David Price, OBE, is probably best known in Australia for running courses for teachers and schools on Project-Based Learning. He recently caused a bit of a stir on Twitter with the following:
There followed a long exchange where various people pointed out that the Beatles amassed a huge amount of musical knowledge and that they practiced a great deal, not least through all the hours spent playing clubs in Hamburg (an issue I addressed here). Moreover, they were managed by Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts drop-out, Brian Epstein. Early Beatles material was derivative compared to the songs they are famous for now, and so amassing musical knowledge made a key difference.
However, to be fair to Price, he does have a point. The Beatles did indeed lack knowledge of musical theory. Later in the thread, Price points out that the musical knowledge they gained was through informal learning rather than formal lessons – they researched, discovered and created that knowledge for themselves – and I think this is an important point.
If you feel compelled to become a world expert on mushrooms then you are going to have to gain this knowledge informally. Even if you are lucky and your local university runs a course on mushrooms, it will only take you so far. At some point, you will have to take to the internet and start reading research papers. You will have to do it yourself.
Informal learning of this kind is not only possible, it is ubiquitous. We research and discover things all the time. Nobody needs to make a case for the idea that we can independently learn new information and concepts because it is an established fact.
However, by its very nature, informal learning involves an element of chance. If you are lucky, you will meet the right people and have access to the right resources to send you off in the best direction. If you are unlucky then you will not. It is clear that the more privileged a young person is, the more their access to the right people and resources and the better their odds in this particular game of chance.
For instance, The Dragon School in Oxfordshire, an independent prep school, seems to supply the world with a disproportionate number of successful actors. Acting tends to be a profession for those from wealthy backgrounds because a trust fund helps with irregular income. Even so, The Dragon School is still punching above its weight. I don’t know how they achieve this, but I suspect it is not as a result of lots of formal lessons. Teaching may indeed be a part of it but I suspect a lot of the success is about providing the right conditions for informal learning to take place for those with an interest.
The difference between formal learning and informal learning is that formal learning tends to be more effective for the greater number of students (which is why even highly privileged schools still utilise a lot of formal learning). If we look at whole language versus phonics instruction, for instance, it is clear that children can learn to read from both methods. The difference is that phonics leads to a greater proportion of students learning to read and appears not to harm those who would have learnt through whole language. Whole language, despite being used as a classroom approach, is far less formal and so it is affected more by chance and privilege. Phonics is a more formal approach, it reaches the greatest number of children and is therefore more equitable.
This is why we created mass education in the first place. We decided that the ability to read and write and do basic mathematics should not be left to chance and the vagaries of informal learning. Instead, we decided that we should at least attempt to bestow these gifts upon everyone in our society; an egalitarian, big government, left-wing aim.
Over time, we have become even more ambitious and decided, as a society, that science, history, literature and a range of other academic pursuits should also be open to children of any background and we therefore extended formal methods for teaching these subjects to all children. Yes, a child from an affluent middle class family may teach herself to code or to read Japanese but this does not falsify the need for systems of formal education. Children learnt to read long before the advent of formal education, they just tended to be the more privileged children.
If we work backwards from unrepresentative outliers such as the Beatles and assume that we need to make school education less formal, we will unavoidably make it more of a lottery. As a young person, I never even considered the possibility of becoming an actor. My experience of drama at school did not change this as, from memory, we would largely create and perform our own plays about social issues such as bullying. It was a system of informal learning where nobody ever told me how to breathe or use my voice or any of those other things that I expect a formal drama education would contain but that I do not know about. Instead, drama was just a vehicle for addressing some issue that we would supposedly find more relevant than drama itself. I did not find it relevant, generally messed around and gave up drama as soon as I could.
That is what will happen if you replace formal lessons in history and science with project-based learning. Instead of the subject being seen as worthwhile in it’s own right, it will be diminished as just a tool for achieving some relatively mundane end or addressing some worthy issue. Students from backgrounds that are light on science will never really come to understand what it is and will never see themselves as potential scientists. They will never appreciate the beauty and power of scientific understanding. Students whose parents are science professors at the local university will complete projects about DNA and win the science prize.
Formal learning works because it leaves less to chance. It systematically teaches everything in an area of knowledge, wiping out the advantage of those students who happened to know some of it already. Informal learning is great, but its serendipitous nature makes it largely unfit for an education system.