Thursday, October 6, 2011

Schools - Formula 1s or 4X4s?

I’ve been thinking / reading about educational reform lately. What struck me was how little things have really changed over the course of my career.   With the exception of a few islands of excellence, many of the classrooms that I encounter on school visits are predictably generic – and demonstrate pedagogy enshrined in practice now for generations.  In fact, many of the people who helped train me would be able to dust themselves off (literally in some cases) and step into the role of a current teacher easily – despite being out of the classroom for decades.
How can this be? How is it possible that the technological advances in recent years have not transformed education?  Surely, when one considers the explosion of digital technology, the growth of the Internet and the transformation of society in general, schools surely must have changed?  Yet it is still possible to visit schools that almost seem to pride themselves on resisting genuine educational innovation.  Some schools use a shield of “educational rigor” to disguise the rigor mortis that defines their programs.

It occurs to me that schools are more like Formula 1 teams than Four Wheel Drivers. By this I mean that school teachers and administrators are hard working and dedicated people working towards a common goal – they pour their energy into their jobs and do so with great skill and commitment.  The same could be said for the Formula 1 teams.  Their goal is set – and it has been for years; to make their car go faster, to go from start to finish in the shortest amount of time possible.  They do this by making minute adjustments to their car – retuning the engine, changing tyre composition, modifying the aerodynamics  and generally tweaking the car to maximise performance.  The teams have been going to essentially the same tracks for years and years; season after season, lap after lap,  with one aim – to help get the driver from point A to point B faster than anyone else.

Contrast this approach with that of the four wheel drive enthusiast. The 4x4 car is well maintained and in good order.  Great care and concern is taken to ensure mechanical reliability. The difference is not in attention to detail – the difference is the destination.  The 4x4 driver is likely to try to go to new places by new routes – even if there is only a track rather than a road – and sometimes not even a track.  The fact that the journey may be over new or rarely explored territory adds to the allure of the trip. Being “better” simply has no relevance in this context.

In short, the 4x4 driver thinks about the destination while the Formula 1 team thinks about the process.
Our schools are now the equivalent of Formula 1 pit-crews  – hard working,  skilled, focused and putting large amounts of effort into making minor revisions that produce very small advances – if in fact they prove to be effective at all. The other parallel that strikes me is that Formula 1 cars are irrelevant in any other situation. You cannot take them on “the open road”, you couldn’t use them to get the shopping, or transport the family or do any of the other required functions of cars in the “real world”.  How many of our educational practices are limited in relevance to only the school environment?  If we are to break from the unproductive “reform” practices maybe we need to be more like the 4x4 drivers – work out where we really want to go and then do what it takes to make that happen.  

We need to have a serious look at the curriculum – not just in the sense that we re-badge or reorganise it. What do our students really need?  What is the best way we can provide it for them? What activities and projects will enable them to acquire the skills necessary for modern life and keep them engaged in the process?  How can we change education from something we do to students to something we do with them? What needs to change at the class, school and system level to enable this to happen?
There are many educational issues  that would benefit from genuine consideration and action including;
  • ·         What do our students want from their schools?
  • ·         What are we trying to achieve – in specific terms – with our students?
  • ·         What content should we have in the school curriculum?
  • ·         How do engage students in the educational process?
  • ·         How do we use ICT effectively in the classroom?
  • ·         How relevant is what we teach to our students?
  • ·         Is the curriculum ever-expanding like the universe –  or can we acknowledge that students can learn some things elsewhere and hence omit some aspects. If so, what can we cease to teach?
  • ·         What is the purpose and impact of formalised testing?
  • ·         How can we embed a growth mindset into students,  staff...and “the system?”

Of course, governments and education departments all over the globe have been “reforming” education for decades.  But, to return to my earlier metaphor, the mind set in use has been that of the Formula 1 team – “We already know the objective, let’s improve the process”.    However, there are other groups that have taken the 4x4 approach – and their alternatives to vanilla flavoured education are freely available on the labyrinth of the Internet.

To continue the motoring metaphor, before commencing any journey it helps to have a map so you can choose the terrain over which you want to travel.   The equivalent to that might be this site -   the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today  and the associated PDFs.  The document isn’t exactly a road map – but it might help you work out where you might like to go – and provide some of the insights that might help you get there.

Photo credits:
4x4 on beach