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The Shape of Schools to Come

Schools exist at all because they provide something which a large part of the population seem to think they need.

They also tend to reflect the societies of which they are part.

In olden times, little book learning was needed to manage what was for most people still an agricultural existence. School hours were seasonal: late starts, early closes, time off for helping on the farm and large breaks at harvest time. Education was narrow in scope, determined largely by a single teacher, and focused predominantly on the sorts of skills necessary to get by in life.

There was usually a one-room schoolhouse in the village or town. Teachers taught reading, writing, and basic arithmetic to complement the skills students learned outside school. The need for higher levels of education was minimal. Larger or wealthier families sent one child to the Church to learn higher levels of literacy or ‘book learning’ and everyone else made do without.

Then along came the Industrial Revolution. More and more of the population was settling in cities and going to work in factories. To teach students the basic skills and simple facts they needed for industrial jobs, the first great revolution in schooling took place: schools began to look like factories -large buildings with many classrooms with students sitting in neat rows with the teacher in front. Schools, like the workplaces they sought to emulate, tried to be efficient social institutions turning out identical products. Students learned enough to work at jobs that they would probably keep for much of their lives.

If you recognise that model, you’ll probably realise that it’s still with us.

We still expect schools to look like this industrial model: students sit in rows or similar regimented groupings and listen passively to a teacher at the front of the room. They are all put through curricula aimed at teaching them much the same things; they are all put through an identical, national examination series designed to classify them for work options.

Something like 2% of the population now works in agriculture; about 15% now work in factories. People of today’s generation average six to eight jobs over the course of a career; many of the next generation will require skills that we cannot imagine today.

About half of all employed people in Britain work with information in some form or other -analysing information that already exists, generating new information, storing and retrieving information. Soon it’s possible that a major portion of this group will not even work in an office, much less a factory, but at home. Being able to change one’s career, to adapt to one’s circumstances, and, more importantly, having the ability to modify one’s circumstances to fit one’s needs, are the ways the working world is going.

This calls for a new look at the school as a model, an assessment of what a “post-industrial form of education” might be like.

Teachers, parents, school administrators, and governments have begun to realise that an entirely new model of education is needed. Recently there has been all kinds of discussion -as there usually is in August, when examination results are released- about new forms of school, new degrees, new diploma, new qualifications.

But until a reliable way of independent learning is made widely known, society will be largely stuck with its current teacher-oriented, passive student model. With some method of learning independently, all students would have very different measures of learning. Most would be prepared to think for a living and be capable of learning many new skills over the course of a lifetime. In a society in which anyone could study without having to join a regimented, institutional ‘education -machine’, the timing and location of education would be more flexible, to reflect and take advantage of changes in the workplace, and the distinction between learning inside school and outside school would fade.

How would this be done?

Part of the answer is technology: new tools offer less limited new ways of learning, of teaching, and of running schools. Computers help to provide new ways for everyone involved in education to be openly accountable to parents, to communities, and to students. But technology by itself is clearly not enough, and computers in schools have too often been used only for drills, for word processing, and for remedial work. There are greater, as-yet-unexplored capabilities in today's information technologies, but to appreciate them we have to start to imagine a new kind of education and a new kind of institution.

Rather than a regimented, teacher-orientated, factory model aimed at churning out similar if not identical products, we need to be re-thinking the relationships between student, knowledge and teacher. Traditional schools emphasise individual performances and competition and tend to discourage students from working or even talking together. In the new model of school, classroom experiences would need to emphasise critical thinking, teamwork, negotiation and communication -the skills valued in today's workplace and universally valuable for individual and social well-being.

How do we change the roles of teachers, students and schools? Students would need to assume many of the functions previously reserved for teachers. In small groups, responsible individual students, already competent in the skills of study and able to spot indications of inattention, could act as peer-tutors for others. As they are often the ones most familiar with new technologies, students could lead by example, helping classmates work through problems. Students would need to begin learning from an early age how to communicate and how to assume greater responsibility for their own education.

Teachers, in contrast, would change from being the repository and source of all knowledge to being guides or mentors who help students navigate through the information made available in various forms. They would help students gather and organise information, assist them to judge its value, and guide them to decide how to present it to others. Rather than being an authoritative focal point pumping out data to more or less receptive rows of passive listeners, in the presence of a widely known technology of study, teachers would move from group to group and from student to student, helping students stay focused and pushing them to work at the limits of their individual abilities. Teachers would share the responsibility for teaching with the students, each of whom would be encouraged to progress at his or her own pace.

In this new model of school, education would look very different than it does in most schools today. Schools might be open all day and all year, with groups of students rotating in and out of session; lessons in the usual form could mutate or disappear to accommodate wider ranges of activities. Longer-term projects would cross traditional subject boundaries; schools could become more integrated with businesses, hospitals, or homes.

Secondary schools might forge new links with external colleges and community institutions, easing the transition from school to work. Advanced technology might be used to convey lesson plans, homework, and assessments both to students and to their parents.

Sound unreal?

The ultimate goals of this new model of education would be to create communities of lifelong learners, where knowledge, the use of intellect and cooperation would be highly valued.

In the one-room school and in today's factory-model schools, the teacher was and is the heart of education; in the brave new world of education, we will have mentors, guides, and brokers to many worlds of knowledge.


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