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To school or not: a few thoughts

It might be because it's holiday time, but I have been looking back over some notes I made earlier this year about a variety of different topics. One set of these was simply entitled 'A New Type of School' and consisted of a list of random suggestions around what we might look for if we were to rethink our education  systems and in particular how we deliver learning in our schools. I share these in my usual way to develop my own thinking further, to stimulate some thinking in others and perhaps begin a bit of discussion about what schools may look like if we applied what we know now about learning and the most effective ways of delivering this. The points are very broad in nature and all would require further exploration and discussion perhaps in further posts, or even a book.

The first change we might want to consider is a change of name for what we currently call schools. 'Schools' to me has too many connotations with the training and breaking of animals, like horses or dogs, where humans work hard to break their natural instincts and behaviours so that we can get them to conform to the behaviours we would like instead. I think this is perhaps a bit too close to what has happened for generations in schools across the planet. The adults have a model of how they think children should behave and what they should learn and it is the responsibility of the  schools to ensure this happens. To me education should be more than this and our role needs to be bigger. That role is to light the fire for learning and discovery that allows each individual to make sense of the world, contribute to its development and sustainability, and to find their passion. We need learners who are meta-cognitively aware, emotionally intelligent and socially responsible. A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Reuven Feurstein's 'International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential' (ICELP) in Jerusalem. I was quite taken with the name of the institute and how Feurestein and his colleagues were using mediated learning and Instrumental Enrichment to help learners, most of whom had been written off elsewhere, to achieve their learning potential. So, instead of 'schools', how about 'Learning Centres' or 'Education Discovery Centres' or, perhaps a bit more radical 'Centres for Education,Creativity and Imagination Enhancement'? Or, is it too late to change this now? Some might ask, now that we truly understand where most learning takes place, do we need centres of anything at all? One thing I do know is that I just don't see myself as just a trainer of young learners.

Assuming we do decide we need such 'centres' to promote and develop learning, what characteristics might we expect to see in them?

The first I would suggest is that the leaders and the educationalists (lose teacher?) who work with young people should all have a deep understanding of learning, and pedagogies that facilitate this in learners. I believe one of the problems we face with our current systems is that too many people within them don't have a deep enough understanding of theories of learning, so are unable to deconstruct learning and reframe it in order to help young learners understand it and how they learn themselves. They are unsure of how to address gaps in learning. This will require a change in ITE so that more time is spent preparing people for the profession in a way that develops deep understanding of learning theories and the pedagogical practices that facilitate and enhance this. Perhaps more importantly, everyone needs to understand what the different learning theories mean in practical terms for educationalists and learners. How should they shape and inform our practice? Everyone will see learning as core business, not only for learners, but also themselves. Learning will be seen as an individual, collective and collaborative activity by all, with connections made and understood between different curricula areas and the real world.

Our aim will be to deepen understanding and learning and we will recognise that we will need to slow down and provide all learners with sufficient time to engage with and assimilate new learning in order that it becomes truly transformative. We will seek to develop in all our learners not only the building blocks of all learning, but also the transferable skills and attributes that will equip them for life-long learning, so that they are able to truly shape and construct this for themselves. Our aim for all learners will be to develop adaptive expertise and the ability to critically engage with all aspects of learning. The recognition of the time needed to achieve all this will be recognised become accepted as the norm. Planning to achieve this will be connected and will more and more include the pupil voice in meaningful ways to shape the learning. Technology will be embedded in learning processes and will be seen by all as an essential element of deep collaborative learning, as collaboration and learning across local, national and international boundaries becomes common, much of it initiated and stimulated by students themselves.

We will see learning as holistic and value all elements equally. We will consider and introduce non-traditional aspects of learning, like medicine or gaming, and many of these will be driven by demand from our learners. We will value and support the creative and expressive arts and recognise how development in these helps in all other areas. We will be just as concerned with the health, emotional and mental week-being of all students, recognising that when these are out of kilter time needs to be spent addressing them. We will be concerned with where learners actually are in their learning and understanding and will concentrate on helping them move on from that point, not some notional idea of where they should be. Learning will take place, as it does now, everywhere and we will facilitate learning in a mixture of spaces in our learning centres. There will be room for individual study but also spaces for collaboration, and we will really value learning outside in community and the environment. Our aim will always be to allow each individual to thrive and grow, and support them to achieve what they want in their learning. We will embrace diversity and sustainability in everything we do.

In terms of structure, staffing will reflect a non-hierarchical approach and one in which all have a leadership roles to play. There will be high levels of trust and all staff will be committed to acting professionally. Staff will move classes and stages frequently and will plan collaboratively for inter-disciplinary learning to allow pupils to be creative, make connections and to collaborate on meaningful tasks. There would be less local authority control, if any,  but centres would have to form federations or learning communities to promote further collaboration. Each such federation will be linked to a university to ensure practice is grounded in evidence of what works, and to support centres with continuous professional development. Staff  could move fluidly amongst all centres in such a federation and would understand their responsibility for the education of all learners, not just those within their own centre, department or subject. The aim would be for systems of self-reflection and adaptive expertise within all structures. Partnerships with other agencies and organisations would be ongoing and meaningful to help individual children but also to support the centres and the systems to keep developing and growing. We will be open and prepared to work in partnership with any organisations, businesses and agencies that will support all learners to grow and develop. Partnerships with parents will be seen as crucial and significant contributors to individual learner development, as well as that of the centre as a whole.

Learners will be key partners and players in developing and establishing the ethos, culture and vision for our work. They will have more ownership of their learning and how this is facilitated. We will work with parents and the local community to establish governance structures that will ensure learning reflects local context and needs, as well as national and international priorities. The opening times of establishments will be flexible and based on demand. Holidays will be spread evenly across the year as we appreciate the impact of these for all learners, but especially those in danger of missing out because of deprivation. We will have staff available during holiday periods to support pupils and to work with pupils and parents to support the learners. All staff will be committed to career-long professional learning and will collaborate to support and challenge each other. We will use staff expertise to support and train each other, as well as new entrants to the profession, in collaboration with university partners. We will organise and provide training and professional development courses and conferences for colleagues and staff from other establishments as we contribute to the practitioner research base. We will be active participants in our local community but will also be expected to develop links with others at national and international levels.

Many of the above conditions can be found within many systems across the world of education already, but I think we could change so much of what we do for the better if they were more commonly practiced. Some are easier to embrace than others but I am convinced we could achieve so much more than we do if we started to tackle some of these conditions now. There will of course be other positive changes we could make that will help produce a new 'model' and you can add these to the list. Some might not think the above is radical enough, but I do feel systems need evolve what we rather than to look for revolution, for all the time we are dealing with young learners and their life-opportunities. We owe it to them, and the wider needs of society, to get this right.


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