Learning without classrooms

200 people gathered at the Freedom to Learn conference at Summerhill School on 6th, 7th and 8th of May. I ran a workshop on different ways of learning particularly focused on learning without using classrooms. I generally find when talking with many people about learning that they have a bit of a blank in thinking of alternative ways of learning which don’t require the classroom. Somehow an approach which doesn’t need any classrooms can seem aberrant. The reality is that the classroom is a rather odd alternative that has been relatively recently created in human history.

For most of the time of homo sapiens on this planet people learned practically with and from each other in real life contexts. Since the invention of schooling the classroom has become assumed to be the norm as the arena for learning. Indeed Government officials have been known to say that a child not in a classroom is not learning. Obviously it’s accepted that sport and other activities would take place outside the classroom but the idea of learning standard subjects such as English and maths in any other context can still seem strange. This, of course, is despite the fact that we know that many parents use, for instance, tutors to provide educational support for their children.

I generally start sessions on this by helping people to see that what makes them good at anything is likely to have come from activity outside the classroom. You can test this yourself. Think of some things that you have that are positives about you –  skills/competences/qualities/knowledge/attitudes/abilities/etc –  you pick the label – so long as it’s about things that you can cite that are positive features of you. Now think of how come you have these. The chances are that they are either genetic or you learned them.

I have no interest in debating what’s genetic and what’s learned; we just need to recognise these are two dimensions that relate to who we are. However now that we know more about epi-genetics we know that genes can be switched on or off so the best current research evidence is that genes may actually play less part than previously imagined.

When we conduct thorough research with adults we find that around 80-90% of what makes a person effective – for example in work – comes from learning that has nothing to do with the classroom or lecture theatre or training room. (This excludes genetic elements – the focus is on the learned element). Having, in our research, identified what these modes of learning are I and a couple of colleagues wrote our Handbook of Work Based Learning, which showed that most cost effective learning is often free and has nothing to do with education, school, college, university, training courses, etc.

When I turned attention to the learning of young people I identified at least 57 varieties of learning available and the classroom is only one of these. Interestingly in 17 years of running Self Managed Learning programmes both in SML College and in schools we give learners free choice of learning modes. No-one has ever asked to use a classroom.

In the workshop I provided participants (teachers, parents and some young people) with the list of 57 varieties of learning. I then asked them to work in groups taking a real example of something that they either wanted to learn or wanted to help someone else to learn. It had to be a real example not an invented one. They then had the task of seeing which learning modes could be used to assist such learning. Groups doing this exercise generally find quite a range of non-classroom modes.

Much effort is used to improve classroom teaching. It’s like designing a better stagecoach when buses and trains have been invented. It’s just that teacher training is basically about managing classrooms so it’s no surprise that the classroom maintains its erroneous status.


Ian Cunningham

May 2018