Does Our World Need More Leather Apron Clubs?

I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.

William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.

William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.

Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.

Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.

– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Notice the attributes of this group.

  1. It existed for “mutual improvement.”
  2. It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
  3. Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
  4. Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
  5. These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
  6. The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
  7. Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.

As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.

  • It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
  • This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
  • This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
  • This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
  • It is not teacher-driven.
  • It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
  • It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
  • This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
  • This is a vibrant learning community.

I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.

“What Really Matters is Inside the Learner’s Head”

I came across a wonderfully thought-provoking quote. It was in a video created by Derek Muller entitled This Will Revolutionize Education. Early on, Derek critiques frequent claims that each new educational technology, whether it be the SmartBoard or laptop, will “revolutionize education.” He argued that such predictions rarely come true. What consistently does make the difference? According to Muller, it comes back to a couple basics: quality teachers and what takes place in the brains of each learner.

“Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they [teachers] are obsolete. I mean, you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half, and too slow for the rest. Luckily, the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point. The most important thing a teacher does is make sure every student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning…The foundation of education is still based on the social interaction of teachers and students. For as transformational as new technology seems to be…what really matters is inside the learner’s head. And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher ” – Derek Muller video on This Will Revolutionize Education

I’ll admit that my eyes start to roll when I hear and read the “teachers are what really matter” statements, not because I think teachers are unimportant. It is because the statements don’t seem to be backed up with any substantive philosophy or explanation. “Put a teacher in a room and magic happens.” I’ve been in enough classes to know that is not true. I suspect that you have as well.

So what is different about Muller’s statement? I see three things.

First, he places his comments about teachers within a philosophy of education that believes in the value and importance of social interaction. It is amid complex social exchanges that we see rich opportunities for learning everything from science to social studies, a new language to exploring the meaning in a new text. I don’t happen to think that this is the only way for high-impact learning to take place, but I’ve seen enough true learning communities and I’ve read enough scholarly research about the subject to know that social interaction is indeed a powerful force in education.

Second, he starts by explaining what he does not mean when he talks about the importance of teachers. He doesn’t mean lecturers. He does not mean people who think that content distribution is their greatest gift to students. He doesn’t mean people who teach an entire class as if all students think and learning in the same ways and same pace. He doesn’t mean people who ignore the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of each learner.

Third, he doesn’t just talk about teachers, and this is what makes the quote so rich and thought-provoking. Instead, he also devotes time to learners, what happens in their brains. As I’ve stated many times and in many places, the only essential ingredients of a learning learning experience are a learning and an experience. Learning happens in the brain. Students learn when they think…when they think deeply and persistently. When learners brains are working hard, neurons are firing and wiring together, creating memories, resulting new the acquisition of new knowledge and skill. For Muller, this best happens through social interaction between a student and caring teacher. However, even if one doesn’t accept that claim, the learner-centered statement stands on its own.

What if learning organizations only focused on this one critical factor, making it an unavoidable school-shaping concept? Learning happens when students are thinking deeply and persistently about something. Much of the work about instructional design, classroom management, and motivation is connected to this single concept. Get students thinking deeply and persistently about the subject and they will learn. This challenges the concept of lectures, but it doesn’t demand that we get rid of them. Instead, we ask if the lecture is getting each student to think deeply and persistently. This guiding question can inform how we go about blended and online learning, high-tech and low-tech learning, independent learning and collaborative learning. Is it getting students to think…to really think?

I don’t want to oversimply things. There are many other aspects of a high-impact learning experiences. At the same time, this statement gets to the heart of the matter. Learning happens in the brain, but it doesn’t happen unless that brain is active and focused on the desired knowledge or skill. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but from thinking and doing hard things, and the teacher that matters is the one who focuses upon doing what it takes to gets students thinking.