Sometimes you come across a word you have never heard before. Today, ‘bricolage’, is that word for me, although the concept is stands for is not new to me at all. Bricolage can be used in many fields of endeavour from information systems to philosophy, psychology, education, architecture, visual art and more. In fact, the one that many of you may connect with most easily is that of collage making in visual art – making pictures with multiple other pictures and materials. Nothing has to match. They can be as disparate as you like.

For the purposes of this article, I am using bricolage in the context of education and learning as it refers to the construction new things out of what is available, namely, the knowledge a child has available, according to computer scientist Seymour Papert, in his book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas  (Basic Books, 1980) (by the way, the Lego Mindstorms product was named after this book) in which he conveyed a vision for how to leverage the democratisation of computing for learning. It became a treatise on his view of learning itself and how we might change the teaching process to benefit children more.

The child-directed learning movement

Today we are a seeing a sudden groundswell of interest in more child-directed learning (see the popularity of conferences and courses such as Thinking School, Reggio Emilia and a resurgence of interest in Montessori and Waldorf philosophy as we realise that when children are invested in their own learning because it has personal meaning to them, they learn much easier and with more confidence than when a teacher is always directing the learning process. We are entering an era when education should be re-shaped around how children actually learn and now how we think they need to be taught. Papert makes the following comment, in case you think he is recommending there should be no structure in the classroom:

“But ‘teaching without curriculum‘ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply “leaving the child alone.” It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones. This is a more ambitious undertaking than introducing a curriculum change…” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 1)

Professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington in his computer science blog, Bits and Behaviour, asserts that Papert’s vision of teachers was therefore not as someone “presenting” knowledge and guiding their “acquisition” toward it, but as someone understanding a child’s prior knowledge, intuitively understanding the opportunities to build on top of that knowledge in a manner that results in a deeper understanding of a concept. Papert went further, arguing that because children must view knowledge as relevant to want to know it, educators must also understand the cultures in which children are embedded:

“Thus we are brought back to seeing the necessity for the educator to be an anthropologist. Educational innovators must be aware that in order to be successful they must be sensitive to what is happening in the surrounding culture and use dynamic cultural trends as a medium to carry their educational interventions.” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 8)

Says Ko, “This demanded that teachers and education researchers be more than just experts on a subject: it demanded that they be experts on the social worlds in which their children live, so they could make culturally meaningful representations of ideas.”

Fixing education

Ko adds that Papert’s ideas presented a monumental resource challenge for education and schools, in particular. “More fundamentally, however, Papert’s ideas demand breaking the fundamental assumption of school, that children of similar ages learn similar things. It’s hard to imagine an educational institution that would actually realize Papert’s ideas about learning without violating this constraint, allowing children to follow their interests, learn different things at different paces. I do believe that this would be an ideal context for learning, but I don’t buy that it’s feasible. Teachers would have to be virtuosos of many domains and representations, and would have to scale the facilitation of so many diverse student interests. That’s a lot of teacher training and a lot of research to build new representations. I’m skeptical that any country would invest in such a wholesale reinvention of learning and I’m uncertain that we could teach teachers to succeed in this model.”

Interestingly, it is this very conundrum that is facing education today as it plays catch up with change. Education has been one of the slowest systems in the world to adapt to change. Is it easier to change large, old institutions from within, or is it easier to build something completely new to incorporate new types of thinking and philosophies based on the way children actually learn? Well, of course, we cannot just shut down a school for a long period of reinvention and staff training, all of which would be required if we decided that the way we teach is technically broken. So, we have on the job professional development training and schools having to re-examine the philosophy and thinking that underpins their particular institution versus making largely cosmetic changes that make them look future-fit, while they are, beneath it all, not really.

While there are many and varied reasons for the rise in childhood anxiety and depression today, including absent parents, academic and parental pressure, loneliness, poor self-esteem and many more, could it be that the current education system often misses the point of learning entirely because it doesn’t celebrate that our children are already unique learning beings who are just looking to find meaning in the formal curriculum to give them their why to persist and push on.

In essence, in many schools that have made significant changes to how they teach, children are still being fed through a system that has a beginning and an end, that tests and assesses constantly to ensure everyone is learning the same things at the same pace so that when they come out at the end they are a product that comes off an industrial era-type production line that spits them out, ready for whatever comes next, whether it is tertiary education or the world of work. But are they?

If the bricolage concept was used effectively in the classroom, we might have a chance at creating customised learning experiences that have personal meaning to a child, thus engaging their curiosity and desire to learn, holding their attention, keeping them in the system for longer and encouraging them to adopt a positive attitude to lifelong learning because, in effect, just being human means we are lifelong learners. We don’t always have to be in a classroom for learning to be classified as learning. Children will learn anywhere and with anything they have have at their disposal. A good teacher might just put that learning on steriods but, then again, it depends on how flexible the system is in which they are teaching.

Sometimes we need to break things to fix, reconfigure or reinvent them.