Students Voice: Continuum of Choice for the future of education
How much and to what extent should we consider trust and student voice as we redesign education? This is the first year report of findings from the Future(s) of Education project (www.futureofeducationproject.net)
Students Voice: Continuum of Choice for the future of education
How do New Designs for Education and Education Leadership Include
Concepts of “Least Intrusive Education (LIE)? Or other forms of student-
A presentation at the European education research Association conference, ECER, 2009:
Vienna, Austria, 28 September, 2009.
By E. Alana James, Ed.D.
• Introduction of the Future(s) of Education Project and the ideas behind it that drive
• Discussion of the Hole in the Wall Project and its implications for the future of
• Conclusion outlines a matrix of educational design choices between
student/educator-driven curricula or processes
The purpose of this study is to determine whether and to what extent ideas of student-driven
curricula or “Least Intrusive Education” are provocative or interesting to an international
discussion on the future of education. The scope covers one year of project development, and
six months of online interaction. Methodology is mixed, based upon participatory action
research cycles, analyzing data from weblogs, e-mails, articles, and a triangulated with
quantitative evidence from a online survey. Findings suggest that the international
community are considering whether and to what extent schools meet the needs of young
people and are willing to entertain and discuss other possibilities. The study concludes that
there is a continuum from educator-driven to student-driven choice on both the axis of
curriculum and educational process. Limitations of this study are its very small sample size
and the fact that, to date, data only include voices from a limited number of countries when
compared to the diversity on earth. It contributes to the field of education by uncovering and
delineating questions, to be addressed in the future by people concerned with the design of
systems for education.
future of education, student-driven education, least intrusive education, research, education,
You have to make choices if you want to change the world
Introduction: Why the world needs changing and what we are trying to do about it
Education is not rocket science, it is much harder than rocket science. No
scientist would willingly take on an experiment with an unlimited number of
variables in motion all the time. Prof. at Teachers College, 2004
The designers of education in the late 1800s saw the problem as relatively simple. In their
time, cities were flooded with children previously living in rural communities, allowed to run
free, causing havoc when their parents were at work in factories. Sitting children in rows,
forcing them to adjust to timetables, and teaching them the basics of literacy and numeracy,
made perfect sense. They could not have imagined the complexity of the global technological
world our children will inherit.
Could it be that the entire system on which education is based is outmoded and in need of
revamping but, that because it is all we know, we have difficulty imagining anything outside
this box? These are not a new ideas, building as they do on Dewey, Illich and others who
pointed to both the necessity of democracy in bringing diverse voices together in learning, and
the ways in which schools fail to capitalize on that potential (Hickman, 1998; Illich, 1971)?
Indeed, even a quick perusal of current literature will show:
1) Education is a hard job, with little pay, and difficult work place environments.
2) Authors and publishers focus on efforts to improve schools while others point out that
achieving consistent outcomes is a complex problem.
3) There are few strategic international efforts to develop new designs for education, at
least partially due to enormous investment in the current infrastructure.
This study focuses on the first year results from the Future(s ) of Education Project a project
that aims to engender international conversation about new possibilities in education design.
Individuals and participatory groups ask, “What do our young people need to thrive in the
world they will inherit? A world that we cannot imagine.” The goal of the project is to
refocus attention from what is wrong with education systems towards new designs that
address challenges while making use of technological potentials. Over time, outcomes of the
project will be measured by the numbers of diverse voices involved in the conversation by the
end of the year and whether and to what extent startling or provocative ideas have been
It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs. Education is
a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life;
education is life itself. John Dewey
Schooling implies custodial care for persons who are declared undesirable
elsewhere by the simple fact that a school has been built to serve them. Ivan Illich
The two quotes above, introduce key considerations regarding the distance between education
and schooling. Yet, it is commonplace, wherever one travels in the world to have people
complain about their “systems of education” as though there were no difference between
education and schools. Margaret Mead would suggest, as she did when she said, “Never doubt
that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing
that ever does,” that while it is hard work, it is important that people work together and believe
they can help change these realities. These are the key concepts behind the Future(s) of
Education Project and my work as an independent academic.
For the last six years, I have been pursuing the potential of using participatory action research
(PAR) online, in networked groups, as a means of moving forward on complex issues in
education. The first round of this work took place over five years as I facilitated a project in
which 12 states in the US funded educators and community members. They used
participatory action research to focus their work helping schools become more responsive to
children and families experiencing homelessness (James, 2006a, 2006b, 2009; James & McKay
Epp, 2007; James, Milenkiewicz, & Bucknam, 2008).
I see two parts to the PAR process: First participants need to work together without hierarchy
based on their other roles in life. Second the process they follow needs to support
communication, action and reporting back so others can learn what they do. PAR does a good
job of ensuring both as it guides participants through a three-part cycle: discovery, action-
measurement and reflection.
The project on homelessness developed into a web-based professional development project
(WBPD) to meet financial constraints, changing facilitation of the project to an online
environment. Six years ago, this was more difficult than it is today. Through the process, I
experienced both the good and the bad in online communication and facilitation.
WBPD ended in 2008, when the local advocates moved on to other work, allowing me to
reflect on the positives and negatives of the project and to decide where I wanted to go next.
The positives were that a web-based PAR network was extremely efficient in creating
transformative change. Large numbers (12,000-15,000) of students and families were affected
by the work and the transformational results adopted by the participants.
About that same time, I was becoming enormously frustrated with educational systems
designed during the Industrial Revolution. The following outlines the chain of thoughts that
lead to this current project:
1. Globally the structure for education is similar, students sit in rows and study subjects
determined to be important by others. This design developed and was useful during
the Industrial Revolution and supports an underlying pervasive idea of human
beings going to work in a factory type environment.
2. While the advance of technology has been touted by many as disrupting education,
schools have been surprisingly able to adapt technology so that it merely replicates
existing modes of education (Attwell, 2009).
3. After completing an extensive review of literature, I found authors writing on either
what is wrong with education or how to fix schools, with few (none?) focused on
whether and to what extent new designs may be necessary for entire systems of
education. Work done by communities to expand options to include homeschooling,
charter schools, etc. broaden the scope but do not address the underlying issues.
4. As a Rotarian, I support effective international entrepreneurial solutions to complex
issues such as developing drinkable water, etc. I yearn for the same entrepreneurial
spirit to address the educational issues of the world.
5. I decided to use the process of online, networked PAR to investigate what would
develop. The Future(s) of Education Project is a single person’s attempt to engender
international discussion about new designs in education. Fortunately, it is a
discussion many want to join.
6. In a world where content is ubiquitous, a key question becomes, how can we move
education to be more student-driven? How can we engender creativity, curiosity
and the zest that sustains transformation? Or, as the project asks: “What do our
children need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot
Figure 1: The Future(s) of Education Project Website
A few philosophical and pedagogical ideas drove the development of the online environment
for the Future(s) Project. First, George Siemens, (2005), reminds us that students decide what
they will learn and how they will understand connections between ideas. Pedagogy that
builds on the ideas of neuroscience goes on to remind us that it is useful if we facilitate
multiple streams of processing content because, “What fires together wires together” (Begley,
2007; Read & Charles A. Dana Foundation., 2008). Finally, if we tie in the writing about
personal learning environments (PLEs) and social networks, we come to understand web-
based discussions as an interplay between decisions made by designers and end-users
(Attwell, 2009; Granovetter, 1973; Laszio Barabasi, 2005; Wilson et al., 2006).
In July 2008 the idea of the project was born. By the fall, I had attended conferences and found
others interested in the project ideas. By the end of the year, the website was up and a small
viral marketing campaign had begun. In January, February, and March of 2009 participatory
groups began meeting and having local discussions around the question, “What to our
children need in order to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot
imagine.” The first participatory groups began to offer me feedback data beginning in
By late spring, it was clear that international voices in India, New Zealand, Uganda, and
Panama, all of whom expressed interest in the project and who were adding content to the
website, needed closer connections to the project. The result was the beginning of regular
online synchronous meetings or web conferences. In May, June, and July 2009, meetings were
held at 7 AM and 7PM GMT. Each set of meetings furthered the project. For instance, New
Zealand reported on their use of core competencies as an alternative structure to standards
based education, which was then taken up by educators in Colorado working on issues of
students in foster care.
Recently, it became obvious that local participatory teams alone were not going to engender an
international network of ideas. Fortunately, volunteers who had experience in IT came
forward with suggestions for reworking the website at www.futureofeducationproject.net
with what they called “individual takeaways.” Recent additions to the site have included a
survey, a space for educators to upload research, and redesigned navigation.
Methods and Scope
Participatory action research (PAR) is as much a philosophy as a methodological choice
(Elliott, 2003). I see it as both. Philosophically PAR promotes the democratic power of the
voice of diverse peoples to design their own worlds. Methodologically I adopt a three step
cycle that assures I apply data collection and analysis techniques to the actions I take and
forces me to formally reflect and use those reflections as data to drive future actions. Figure 3,
below, diagrams resources of data and communication.
Figure 3: Logic model for the futures of education project research
This research project builds on the initial work by the Hole in the Wall Project (Mitra, 2007;
Mitra et al., 2005) and seeks, in part, to discover whether and to what extent his ideas of least
intrusive education (LIE) were interesting or provocative to online participants during the first
year of discussion in the Future(s) of Education Project. For those unfamiliar with the Hole in
the Wall Project, Mitra embedded computers in the walls of villages in rural India. Without
instruction, 100% of the children in the villages learned to browse the Internet, learning an
average English vocabulary of 200 words, even in locations where they have seldom, if ever,
heard English spoken. The startling thing about the project, to educators, but perhaps not to
parents, is the fact that this huge scale of learning was accomplished with no instruction. From
this, Mitra coined the phrase “least intrusive education” (LIE) suggesting that children know
how to learn and that we should not get in the way as they do so. The methodology employed
in the study of the Future(s) response to Mitra’s work was mixed, based upon participatory
action research cycles, analyzing data from weblogs, e-mails, articles, triangulated with
quantitative evidence from an online survey.
1. International survey respondents show an overwhelming willingness (88%) to consider
and support alternative forms of non-traditional school education. The caveat on this
finding is that, as is frequently the case with PAR studies, motivation to participate in
the survey was likely driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo.
2. The first year participatory groups tended to centre their conversation on tensions with
schools rather than on more strength-based approach of considering “What do our
children need to thrive?”
3. The Hole in the Wall material was popular. Using a ranking system based on number
of website hits, the Hole in the Wall video ranked 14out of 89 and documents about the
project ranked 38 and 48out of 89.
4. When the Hole in the Wall Project came up during participatory discussions, it was
linked with the work of Ivan Illich and whether or not schools were a useful design for
education. What emerged was the dichotomy in the belief of whether or not young
people are able to contain themselves and move forward based on an internal reference
of control, or to what extent do they require external guidance?
5. Figure 4 (below) diagrams the topics of discussion across the network for the first six
months. Many topics were covered, however all of the groups and individuals
discussed the debate around this issue of the amount of guidance that children require.
Figure 4: Mind map of discussions from participants and groups
LIE is at the far end of the continuum of conversation about how much control a young person
should have on their education. Western educators entertainment versions of this idea when
they discuss student-centred education, although in that case it is usually seen as a set of
potential activities resulting from top-down curricular choices. As with constructivist theory,
student-centred work is contained within the context of some other force telling the student
and teacher what needs to be learned.
I have come to describe the circumstance whereby students decide what they want to learn as
student-driven learning. In this model, educators/facilitators help provide processes and
direction so that that learning is efficient and inclusive of commonly agreed upon basics. The
debate can be graphically organized across two continuums in a matrix as is shown in Figure 3
Educator-driven process. Students driven process.
Educator-driven Educator-driven curricular choices with Educator-driven curricular choices
curricula. professionals the guiding, and assessing delivered in online or other
the entire process. modular context, so that students
decide upon and employ skill sets
and outcomes of their own
Student-driven Student-driven curricular choices with Student-driven curricular choices
curricula. adults facilitating process and skill sets with little or no adult facilitation
that aid mastery. (LIE).
Figure 3: Educator/student-driven curricular/educational choices
If we look at the current educational systems, we see examples of emerging new designs that
fit this matrix. Figure 4 gives some examples.
Educator-driven process. Student-driven process.
Educator-driven Current education in schools in much of The most flexible of online
curricula. the world. The least flexible online education.
Student-driven Doctoral dissertations or thesis work. Lifelong learning for students of all
Figure 4: Current examples of adult and student-driven process/curricula
Using the matrix above, participants, both within and outside the Future(s) of Education
Project, can position themselves ideologically along these continuums. This should prove
useful as discussions move toward the development of new designs. It is likely, in fact
probable, that modular designs will emerge within each square. In fact, that would be a useful
outcome, as this would help us develop the flexibility necessary to properly address student
need, while allowing for student growth.
If we go back to the question that drives the Future(s) of Education Project, “What do our
young people need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot imagine”
we see that it is likely that we should be developing processes and styles of education within
all four boxes as defined by the figure above. Some students are at a developmental stage
where they require extensive guidance, while others are mature and require freedom to pursue
the objects of their curiosity as they build skills and endurance.
Limitation and Contribution
The major limitation of this study is, of course, its limited size and scope. That should not
prevent these initial findings from having a useful position as provocative material within the
field of education, as we begin to discuss, “What is next?”
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