Education’s sacred cows are in danger.
And it could be a good thing.
The sudden, pandemic-induced rupture in education has seen several of its lodestars extinguished; education’s sacred cows, such as GCSEs, A-levels and indeed ‘going to school and sitting in a classroom’, have been put to pasture, and we (alongside many others) are wondering if this might actually be a good thing. What if, amongst all this chaos, a golden opportunity is lurking?
Is this the time to reboot education, to make it fit for purpose, to abandon the futile ‘knowledge transfer’ system of education that is draining the life out of teachers and learners alike? Could this be the opportunity we need to move to a learner-centred model, where the individual members of the student community form its beating heart, where people are the main drivers of what happens in school, rather than league tables and exam results? Is 2020 the year when we finally find ways of harnessing technology to engage learners – beyond sharing worksheets and PowerPoint slides?
End of the world as we know it?
Formal exams, which are pretty much the entire point of secondary education, have been scrapped. Learners, after two or three years of being told what they need to do to pass the exams, suddenly have no exams. They’ve just… vanished.
If they were as critical as they are made out to be, surely we would have fought tooth and nail to ensure these exams went ahead? If they are the passport to our children’s future, no pandemic would have got in the way of them.
The technology gap
‘School’ (which in most people’s minds means one teacher plus 30 students in a classroom) has been hastily reconstituted online. Sadly, in many cases, via dreary worksheets, PowerPoint presentations or exhortations to revise what has already been studied, continuing the model of ‘schooling’ rather than ‘learning’. Schools that had already successfully integrated technology into their learning, seem to be better placed to use it in a more sophisticated way, rather than just as a delivery system; Zoom lessons, group chats, webinars, sharing useful resources from all over the internet, engaging students with all the technology tools at their disposal. That’s all great if you know how, but to suddenly be forced to deliver online learning has left many schools struggling, leaving their pupils at a disadvantage.
What the pandemic has exposed is the vast differences in how schools use technology and the lack of a coherent policy or funding to bring everyone up to speed. Perhaps now this inequality has been exposed, we can find a way to fix it? We also need to ensure all learners have access to decent technology, at home and at school, to go some way towards levelling the playing field. With that, there comes the issue of broadband connectivity: you can’t Zoom if your bandwidth isn’t up to snuff and we’re a long way from the day when every household has sufficiently decent broadband to enable every learner to get, and stay, online whenever they need to.
Released from ‘cells and bells’, with fixed length lessons in standard classrooms, demarcated by bells, lunch and break, learners can study when they want to, at a time that suits them. Without the ‘sage on the stage’ telling them what to do, learners are free to use the vast resources of the internet (ironically via the very technology so frequently banned in classrooms, despite being the most amazing portal to knowledge ever invented), asking for help when they need it, no longer confined to a single textbook or yet more worksheets.
The question is, with these new freedoms, seeing how technology could enable learning anywhere and anytime (if done well, with appropriate funding, training and policies), combined with the evidence that GCSEs and A-levels are not sacrosanct, will the genie go back into the bottle? Do we want it to?
The new normal?
The ‘old normal’ in education isn’t fit for purpose. It doesn’t equip learners with the skills they need to make a useful contribution to the world, to find the job that’s right for them and to lead fulfilled lives enriched by lifelong learning. Innovative educators have known this for some time and some trailblazers are experimenting with environments where learners are in charge. Giving learners autonomy and agency is empowering; being told what to do encourages passivity and an inability to cope with uncertainty. In real life there is rarely one right answer, we have to assess options, use our critical faculties to work things out. Being told what to do all the time robs children of the skills they need to succeed.
Aiglon College’s Centre for Enquiry, a multi-zoned space where students create as well as acquire knowledge
Eton College, with its Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, where IT is seen as a creative tool, not a geeky science
Wimbledon High School with its sandbox space where students are encouraged to try and to embrace failure as part of learning
Desborough College with its STEM room which includes a makerspace where students can explore and experiment under their own steam, working things out for themselves
Croft School with its open learning studio designed to nurture its pupils’ independence
All of these schools, and many more (see Berlin Metropolitan School, Dulwich College, Queen Anne’s School, are challenging the status quo because they know the original model of education is no longer working; it’s no longer enough. In fact, many of our customers are brave and bold pioneers, who know traditional learning environments are no longer adequate. It’s time we all caught up with the innovators and, having acknowledged through this pandemic that so much of what we assumed was sacred isn’t, now is the time to embrace that change.