I think we have to ask the question.
A long time ago very few people went to school. This was for a number of reasons:
The modern economy took care of the first two. It only temporarily removed the last and now, ironically, it has brought us back to the same conditions: As machines first replaced our muscle capacity they’re now replacing out cognitive capacity. When that’s complete, it won’t strictly be necessary to learn to read, write and do ‘rithmetic, not economically necessary anyways. The wheels of the economy can keep going with what you and I can pick up on our own. So maybe, soon, we won’t need anything like school as we know it.
That leaves us with the question, What will an education be for?
Yesterday, eSchool News, the online K20 ed tech journal, asks if ed-tech firms are now shaping educational policy: Ed-tech firms shaping educational policy: are choices driven by student needs–or profits?
They might be. I’ve heard the same question come up in a couple places over the last few days.
If it is indeed true, I wonder if it’s because education has lost its leadership and can no longer clearly shout out its sense of purpose. At the moment, we–the public and the profession–are rather confused about where education is going. There’s no one in education to say, clearly, convincingly “Look, here is the way forward!” And in the absence of such strong voice others–those ed-tech business–have stepped in saying “Well, this might be a way to go we think you’d like.” The unpleasant admission, of course, is that that means we’ve stopped believing we educators are the experts.
Smack in the middle of a conversation with a colleague it occured to me with a flush of embarrassment that all my critiques of contemporary education have been entirely misplaced; not so much wrong perhaps, but certainly unfairly aimed.
Contemporary education is not broken. Indeed, it’s wildly, unimpeachably successful. The contemporary model was never intended to do anything more than bring broad basic literacy–the Three R’s–to millions. In that it has been brilliantly successful. Between 1870 and 1979, illiteracy rates (the percentage of the population that could not read or write in any language) in the U.S. fell from 20% to 0.6%. That, by any accounting, is a stunning achievement. Instead of criticizing it, we should be throwing education a party; a retirement party perhaps, but one where we nevertheless congratulate ourselves on a job well done. (Even so, we will want to keep the old schools around in a consulting role for a while. Our current cry for reform glosses over the fact that the educational needs of all communities are not uniform. There are many places at home and abroad where we have not yet achieved basic literacy and for that we have a proven model to deploy.)
Sadly, our current discussions around educational reform are characterized by destructive and frustrating criticism and, worse I am afraid, shameful blame–on both sides. State authorities blame teachers for failing to meet prescribed outcomes; teachers blame authorites for failing to see those outcomes are losing their relevance. Perhaps those outcomes are out of step, but it won’t do either to replace them with yet another set, even if they are called something like 21st Century literacies. Swapping “literacies” says we have not significantly changed our thinking. We have to imagine a wholesale structural change, just as we did when we invented public schooling in the first place.
Forgive the crude generalization, but we might say there are just two models of education: the first and the oldest, an education for the privileged that was is meant to prepare a them for politics, business and higher study. Call this a liberal education. The second, only a century or two old, a basic literacy education, meant to prepare everyone else to take a place on the shop floor. But now that we have achieved the broad literacy that is the prerequisite for a broad liberal education we can seriously talk about delivering what was once reserved for the privileged few to everyone.
I’m not sure we yet properly appreciate the enormity of that proposition. No one has any idea what that looks like because it’s never been seen before. For me at least, this makes our time the most exciting time–not the most depressing or desperate and hardly the most frustrating–in the history of education. We quite seriously have a chance to make history.
In a recent blog post, online learning insights, quotes former Harvard president Lawrence Summers saying education changes little over time. Indeed, as the post-writer says, education is perceived to be highly resistant to change.
That percerption is based on a too-short, toonarrow view of education. Education today looks nothing like the sort of teaching that went on in the agora, for example. And I don’t think that is too remote to consider. It ‘s a general problem these days that we are ignorant, or at least choose note to consider in our contemproary talk about reform, the 2500-year old conversation about edcuation.
I am reminded of a sharp comment by Zhou Enlai to Richard Nixon. During that president’s visit to China in 1972, he asked the chinese premiere what he tought of the effects of the French Revolution, arguably the mother of the United States.
It’s too soon to say, he replied.
Read Rick McManus in Read Write Web: Get Ready for the World of Connected Devices
I had a couple conversations of the past week with teachers and admins talking about their 1:1 laptop programs they’re building and I have said to them that this is a narrow vision. Building a 1:1 program is building for today, not tomorrow. And by the time the buildout is complete it will be yesterday’s architecture. We should be thinking 2:1 or 3:1 (smartphone, tablet and laptop.) Even this, as a picture of the future of education, is limited. The world of the “internet of things” is right around the corner.
OK, I never bought the idea that school is about readying people for a career. It is, but only as secondary thing. Education is about something much, much bigger. But for interest’s and argument’s sake, let’s take workplace prep as our schools’ raison d’etre. It follows that we ought to be looking at the workplace to get an idea of what we are preparing our students to take on.
Not only are jobs changing, the definition of a job is changing, according to enterprise research firm, Berson and Associates. They predicted a “borderless workplace will drive new talent and learning strategies in 2011.” They continue to push the idea in early 2012 saying we’ve seen the end of the job as we know it.
… “the borderless workplace,” a concept which explains how today’s workers work seamlessly with people inside and outside their organization on a regular basis. And this shift has redefined what a “job” actually is.
Source: Berson & Assoc.
So, what does this mean for schools? Are we preparing students to take on jobs, or roles?
I think, inherently, schools understand the idea of roles. A lot of classroom practice, at least at my school, looks like what Berson & Associates describe as the best practices of high-performing organizations, i.e. they focus on results and expertise and not position, they reward continuous learning and so on. So we ought to be in good position–I think we’re agile enough, to use the industry term–to make changes without calling for dramatic cultural change, just maybe some subtle shifts in thinking.
Nevertheless, there’s something nagging at me. I want to take this to our working group looking at so-called 21C skills and see what they think: Are we missing something?
Bill Ferriter (aka @plugusin) reports from Educon: What if we had a culture of “Do” instead of “Know?”
Well, you can’t have the first without the second, not meaningfully anyways, so let’s be careful not to leave babies sitting in puddles. But it is a huge relief to me to hear that some at least are thinking that education has a purpose.
Almost 500 years ago, Ignatius Loyola built a great school founded on the idea that the purpose of an education was to go out in the world and do, that is make intelligent and effective contributions to the welfare of society.
Regardless of our worldview, we do this ultimately in order to improve ourselves. Everyone exists as both a unique person and as an individual in society. As an individuals, we contribute to society so that society’s goods flow back on us and make us better persons. As better persons, we can contribute more as individuals and this receive yet more goods, and so on.
What we still need to do, however, is ask “What should the person look like?” or “What are we trying to beceome?” To the Jesuits, the answer is Christ. To Buddhists, it’s Buddha. To the humanist, it’s perhaps a Socratic idea of the just human.
But however we answer, education has as a fundamental quality this idea of action.
The central problem with school IT infrastrucuture is that it is set up to support administration, not teaching and learning. My hunch is that this is because a.) schools are driven by administration and b.) schools borrowed technologies designed for other businesses and industries where all the work was administrative.
But when you look at the work and the function of a school the whole institution suddenly seems as though it was built upside down:
In any school there will be a small number of administrators and support staff producing a relatively small volume of sensitive data (personal information covered by PIPPA and FOIPPA in Canada, forexample) and a very large number of students and teachers producing an enormous volume important but non-sensitive work. In my school, for example, we have about twenty times more students and teachers than admin and support staff. Yet all our systems–firewalls, authentications, blacklists, Blackbaud, PCR–are designed for high security needs of administration. The official software packages–Windows OS, Exchange and even MS Office–are big, enterprise-level products. But where schools are enterprises, real teaching is not; it’s something more personal. What works for one inhibits development of the other: admin needs high security, teachers and students need open access.
In looking for the right balance we need to consider that in any rationally constructed operation, the bulk of IT resources ought to be put toward the primary function of the business, in this case classroom learning.
So our plan is to completely renew our conception of IT and the way it supports a school. The trick will be to buid two parallel systems–a secure, self-hosted network for administration and an open web- and cloud-based system for students and teachers–and get them to talk to each other.
We’ve many more questions and answers at this point, this is where we are going.
More to come…
The problems associated with bringing social media into schools are neither practical or prudential ones. The problem–singular–is a conceptual one: Do we (still) conceive of schools as walled gardens or do we think they might be built on some other more open social structure that may benefit students and their communities?
We need to answer that first. Building the rest is easy.
This is the best balanced look at the issues around using social media in schools I’ve seen yet.
But the bottom line is simple: telling students they can’t use social media is like telling them they can’t socialize in the halls or talk during class. Social media is, well, social. We’re social. So we need, urgently, to figure out a way to make it happen.