Bringing Back the Informal Learning

I remember well my surprise discovering that in a full implementation of Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy high school-aged students work in light manufactories (craftsman style, not assembly-line style) or on a farm.

That these fit with developing habits for the future, and with the necessary developmental needs of adolescents, I could intellectually accept.

Now I am convinced there is another reason underneath it all: informal learning.

These are mentored roles, after all. The farmer teaches the student; the worker teaches the student. It’s potentially multi-generational.

Ideally, it would be the second generation above — those nearing retirement, or the grandparental generation — that would work with the students.

What do you do all day while you work side by side? You end up talking.

(Yes, I know: I have a teen-age son. One talks, the other grunts, at least at first.)

The talk may start around the work, but it moves on.

Informal history: what I’ve seen. Informal geography: what I’ve seen change. Informal technology: what I’ve made work, especially out of scraps.

Paedagogues looking to form a curriculum that communicates “values” would no doubt be shocked, but I think this would be essential twenty-first century learning.

We’ve lived for the past forty years or so in a world that’s throw-away. You don’t repair things, you replace them. You don’t use feedback, experience and insight to figure out what’s wrong, you follow scripts and respond to measures, then replace whole sub-assemblies.

Forty years ago that throw-away world was in place, but we had lots of older technology around, and people still knew how to fix it.

Going forward, we’re not going to be as financially wealthy. The global accumulation of debt and the erasure of that debt in either inflations or repudiations that is unfolding means that paying to replace will be less of an option.

We’re going to be forced to repair things, and to repurpose them, just as we did in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Make do, figure out a way.

We’re also going to start to get an eye for real quality again. It’ll be honed by necessity.

Children will listen to grandparents (or people with that age gap) in ways they won’t listen to parents (or people with that age gap).

Meanwhile, we won’t be able to just stick people on a shelf marked “retired: not useful to anyone any more”. That, too, requires much more free cash than we’re likely to have.

So the older amongst us will need things to do, to be useful. It won’t be about maintaining their former incomes; it will be about self-respect.

The young, meanwhile, will need to learn how to navigate a world where money isn’t as much of the answer as it has been, and how to turn one person’s trash or scraps into their useful products with a little know-how and effort.

Instead of the forty hours mandatory community service to graduate, and fancy industrial arts classes making the traditional projects, maybe we do need to set time aside for old and young to work together.

Just do it in the morning. Remember, these are adolescents: their bodies naturally want to sleep in. Let them awaken and sharpen up while using their hands and listening to tales.

Both young and old would thank us for this change.


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