Battling for the soul of education…

Soul-of-edOver the past year or so I've been increasingly asked to speak with groups of educational leaders, community groups and parents about the need to reconceptualise our education system, and to explain the rationale for this change. Much of this has been driven out of contexts where new schools are being built or planned, and the focus is shifting to notions of a 'modern learning environment', often superficially conceived of as simply schools with open spaces instead of the traditional 'egg-create' classrooms. 

My conviction is that the rationale for change goes much deeper than simply replacing one form of architecture with another – or simply thinking about the architecture at all for that matter! What happens in our classrooms and schools, in the form of the learning activity that goes on each day, is more significantly important – the architecture should reflect this, rather than dictate it (remember the number one rule of design, 'form follows function'!).

In my speaking with groups I am constantly confronted by individuals who question the need for change at all, and in almost all cases, the potential benefits or otherwise are weighed against what we are doing currently, as if that's a valid benchmark for what's working successfully. This sort of thinking has led in the past to the efforts in the 'schooling improvement' movement, with its emphasis on taking the existing system and finding ways of improving it, of making it more efficient and realising improved outcomes and learner successes. While the concept of continuous improvement is laudable in any system or organisation, there's a limit to the extent to which you can improve something without questioning the very basis upon which it is founded, and whether there may simply be a different way of doing things. I've written elsewhere on this, arguing that we ought to be pursuing a transformation agenda, finding a solution for schools and schooling that is more relevant, current and fit for purpose in the 21st century. 


So it was of interest this weekend to discover this book titled "Battling for the Soul of Education" (free PDF download) published by the 21st Century Learning Initiative, in conjunction with Education 2000 and Born to Learn. The book's subtitle is "Moving beyond school reform to educational transformation ~ The findings and recommendations of 3 decades of synthesis" . It's not often you get a free PDF download to enjoy of a book like this, but it's obvious from the format that the aim is to get as many people reading it and contributing to the direction it advocates as possible. 

The author of a significant section of the book is John Abbott (author of Over Schooled and Under Educated) who is director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative. As Abbott sees it, the need for reflection has never been greater. Spurred by technological advances, he says:

 Civilization is on the cusp of a metamorphosis, that will lead either to societal collapse and chaos, or to a resurgence of liberty, community, and ethics. Either way, schools are stuck in the past: The emphasis has been on feeding children static information and rewarding them for doing only what they’re told, instead of helping them develop the transferable, higher-order skills they need to become life-long learners and thrive in an uncertain future.

In the section on constructing an alternative vision, John Abbot writes about adopting a cognitive apprenticeship model, where both the task, and the process ofachieving it, are made highly visible from the beginning. The student understands where they are going and why. Learners have access to expertise in action. They watch each other, get to understand the incremental stages and establish benchmarks against which to measure their progress.

The book explores the socio-cultural changes that are occurring in our modern world, and argues for developing 'citizens of the world' as a key focus of the transformed system. There are also some wise words about the use (and mis-use) of technology;

Technology badly used can push children so fast there is no space for the spontaneous to happen. But just as a teacher who holds too slavishly to their lesson plans misses a precious opportunity, so too do those children who follow the pre-designed paths the technology sets out.

I found the appendices very informative (particularly A and B) in providing an overview of how the education system (based on what's occurred in England) has evolved and developed over time, and the impact of various philosophies and political idealisms along the way. 

All in all, the volume re-affirmed my personal conviction that we need to see transformation of our education system, of our schools and what occurs within them.  I understand and appreciate that this sort of disruptive thinking isn't popular with most, and is interpreted by many colleagues in the profession as being a threat to their current status and ways of working. However, I don't believe we can afford to simply keep tinkering at the edges, trying to improves somethng that is fundamentally requiring change. For the sake of our kids and grandkids we need to engage in the sort of dialogue that this book aims to inspire and work (quickly) to find the models and approaches that will truly meet the needs of todays learners in preparing them for their future. 

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