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The Right to Learn

It's easy to confuse learning with schooling, but they are not the same thing. Learning is much broader and happens before we ever attend school, in the times in a student’s school day when s/he is not in school, and after we complete our schooling. Substituting one term for the other often leads to a misunderstanding of the value of non-school learning, the role of schools in a person's lifelong learning scenario, and the very nature of learning itself.

Watching very young children interact with their environment, it would be difficult to draw a line that separates learning from playing. Whether they are playing with an ‘educational’ toy or the box in which it came, pre-school children are self-motivated to be curious, to seek playful pleasure, to generate and test ideas, be creative, communicate (both to be heard and to listen), and by a host of other positive forms of engagement. And as both studies and our informal observations make clear, children are learning an enormous amount, including something as hugely complicated as language. Add to this the fact that children are not driven by grades or other external rewards, and it would be easy to recognize that learning is the inherent drive. And each child, each person, has the right to learn.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is the goal to provide universal primary education by 2015. More than a noble statement, this represented worldwide acceptance of the idea that all children have the right to receive an education. Unfortunately, the likelihood of achieving this goal diminishes as we approach the deadline. It is dependent on finding and financing more and more resources because an education, as the term is commonly used, is something that is provided.

The right to learn, on the other hand, recognizes that from the moment of birth each person is a learner. At the core of our interactions with the world is our drive to learn, first to fulfill our basic needs and then to learn for the sake of learning. A young baby doesn’t wait until she arrives at some designated ‘learning’ room or building to begin this process – she is learning everywhere she is, without any must-complete-before-turning-two curriculum. Yet very young children learn a remarkable amount. The freedom to continue learning is every child’s – every person’s – right.

These ideas form the basis of the newly released white paper from AALF, ideasLAB of Australia, and the Maine International Center for Digital Learning. Entitled The Right to Learn, Identifying Precedents for Sustainable Change, the paper was developed from ideas expressed in conversations at the 2010 Big Ideas Global 1:1 Summit held in Maine last June. Policy makers and educational policy advocates from ten countries shared ideas, talked about common issues, and sought to find some policy recommendations to bring about sustainable change.

Looking at the role of schools from the perspective of a child’s right to learn, one begins to see that there are a number of structures that may make it easier to organize and administer the institution of school, but which create clear and numerous roadblocks to this freedom to learn. It is not surprising that, after a few years in school encountering numerous obstacles, many students simply give up trying. They are physically present without being engaged, or they drop out completely.

So, the first step in making real change is to shift our perspective and to recognize our responsibility to protect and defend this right. This means redefining the role of a teacher from someone meting out resources to someone protecting each child’s right to learn. It means looking at schools in a new way to recognize the obstacles we’ve created.

This is a big shift and one that will change the way we think about what is done in schools.

Please read the white paper and let us know what you think.
May 12th, 2011 @ 9:58AM