I am taking a little bit of time ahead of next week’s visit by Jerry Stein to write about the potential of Learning Dreams for communities in Northern Ireland.

There is now well-documented concern about the poor learning outcomes of working-class Protestant boys here, and our elitist academic system has ensured that a small group succeed at the expense of wider community, with Northern Ireland having twice the tail of under-achievement to comparable communities in Great Britain. I don’t want to write about that system though, rather about an approach that just might help turn things around for young people and their families.

Jerry is a professor of Education at the University of Minnesota, and has visited Northern Ireland many times over the past decade or more. Asked to look at the poor learning outcomes and high truancy levels in a disadvantaged Minneapolis community, Jerry began to talk with the parents of the children that the schools were concerned about. After a while he realized a pattern emerging.

Story after story related a disengagement from learning at an early age for a wide variety of reasons, but most had what Jerry called a “learning dream.” Something they were once passionate about but had given up on Maybe it was to be a hair dresser or a joiner, maybe to learn a language or be a poet. It didn’t really matter what the learning dream was, the important thing was that they had found this dream absorbing and enjoyable. Often it didn’t feel like learning!

Jerry set about reconnecting each person with their own learning dream, in a bespoke way that suited that individual and their needs. This process was closely supported to help work through any nervousness or reticence: the feeling that they were too old, or too “stupid” to engage in learning.

After a while he saw that when parents re-engaged in their own learning, that this created a learning culture in the family. Kids saw their parents learning and parents took a greater interest in the learning of their children. When he worked with a number of families in the one community, it started to create a culture of learning in the community. Instead of the binary relationship between the family and the school, multiple “sites of learning” were created creating a more vibrant learning community.

For me this is the approach we need here. Focusing on schools isn’t the solution. Whilst school improvement might make an incremental difference, without support for learning in the wider community the learning outcomes of children are unlikely to change. The approach is not about “essential skills” – it is not about enhancing the employability of parents (or their children) though this might well be a side-effect. It is about the joy of learning for its own sake, and helping individuals to find what Sir Ken Robinson has called the “spark that changes everything”.

Please contact me if you’d like to find out more about Learning Dreams or Jerry’s visit. We’ll be visiting communities in East and North Belfast who are interested in the model and meeting a variety of people with an interest in this approach.