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Organic Education

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Learning is perhaps the most earth shattering of evolutionary innovations. Where it is weak, an organism is unlikely to thrive during radical changes to their environment, and where it is strong they have the option to either change behaviour or that environment. To these ends, nature has selected for two primary learning instincts that give us pleasure. The first is direct instruction via social interaction, and the second is play, which encourages the experimentation and exploration of our environments.

The advent of literacy prompted societies of growing complexity, and with its spread technologies like the printing press propelled both the arts and sciences forward (see Diamond-9; Fleming and Marien-14). Yet our brains have scarcely evolved to cope with this scale information and, even as late as the 20th century, people have maintained a scarcity mentality and looked to education primarily for content dissemination.

Obviously, this is no longer tenable in modern civilization. All aspirations of being well read and knowing have been crushed by an unprecedented information surplus (see Salter-24), widespread access to the means of content production threatens the hegemony of those with intellectual capital (see Batra-2), and creativity — not just specialized skills — is the basis of prosperity (see Florida-15). To still conceive of teaching as the propagation of truths and core skills is to invite the replacement of middle and senior schoolteachers with computers.

Hence the need for pedagogy that goes beyond knowing and serves as a catalyst for ongoing human development. To that end, I submit that 21st century instruction is to be defined by its role in socialization, which brings us back to the long neglected instinct which was best adapted to a vast and scarcely knowable world: play.

Instruction and its discontents

From a band of nomads to modern governments and classrooms, there has always been a dynamic of power and influence. Central to this dynamic is the distinction between those that know and those that do not (see Zuboff-29). Hence, education at its core is an exercise in equipping subordinates for roles of varying status and complexity within their organization and society.

However, this dynamic can only be relied upon in so far as the latter actually wish to take power and the knowledge it demands, and also in so far as information is actually withheld, which brings us to the dual problems of knowledge and control.

To start with, there are three key drawbacks of teaching for knowledge. First, the survival of ideas depends less upon their accuracy than their ability to self-replicate, spread, and adapt (see Dawkins-8. Second, the setting of official knowledge can be influenced by government and corporate interest in propaganda and whitewashing (see Beder-3; Hirst). And third, over reliance on any particular source — including Google — can discourage further research and questioning (see Haigh).

Now, the obvious solution to the above, prima facie, is the promotion of critical thinking skills and Okagaki & Sternberg-21 recommend this via the explicit demonstration of cross-disciplinary principles. However, this method is inherently flawed in that it does not foster critical reflection on those prescribed principles, and the continuous pursuit of feedback on their application can easily become a force for normalization (see Fendler-13).

Counter-intuitively, the problem of teaching for knowledge is not that content is always flawed, but that teacher hegemony serves to separate the student from their own learning. According to Csikszentmihalyi-5, it is the external and continuous manipulation of student attention that causes people to give up on the pleasures of learning.

Hence, teachers who rely on a pace-setting and marks-orientated style of leadership are apt to erode any honesty, creativity, enthusiasm, and satisfaction among their students (see Goleman-16). And as noted by Zimbardo-28, when one combines well-defined power-roles, gradually encroaching authority, high exiting/disobedience costs, and diffused responsibility with a legitimizing ideology, compliance can easily trump the empathy, ethics, and wishes of the individual.

Further exacerbating the problem, disengagement can slow student progression and bate the teacher into oversimplifying the curriculum just to cover everything. According to Ellis-12, this reduces the content to poorly connected facts of little meaning which not only bores the students, but also reduces the opportunity to develop higher order thinking skills.

In sum, teaching for knowledge only rewards the students who play the system and give the teacher what they think they want.

The Player

One of the most insightful things I noticed as I made my way through the first twelve years of Shultz’s Peanuts, was that the characters will often start out as infants and grow up into children, which they remained for as long as fifty years – as if to imply that there is no such thing as an adult, only a bigger kid. This is how I like to conceive of the teacher: a fellow player who is trained to lead.

In sharp contrast with the instructional teaching for knowledge, it embraces the uncertainty of the world to cultivate a sense of wonder, and ideas exist to be played with and not just collected or admired in books. The role of teacher is simply to provide the toys.

Now, before we get into my methodology, I want to establish that this is grounded in the interests of society. Kane-19 suggests that play at all ages can strengthen resilience, well-being, identity, free-thinking, and autonomy, which makes it essential preparation for the interconnectedness, complexity, and unpredictability of 21st century living. But more fundamentally, Elkind-10 suggests that play is an instinct most central to our intellectual and social development.

Hence it is far better to co-opt this behavioural tendency than to fight it in the name of imposing content. As noted by Goleman-17, the best way to enhance performance — for both productivity and creativity — is to promote buy-in via consultation and the alignment of individual and organizational goals. But then, what do the students want and how can their interests align with the educators?

Starting with the students as players, there is a genuine need and desire to develop ownership of their learning and become self-directed, in which case they need an environment that is conducive to exploration and experimentation via the provision of stimuli and sufficient time and space (see Elkind-11). Furthermore, as noted by Csikszentmihalyi-6, what actually makes any learning activity stimulating is that it involves skill in a symbolic domain with rules – a goal, a way of obtaining feedback at the level of one’s skills, and autonomy over their thoughts.

Applied to the curriculum, less is more. One can scaffold for the ownership of learning by gradually moving toward less provision of backgrounding and reading guidance/selection, while also seeking to connect material to what the students are already passionate about (see Guthrie, Wigfield & Perencevich-18; Silvia-25; Babbage-1).

That said however, one must keep in mind the role of variety. One reasonable critique of current emphasis of relevance in schools; is that it can limit the scope of curriculum to contemporary discourse and society (see Morgan-20). Indeed, the values underpinning which news is reported in the media — impact, proximity, prominence, timeliness, conflict, currency and oddity (see White-27) — serve to sell newspapers, being what people want to read, but tend to exclude as much as they include.

If the educator is to develop creative students then the curriculum should serve to expand their interests beyond what they already know. After all, insight actually tends to occur where an individual is both informed and flexible (see Runco-22), and the types of people who develop original ideas are those with both a mastery of their subject and ongoing exposure to concepts from unrelated; fields of study (see Simonton-26).

What this means in terms of pedagogy is that a significant part of learning to think develops from the social interaction that develops in response to content. As noted by Billig-4, much of our reasoning skills develop as the internalization of socialized argumentation and, according to Schugurensky-24, the development of deep thinking skills depends on an environment that allows for open discussion of contrary points of view.

Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, social interaction with people of different backgrounds and expertise is essential to the creative process (see Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer-7), which means that the creative classroom is one where students are free to interact with both the teacher and each other.

To sum, if students can be encouraged to own their learning and find pleasure in it, they are likely to become better thinkers, continuing learners, and well adjusted beyond the classroom. The method for this is the provision of curious materials and sufficient space for students to explore them on their own creative terms. Let us work with, and not against, our own playful instincts.


1. Babbage, K.J. Extreme Students: Challenging all students and Energizing Learning. 2006. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 60-3.
2. Batra, N.D. Digital Freedom: How much can you handle? 2008. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. p. 128-30, 133-7.
3. Beder, S. Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism. 2000. Melbourne, Victoria: Scribe. p. 166-74.
4. Billig, M. Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology 1989. Newcastle, Great Britain: Cambridge University. p. 110-7.
5. Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Classic Work on how to Achieve Happiness. 1992. Sydney, New South Wales: Rider. p. 141.
6. Ibid 118-20, 141
7. Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Sawyer, K. Creative Insight: The Social Dimension of a Solitary Moment. In Sternberg & Davidson-30. p. 358-60
8. Dawkins, R. The God Delusion 2006. London, Great Britain: Transworld. p. 191-201.
9. Diamond, J. Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years 1997. Sydney, New South Wales: Random House. p. 360
10. Elkind, D. The Power of Play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. 2007. Cambridge, Massachusetts: De Capo. ch. 1
11. Ibid ch. 5-6.
12. Ellis, E. S. Watering up the curriculum for students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education 18, 6 (1997). p. 327-8.
13. Fendler, L.. Educating Flexible Souls. In Hultqvist, K. & Dahlberg, G. (eds.) Governing the Child in the New Millennium 2001. New York: RoutledgeFalmer. p. 134-9.
14. Fleming & Marien. Fleming’s Art and Ideas 2005. Belmont, California: Thompson & Wadworth. p. 301-3.
15. Florida, R. The Rise of the Creative Class 2002. New York: Basic Books. ch. 3.
16. Goleman, D. The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results 2002. London, Great Britain: Little, Brown. p. 92-6 & 194-5
17. Ibid 59-63 & 66-9
18. Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A., & Perencevich, K.C. Motivating Reading Comprehension: Concept Oriented Reading Instruction 2004. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 61-8.
19. Kane, P. The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living 2004. London, Great Britain: Macmillan. ch. 6.
20. Morgan, P. Education Made Easy. Quadrant, January-February 2007. p. 50-52.
21. Okagaki, L. & Sternberg, R.J. Teaching Thinking Skills: We’re Getting the Context Wrong. In Kuhn, D. (ed.) Developmental Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Thinking Skills. 1990. New York: Karger. p. 74-6.
22. Runco, M.A. Creativity, Cognition and their Educational Implications. In Houtz, J.C. (ed.) The Educational Psychology of Creativity 2002. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton. p. 25-40.
23. Salter, D. The Media we Deserve 2007. Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University. p. 62-3
24. Schugurensky, D. Tranformative Learning and Transformative Politics: The Pedagogical Dimension of Participatory Democracy and Social Action. In O’Sullivan, E.V., Morrell, A. & O’Connor, M.A. (eds.) Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Education: Essays on Theory and Praxis 2002. New York: Palgrave. p. 63-5
25. Silvia, P.J. Exploring the Psychology of Interest 2006. New York: Oxford University. ch. 6.
26. Simonton. Foresight in Insight? A Darwinian Answer. In Sternberg & Davidson-30. p. 478-86
27. White, S.A. Reporting in Australia1996. Melbourne, Victoria: Macmillan. ch.1
28. Zimbardo, P. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil 2007. New York: Random House. p. 273-85.
29. Zuboff, S. Managing the Informated Organization. In Webster, F. (ed.) The Information Society Reader 2004. London, Great Britain: Routledge. p. 316
30. Sternberg, R.J. & Davidson, J.E. (eds.) The Nature of Insight 1995. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Anon

    This may totally be besides the point, but the paper assumes that an ideal of encouraged learning exists whereas there are situations that learning is deliberately stunted by that hegemony who hold the capital on said information to keep it within a select few of those who can afford it while the rest rot. It also assumes that learners who learn outside the system around aren’t hunted down and killed.

  • Belle 2


    Very interesting!! I agree with your ideas and I try to encourage my student’s love for learning, but I feel as though I’m losing my edge. Which resource do you recommend over all the others? I need practical suggestions to enhance my classroom. How do you suggest implementing your ideas in the current educational climate which has all the focus on standarized testing? My usual teaching assignment is three different subjects, six classes, 40 minute periods and 150 students!!

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Hi Belle,

    In regard to implementing this within classrooms, I’d suggest simply playing the system and testing it at this stage. See what works for you.

    In my own experience however, sometimes this can work too well, and it is very easy to fall into the trap of trying to regulate the classroom noise and energy when the students seem to be doing all the work for you.

    Another problem is that this can also be incredibly resource intensive. Building activities on a full schedule is problematic because it will often overwork you.

    Now, I have yet to test this properly but one way I am planning to cut down the workload, and increase autonomy, is to hand students a simplified version of my syllabus documents at the start of a unit and then have them brainstorm and plan the work ahead – leaving me to edit and refine.

    Essentially OpenSourcing their education, and including them in the planning process will – I expect – give you better indication of what students will find intrinsically interesting and promote a sense of ownership over the materials.

  • Belle 2

    Thanks for the advice. I’m excited to give it a try. Summer is such a great time for me to read and plan for the next year, can you recommend one great book to help get me started?

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Best book among all those linked above, is FLOW. It’s entirely about engagement and life satisfaction.

    So far as education in particular, it is unfortunately the case that no one is writing about the incorporation of play in the middle and senior curriculum. I’ve actually had to resort to primary education texts.