Thursday, September 22, 2011
Schools - so last Century
The Minister of Education's 'experts' figuring how to improve standardisation of education not able to comprehend they are facing the wrong century!
At the end of the nineteenth century schools were developed to meet the needs of an industrial age to transfer knowledge to often reluctant students and, in many ways, they have changed little since those beginnings. In contrast almost every other aspect of our lives has been changed through technological advances. Roland Barth, from the Harvard Leadership Centre has written, ‘many of our schools seem en-route to becoming a hybrid of a nineteenth century factory, a twentieth century minimum security penal colony and a twenty-first century Education Testing Service’.
Unfortunately, for our collective futures, current school reforms are still grounded on ideas based on this industrial model of learning. The New Zealand Certificate of Educational Achievement (NZCEA) and the primary school National Standards are excellent examples of such standardisation.
Even though there are genuine worries about a lack of engagement of an increasing number of students there is no great urgency about restructuring education for the twenty first century. Sadly the current conservative government’s ‘bold plan’ is to return to the standardisation of the past by placing a greater emphasis on measuring literacy and numeracy standards. The result of these ‘reforms’ will result in many young people’s natural excitement, passions and curiosity about the world becoming more thwarted than nurtured.
Mass education was a powerful dream of liberal governments of the nineteenth century. They were designed to reflect the ideals and methods of industrial workplaces and train students for working on assembly lines or for manual labour. Students were sorted by age and ability, sat in rows, moved from room to room at the ring of a bell several times a day, to receive compartmentalised learning. Progress on this educational assembly line was tested regularly with these tests determining the students’ futures. Such schools were run with factory-like routine and efficiency and, as with factories, run in a hierarchical way instilling lessons of unquestioned obedience and authority.
For schools the past is the present
The trouble is the world has changed dramatically and schools are no longer able to educate all those who now must attend until their late teens. Until the 1950’s only a few selected academic students entered secondary schools, the remainder leaving earlier to take up manual labour. Even now schools are still not providing adequately for their non-academic, highly creative, or culturally different students. For many students mass education has become a nightmare. It is important to appreciate that it is not the teachers who are failing but rather it is that secondary schools were never designed to cater for such a diverse range of students. Words like imagination, personalisation and invention do not apply to schools while standardisation, conformity, and obedience fit so well. Indeed when imagination and invention are now seen as prerequisites for the future survival of innovative organisations schools remain out of step.
A new future for schools is required
The world of work has been transformed with the advent of modern communication media. In the future students will leave school to enter jobs that, as yet, do not exist and will change their jobs several times during their lifetime. Just as the assembly line changed the workplace at the beginning of the twentieth century the power of the Internet is having an enormous effect on how we work, interact, communicate and live today. All the world’s diversions now exist at our fingertips, one mouse click away. Standardisation and vertical hierarchies are virtually outmoded in innovative companies. It is the intellectual knowledge of individuals that now provides the new capital for the future success of any organisation.
All these changes are not going away. Futurists write that the speed of change will escalate beyond our imaginations. The challenge for schools is how to prepare students for this escalating ever evolving future. What will be needed are schools based on tapping into students’ gifts and talents based on new understandings about how students learn.
New literacies are required for the future.
New skills, competencies, or literacies, will be required by students when they enter the future work force. The more creative will invent their own vocations. These literacies embrace personal skills (including an appreciation of other cultures) communication skills (involving information technology), networking skills, collaborative skills and analytical skills. Most of all they will need the ability and confidence to pull together ideas from a range of sources to make intuitive instant judgments. To succeed, students must learn about the world in wholes, rather than fragmented bits and pieces, through engagement in authentic learning interdisciplinary contexts. Teachers must spend more time finding out what students have in their minds instead of instructing them in ‘what they need to know’. Students’ interests, attitudes, and prior knowledge will influence what they wish to learn. Business philosopher Peter Drucker has written that the first country to develop a truly twenty first education system will win the future. Singapore, Finland, Korea and China are well on the way.
Ambiguity distracts progress in New Zealand
New Zealand teachers are in an ambiguous situation. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, signed off by the previous government, offered a clear creative direction for schools with its vision of developing all students as ‘confident connected active life-long learners’, with its focus on developing the future competencies students require. One phrase, in particular, that captures the essence of a future education, is that all students need to become, ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’. But ambiguity has emerged because the current government intends turning the clock back by imposing (against virtually all educators’ advice) National Standards in Literacy and numeracy. Overseas experience clearly demonstrates that this direction leads to an unfortunate narrowing of the curriculum at the very time we need to be exposing our students to a wide range of interdisciplinary possibilities. And, to make matters worse, this emphasis directs attention away from the far more important task of implementing the 2007 Curriculum. Other than political rhetoric there is minimal focus on the increasing lack of engagement and alienation of students at the lower secondary school – the students who in earlier times left to take up manual jobs as soon as they could. I believe these students are the equivalent of canaries in old fashioned coal mines.
Students equipped with life long passions.
What is required of schools is to ensure all students leave with their curriculum vitae full of skills and accomplishments that will assist them in their search for vocations; equipped to pursue their true life passions. Only an educational transformation can provide such future proofing. Today such an education is nearly impossible in secondary schools with their antiquated fragmented timetables. Only a personalised system based on developing the gifts, talents and passions of all students can fully equip them.
New Zealand must encourage the entrepreneurial talents of all its future citizens. Every effort should be made to ensure students find out what they are passionate about, to be supported in realising this passion, and to be provided with experiences to connect them to new possibilities. Most of all schools need to encourage them to spend their lives pursuing the dreams and goals that excite them the most. ‘Every person’, writes Tom Friedman in his book The World is Flat, ‘should figure out how to make himself or herself untouchable…to acquire new skills, knowledge, and expertise that enables them to create value...to know how to learn… and to be skillfully adaptable and socially adaptable.’ Thomas Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind, writes that ‘the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathisers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, story tellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will reap societies’ rewards and share its greatest joys’.
Imagine a world with all students’ passions intact.
Imagine a world where students leave school with their passions intact; curious about the world and retaining the innate desire, that they were born with, to learn. So many students, including so-called successful achievers, have lost this intrinsic desire to utilise their creativity. Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity, has spent years speaking around the world (including New Zealand) about how society has beaten the joy of learning out of our children so that by the time they leave secondary school they are standardised in their thinking. This is particularly ironic as it is creative and innovative ‘out of the box’ thinking that those cutting-edge companies now pursue. How paradoxical that as a culture we value highly those who are creative and who pursue their passions as vocations but won’t provide an education structure to nurture them. The industrial aged standardised education system has a lot to answer for.
The need for a passion based system
‘There is a real need for a passion – based education system’, writes American educator Sheryl Nussbaum–Beach, ‘where teachers and students create their own learning by engaging in authentic problem solving leading them to where their passions lie’. She, however, is the first to admit that, ‘it can’t be done in the current test crazy climate we live in’. Teachers must introduce far more enriching experiences for students than they currently receive.
If schools aren’t teaching our students to pursue their talents then even the successful students will increasingly find schools irrelevant. Nussbaum-Beach talks about transforming the way most teachers who teach today using outmoded approaches, either because they were taught to teach this way, or because the accountability system makes them believe they have to teach this way. ‘We need’, she says, ‘to create classrooms that celebrate students thinking and helps them access and interrogate the information they need to learn. Engagement and empowerment need to be taken as seriously in school as innovative businesses enterprises’. She goes on to say that it is all about protecting the sense of wonderment that young children enter schools with. She is envisioning a personalisation of learning where teachers have a vital role to play by: working in interdisciplinary teams; developing respectful relationships; and by having the depth of content knowledge to ensure their students dig deeply into whatever they are learning. Such teachers, she believes, need to work from their student’s strengths to discover what their interests are. They need to practice what Jerome Bruner called, ‘the canny art of intellectual temptation’ to attract student’s curiosity. As for assessment, she writes, ‘this needs to be performance and competency based to show mastery and completed artifacts contributing to their graduation portfolios and would apply at any level of the school system.’
Questions to be asked.
For schools who wish to begin this transformational process several questions should be asked. First there is a need to examine the ideas and those often hidden assumptions that currently guide schooling. Then reflect on why they are no longer sufficient and indeed contribute to school failure? Second to ask if lasting school change can be realised through models developed away from schools? The final question is to then consider how the school can develop an internal self-renewing model able to realise the talents of all its students?
Currently the Ministry uses a hierarchical model of school change through delivering formulaic ‘best practices’ without first questioning the validity of the traditional model of schooling. There appears a distinct lack of understanding that successful reform in one school cannot be simply replicated in others. And compliance with imposed school reform is counterproductive.
Just imagine a transformed education system premised on developing the passions, talents and gifts of all students. Such a system would have the potential to contribute to ensuring New Zealand is a truly innovative and creative country.