “best” universities to the top. Yet as examples of their output, David Cameron and George Osborne display astonishing levels of ignorance and a complete lack of empathy with their fellow citizens. Their socio-pathology shows us something is very wrong with the education they have received unless of course their arrogance, ignorance and greed are the desired outputs?

What is clear is that inviting students to compete as rivals for grades means they work against one another a process described as negative interdependence. Alternatively co-operative learning, working together to accomplish shared goals, creates positive interdependence, achieved when students learn that they can only reach their desired goals, if and only if, the other students in the group reach those same goals.

Co-operative learning can be seen as a form of experiential learning, as US author John Holt points out, “children cannot learn all that much from cookbooks (instruction and textbooks) new or old because they do not learn effectively by trying to transplant someone else’s reality into their own but by building up their own reality from the experiences they encounter.”

This Journal contains a wealth of experience from schools, adult, further and higher education, there is even a piece by a sixteen year old member of the Woodcraft Folk an organisation that could teach us all a great deal about effective learning.

We are facing some deeply challenging questions as the government dismantles the state education system, can you have a genuinely co-operative school within the context of these changes? As Maureen says, “By finding a way to bring these all together and harnessing the combined energy, knowledge, experience and practice, we could truly embrace the potential for transforming education through co-operation and become a force for change.”

That change cannot come soon enough this really is a splendid and timely publication if you are interested in obtaining a copy go to: