In memory of Christopher Alexander: 2. Three elements of the new educational paradigm

Life Activities, Life Conversations, and Life Knowledge constitute the three pillars of the new educational paradigm that I understand. Or we can say that play, communication, and knowledge constitute the three elements of the new educational paradigm. Let me now turn to each of these three elements.

One: life activities

I often say that there are only three things you can do every day or in your life: play, learn, and create. I also say that learning, playing and creating are triunistic life activities: they are the past, present and future of life.

Although we say that “play, learn, create” is a triad, we can still think of “learning” as primarily a review of the past. Essentially, it’s about past experiences. Learning is about reflecting on significant experiences of our past.

Similarly, although we say that “playing” is not separated from “learning” and “creating”, we can still think of “play” as primarily about the present moment, which is the present. When you’re really playing, you forget to learn, you don’t learn. You forget the past, the present and the future. Time is gone, time becomes eternal, and you are just playing at the moment.

Creation, although it is the highest form of play and requires the highest learning ability, we can still think of creation as primarily imagining future spaces and anticipating changes in future spaces.

So playing is not a problem, not playing is the real problem. True play is always inseparable from learning and creating. If there’s nothing new to learn, there’s no fun playing anymore. And play always has an element of creativity. So naturally, playing, learning and creating are not separate, not at all.

By engaging students in the play/learning/creating triad of life activities, learners are able to experience richly and those significant experiences will form the basis on which they build their knowledge.

This is something that is being done by various Self-Directed Education communities and is quite mature. For example, study tours, or watching movies, reading novels, writing, playing board games, learning to cook, personal financial management, urban exploration, and so on. There are even organizations and institutions around the world that specialize in these services.

Why did I dream of a school like Sudbury Valley School so early on, and have a deep belief in the Sudbury model? I often say let’s not talk about education, only learning. Let’s figure out what learning is all about first. And to figure out what learning is all about, we have to go back to our own studies and see how we learned what we learned. The biggest problem of educators of modern education, including the education experts in the College of Education, is that they do not study and lack important learning experience.

The most important learning experience in my life was playing with a large group of kids when I was young. We all played with the same toys and games, and when we got bored, we would move on to something new. Because every child was different and came from a unique background, playing with this diverse group of children was incredibly enriching. I learned so much through this process.

Ironically, when I started first grade and began attending school, I became skeptical if it was really a place for learning. From the very beginning, I didn’t feel like I was learning much at all.
It is precisely because of this important experience of learning and life growth that is very fundamental in life that I feel very close to Sudbury Valley School.

So, playing together in a large group is the best way to learn. For adults, society as a whole is the best place to play. For children, for safety reasons, we cannot let children learn directly in society, we need to provide a safe place where they can play freely, so Self-Directed Education communities like Sudbury are needed.

I like to use the term ‘playground’ to describe a place where people can freely play, perceive, interact, choose, and explore. This place can be a physical space or virtual software, among others. The responsibility of educators should be to build a good playground, allowing learners to engage in the three-in-one life activities of playing, learning, and creating.

In a rich playground, there are rich life activities to participate in, thus completing the two tasks of education, one is life discovery as an input to education, and the other is life expression as an output of education.

We say that life is diverse, and every life has a different starting point. We should not put children into the limited box of modern education, such as sending them to extracurricular training classes. Instead, we should do the opposite by allowing children to play freely in a rich playground. Mentors can observe where children’s interests lie or help them discover their interests by providing guidance based on what they find engaging. In a rich playground, every child can find something they enjoy playing with.

Life grows and develops through interconnections, not through compartmentalized subjects as in modern education. If we understand that knowledge is built on significant experiences, then by observing these experiences we can discover that every life activity contains multifaceted experiences. When different children play together, it is precisely the collision of these different experiences. As mentors and educators, we should be able to see what happens at the level of significant experiences, guiding children’s lives to continue to grow.

In my practice of teaching children programming, I have experienced many cases like this. Children who enjoy building and animation can discover the importance of programming through playing and gradually develop an interest in it. Conversely, children who enjoy programming can also discover that building and animation can cultivate programming thinking and are a part of programming skills.

Given the length of this article, I won’t go into these stories here, but I have discussed them in previous articles.

One important task of education is to make such educational discoveries, which is the input of education. Another important task is to help learners complete their life expression. Life expression can be a life’s work or other forms, including teaching other learners. This is the output of education. Life Work occupies an important position in education, and learners draw inspiration and nutrition from the excellent life works of others.

Two: Life Conversation

Furthermore, after gaining rich and significant experiences from these life activities, there are equal and diverse opportunities to exchange these important life experiences, which is called Life Conversation. One of the founders of Sudbury Valley, Mimsy, often talks about the ubiquitous life conversations in Sudbury Valley. It can be between two learners, a group of learners (Sudbury Valley School has dedicated discussion rooms), between learners and staff, or even between learners and themselves, because in Sudbury Valley School, just being with oneself is also an important learning time. In other Self-Directed Education communities, life conversations can be learners showcasing and sharing their work, giving speeches, and so on. In Self-Directed Education communities, all of these interactions are equal. For example, when two learners converse with each other, it’s like two players conversing with each other, regardless of whether one is a veteran player and the other is a new player, their communication is equal, without the unequal relationship that exists between school teachers and students during classes. The veteran player simply tells the new player where the fun things are.

In China’s Self-Directed Education (SDE) community, I have also noticed that writing and art have been used to help students dig deeper into their personal experiences and have rich conversations around those experiences.

Overall, psychology is playing an increasingly important role among young people in China, especially among young educators. If we look at the methodology of psychology, its core is to use various methods to explore a person’s experiences. Therefore, the writing or art classes in Self-Directed Education communities may be influenced by psychology.

The same approach is used in parenting in these communities. Parent education is an important part of these communities. I’ve noticed how these parents struggle to dig deeper into their own experiences with writing and how this profoundly changes their old thinking patterns and improves their understanding and communication with their children. I think it helps a lot in their professional work as well.

In addition, these practices of exploring and communicating personal experiences in various ways are also prevalent in the educator training of self-directed education communities in China, such as educational organizations like QunDao and Slow School that I have noticed. Some educators may initially struggle and feel uncomfortable or unaccustomed, but they will soon realize that this is actually the most natural and instinctive way to learn everything they already know. Then, this process becomes natural for them.

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