The Value of Connecting the Dots to Create “Real Learning”
by Luba Vangelova
While leading problem-solving and creativity workshops for a company called Synectics in the 1970s, former schoolteacher Peter Bergson had a revelation. “I realized learning is a creative process—you are creating understanding,” he said. “The Synectics process was remedial, helping middle-aged businessmen develop thinking patterns that are natural to young people but get schooled out of them. What the Synectics process was doing was what the school process should have been doing—helping people develop their innate abilities to create and collaborate.”
He decided that conceptual development—the learner-driven creation of mental schemas that leads to an understanding of fundamental concepts and the ability to apply them to diverse situations—is the essence of what he calls “real learning,” because it leads to competence and possible mastery, in contrast to the typical “memorizing and regurgitating” that stops at mere awareness or else at knowledge that lacks practical value.
So in 1978, he and his wife (since deceased), Susan Shilcock, who had also been a teacher, launched a hybrid learning center in the Philadelphia suburbs. Their vision was to apply the concepts of Bergson’s corporate workshops to the self-directed learning philosophy espoused by the likes of education reformer John Holt (author of “How Children Fail,” among other books), in a format designed to provide the best of two worlds: school and unschooling.
They called the center Open Connections because its primary agenda “is to nourish and extend the connection-making abilities of young people and families,” Bergson explains. The more skilled people are at making positive synaptic connections in their brains, the better able they will be to achieve their goals, because “connection making lies at the heart of the creative process.” The center’s students are officially registered as homeschoolers.
Thirty-five years later, Bergson is reflecting on this educational experiment as he explores the possibility of opening a second Open Connections in Philadelphia proper, where the clientele would skew heavily toward low-income families. Based on initial feedback from colleagues who serve that community, he expects the fundamental elements of the Open Connections approach could be retained in that setting, although some format changes might be needed (such as expanded hours to accommodate families in which both parents work full time and have inflexible schedules).
LEARNING THAT PROMOTES CREATIVITY
Open Connections began as a one-room schoolhouse for the younger set. In 2001 it expanded to a 28-acre center offering a menu of one-day programs for ages four through 18. The program for four- to seven-year-olds is focused on free play; older students have a choice of group tutorials (covering a range of topics such as math, science and the humanities) and more narrowly focused programs, such as a naturalist program. (Open Connections differs from a democratic school by virtue of its part-time format and the presence of more structure, in the form of a menu of ongoing programs that are co-designed by adults and students.)
The majority of students attend two or three days a week; the rest of their time is spent learning at home and at various other venues. Open Connections admits anyone who wants to enroll and can demonstrate “an age-appropriate level of self-regulation,” as long as the parents are also committed to being partners in the child’s education, Bergson says. (The families run the gamut from the very wealthy to those needing to barter or receive assistance with tuition. Although there have been only a few minority applicants—and therefore students—over the years, this year the percentage of Asian Americans has jumped from zero to 15 percent of the incoming families.)
Open Connections is based on the premise that “learning is natural and self-motivated, does not have to be compelled, and is experiential, as in the Confucian proverb, ‘I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand,’” Bergson says. Its other core beliefs: There is variation in human development; there is inherent value in free play and taking pleasure in learning; collaboration is more useful than competition; learners have the right to pursue their own interests; and people learn best in mixed-age groups, in an atmosphere free of the anxiety generated by artificial grading and testing.
Out of these beliefs grew the following guiding principles:
1. A student’s thinking process is more important than getting the “right” answer
“When you figure things out for yourself, you learn you can figure things out, and that far outweighs any bit of information” you might absorb about the content itself, Bergson says. “My starting point is to assume that if a person wants my help, he or she will ask. If I see someone really struggling and seemingly wanting help, I might say, ‘There’s another way to do that, which I’ll be happy to show you if you want.’ That’s the key—and the hardest part—offering only after being invited to do so, and otherwise getting out of the way.”
But “freedom is not the same as license,” he adds, and practical considerations are also factored in. That means that in the workshop, for instance, “if a student is turning the handle of a vice the wrong way, my wish is not to intervene, because there is minimal risk. They’ll see it’s not getting tighter and will self-correct,” just as infants and toddlers do automatically. If, on the other hand, a student is sawing too close to the vice, “you don’t stand around and say, ‘This is an interesting opportunity for them to learn not to do that,’ because it would damage the equipment and come at the expense of the community.”
2. Offer activities that have practical value and hit the developmental “sweet spot”
“Self directed doesn’t have to mean hands off,” Bergson says. “We can’t know what we don’t know.” Children learn about new ideas and activities from talking to adults and peers, and watching them do things. So Open Connections seeks to provide a stimulating environment brimming with materials “that invite exploration and experimentation and invention,” as he puts it. It also strives to challenge students by offering activities that are just beyond their current conceptual reach, occupying “the space into which the developing mind is capable of moving at the present time. You’ll know you’ve found it when you hear, ‘Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! I’ve almost got it!’ That’s when a new schema is on the verge of being created.”
The center also emphasizes “learning in the context of purposeful activity,” Bergson says, “where the learning is only a by-product of the doing, not its raison d’être. You are doing in order to accomplish a goal, such as build a boat, manage a business, eat food from your garden, heal your sick pet, change a zoning law, etcetera.” For example, some of the students are learning about biology and math in the course of helping Open Connections’ property manager monitor the growth of some trees (using a tangent height gauge) and study the environmental factors that affect their viability.
In the process, they’re forging multiple connections. “When you are faced with a situation where you’re trying to create something, either for the purpose of solving a problem or building something new, you sort of Google your mind,” Bergson says. “We never really know what data and conceptual development will prove useful in the future, but the more material we have on hand, the more options we have later. … So the next time they’re trying to figure out how to measure something, they can make the connection that there was this device to measure the height of trees, so why not also come up with a device or technique to allow us to indirectly measure something like levels of enthusiasm.”
3. Whenever possible, keep it optional
“We don’t need everyone to understand everything—we just need enough people to understand all the key areas,” Bergson says. “We don’t need members of the State Department to have a sophisticated knowledge of chemistry, for example.” Moreover, “who gets to decide what everyone should know? What you think I should know is highly speculative, because you don’t know my future. On the other hand, you can help me with my process—first by modeling, and second by getting out of my way.”
In practice, this means that instead of starting from the conventional premise of “I have things I want you to know, so I built this curriculum,” Open Connections starts by asking the students, “What do you want to know?” Bergson explains. “Their skill development is not my business. They own that agenda, and I trust that, absent such outside coercion, they will learn what they need to know to create a life that satisfies them.” Therefore “students freely choose their programs and have anywhere from a modest to a complete say in what they personally do when they attend them,” he says. Facilitators are encouraged to introduce students to opportunities, but the students are not obligated to take them up on anything.
This approach, Bergson writes in Open Connections’ handbook, fosters self-motivation and a sense of purpose, and also leads to “less resistance, confusion, frustration, distress and certainly rebellion.”
4. Avoid praise
Open Connections doesn’t employ external motivators such as grades, tests and honors, believing that such devices “decrease self-motivation and become means in and of themselves,” Bergson says. “Gold stars have nothing to do with genuine self-esteem, because they are external bribes, not internally derived acknowledgement of a job well done.” (Because the students are officially classified as homeschoolers, though, they are required by the state to take standardized tests when they are in third, fifth and eighth grades.)
Authentic assessment, on the other hand, is regularly employed. “We are tested every time we try to do something,” Bergson notes. “Does the boat you made or computer program that you wrote work properly? Does your essay make sense and convince your readers of your position?” Thus when a group of Open Connections teenagers created a multi-level playhouse for the younger students, its popularity and stability were a testament to the teens’ project management and client skills, as well as to their design and technical abilities (they developed the plans in consultation with an architect and engineer, then hired a contractor to execute them).
Praise is also eschewed because of the belief that collaboration is a more productive approach than competition. “All of the research shows that competition actually diminishes the quality of results—especially where innovation and creativity are concerned,” Bergson notes in the handbook. “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
5. Above all, do no harm
“We want to protect the self-esteem, self-motivation and sense of good will of others,” Bergson says. The facilitators are urged to pay careful attention to process, and to bear in mind a key Synectics learning—that there are always at least two agendas in every human interaction. One is about the topic at hand, while the other seeks to protect each participant’s self-esteem. “Whenever the latter is threatened, the former takes the back burner,“ Bergson says. Hence businesspeople prefer to defend their ideas rather than acknowledge their flaws and ask for assistance, and students in traditional classrooms are reluctant to admit to not knowing an answer.
By not making students feel like they’re being judged all the time, “[Open Connections] frees up each individual to devote his or her full energies to the task at hand,” Bergson says. “Having an emotionally safe environment increases the probability of success exponentially.” That’s one reason infants and toddlers develop so rapidly, he adds. “They don’t understand the concepts of ‘mistakes’ and ‘failure.’ … There are no mistakes, only different effects—that is, until they get corrected and perhaps punished. Then they learn to stop experimenting and wait for someone to give them the ‘right’ answer.”
To foster a productive, non-judgmental environment, facilitators are encouraged to ask only genuine questions to which they don’t already know the answers (in other words, to refrain from quizzing students) and to provide feedback using what Bergson calls “balanced responses.” These begin with comments reflecting what the person likes about what’s going on, followed by their concerns, and finally their wishes regarding change. (For example: “I’m happy to see you using the saw; it looks like you understand how to grip it. I will alert you that if the saw rubs against the vice, it won’t saw anymore, so I suggest you move to where you’re cutting away from the vice.”)
A PARTNERSHIP APPROACH TO LEARNING
“Great solutions are not born,” Bergson says. “They are made, through collaborative interaction, and the same is true when the goal is developing skills and knowledge.” The Open Connections guidelines are put into practice by facilitators who must be skilled at understanding something from someone else’s perspective and connecting on an equal basis—and have the desire to do so. Therefore instead of trying to teach students what a poem means, a good facilitator starts “where the student is,” Bergson says. They might ask the student what resonated for him or her, what feelings the poem evoked, or what understanding it generated. The answers might then provoke a balanced response that begins by noting elements of the student’s analysis that resonated with the facilitator, followed by a different perspective that challenges the student’s thinking.
Facilitators are also responsible for promoting collaboration among the students and creating a stimulating but intellectually and emotionally safe environment. “The facilitator pays primary attention to the process of the environment, whereas the young people are largely in charge of the content of their activities,” Bergson explains.
Parents also play an important role. “They can talk with their youth about what he or she wants to do, learn about, create, etcetera, then offer them whatever resources the youth might need from them to get there,” Bergson says. “It may be that all the youth needs is free time to explore, experiment, and work it out on her or his own, or else he or she might need some money to pay for a trip or admission to a museum, or for a mentor, some supplies, or lessons.” Beyond that, parents can serve as important role models of self-direction, he adds.
Although Open Connections doesn’t systematically track its alumni, the anecdotal results mirror those of a recent survey of unschoolers, with the majority going on to lead satisfying lives and having productive careers. “The youths who fall through the cracks, at least temporarily, are victims of the same causes as schooled youths,” Bergson notes, such as “dysfunctional parents, genetic constraints, or lack of constructive opportunities to develop their interests.” Similarly, for the ones who found success, “one should not draw a straight cause-and-effect line from Open Connections to these achievements. Open Connections is only one part of each youth’s life. They, themselves, are the ones who got themselves into these colleges and work situations. What we do take credit for is encouraging them, by word and by deed, to build their flexible thinking skills and nurture their can-do attitude. This is what they tell us over and over again is the most important takeaway from [Open Connections] for them.”
EXPANDING TO THE CITY
As he explores the idea of opening a second Open Connections within Philadelphia’s city limits, Bergson concedes that “the first barrier to overcome is my own ignorance and the mistaken biases that we suburbanites often have with regard to city folks.” He has been striving to overcome this by consulting people who work in that community, as well as conducting focus groups with families to better understand their needs and challenges. Aside from some design differences (such as longer hours), he is confident that the same general approach can be used, citing examples such as the Big Picture Learning schools, “which have demonstrated that lower socio-economic youths can be just as passionate about their work and learning as their wealthier counterparts, if not more so.”
They are probably accustomed to “more overt forms of disrespect,” such as dilapidated schools with broken equipment, he adds, “so it may take some of them a bit more getting used to before they’ll realize that they are deserving of the same opportunities as their wealthier peers in the suburbs, but we are certain that they are just as passionate about growing and learning due to their being human beings.”
He expects that the presence of proactive adult facilitators would help them make the transition. He also anticipates that an Open Connections in Philadelphia would start by catering to younger children who have been exposed to little, if any, top-down instruction and therefore have not internalized “the notion that someone has to ‘teach’ them in order for them to learn,” he says.
As for replication by others, he recommends “visiting [Open Connections] and other places, then deciding what you want to create. Be clear about your motives, and then find some hard-working and passionate colleagues and, preferably, an angel investor or two. Don’t try to duplicate anything else; learn from others, but keep your own vision first and foremost,” Bergson said.