Latest update: April 17, 2015


Counter Narratives Research (CNR) is an area of research the Learning Development Institute has formally initiated in 2014. The 'counter narratives' relate to schooling practices that capitalize on learner autonomy regarding choice of what to focus on and self-design regarding how to learn. They may also be innovative in how the learning environment is organized as well as in their emphasis on how individuals grow as members of learning communities. Such alternative practices are typically not driven by a traditional, separate disciplines oriented, curriculum.
Though such alternative educational practices may be rare, we consider that researching them is often more important and more relevant than much of the research undertaken about aspects of mainstream schooling practices. What one learns through mainstream educational research allows, if the results are well used, to make adjustments to manistream practice that improve the system. However, such improvements are at best gradual. They allow to tinker with the system. Contrariwise, the counter narratives are the mutants of mainstream schooling. Mutants are important in an evolutionary sense. They are the seeds of evolutionary change. As such, it is through counter narratives that life in de learning ecology gets enhanced.
In November 2013, the Learning Development Institute (LDI) visited the West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School (West Sac Prep for short) where an alternative model of facilitating learning had been implemented since 2006. At the time of our visit, the school catered to the learning needs of middle and high school children from underprivileged backgrounds and offered a learning experience that centered on the following three areas:
  • creating habits of mind (such as a spirit of inquiry, curiosity);
  • promoting adequate conditions for learning (motivation, collaboration, relationships, learning by doing, recognition of prior knowledge and interests, metacognition, and self-regulation); and
  • respecting school wide principles.
Discussions with students and teachers during this visit highlighted how the West Sac Prep model caters directly for what matters to children and equips them with the disposition and skills to be able to interact with their environment and the wider world in a creative, engaged and confident manner. Students underscored how the engagement in research projects driven by their own interest--without being bound to a conventional curriculum and specific learning slots--had allowed them to learn, to mature, and discover the joy of being engaged.
Our visit to Sacramento was a follow-up activity to the participation by the Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation, together with Paul Heckman (UC Davis) and Viki Montera (Sonoma State University) in the Fifth Advanced International Colloquium on Building the Scientific Mind (BtSM), organized by LDI and held in Lembang, Indonesia, in May 2013. This Colloquium, as was the case for other previous BtSM events, brought together a transdisciplinary group of professionals from around the world under the theme "Science and Technology in the Service of Beauty and Harmony". Our visit to Sacramento took place at the invitation of the Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation.
The discussions held during our visit to Sacramento between West Sac Prep, the Coyote Foundation, the University of California at Davis, and LDI focused on how precious little is known about such alternative learning models as offered by the West Sac Prep school. West Sac Prep and other such innovative environments known to LDI often prefer not to call attention too loudly to what they are doing for fear of being interfered with by the more powerful established formal structure, which is much more restrictive and hierarchical. As a consequence, they often don't even know of each other's existence and therefore miss the opportunity to share their valuable experience and knowledge with their colleagues in other parts of the world. Remaining relatively isolated and small, they fail to impact the wider world of school-based learning. For more powerful alternative narratives to emerge, relevant instances of indigenous invention must engage in better networking, sharing their knowledge and learning from each other, while collectively documenting their experience.
The research
With the Counter Narratives Research project we will be taking up the challenge of identifying examples from around the world of learning models that constitute meaningful alternatives to the mainstream schooling practice, the inadequacy of which has been criticized by the likes of Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, Seymour Papert, John Seely Brown, Sugata Mitra, and Ken Robinson. Some possible examples worth investigating are already known to LDI. They include, for instance, the sustained reform efforts during the past 40 years led by the International Academy for Innovative Pedagogy, Psychology and Economics GmbH (INA), a non-profit organization at the Free University of Berlin (; Anand Niketan, an innovative school in Nashik, Maharashtra, India, which admits children from all different castes present in India's stratified society (; the Werkplaats Kindergemeenschap in The Netherlands (, a longstanding experiment at giving children a collective say in how the school should serve their needs and interests, started in 1926 by Kees Boeke; and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois (, which caters to the needs of gifted students, selectively admitting students independent of their socioeconomic status, emphasizing problem oriented learning across relevant disciplines. These are mere starting points for further exploration. A wider search and an in-depth investigative effort are called for. LDI is well positioned in terms of its wide network and research experience to undertake such a study.
Expected outcome
The intended outcome is defined as an inventory of select international experiences with a brief description of each, as well as a proposal by LDI for funding by the Coyote Foundation of an international dialogue on alternative narratives for learning, tentatively planned for late 2014 or early 2015. The envisaged dialogue would take the form of a workshop to be organized possibly in California. The meeting would allow professionals as well as students and alumni who have been involved in these innovative pedagogical practices to exchange experience, to reflect on their practice, and to identify propitious conditions that allow indigenous invention to emerge, flourish, and eventually diffuse and consequently transform existing practice in fundamental ways. The meeting would likely be organized at the school in Sacramento and allow participants to engage actively with the school. In the longer run the mentioned international dialogue should lead to collectively documenting the various narratives, in writing and via AV media, so as to support innovative thinking and inspire change.
The focus of LDI's research effort will be on the identification of practical examples, and on models that have been implemented over a significant number of years so that lessons can be shared and learned. In addition, as part of this research endeavor, persons will be identified who could participate in the proposed international dialogue. Where and when possible, research will be carried out in loco. Studies that have already documented these experiences will also be identified in the process.
Trips to the selected locations where innovative experiences are being implemented are considered essential because typically--as we learned from our visit to the West Sac Prep--these experiences are often poorly or not at all documented, and, even when documented, can only be fully understood and adequately evaluated by seeing the concepts/ideas in action. In addition, such visits will make it possible to explore in greater depth how an international learning event could take place and what its specific focus should be, as well as to identify the right interlocutors for follow up. We intend to create a diverse picture, documenting experiences from different continents and cultural settings.
The planned follow-up trip to California will be a valuable opportunity for sharing what has emerged from the research and for planning the contours of the international dialogue event. On this occasion findings from the research will be presented to the community of the school in West Sacramento and those involved in facilitating the continual improvement of West Sac Prep experience.
Commitments by LDI and the Coyote Foundation as originally agreed
LDI will commit research time by Muriel Visser, one of its lead researchers, and by Jan Visser, President and Sr. Researcher.
  • Muriel Visser is a highly experienced researcher and evaluator with over 25 years of experience in education and health communication. She has led and participated in a number of large, multi-country, multi-donor evaluations for bilateral and multilateral agencies. Muriel is a skilled researcher and has written and published extensively.
  • Jan Visser's experience of involvement in educational reform efforts stretches over the past four decades and a half. He has worked around the world, including a 20-year residential period in different countries in Africa. He has a solid track record of research and the development of innovative practice, publishes actively in books and peer reviewed journals, and enjoys the recognition of his peers. He has held senior positions in UNESCO, both at Headquarters and in the field.
  • In addition, LDI may for this activity also draw on the experience and inputs from its wider network of professionals.
We anticipate that between Jan and Muriel, LDI will commit between 35 and 40 working days to this endeavor in 2014.
In addition to the above input, a grant received from the Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation will be used to defray the direct costs involved in implementing the research. It will not be used to financially compensate the researchers in any way for their efforts. (However, see the fifth bullet below for an update regarding the Coyote Foundation's commitment.)
Implemention of the research
  • A continually updated database of alternative educational experiences, which fit the selection criteria established for the Counter Narratives Research project, has been established. We welcome any suggestions regarding relevant educational experiences for inclusion in the database as well as requests from innovative institutions that think to satisfy the criteria for the Counter Narratives Research to be researched.
  • The above mentioned exploratory visit to the West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School constituted a first step in implementing the research.
  • A field visit to the Open Classroom school in Salt Lake City, Utah, took place from April 26 to 30, 2014. A wealth of data was gathered.
  • The West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School was revisited on February 17 and 18, 2015. The school had been placed under a different kind of leadership at the time of our second visit. We were able to gather data regarding the impact on students and teachers of the organic growth of the school during the initial five years of its existence. In addition, we looked at the transitions that are currently taking place.
  • Because of the changes that took place at the West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School in mid-2014, the Coyote Foundation lost interest in the research and has decided to revert its earlier decision to contribute to the project financially and thus to no longer honor its commitment. While we recognize the role played by the Coyote Foundation in prompting us to start the research, we resent their having abandoned the project. We have not lost interest. Quite to the contrary, exciting innovative experiences continue to emerge around the world and we want to learn from them and help those involved in generating much needed innovation to learn from each other. To avoid any outside interference with the research, LDI is now entirely financing the project from its own (limited) financial resources. This has caused delays in implementing the research as well as resulted in limiting our choices for studying particular experiences. We thus welcome financial contributions, and other offers that would help reduce the direct costs involved, to aid the implementation of our research.
  • Next steps in the research will likely focus on India and The Netherlands.