How the Riley School Approach to Education Fits with Emerging Scientific Views on the Nature of Life
How the Riley School Approach to Education Fits with Emerging Scientific Views on the Nature of Life
by Norm Hirst, with Rodney B. Plimpton, Ph.D.
The Riley School is an alternative school for children aged 4-14, founded by Glenna Wade Plaisted in Glen Cove, Maine, in 1972. www.rileyschool.org This article examines the differences between the Riley School and more traditional approaches to education, in light of emerging new knowledge about Life Itself. While this article focuses on the Riley School as one specific example of an alternative approach to education, the views expressed in it would apply to many other similar alternative schools.
The author of this article, Norm Hirst, has spent the past 50 years, beginning at MIT and elsewhere, studying the nature of Life Itself. Having started as a physicist at MIT, Norm then became involved with artificial intelligence projects that led him to a study of the role of values in living behavior. This in turn led him to the emerging field of biophysics, and to findings that challenge many of our current beliefs about the nature of life, and how we learn. He is currently with the Autognomics Institute, which he co-founded with his wife, Skye, in 1992.
The conclusions will be of interest to any parent who is selecting a school for their child, or to anyone interested in improving the education system.
Key Differences between Riley and Traditional approaches to education
While there are many differences between the Riley School and Traditional approaches to education, in this article we will focus on six key differences summarized in Table 1, below.
Aspect Riley Traditional Philosophy The student’s own innate curiosity should be the basis for developing a passion for continuous learning, as well as a good understanding of self, others, and environment The school system should decide what subjects and skills are most important for children to learn and should teach them in a ways that enable the most students to achieve an acceptable level of proficiency in them at an acceptable economic cost Facilities Setting and buildings that encourage exposure to nature, exploring ideas and manifesting creativity Buildings that emphasize classroom space with teachers at the front, along with some sports, laboratory, and library space. Curriculum Design Determined flexibly by student interest, readiness, and accomplishments within a broad framework of subjects Determined by experts who decide what content should be taught in what sequence so that the average student can learn it. Teaching Methods Teachers serve as coaches helping students to discover what they need and want to know by following their own curiosity and ideas. The teacher is largely responsible for presenting the content that students should learn and for providing exercises to help them to master it. Student Performance Evaluation A qualitative view is taken of the student as a whole person, with emphasis on what will foster further development of their full potential A competitive, quantitative measurement is made of student progress in mastering assigned subjects School Performance Evaluation The school largely evaluates itself on how well its students are able to continue learning and adapting to challenges after leaving the school The school largely evaluates itself on how well its students perform on one-shot standardized, competitive tests completed at the end of the school year
Many striking differences are immediately apparent from looking at the table, and strong views have been expressed on both sides of these differences. But our intent in this article is to examine what the emerging science of Life Itself has to say about these differences. In order to do that, we need to digress a bit and summarize both the traditional views that have existed about life, and how the emerging views are changing our understanding of life, and how living entities learn and adapt. Although the emerging views pertain to all living matter, we will focus on human beings unless examples from elsewhere help to make a point.
Multiple Levels of Being
Human beings can be physically described on many different levels such as:
- Gross physical characteristics, such as mass and density.
- Major anatomical parts, such as heads and legs
- Major body systems, such as a circulatory system and a respiratory system
- Specialized organs and chemicals in the body, such as the pituitary gland, or endorphins
- The cellular structure of our bodies
- The molecular structure of our bodies
- The quantum physics governing the processes that are occurring in our bodies
Processes and behaviors such as eating or learning can also be described at many different levels:
- On average, human beings sleep about one third of the time and live four to nine decades
- Children generally begin speaking words between 12 and 18 months (??)
- Cells monitor their environment to determine whether they need to be in a growth mode or a protection mode.
The point we are making here is that what is “true” about human beings depends a lot on what level you are looking at and trying to understand them on.
Until very recently the scientific tools and paradigms that we had only enabled us to look at the whole human at a relatively gross level, and only at specific parts at a more detailed level. From this came a general view of human beings as machines; a collection of parts put together in such a way as to be able to perform certain functions given certain conditions.
As the physical sciences progressed from mechanics to computers our models for humans became more sophisticated as well, and we began thinking of ourselves as adaptive machines, preprogrammed for survival and able to learn through heuristics and experience.
There was enough truth in these views given the level and behaviors we were looking at, that the analogies became quite commonly accepted. In particular, stimulus-response models of human behavior became very popular. (Remember Pavlov’s dog, or Skinner’s Box?). These models basically said that we function by being presented with a stimulus, taking some action, experiencing some pleasurable or painful reaction as a result, and modifying our response in order to avoid pain or receive pleasure. If one believes that is how we learn, then we can set up a whole education system based on presenting particular stimulus that we want to evoke particular responses and using rewards or punishments to shape the behaviors that we want. (Stimulus: 7x5=? ; Response: 34 ZZZAAAPPPP!)
It is interesting to note that these models of human behavior, like computers, rely on either/or logic. A response is either right or it is wrong. An outcome is either pleasurable or it is painful. A student either passes or fails. A body is either healthy or diseased. This fits well with Newtonian mechanics. A body is either in motion or it is at rest.
But then the physical sciences advanced to the point of being able to look at the quantum world, (very, very small particles and energies) and found entirely different behaviors. It turned out that at the quantum level, “Normal” physical laws did not apply. Information could move faster than the speed of light. It was more accurate to think of matter as both particle and energy than as either one alone. And the biological sciences began to be able to look at the functioning of the whole body as an integrated system, with equally surprising results.
We have learned, for example, that intelligence is not only in the brain, but in every cell membrane in our bodies. And that these 75 trillion cells are able to communicate instantly with each other through a network known as the Living Matrix, much faster than we ever thought possible. And that instead of behaving as passive parts, governed by a central controller or program, our bodies function as a democratic, cooperative society of 75 trillion entities, each of which makes its own decisions about what it should do based upon awareness of the state of the whole being.
We have also learned that each of us has a completely unique identity defined by a unique “vibrational signature”. This should not be so amazing, when we realize that even parts of us such as our fingerprints or irises are unique enough to identify us.
Finally, this emerging knowledge appears to have the potential to understand and explain whole categories of behavior that simply had to be dismissed or ignored when we viewed our bodies as adaptive machines. These behaviors would include mystical experiences, precognition, self-sacrifice etc.
We have postulated for some time that human beings have both conscious and unconscious or subconscious processes going on all the time, and that often the subconscious processes have a much more powerful influence on our behavior than we recognize. But we have tended to think of the subconscious processes as being more primitive instincts that were preprogrammed into us eons ago to enable our survival.
As we bring quantum understanding and examination to looking at ourselves, we are beginning to see that these concepts are terribly limited and misleading. We are not preprogrammed to survive in a particular environment, but rather we are equipped to discover what kind of an environment we are in, and to then form inside of ourselves the cooperative patterns across all of our 75 trillion cells that will enable us to not only survive, but to thrive and express our unique identity and make our unique contribution in whatever environment we find ourselves in.
In summary, our understanding of human life and human behavior can be based on many different levels of examination. When we observe and try to understand some of the grosser levels, we find some similarities with other physical bodies, and with simple adaptive machines. But this level of understanding fails to encompass a great deal of our human experience.
When we delve deeper into the quantum level and look at whole-body processes we discover a truly elegant, complex, and individually unique identity that is formed and maintained by every one of 75 trillion cells working cooperatively to not only understand and adapt to, or survive in a particular environment, but to express will and to manifest a creative identity in that environment.
Back to the Educational Models
While the above description is an admittedly very brief and sketchy introduction to the emerging science of Life Itself, it may be enough to suggest how the traditional and alternative models of education relate to our understanding of life in general, and human beings in particular. Lets take each of the six aspects we chose to look at in turn.
We briefly summarized the differences in philosophy in Table 1.
Aspect Riley Traditional Philosophy The student’s own innate curiosity should be the basis for developing a passion for continuous learning, as well as a good understanding of self, others, and environment The school system should decide what subjects and skills are most important for children to learn and should teach them in a ways that enable the most students to achieve an acceptable level of proficiency in them at an acceptable economic cost
Having taken our brief digression, we can come back to the philosophic differences and see that they are based upon different views about the nature of human beings and the role of education. The traditional view emphasizes the common body of basic knowledge and skills that most people have found helpful to have in the past (the three R’s for example). It sees the role of education as accelerating the acquisition of this knowledge in the next generation by sitting them down and explaining to them what others have already learned.
It is not all bad. It has worked in the sense that it has equipped millions of people with basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, and many of those people have obviously gone on to advanced learning in all sorts of fields.
But any teacher will tell you that the hardest part of teaching is getting the children engaged and interested in what is being presented. Furthermore, living in an age when new knowledge is exploding, when life is becoming more complex and interdependent, and when people are living longer, it is impossible to give people adequate knowledge in a dozen years in the classroom to prepare them for a lifetime of new situations.
Fortunately the study of Life Itself is showing us that we are superbly equipped to actively explore our environment and to continuously learn what we need to know in order to thrive. Assuming that we are passive containers that need to be filled up with data and rules in order to survive does not take advantage of our highest capabilities. And fortunately great teachers in traditional schools encourage students to go beyond the assigned material to explore their own ideas. But the philosophy of alternative schools, such as Riley, appears to be more aligned with our emerging understanding of human life than the traditional educational philosophy.
Aspect Riley Traditional Facilities Setting and buildings that encourage exposure to nature, exploring ideas and manifesting creativity Buildings that emphasize classroom space with teachers at the front, along with some sports, laboratory, and library space.
Learning can take place in any kind of setting. But when we construct settings for the purpose of learning, those settings send messages about our philosophy of education. When we construct classrooms with rows of chairs facing a teacher’s desk at the front, we are sending a message that the teacher has the answers and the students are there to learn from them.
When we construct learning environments that incorporate nature, movable furniture, accessible resources for construction and play, open library shelves, and a variety of unusual objects, we send a message that everything around us can be a resource for learning if we are curious enough to explore it.
Thus the physical settings that we construct for learning are more important for the messages they send about our assumptions than anything else.
Curriculum Design Aspect Riley Traditional Curriculum Design Determined flexibly by student interest, readiness, and accomplishments within a broad framework of subjects Determined by experts who decide what content should be taught in what sequence so that the average student can learn it.
While different assumptions about human nature and learning drive the differences in educational philosophies and structures, the real consequences show up in curriculum design, teaching methods, and student evaluation.
The study of Life Itself tells us that we must be able to learn effective acts, no matter what environment we find ourselves in. The definition of an effective act is that it realizes our intention. Thus we are greatly hindered in learning effective acts if we have limited opportunity to form and express intention.
When the curriculum has been designed in advance, right down to the daily lesson plan, and is the same for every child in the room, there is limited opportunity for the individual child to think about and express intent. Too often it is limited to the intent to get by with a minimum of work; the intent to attract attention by being the class clown; the intent to excel in order to meet parental aspirations. This does not mean that there are not opportunities in traditional schools for any expression of intention or realization of uniqueness, but often these opportunities lie outside of the core curriculum
In the Riley approach the realization and expression of intention is a key driver of the individual curriculum at any point in time. This is a crucial difference. In one instance the message is that someone else will have figured out what is best for you. In the other instance the message is that everything that one sets out to do needs to start with a conscious sense of intention.
It does not take much imagination to see how learning that someone else has the answers contributes to passive acceptance of other people’s agendas, whether that is a commercial message or a political agenda.
A byproduct of individual curriculum design is developing awareness that there are many different paths to the same end, acceptance of diversity, and the development of a unique identity that does not have to be more or less than anyone else’s identity. More on that latter point when we get to evaluation.
Teaching methods Aspect Riley Traditional Teaching Methods Teachers serve as coaches helping students to discover what they need and want to know by following their own curiosity and ideas. The teacher is largely responsible for presenting the content that students should learn and for providing exercises to help them to master it.
The stimulus-response model of behavior and learning suggests that we are passively waiting for some input, and that when we get it we apply some rules, learned over time, in response. If it is a new stimulus we may not know how to respond and will have to resort to trial and error, unless someone teaches us the rules ahead of time.
With this model training is an active activity and learning is a passive activity. The trainer (or teacher) provides the content and application rules, and the learner absorbs them.
The study of Life Itself tells us that while we are adaptable enough to be able to learn things in this manner, if sufficiently motivated or coerced, it is not at all our natural learning cycle.
Instead we are equipped to actively seek information through all of our senses, and even through intuitive knowing. We use our past experience to extract meaning from the information around us. And we use our sense of values to form intent and to decide upon a course of action. Ultimately we seek new information to determine whether we have achieved our intent or not. Depending upon the outcomes we may change our interpretation of information, or our values, or the sets of alternatives that we consider.
Placing the teacher in the role of coach rather than authority helps the student to exercise and develop all of the components necessary to develop as a whole person. It is not just the facts memorized that counts, but the ability to form and express intention, to seek and find information, to develop and apply values, to reflect upon outcomes, and to continually revise patterns of knowing and being based upon new environments, new information, and new outcomes.
Student Performance Evaluation Aspect Riley Traditional Student Performance Evaluation A qualitative view is taken of the student as a whole person, with emphasis on what will foster further development of their full potential A competitive, quantitative measurement is made of student progress in mastering assigned subjects
This may well be the most controversial area of difference in the two approaches to education. Looking at it from our knowledge of Life Itself we can make the following observations:
- With a living organism you get the whole of it, all of the time. While it is quite possible to test a singular aspect of the whole, such as arm strength, or memorization of a set of facts, even the sum of all such measurements is no more than an anemic description of the whole being. The Riley approach is consistent with this aspect of life, in that the attempt is made to evaluate development as a whole person, rather than testing parts.
- It is a mistake to assume that because there are no standardized tests, there are no objective measures for performance. The efficacy of an act is gauged by how well it fulfills the intention that motivated it. Maximum learning takes place when enough acts fulfill the intention that progress towards complex and challenging goals is possible. By definition this is not the place where all acts meet the intention. Thus the art of coaching lies in helping the child to establish goals and intentions that are within the potential of their developing capabilities, but not yet within their mastery. Implicit in this view is that maximum learning occurs through a mixture of successes and failures.
- In an un-graded system with multiple curriculum paths being pursued by a diverse set of children, each one can experience distinctiveness without having it come at the expense of others. At the same time, to the extent that they are encouraged to be resources to each other they can experience connectedness and mutual support, rather than separation and isolation. This is fundamental to appreciating diversity. This paradox of needing to develop a self-awareness of having a separate identity while remaining aware of being connected to the whole is an essential element of conscious living systems.
Thus in many ways the Riley approach to student evaluation is consistent with our evolving understanding of Life Itself.
But wait, you may be saying, isn’t survival of the fittest an essential part of the evolution of life, and doesn’t standardized competitive testing strengthen the whole system by forcing a higher standard and providing feedback on fitness? Without delving deeply into the place of Darwinism in the current views of life we would only point out that:
- Fitness of a living entity is a concept that ultimately can only be applied to the organism as a whole, living in an environmental context. Is a superbly developed killer instinct an asset to long-term survival if it results in annihilating ones own food chain?
- Competitive examinations reinforce the notion that we are separate from each other, and that some of us are better than others.
- With limited opportunities to express intent and experience our uniqueness, the self-reflective consequences of doing well or poorly on a competitive examination may be exaggerated. We may come to feel overly proud or overly shamed.
- Ultimately all of our learning takes the form of unique internalized experiences and conclusions that we carry around within ourselves. We are more or less limited depending upon the robustness and diversity of those conclusions. Educational systems that give us limited opportunity to formulate and express intent; that force us into passive absorption rather than active investigation, and that evaluate us separately and competitively based on limited aspects of our performance may not give us the most robust and diverse set of experiences and learnings to carry us through the rest of our lives, and may rob us of both our own sense of uniqueness and our appreciation of diversity.
None of this is intended to suggest that there are no useful purposes for competitive examinations, or that learning can be accomplished without any feedback as to whether what has been learned is right or wrong.
But taken together, the three critical elements of curriculum design, teaching method, and student evaluation suggest that the Riley approach is more aligned with what we know today about the optimal conditions for Life Itself than more traditional educational approaches.
School Performance Evaluation
Aspect Riley Traditional School Performance Evaluation The school largely evaluates itself on how well its students are able to continue learning and adapting to challenges after leaving the school The school largely evaluates itself on how well its students perform on one-shot standardized, competitive tests completed at the end of the school year
The differences in School Performance Evaluation lead us back to the fundamental differences in educational philosophy. If we start with a view that students are empty containers to be filled up with the right facts, concepts, and application rules, then measuring whether they have in fact been filled up with the prescribed content is an entirely consistent way of gauging school performance.
On the other hand if we view each student as a unique whole, with great potential capacity to explore its environment, and learn how to manifest intentions with greater and greater skill and knowledge over a lifetime, then the only real measure of long-term success of the school is how well its students adapt and develop their potential over the course of their lifetime. It requires great vision and faith to run a school based upon this standard, and considerable time to prove its efficacy.
Because we believe that the approach taken in the Riley school is more consistent with our evolving understanding of the nature of Life Itself, we believe that this concept will prove itself to be of great value over time.