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 Big Picture Learning 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.