The rapid industrialisation of Britain throughout the 19th-century brought about a transformation in the education system: instead of a one-room schoolhouse, education adopted a factory model. Students were treated as products on an assembly line: bluntly put, they were herded into place and then stamped with the knowledge required in order to become more effective economic producers. Private education developed for the richer classes along lines that encouraged them to become the leaders of the expanding Empire, skilled in ancient languages, in ‘civilisation’ and in the skills needed to run nations. As a model of education it was effective in terms of transferring basic skills and facts to students; it suited its time.
In the 21st century, it might perhaps need an overhaul.
This is because its liability was that it treated children as objects or ‘hard drives’ upon which knowledge merely had to be inscribed. Those students who were able to absorb data and retain some degree of self-determinism and interest in it coped and performed as they were intended, for the most part; those unable to accept such arbitrary, mechanically-driven input for whatever reason fell by the wayside intellectually and socially.
Any new model of education would need to be differently centred and styled. Far from a factory model, the new century demands a World Wide Web model - an education system which links individuals and empowers them to contribute creatively as well as receive. If the factory was the template for the 19th and 20th centuries, the internet is surely the template for the future. Increasing links between students and global communities, bringing multi-media and international resources to bear on the complex social, ethical and technical decisions that all students will have to make when they join society as adults will compel a greater degree of flexibility to reflect upon and take advantage of changes in the workplace and in society as whole. Not only will the distinction between learning inside of school and outside of school blur, there may no longer be any such distinct geographical place as a ‘school’.
The word ‘school’ itself comes from the Old English scōl, scolu, via Latin from Greek skholē ‘leisure, philosophy, lecture place’, with an emphasis on ‘place’. In today’s super-geographical, technological world, ‘place’ has become far less significant.
Technology is a key transforming element in creating this new educational template, offering virtually unlimited new methods of learning, of teaching, and of running bodies of students, providing new ways for everyone involved in education to be openly accountable to parents, to communities, to employers and to the students themselves. Unlike the battleground of a schoolroom, where individuals fought for the needed attention of a usually-lone teacher, in the new system technological resources the student is in charge and can obtain an abundance of attention whenever he or she desires, at least theoretically.
Whereas traditional schools have emphasised individual performance and competition and have discouraged students from working or even talking together in order not to disrupt or distort an ‘assembly line’, the new model of education will have to encourage critical thinking, teamwork, compromise, and communication. And none of that has to happen in the same physical place. International ‘placeless’ education becomes feasible in principle.
Students will need to assume many of the functions previously reserved for teachers: individual students will take on responsibilities involving guiding others, learning from a young age how to communicate and how to assume greater responsibility for their own and others’ education.
How is this possible? If left to their own devices (literally and metaphorically) will students not merely wander away from education as such and into play, constructive and destructive?
The old model strongly suggested that a child would need an adult standing over him or her to guide and discipline - in effect, to control and marshall the immature attention of the child. The new model demands a re-assessment of what attention is and how it is directed. Anyone in a classroom today who has tried to police the activity around smartphones will confirm that technological devices themselves have no problem sucking in attention - the key will be placing it on positive goals and subjects and then working to overcome barriers and distractions. New maps of where this is all going need to be drawn.
Right now, the usage of computers in schools is still in an early stage of evolution: they are tools for word processing, for drills, for remedial work, for generating more quickly that which an education system born in the 19th century obtained more slowly using other means. These devices have as yet untapped potential as effective learning machines. With imaginative, inspiring innovations, students, rather than being forced to come up with the ‘one right answer’ or one proscribed piece work, can be shepherded into coming up with questions and multiple approaches to problems.
It’s a different look and it challenges fixed ideas that are so fixed they have become part of the ‘DNA’ of education for us. Even our casual and experiential definition of a student as someone who needs discipline in order for any learning to occur is being refined back to its original and core meaning, from the Latin student- ‘applying oneself to’, from the verb studere, related to studium ‘painstaking application’.
What’s needed is a new cartography of education.