Articles on Professional Development

The Origins of A Global Learning Network by Al Rogers February, 1999

When did the largest and oldest global inter-school learning network begin? No, this is not a history test. It is a history lesson that I hope will lead many of us to a better understanding and appreciation of our own teaching practices as we employ the Internet in our classrooms for inter-school projects.

We begin by peeking at a snapshot that records a classroom scene familiar to many Internet-connected teachers:

Around the classroom, pupils are busily and excitedly writing. The content of their writing varies, but much of it is about their own personal adventures, the incidents that they have experienced inside and outside the classroom.

From time to time they gather into groups to discuss, correct and edit one another’s writing. After one or several revisions, the children print out their texts. Sometimes they assemble these texts to create a Class Journal or School Newspaper.

Finally, the students gather their various writings together and send it off to other classes in other cities and towns, across the nation and around the world. In turn, they are just as excited to read... and re-read… the texts they have received in exchange from their partner classes.

Sometimes they become more project or subject focused. The students meet with their teacher to organize a work plan that sets out their plan of work for a certain period. Their project might be content-oriented, in which they gather information and record their observations. Or it might be action-oriented, where they design and build a new fountain or improve their local community in some tangible way. As they follow their work plan, pupils may regularly leave the classroom to observe and to study both their natural environment and their local community. Back in class, they present their results, write, edit and print out texts, and produce journals or newsletters. Finally, once again, they send all this material to their counterparts in other schools. Sometimes, they send along collections of real artifacts, such as maps, photos, tapes, perfumes, seashells, fossils, photographs, local toys, figurines, ribbons and lace, costumes, and other examples of collected artifacts or local memorabilia, and so on. And, once again, they look forward to reading and enjoying the project resources they receive from their partner schools.

This snapshot could be taken today in countless thousands of internet-connected classrooms around the world. The surprising thing about this particular snapshot, however, is that it was taken in 1924 in a rural mountain classroom in Southern France. There, classroom teacher Célestin Freinet and a colleague in distant Brittany began an inter-school exchange that revolutionized their teaching and paved the way for the birth of the global Mouvement de l’École Moderne (Modern School Movement). At his death in 1966 this global learning network involved over 10,000 schools and 33 nations and today remains the largest technology-based learning community in history.

Freinet and his pioneering colleagues started with printing presses and the French postal network, and they adopted new technologies as they became available. However, as the history of this long movement reveals, their practices were never dictated by, or even depended on, technology. They were based on good and sound teaching practices… and then tested, refined and distilled in decades of collaboration, reflection and success.

As we see our own classrooms and students in this 75-year-old snapshot, it should remind us that good teaching is timeless. The true power of what we do in our classrooms depends less on technology, and more on what we do with the technology we have. It’s also my hope that the historical and pedagogical legacy passed on to us by Freinet and the Modern School Movement will help us in our efforts to move our own inter-school networking projects from the realm of "high tech fad" to the status of recognized and accepted teaching techniques.

The writings of Freinet and his wife, Élise, have been translated into 17 languages and have influenced generations of teachers and students on every continent, yet their work is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. The information in this column is based on a chapter in Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Illiteracy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995) by Dennis Sayers, written with Jim Cummins.

A search of for Célestin Freinet hit on numerous relevant Web sites around the world (mostly French), but only a few passing references in English. A few highlights:

  • De Orilla a Orilla (From Shore to Shore) in Puerto Rico was one of the earliest (1984) electronic intercultural networks to be based on Freinet’s work and today remains a multinational and multilingual network faithful to Freinet’s work.

Resources related to inter-school networking