Learning through Dialogue, Experience and Cooperation

A culture of learning versus a culture of teaching

At the end of the nineteenth century, a movement for a “new school” appeared in Europe and in the USA. It started in England with the school of Abbotsholme created by Cecil Reddie (1889). Several similar initiatives appeared in Western Europe, based on the works of researchers such as John Dewey in the USA, Maria Montessori in Italy and Edouard Claparède in France.

In 1907, when Robert Baden-Powell (B-P) organized the first “Scout camp” on Brownsea Island, he was responding to a request made by several educationalists who wanted to reform the educational system.

Baden-Powell became a “disciple” of Maria Montessori, and she an enthusiast of his work with older children.

B-P was a soldier, but not a conventional one. He was a specialist in scouting. The military Scouts were special troops who had been uniquely trained, not based on drill but on the development of initiative, resourcefulness and working in small groups, using critical thinking and non-conformist methods. This is what interested the educationalists from the learning culture.

B-P was as critical of the military system as he was of the classical school system.

“The secret of sound education”, B-P wrote in 1912, “is to get each pupil to learn for himself, instead of instructing him by driving knowledge into him in a stereotyped system”.

In 1918, he wrote in The Times:

”The Cadet training imposes collective instruction upon boys from without, while the Scout movement encourages self-development on the part of the individual from within… one works through impression, the other through expression… Military drill fashions him on to an approved standard as part of the machine, whereas the aim of Scouting is to develop his personal character and initiative as a first step.”

Around 1850 a new educational system was created, first in Western Europe (Prussia in particular), to meet the needs of the second Industrial Revolution. Its purpose was to massively increase educational levels in order to obtain the efficient and productive workers needed in the workplace. This new educational system spread throughout the world due to a combination of colonial imposition and cultural borrowing.

The organizations of the industrial age – armies, factories and schools – are based on the concept of knowledge developed by Kepler, Descartes and Newton: the world is like a clock. Once you have analyzed and understood the parts, the whole can be predicted and controlled like a machine. So organizations should be structured like machines with interchangeable parts and standardized equipment, and governed by strict regulations. In factories, the organization found its prototypical embodiment in the assembly line, which is able to produce a huge number of uniform manufactured objects. The educators of the mid-nineteenth century copied this system to create the new schools.

Like an assembly line, the school system was organized in discrete stages called grades, segregating the children by ages. Everyone was supposed to learn in the same way and to move from one stage to the next stage together.

This machine-age school system is based on a series of assumptions:

Children are deficient and schools fix them: children are considered “raw materials”, and their interests and willfulness are not taken into consideration. They need to be controlled.

Learning takes place in the head, not in the body as a whole: learning is considered a purely intellectual affair. Only the head is required; the rest of the body can be left at the door.

Everyone should learn in the same way: those who cannot follow the standardized curriculum are considered to suffer from “learning disabilities”. So, there are smart kids and dumb kids. The smart kids are those who are well adapted and excel in school, whereas the dumb ones are those who are not.

Learning takes place in the classroom, not in the world: the various experiences and relationships that children have in other parts in their lives are not taken into consideration.

The machine-age school system achieved some good results. Illiteracy disappeared and nearly everyone acquired some basic academic knowledge. However, this system was based on “a model of school separate from daily life, governed in an authoritarian manner; oriented above all else to producing a standardized product, the labor input needed for the rapidly growing industrial age workplace…” (Peter Senge, Schools that Learn)

This machine-age school system does not fit the needs and challenges of today’s world.

The machine-age education system and the new school approach differed in culture: the culture of teaching versus the culture of learning.

  • The teaching culture wants to deliver instruction, offers courses and programs, and strives to improve the quality of instruction;
  • The learning culture creates a learning environment and strives to improve the quality of learning.
  • In the teaching culture, knowledge is delivered by instructors.
  • The learning culture elicits student discovery and construction of knowledge.
  • In the teaching culture, time is a constant (50-minute lectures), while the learning varies;
  • for the learning culture, learning is a constant and the time varies. The teaching culture is teacher centered; the learning culture is learner centered.
  • In the teaching culture, talent and ability are rare, learning is cumulative and linear, and you have to memorize disconnected facts to understand the whole.
  • In the learning culture, talent and ability are abundant and diverse, and learning is interactive.

In the cultural struggle between teaching and learning, Scouting was on the side of learning from the outset.

Teaching is something that is brought to you, whereas learning is something that you do by yourself. Teaching is what teachers do, whereas learning is what students do. Teaching is often an illusion. You can teach somebody but you need to ensure that he/she has learned something. Teaching (or instruction or training) is an institutional or organizational responsibility. An organization decides who should receive any given training. The people involved receive instructions. They are not always consulted, so risk being passive. The assumption of the teaching culture is the following: if you know something very well, you can transmit it to students by teaching. In reality, we can transmit bits of information in this way. But this information is not knowledge. Knowledge requires a personal reconstruction.

Learning is an individual responsibility. It is a key element of personal development. Organizations, enterprises and institutions have the duty to support and encourage all their members to learn for mutual benefit. Successful organizations are learning organizations in which learning is an integrated process at each level of activity.

There is not necessarily a connection between teaching and learning: some students can and will learn despite bad teaching, some students will not learn even with the best teaching.

Is teaching the purpose of education or is learning the purpose of education?

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

How do we learn?

Learning cyclesWe learn in cycles, moving naturally between action and reflection, between activity and repose. These cycles represent the way we improve what we do. In any project or initiative, each of us uses a wheel of learning, which includes four stages:

Observing our previous action: How well did it go? What was I thinking and feeling during the process? What are the results? Do I see my goal differently now?

Reflecting on what we have done: What did my last action suggest might be a fruitful path to follow? Where should I be looking next?

Deciding how to change our next action for the sake of improving our behavior or the rules we follow. “Deciding” incorporates an element of choice: Here is the alternative I choose to take and here are the reasons why.

Doing: Performing a task in a way supported by the three previous stages. When you finish a deed, you move immediately back to the reflecting stage: How well did it work out?

 Single-loop learning is sufficient to solve simple problems. However, when we are involved in more difficult tasks, we tend to ask others for help. Single-loop learning has an equivalent at group level:

Reconsidering: Participants talk about their mental models and beliefs, and challenge each other gently but relentlessly. This helps them reconsider their assumptions and ways of thinking.

Reconnecting: Participants begin to reconnect their former experiences with this new one.  As common ground is established, the team can come to a common understanding: What is it that we know?

Reframing: Participants start considering the problem in a new frame. We are going to make a prototype now. And here’s what it will look like.

Reflecting and preparing a coordinated action: Finally, there is the stage of action, which need not be joint action. It can be carried out independently by various members of the team, who may work in different functions and locations.

Double-loop reflection is open to meta-reflection (reflecting on the way we are reflecting); it is the way to build concepts. It requires collective dialogue and collective reflection.

How to create the conditions of learning?

The key role of leaders is to keep the “wheel” moving. This is not an easy task; it requires energy and mental finesse, the ability to hold fast to a sense of purpose, and the willingness to understand mental models of people with learning styles other than your own.

If we analyze the learning cycles, we can see appearing:

Two kinds of action: observing and doing

Two kinds of dialogue: dialogue with oneself (cooperation) and dialogue with others (cooperation).

From this we can extract three tools that we will use to help people learn: Dialogue, Experience and Cooperation.


Dialogue comes from two Greek words: Dia and Logos. Dia means “between” and logos means “word”. Hence, dia + logue = “the word between us”.

In the Dialogue Education approach, the idea of dialogue is used in contrast to the monologue approach often seen in traditional education, whereby teachers present information to learners who receive information without engaging with it.

To establish a dialogue with young people you need to believe that they are not empty containers to be filled up, nor blank sheets of paper to be written on. They have expectations, interests and desires that count. They will learn things from you but you will learn things from them as well. Communicating with them should not be seen simply as transmitting information from the sender to the receiver, but as a relationship or an exchange.

The first thing that Celestin Freinet, a French school reformer used to do when entering a new classroom was to remove the platform upon which the teacher’s desk was placed. He wanted to be on the same level as his students.

This is exactly what B-P was proposing: “The Scoutmaster has to be neither schoolmaster nor commanding officer, nor pastor, nor instructor. He has to put himself on the level of the older brother, that is to see things from the boy’s point of view…”

There is no dialogue without listening. Listening to learners’ wants and needs helps shape a program that has immediate usefulness.

Entering into dialogue with young people is the first step towards building a relationship of confidence with them. It is the way to show them that their point of view counts, that they are seen as subjects in their own learning and not as objects of teaching. It highlights fundamental principles such as mutual respect and open communication. It is the first step in the process of empowering them. This principle may be demonstrated by following the guideline: “Don’t ever do what the learner can do; don’t ever decide what the learner can decide.”

Thanks to dialogue, learners are encouraged to actively engage in the learning content instead of being dependent on the teacher. Ideas are presented to students as open issues on which they can reflect and that they can integrate into their own context. This enables significant learning experiences to take place.

Thanks to dialogue, young people can recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and set their own educational objectives.

In our leader training courses, do the Scout leaders learn how to enter into dialogue with young people? If not, how can they communicate with them, or understand their interests, needs and expectations?


In Scouting, young people learn through the experiences they gain from activities. The question is: are we providing them with activities that allow significant experiences?

Experiences are significant when they give the opportunity to acquire new attitudes, knowledge and skills that are meaningful for young people in the context of their own lives. They are significant when they provide young people with the opportunity to achieve their own educational objectives.

Scout activities should take into account the natural curiosity of children and young people. They should introduce them to some kind of challenge. After all, Scout means explorer, or pathfinder. Scout activities should be based on a problem-posing approach, and they should allow research: looking for a path, for a solution. Learning by doing requires a trial and error approach, which is the natural way to learn. Doing and thinking involve the natural cognitive processes that develop human intelligence.


  • How to light a fire without matches?
  • How to find one’s way with a compass and a map?
  • How to build a solar oven?
  • How to measure the height of a tree?
  • How to build a raft and explore the river?
  • How to help homeless people?

When we are training adult leaders, do we help them learn:

  • How to analyse an activity and find out what kind of educational objectives it could achieve?
  • How to design an activity in order to reach a given educational objective?
  • Or do we just teach them how to manage stereotypical and repetitive activities?


The industrial-age school encourages competition and forbids cooperation.

Cooperation requires intermediate structures. It cannot exist in a classroom where the teacher and students face each other without any mediation.

This is why B-P proposed the Patrol System.

The Patrol System”, B-P wrote, “has a great character-training value if it is used aright. It leads each boy to see that he has some individual responsibility for the good of the patrol; it leads each patrol to see that it has definite responsibility for the good of the Troop. Through it the Scoutmaster is able to pass on not only his instruction but his ideas as to the moral outlooks of the Scouts. Through it the Scouts themselves gradually learn that they have considerable say in what their Troop does. It is the Patrol System that makes the Troop, and all Scouting for that matter, a real co-operative effort.

The word “Patrol System” may be misleading because this system does not only include patrols or small teams. Actually, it includes four main institutions:

The Patrols or teams, small groups of 7-8 young people living together, sharing roles and practicing peer-to-peer education. iI is the first level of cooperation.

The Unit Council where the Patrol leaders and the adult leaders meet together to organize and plan the activities. It is the executive body, the government of the Scout unit. It fosters cooperation between the patrols.

The Unit Assembly, which brings together all the Scouts and makes the big decisions: choosing the activities, evaluating group life and deciding collective rules to improve it. It is the legislative body, or parliament of the Scout Unit.

The Scout Law, which summarizes the values proposed to the young people, is the fundamental law of the Scout Unit, the reference that helps to evaluate the collective life.

The Patrol system is an effective tool for youth participation, it fosters peer education (through the patrols and the patrol leaders) and youth empowerment.

When we do not use it, we cannot involve young people in decision making. So, we invite them to be passive and they learn how to be passive, how to be “good” employees. They learn that they have no power except that of obedience. Is that our view of education?

Current research on the concept of Youth-Adult Partnership comprises four core elements: authentic decision making, natural mentors, reciprocity between adults and youth, and community connectedness. This concept has been practiced in Scouting for many years.


Dialogue, Experience and cooperation are the three key elements of the Scout method. They are also the main elements of the ”New Education Movement” born at the beginning of the twentieth century with the aim of challenging the ”machine-age” education system.

This system remains dominant in formal education, despite many attempts to change it.

In a very interesting paper entitled “Education in the years to come, what we can learn from alternative education”, an American researcher, Joseph P. Farrell, presents several emerging alternative models appearing in several parts of the world to reform primary schooling:

Escuela Nueva (New School) in Colombia, a programme declared by the government as the standard model for rural schooling in that country, which has now spread to most rural schools there.

The Non-formal Primary Education Program of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), which involves about 35,000 rural schools in that country, and has also been adopted in countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Afghanistan.

The Community Schools Program of UNICEF-Egypt, which involves 8,000 government-managed one-classroom schools.

These programs present similar characteristics, such as:

  • Child-centered rather than teacher-driven pedagogy;
  • Active rather than passive learning;
  • Multi-graded classrooms with continuous progress learning;
  • Peer tutoring – older and/or faster-learning children assist and teach younger and/or slower-learning children;
  • Combinations of fully trained teachers, partially trained teachers and community resource people;
  • Parents and other community members are heavily involved in the learning of the children and the management of the school.

All three programs are targeted at severely marginalized children young people and were evaluated as achieving better results than the traditional school programs.

Farrell asks the question, “What exactly are these teachers and their students doing which enables this remarkable level of learning to occur?”, and his reply is very interesting for us. He writes: “In some sense the answer to that question is simple. That is, that Maria Montessori and Robert Baden-Powell were (at least partially) right all along. More than a century ago they began to develop and implement, she for younger children, he for older children, a form of pedagogy which echoes strongly in these new alternative programs in poor nations and which turns out to reflect clearly some of the main discoveries of recent cognitive science.”

Quoting another researcher (Jeal 1991) he adds “Current estimates suggest that there are between 25 and 35 million youngsters enrolled in Scouting and Guiding worldwide, in almost every country on the planet, and most in developing countries (Farrell, 1990)… With the exception of great religions and political ideologies, no international organization has exerted a greater influence upon social behavior” (1991, p.ix).

In 1914 Baden Powell observed that “Dr. Montessori has proved that by encouraging a child in its natural desires, instead of instructing it in what you think it ought to do, you can educate it on a far more solid and far-reaching basis. It is only tradition and custom that ordains that education should be a labor… One of the original objects of Scouting for Boys was to break through this tradition”.

In many countries, Scouting is school based. Many teachers are school leaders. That’s great. But the issue is the following: will they introduce in their classroom the Scouting culture of active learning or will they bring in Scouting the school culture of teaching?

Will Scouting be able to change the machine-age school system in partnership with the promoters of emergent alternative models in order to create true learning communities based on a synergy between formal and non-formal education? This is certainly one of the challenges we have to face.


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