Lumiar’s Pedagogical Proposition

What I call Lumiar’s “Pedagogical Proposition” is the set of pedagogical theses that Lumiar sustains, defends, and proposes to its clients (students and their families) and to the public in general.

A. Innovation and Change

Lumiar sees and defines itself as an Innovative School.

The expression “Innovative School” needs, of course, to be clarified.

The fact that Lumiar defines itself as a school (and not as another kind of institution) imposes upon it a certain type of institutional nature, which it cannot escape: Lumiar sees itself as a formal learning environment. This means not only that children come to it in order to learn (or, more precisely, to be helped in their learning), but also that Lumiar

· has a clear proposal about what it is that these children can and ought to learn while in a formal learning environment such as the one it offers to its students;

· assumes the responsibility of seeing to it that its students learn it.

(Lumiar of course knows that children, even while in school, also learn many things in non-formal learning situations and encounters, as they live together with others, such as their family, their acquaintances, their friends and peers, and other significant members of their communities. It also knows that children learn many things in contact with impersonal material resources available in their homes and in other environments familiar to them: books, radio, television, video, videogames, computers, the Internet, etc.

If the fact that it defines itself as school points to what it has in common with other institutions of the same kind, the fact that it defines itself as innovative points to its “specific difference”, that is, to that which makes it different from other schools.

The choice of the term “innovative”, in this context, is significant.

As David Hargreaves and several others have pointed out, institutional change comes in at least two forms:

a) Minor, gradual, incremental, piecemeal change that does not depart too far from existing practice (and that can be said to lead to institutional reformation);

b) Major, systemic, all-inclusive, comprehensive change that departs considerably from existing practice (and that can be said to lead to institutional transformation).

Not surprisingly, the vector that is responsible for this distinction is innovation. Reformative change – change that refurbishes present form without transcending it – is weak in innovation; transformative change – change that goes beyond present form or paradigm – is strongly innovative.

Lumiar has gone for transformative change of existing school practice and its conceptual and theoretical underpinnings. It wants to be a new kind of school – a school where the “novum” that is in the root of the term innovation is real.

Lumiar is convinced that Jay Allard, one of Microsoft’s vice-presidents, was right on the mark when he said in a December 2006 interview to Business Week: “The only way to really change the world is to imagine it different than the way it is today. Apply too much of the wisdom and knowledge that got us here, and you end up right where you started. Take a fresh look from a new perspective, and get a new result” [emphases added]

So Lumiar is not aiming at simply another reform of the school. It is convinced that reforming a few aspects of the present school paradigm (creating more comfortable and functional buildings, introducing state-of-the-art technology, enforcing standards, systematically testing the students, conditioning public funds to the school’s overall performance, especially to the results obtained by students in standardized tests, training teachers and administrators to implement and supervise all of this, etc.) will not do.

Lumiar wants to radically transform the school – to create a new paradigm, to reinvent schooling.

Before we see what Lumiar proposes, it is necessary to show why it opted for such radical alternative.

Education, including school education, does not happen in vacuum. It takes place in a social-historical context – that includes cultural, political, economic and technological elements (the importance of which is not necessarily reflected in the order in which the elements are presented here). When this context changes drastically, it is inevitable that education, in special school education, should also change drastically (despite the understandable resistance of its main practitioners, the teachers).

When there is drastic change in the context in which education takes place, the decision to go for minor, gradual, incremental, piecemeal changes in the school will not bring the necessary results. Reformation will not suffice: what is needed is transformation, that is, major, systemic, all-inclusive, comprehensive change.

Lumiar is a school that attempts to be radical in its curriculum, methodology and assessment. And it is able to do so because it has a different conception of education, of learning and of the role of freedom and autonomy in student learning and in the management of the school. In the process of reinventing schooling, the role of the pedagogical professionals (educators) that work in the school had to be redefined.

Let us rapidly analyze describe the main elements of Lumiar’s Pedagogical Proposition.

B. Vision of Education

Lumiar sees education as a process of human development in which the baby that is born incompetent and dependent becomes a competent and autonomous adult. This process is indispensable for the non-parasitic survival of the human being – but it goes beyond that.

Human beings are capable, in due time, of defining their life project and of transforming it into reality, thus reaching personal realization (or happiness). One’s life project specifies what one wants to do of one’s life, what one wants to become as a human being. It is evident, then, that the life of developed (i.e., educated) human beings goes much beyond their survival: it culminates in their self-realization, which, as Abraham Maslow showed, is the greatest human need.

Although they are born incompetent and dependent, human babies are born with an incredible capacity to learn. That is what makes education possible.

Education, understood as human development, is a process that takes place during one’s entire life and through one’s every interaction – with other people and with other aspects of natural and social reality. But schools, as formal learning environments, can be very important for education, if they are organized and function according to the principles here detailed.

C. Vision of Learning

To learn is not synonymous with absorbing and accumulating information. To learn is to become capable of doing that which one could not do before. This vision of learning implies that learning is something eminently active (interactive, collaborative, etc.), related above all to things one becomes capable of doing. The “doing” involved in learning is not a mechanical sort of doing, in which the body instinctively, as if by reflex, goes through some motions, but an intentional activity that results from a decision consciously made and is oriented to the accomplishment of purposes freely chosen.

According to this vision, learning, in a school context, is not a savoir teachers inculcate into their students, but a savoir faire that the students actively construct – not by themselves, it is evident, but interacting and collaborating with their teachers and their peers (and, outside the school, with their family, friends and acquaintances).

D. Curriculum

A school curriculum is the set of that which students can and should learn in school.

This formulation, containing, as it does, two verbs that are clearly not synonymous, shows that the term “curriculum” has, for Lumiar, a double meaning.

On the one hand, curriculum, in its broadest sense, is the list, organized by “megacompetences”, of the competences, with their respective skills, that the school, as a formal and structured learning environment, is committed to helping their students develop while attending the school. In this broader sense, curriculum is the set of the competences and skills that the student can develop with the help of the school. It makes no sense to expect that every student – or even some students – will learn everything that the school is committed to helping them to learn. But it makes every sense that the school should define some things that every student should learn – or that every student ought to develop some competences in every area (megacompetence) in which the competences are organized.

On the other hand, as a result of what was just said, curriculum, in a narrower sense, is the sub-set of competences and skills that each student, taking into account his interests, talents, and, in due time, his life project, and under the advice of his mentor and his parents, commits himself to learn. Given the existence of individual differences in interests and talents, given the possible and real difference among the life projects of any random group of students, and given the fact that the student has freedom of choice with respect to what he will learn, the sub-set of competences and skills that each student does learn can be unique for each of the students. This fact leads to the de-standardization and personalization of the curriculum.

E. Methodology

The learning methodology adopted by Lumiar is an active methodology: Lumiar is convinced that the best way to learn is by acting, doing, transforming projects into reality. It is this way that one learns to live – that is, to transform projects of life into lived lives. Lumiar’s methodology is, therefore, centered on the development of learning projects.

This methodology sustains itself on the principle that there are many ways of learning that which must be learned. Children learn to talk, generally before going to school and without any “classes of speaking” that teach them that sounds are produced by controlling, with one’s lips, tongue and teeth, the passage of air through one’s mouth (and, in part, through one’s nose), and that therefore there are labial, nasal, guttural sounds, etc. Children learn to talk in the process of doing other things, that is, as they involve themselves in projects for which speaking is essential or important. Children see other adults and children talking with one another, conclude that speaking must be great, and decide that they are going to learn how to do it also… They start by imitating the sounds made by others and by inventing other sounds of which only they know the meaning. They are helped, supported, corrected, they receive incentive when they learn to say new things, until they become able to say a number of things important to her – first imperfectly, requiring from those who listen to her considerable effort to “interpret” what she is saying, but, in due time, more and more in ways that reflect the accent and the habits of speech of those around whom she lives.

Project-based learning methodology sustains itself on a second principle: the best learning projects are those in which children are interested and in which they engage themselves with pleasure. This does not mean that children only learn while they are having fun. What this means is that, in order to learn, children must see and understand that what they are doing makes sense, that is, contributes to something they want to achieve, reach, do or be. They are able to focus their attention on very difficult – even painful – learning tasks if they see that they contribute to something that they consider important, value or want. Anyone who has watched children learning to ride a bicycle or a horse, swim or ice skate, play soccer or the piano, cannot but conclude that children are capable of incredible learning feats through processes and activities that are difficult and hard – if only they are convinced that those means lead to objectives that they want to reach.

Project-based learning methodology sustains itself on still another principle – the third: as we are focused on learning something, we often learn other things as well. Children are especially apt at this kind of multitasking in their learning. A child can be dedicated for some time (weeks or even months) to something quite specific, such as, for instance, finding out whether there is homosexuality among birds. To find an answer to this question she observes the behavior of several kinds of birds, checks books out from the library, does searches on the Internet, interviews biologists and veterinarians, discusses with teachers and peers, etc. In this process she collects a lot of information, some of it contradictory, a lot of it not entirely relevant to the task. She organizes this information, analyzes it, tries to find a trend, and, in due time, reaches a conclusion. At the same time that she was finding an answer to her question, the child was learning to focus on an issue, to do research to find an answer to a question the answer to which she originally did not know, to organize and analyze information, to infer answers from a lot of relatively disconnected bits of information, to reach conclusions, to present her conclusions in a persuasive manner, together with the supporting facts and arguments, to reply to objections, etc. This means that, working on a project about “Homosexuality among Birds”, or even on a more specific one, such as “Can parrots be gays?”, she is developing a number of competences and skills that are going to be extremely useful for the rest of her life – more useful, perhaps, than the answer to the question that triggered the project. And she developed them because, as she was focused on learning something, she was also capable of learning many other things as well.

Lumiar is not a libertarian, laissez-faire school that practices a type of “negative education” that leaves the students alone as they go their learning projects, only reacting when provoked by them. Lumiar is proactive and proposes a range of learning projects to the students, every month or couple of months. Each project has a specific focus and involves participation in a number of tasks and activities – some to be performed in group, others individually. The focus of one project can be to map and then create a 3-D model of the region where the school is located. Students here must learn to get to know their physical environment through observation, to measure it, to represent these measurements on a different scale, to map the region out, to represent it through a 3-D mockup, etc.

As it was mentioned before, there is more than one way of learning a given thing. Because of this there is considerable redundancy in the competences and skills that can be developed through the different learning project. It is this that allows the students to choose the projects in which they are going to take part. They choose – but they do not do it alone. They are helped in the process by their mentors and their parents. Their learning portfolio will show the gaps that still exist in their learning. On the basis of this portfolio, mentors and apparent will engage in a pedagogical dialogue with the students, showing them the importance of learning this or that, of participating in this or that learning project. But they do this perfectly aware that there are many learning projects in which the students can develop their competences and skills – and that sometimes they learn very important and lasting things doing things that, initially, did not seem likely to lead to very significant and far-reaching learning.

As in the case of the curriculum, also here there is, on the one hand, the list of learning projects that the school makes available to the students, and, on the other hand, the lists, much smaller, of the learning projects in which each student chose to participate and in fact did successfully participate until the end.

F. Assessment

Constant assessment is an essential part of the work of the school. Students are assessed when they enter the school, in the school they are assessed daily, weekly, monthly by their mentors, as they participate in the projects they are assessed by the masters who lead the project, and they have a final assessment at the end of each year.

Everything significant they do at the school is recorded. Parents receive assessment reports and a folder with the work of their children.

It is through assessment feedback that students find out how well they are progressing developing in the multiple aspects involved in their development. Assessment becomes an integral aspect of the pedagogical work of the school.

G. Pedagogical Professionals

Besides its management team, the support personnel and the trainees, Lumiar has two kinds of pedagogical professionals: the mentors and the masters.

function to coordinate and supervise the activities of the students. Each mentor is responsible for about twenty students, in relation to whom he functions as counselor and adviser – in other words, as mentor. As seen, among the functions of the mentors is to accompany the students and constantly assess their learning performance and their overall development.

Masters are responsible for the learning projects and coordinate their execution. They are the “content specialists”. But, as it is going to be made clearer later on, their specialization is not to be found in the “legacy content” of an academic discipline, but on the competences and skills required to exercise a given profession. The masters are also responsible for the articulation between the projects (the methodology) and the matrix of competences (the curriculum)

Lumiar then replaces by two different professionals the teachers of the conventional school.

H. Democratic Management

Lumiar sees itself as a democratic school.

It is necessary, in the first place, to demarcate a democratic from what could be called a libertarian school. In most of the schools that can be called libertarian (Summerhill, Sudbury Valley, etc.) the following seems to obtain:

· There is a series of rules and norms, explicitly accepted by the school community as a whole gathered in a general assembly, and these rules and norms regulate the behavior of everyone in the community: students, pedagogical staff, management, support personnel and other staff;

· These rules and norms are only approved if they are coherent with the principle that everyone’s space for discretionary decisions is as large as possible, the only actions that are forthrightly prohibited being those that cause harm to others or to their property or that violate their right to an equal share of freedom;

· Every charge that someone caused harm to third parties or violated their rights is analyzed in an assembly, general or only of the students, and the responsible party can be punished;

· With respect to learning, there is total freedom to learn, which includes the freedom not to learn;

· The pedagogical staff of the school only intervene in the learning process of the students when explicitly required to do so by the students;

· The management of the school is conducted collectively: norms and rules are chosen collectively in assemblies in which everyone participates and their application is discussed in problem-solving circles.

Lumiar sees itself as a democratic school. As a democratic school it accepts most of the principles just described. As a matter of fact, it only rejects two of them: the fourth and the fifth. It is its rejection of these two principles that makes it non-libertarian.

Lumiar believes that an institution that defines itself as a school cannot be, in relation to the learning of its students, purely reactive, determining that its pedagogical staff should only intervene in the learning process of its students if asked to do so by them. Lumiar believes that a school worthy of this denomination must have a non-negative pedagogical proposition, such as the one outlined in this chapter. As seen, it proposed to make available to its students the following substantive contribution:

· A curriculum: the “Matrix of Competences”;

· A methodology: Project-Based Learning;

· Professionals (the masters) that devise, plan and offer to the students learning projects that can help them develop the competences and skills specified in the Matrix of Competences;

· Professionals (the mentors) that actively engage the students and participate in their lives as counselors, advisors, coaches, mentors;

· Parent involvement in the counseling and advice of their children in the choice of the learning projects in which they are going to be involved;

· Mechanisms for the systematic and periodical assessment of the learning of the students by masters and mentors.

Within this context, Lumiar holds as an important principle the respect to the freedom to learn of its students. This means that if a student does not want to participate in a learning project, after being counseled to do so by his mentors and parents, his decision is respected. Also, if a student chooses to participate in a learning project, but in the middle of the project concludes that the project is not what he expected, or that he simply wants to abandon it, he is given a hearing, and if his reasons are deemed legitimate is given permission to leave the project.

With respect to discipline, Lumiar has, similar to what exists in libertarian schools, clear rules and norms that prohibit students from acting violently against other persons, from causing damage to their property or to the property of the school, or from interfering with the rights of anyone else in the community. The assembly called “The Circle”, that meets every week, deals with members of the community who are charged with violating these rules and norms. If the violation is confirmed, the violator can be punished. If a student is found guilty of a serious violation, and is suspended, The Circle chooses the members that are going to communicate to the parents of the punished party that their child was suspended. Fellow students are often requested to participate in this unpleasant task.

In other aspects (strategic planning, human resources, budgeting and finances, etc.) Lumiar’s management is in the hands of specialized personnel hired to take charge of these challenges.

Salto, on the 18th of October, 2007

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