Jean Johnson: Online Lifeline

jean johnson

Jean Johnson

Credit: Indigo Flores

The Daring Dozen Q&A

How do you use the Web in your work?

I use the Web from the minute I get up until I go to bed. If I could get online in the shower, I probably would. We are part of an online community of practice and work on other Web-related stuff, too, but learning online is a way of life.

Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?

Trouble is, I keep finding new things. I always thought of philosopher Ivan Illich as a visionary, plus the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Etienne Wenger and his communities of practice, learning-practices innovator Stephen Heppell, and lately innovation and creativity guru Charles Leadbeater. Professor Roland Meighan and his publications from the Educational Heretics Press are always inspirational.

And, of course, there are amazing Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace, and the gaming side of things, such as Second Life. It's hard to be pinned down when the real delight of the Internet is to dig down and find out just about anything you want to know. Also, I have just started to take an interest in Greek philosophy.

Favorite Web Sites:

Who are your role models?

If anyone, it would have to be Rosa Parks and Nan Joyce (an activist for the tiny Irish ethnic minority known as Travellers), for standing up for what they believed in, and for not being afraid of being different.

What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?

Don't be afraid to be different, or of getting it wrong.

What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?

My fundamental belief is in the young people we work with. Their talent never ceases to amaze me. Many are where they are through force of circumstance. I think our generation got lots of things very wrong, so we must give young people the chance to get it right -- and make some mistakes along the way, if that's what it takes.

What is your mantra in the face of adversity?

If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger!

More to Explore:

Inclusion Trust Charity

The only students Jean Johnson wants are those who have given up on being students. Through, Johnson and her staff of educators in England help teens who have dropped out of school rekindle an interest in learning without conventional teachers, lessons, or even a classroom -- just a computer and an online community. is a last resort: Youth ages 14-16 who have abandoned schooling because of disaffection, expulsion, or illness -- and who haven't benefited from alternative programs -- are eligible to join. Each researcher, as the students are called, receives a computer, a printer, a digital camera, and a broadband Internet connection in his or her home.

In groups of up to six peers, guided by teachers called mentors, the teens venture back into learning, starting with the subjects and pursuits that most interest them. The mentors create individual learning plans for the researchers, gradually weaving hidden math and literacy lessons into the subjects the teens want to learn, such as car mechanics, filmmaking, or graphic design. Meanwhile, the teens' peers support and challenge them through online conversation; the program's goal is as much about building confidence and social skills as it is about teaching subjects.

Johnson, who has directed since its inception in 2000, has seen it grow from a one-hundred-researcher pilot project to a government-sponsored network that can support more than 1,000 youths at a time. These teens hail from diverse backgrounds: Nearly 60 percent come from the lowest income bracket, while the next-largest group are in the highest.

Many of them enter with extremely low literacy, but, as Johnson says, "if a child can use a mobile phone and text message -- find me one who can't! -- they can join us, and we will help them do the rest." After an average of eighteen months in the program, researchers typically become more expressive, literate, engaged, and ambitious, and a majority go on to college.

"If the young person is put at the center of every decision we make," says Johnson, "we will probably get it right," she says. "All young people have a desire to learn."

Next article in "The Global Six 2007" > Sugata Mitra

Go to the Daring Dozen 2007 home page

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (1)

Comment RSS
jean johnson (not verified)


this is exactly what we have been talking about (teachernerds) here in tennessee USA

see more see less