Wednesday, February 01, 2017

What future for education? A final reflection

"You have to speak your dream out loud." Kelly Corrigan
Well we have come to the end of our course, What future for education? and a final task was to prepare a TED-like Talk to share our vision for education. Based on the reflections from the classes and my personal musings and experience, I shared my thoughts about primary education. The resulting video is cringe-worthy (honest feedback from my son!), but the sentiment is heart-felt. And so, rather than subject any followers of this blog to my video attempt, I decided to share the script as a post. Of course, you need to imagine me talking from a red circle of carpet with a five minute time frame, and hearing a school bell sound at the beginning! 

Bell on Pixabay, CC 0
"A school bell. What runs through your mind when you hear this sound? I’m late for class! Or, time for lunch. I’m sure you can imagine students lining up, chatting with their friends before school starts. Walking in, being greeted by their teacher. Handing in homework. Settling down into their desks, waiting to hear the plan for the day. Reading, math, a language lesson. Maybe a quiz. There will be time for recess, for lunch. There might even be an opportunity to start on a project, being assigned a group and a topic, but students won’t have time to finish because it will be time for the next class. Then the bell will ring again and the teacher will say, ‘Don’t forget about your homework.'

This is an easy scenario for us to imagine because the organisational structure of public elementary schools has not really changed since its inception. Sure, advancements in technology over the past 25 years has challenged us to think about global collaboration and our students' access to information. We may even be more aware of the value of student-centred inquiry and allow for students to engage in the famous Google 20% time, or Genius Hour as it is sometimes called. But at the end of the day, in most elementary schools, that bell still rings and the teachers still organise learning based on the factory model of education.* 

So why is this a problem? For starters, we’ve learned quite a lot about how we learn since the creation of public education.** But do our schools reflect this? 

We know that we learn best when we feel safe. Brain research has shown the interconnectedness of the cognitive and emotional systems of the brain. When students are in a positive emotional state, they are more able to learn. Yet, schools are organised to cause stress. We put artificial times in place, asking students to start an activity only to stop them and then hurry on to the next thing. We have stressed teachers who rush students in order to cover required content before testing students to see if they have learned the material. If students are late or do not complete assigned homework they are often chastised or made to feel badly about their performance. Elementary schools can be places of great stress. 

Photo by Leo Rivas-Micoud CC 0
But, what if we removed the artificial time boundaries? What if we removed assigning homework or mandating content? What if there were no exams? What if schools were designed to be places of inquiry? Places where students could work at their own pace with teachers as mentors? Places where students were empowered to control their own learning?  Elementary schools can be places of wonder and joy. 

We know that the learning environment itself has an impact on student learning. Research has shown that not only the visual stimuli in the classroom, but scent, lighting, temperature and sound all influence learning. Too many of our classrooms today are like office spaces with fluorescent lighting, predictable seating, closed windows. Students spend most of their day in their assigned classroom, only leaving to attend special subjects such as PE or music and for short breaks. Yet, we know this can have a negative effect on learning. Elementary schools can resemble the factory model on which they were based. 

Photo by Brandon Morgan CC 0
But, what if learning spaces weren’t confined to a room? What if buildings were open and allowed for movement of learners? What if there were spaces designed for different purposes? Quiet areas for reflection and research, areas for collaboration and building. Places to pose problems and create solutions? What if the outdoors was a part of the learning space? What if students could decide where they were most comfortable and learned best? Elementary schools can be thoughtfully designed places of creative inspiration. 

We know that the brain filters new information through the lens of our prior experience and knowledge to create new meaning. We develop our conceptual understanding by making connections and challenging our assumptions. Yet, in many classrooms, teachers insist on covering content in a particular order, not giving students the ‘big picture’ until all of the facts have been ‘taught’. Studies have shown that this can impede learning as students cannot retain disjointed facts and details. Elementary schools can be places where content drives instruction. 

Photo by Tim Gouw CC 0
But, what if we invited students to start the learning by asking questions? What if we provoked students to think about big ideas and challenged them to develop their understanding? What if teachers provided formative feedback throughout the student’s inquiry? What if reflecting on learning was an integral part of the process? Elementary schools can be places where the desire to understand drives the learning. 

There is so much we know about learning and most people I speak with agree that we need to change our educational system. We are no longer in need of the human cogs for the 'bureaucratic administrative machine' that Sugata Mitra describes in his 2013 TED Talk, the industrial age is long gone. We can design schools for learning. We can create places that nurture creativity and provoked thinking? What can give children time - time to wonder, to think, to explore to try. Elementary schools can be places that prepare our children to be lifelong learners and confident, capable, compassionate members of our world."

* The notion of the factory model of education was made quite popular is Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk, Changing Education Paradigms as shared by RSA Animate. This talk provides a quick overview of why our educational system generally looks and functions the way it does and challenges us to think of alternatives to better suit the needs of our children in today's world.

** Many of the ideas shared about what we have learned from brain research are summarised in the Brain Targeted Teaching Model by Dr Mariale Hardiman, EdD at John Hopkins University.

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