This week I’m in South Africa for the second part of the CSCLeaders conference. While en route to Johannesburg, I had time to think about whether schools have passed their use by date.  And if so, where do we go from here?  I don’t believe the answer lies in dissolving or deconstructing schools but rather morphing them into something smaller, more organic, innovative and community based.  It’s more evolution than this long awaited education revolution.

In 2008, I heard Stephen Heppell talking at the Curriculum Corporation Conference about re-designing schools.  He was in the throes of co-designing a school with students in the Cayman Islands.  Heppell spoke about the need to move away from these industrial factories of 250+ students to small communities of learning with 10 or less students.  He explained how agile learning spaces could be re-configured to meet particular learning needs but what if schools were re-configured to meet students interests?

This is the evolution of schooling.  It is the convergence of personal interests, partnerships and technology (think big data and the ability to personalise learning).  Last week Dan Pink was in Australia at the EduTech conference talking about the rise of specialist schools.  He mentioned something called Big Picture Learning or Big Picture Schools, which have sprung up across America.  Even President Obama has recently announced an initiative that challenges school districts across America to redesign high schools and ‘transform the high school experience’.  The initiative is underpinned by a strong desire to prepare students for a knowledge age and a global economy.

What is interesting about the High School Redesign initiative is a focus on personalised learning and on providing career related experiences or competencies.  This is about taking PBL out of the classroom and into the real-world.  It places greater focus on developing partnerships with community, business and industry to enable students to complete internships and/or mentorships.  This is the evolution of schooling as John Dewey saw it – schools as microcosms of society.  The US Department of Education states, ‘students learn best when they are engaged in complex projects and tasks aligned with their interests.’

This is the foundation of  schools.  As Dan Pink explained these schools configure the entire curriculum around each student’s interests. Pink gives the example of a student who say was interested in martial arts.  One component would involve an internship at a martial arts studio and then the academic component would be learning about the origins of martial arts, the Japanese language and the physics behind the martial art.

I found a podcast of Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning and collaborator Charlie Mojkowski discussing their educational philosophy.  They pose an interesting question – we have expectations of students but what are their expectations of schools?  In addressing these expectations, Washor and Mojkowski believe levels of student engagement will rise.  Rather than developing students interests, schools have traditionally developed skills and knowledge.  Is this radical change or have we must missed something really fundamental – developing a sense of who students are?

The concept of bringing students into the real-world to deepen their learning is why partnerships with business and industry will become critical in the evolution of schooling.  In this model, I envisage schools as conduit between identifying students’ interests and connecting them with their ‘adult-world’ tribes.  In this sense, nothing is fixed.  In an article on Innovation, Washor and Mojkowski reflect that they are:

‘learning what variations of our design contribute to student success and we are adjusting the design and its implementation on the fly in order to realize immediate benefits to students. Big Picture is legitimizing the creation of fundamental alternatives in teaching and learning. That the Big Picture Company, advocating a design that substantially pushes the envelope of what a high school should look like, has been invited to work in so many districts testifies to the potential for true entrepreneurial behavior.

There’s that word again – entrepreneurial.  Perhaps it’s the reason why innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour aren’t the hallmarks of our educational systems.  When we talk about student-centered learning is it in the context of a modernised industrial model or in the context of schools adapting to students?
According to Washor and Mojkowski, if you want to create disruptive innovations rather than merely sustain mediocre ones, you need to have ideas that are ‘crazy enough’ at the edge to make a difference to what happens in the middle.  There is value in looking at the Big Picture model especially in how we create valuable partnerships that bring students into the world and the world into schools.

Comments on: "Use by date for schools?" (5)

  1. Neil Joseph said:

    Good one Greg! I am involved in the MyScience mentoring at OLOL Seven Hills as a mentor at the moment and I can see real value in having industry people helping to bring concepts into the school arena as early as possible. MyScience is a good example of what you are talking about here, I think.

  2. Scale is an issue. Big Picture works well when there is a high ratio of “community” to student. But scale it too big and industry says “back off, we can’t solve all your problems, that’s why we invented schools”

  3. Reed McNaughton said:

    Interesting comments Greg – smaller and localised communities of learning – sounds great. So lets move to dissolve the large “private school -public school model” that exists in NSW and come back to a localised community learning model.
    Looking forward to you working “locally” on removing the ‘HSC examination’ from the NSW schooling system- which is core to the current “industrial model of secondary schools”. This model has existed in NSW education since 1833.

    Good luck, watching to see your active contribution to the evolution.

    • Thanks for your comments Reed. If we are going to stretch the boundaries and our thinking, we need to move away from old debates that don’t take schooling forward e.g public vs private model. As Edward De Bono wrote “schools and teachers are locked in by existing exams and by the needs of universities. The people who run the system have grown up with the existing system and have become experts at running it, so they see no need for change.” We are living in a new age that demands new ways of schooling including the way we assess student knowledge.

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