Future schools: roses or briars?

During the 1970s and 80s, there was talk that future schools could become so technologically oriented, that teachers would become a ‘past profession’. I remember reading and hearing of ideologies that talked of home schooling, with computer focus being the way forward.  Gone would be schools as collaborative institutions housing aggregates of students and teachers for set times each day. I recall the notion of 24/7 education with that being about students tuning in as they wished. Going online at convenient times would be under the watchful eye of parents and carers for primary children and more independently of oversight for secondary aged students.

Schools were identified as places that promoted student dependence on teachers and timetables. This was seen as anathema in modern times. Technology was seen as superior, worthily and intelligently replacing teachers. The profession, in many forums, articles and conferences was trumpeted as heading toward redundancy.

Although not fully understood at that time, more recent technological developments, applied to this notion, would see students undertaking learning that is totally screen-based. Interaction with others would be controlled by online chat and links to progress engaged through a master program held in an overall server somewhere, to be doled out to children and students, when appropriate and applicable. The future of schooling would be increasingly about the physical separation of individuals engaged in the educational process.

Children need the opportunity to socialise and do things together.To my way of thinking, nothing could be more abhorrent than the idea of children being educated in some sort of isolated, balkanised state.  Be it at home with parental oversight and monitoring control or be it in some institutionalised setting, with students locked into learning carrels, that would be anathema.  It would be an approach that was locked into content focus, with little consideration being given to the human needs of the learners.  Children need the opportunity to socialise and do things together.

Isolation in learning contexts is something experienced by many children and students who live in the far-flung outback of the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. Students link for educational purposes through an increasingly enhanced technological focus. They are able to engage conversationally with their teacher and with each other online. They have video links and screen contact with each other.  However, they don’t have that physical and social connection that is offered to children learning in living classrooms and playing with each other during recess and lunch breaks.

For children who are physically isolated from learning peers, the highlights of the school year are camps and the brief periods of togetherness organised by the School of the Air.

I had a three-week totally technologically learning focus of sorts in the mid 1970s. We were on appointment to a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia. It was a requirement that teachers appointed to this community, undertake a three-week intensive language learning course held at the Bentley Institute of Technology – now part of the Edith Cowan University. Learning consisted of many hours each day being spent in language learning carrels. These were enclosed and isolated from each other. There were 15 of us whose day consisted of brief introductions then a retreat into isolation. Sitting in those carrels, our program was controlled by an instructor who could listen in and communicate but usually only to bring learners back onto task. The ‘task’ was listening to the particular vernacular tongue being related from a master panel controlled by the instructor. The program was about listening to and imitating the dialect, in order to get intonation and pronunciation as spot on as possible. Some clarification was offered by the instructor but the bulk of communication was by way of pointing out better and correct ways of speaking the language.

At the end of the program, I graduated with a statement that included confirmation of the many hours I’d spent in this constructed learning environment. I had been part of a class that was ‘together’ in one room, ‘separated’ by soundproof learning booths. While we were accomplished in terms of learning outcomes, our development together as people learning in a shared environment was almost zero.

While outback schooling is less sterile than the constructed environment I have described, social contact is minimal, and by image projection, rather than in a living and ‘togetherness’ format.

My controlled learning experience and the limitations of online schooling convince me that future schooling and schools of the future, in-so-far as possible, should avoid constructions that would minimise teacher-student and student-student contact in a direct and living sense. While subject curriculum and learning content can be managed by children and students working on their own, important developments, a part of education and learning, simply cannot offer individuals the development they need, unless they are together in learning communities.

Education for the whole of life
At the risk of being typed an educational antediluvian, I would uphold, with vigour, the need to avoid departure from some very important and very traditional educational learning practices. I adhere to two belief positions.

… education … must support children in terms of their social, emotional and moral/spiritual development.Firstly, I believe that education should be ‘all round’. Certainly, it needs to provide for academic enhancement. However, equally importantly, it must support children in terms of their social, emotional and moral/spiritual development. I believe there is a distinct danger that modern education, enhanced by technological support, is amplifying the need for academic and skills development, while de-emphasising  the personal and social aspects of development that must be included, if education is to be all-rounded.

I advocate the need to always consider our students … as people.Secondly, I advocate the need to always consider our students, prime learners and tomorrow’s leaders, as people. It often seems to me that modern education is all about analysing and cauterising children, testing, measuring and evaluating them, almost in isolation to the personalities inherent within them. They become objects and artifacts rather than living, breathing human beings.

Many years ago, a manager with a gas company in Darwin told a group of assistant principals visiting his business that children were like gas bottles.  He said that gas bottles arrive empty, pass along a production line and emerge full and ready to go at the other. He said that children progressing through school were the same. They started school life as empty vessels. As they moved through the years and up the grades, they were filled with knowledge, emerging as useful citizens ready to contribute to life’s world.  At the time, I violently disagreed with this simplistic comparison because gas bottles are inanimate and capable of being manipulated. Children, on the other hand, are living, breathing entities with soul.

These days, I am not sure that we educators don’t consider children as gas bottles because so much humanity seems to be lacking in educational processes. It seems that depersonalisation has set in, that children are regarded as vessels to be filled in order to satisfy societal working needs. We carry out elaborate testing and measurement procedures in order to determine if they are up to scratch and ready to go forth in servitude to society. We tend to downplay and reduce to a secondary status, their rights, entitlements and developmental needs as people.

Education needs to revisit the soul
Alexandra Payne (editor) in an Australian Institute of Management publication Love@Work (1) identifies 10 characteristics that have come to manifest themselves in the workplace. She identifies joylessness, fear, dullness, dependency, insensitivity, mediocrity, discourtesy, lack of creativity, ambiguity and anxiety as characteristics rising to the fore.

‘What we are missing in today’s workplace and business is essentially about joy, humanity and love. The challenge is to infuse these elements … to create a holistic workplace. We need to overcome these ten detrimental characteristics that are too prevalent.’ (2)

John Reynolds, interviewing Love @ Work  editor Alexandra Payne, was told by Payne that, while in terms of refocusing business ‘… we’ve done a great job economically … people at work are … dried up and stressed out’ (3)  Payne indicates that holism needs revisiting because ‘in my view it’s the holistic sphere that really creates enduring quality and sustainability’. (4)

Education is charged with developing within young people, those qualities that are going to impact within them as adults in tomorrow’s world. There has been a major emphasis placed on fitting youth up to move into an economic and rationalist world.

I believe that this has desensitised many of those who are today’s leaders and contributors to business and industry.  Payne is suggesting revitalisation and reinvigoration that must come from within. For that to happen, education and future schooling has an important role to fill in revisiting the soul of education.

My concern is that too many children and students lack in terms of interpersonal skills and don’t have the capacities to be decent persons. Care for others is definitely distant, while self-promotion and self-indulgence come through as stand-out factors.Education needs to be for the whole of life and it needs to consider the inner person, along with societal needs. I think that we have taken many steps away from considering and regarding our students as people, including distancing ourselves from the need to educate in terms of social graces, deportment, oral communication, deference to others and the capacity to listen considerately to peers. We are bringing up generations who may well have ICT adeptness and self-awareness. My concern is that too many children and students lack in terms of interpersonal skills and don’t have the capacities to be decent persons. Care for others is definitely distant, while self-promotion and self-indulgence come through as stand-out factors.

Hope is a quality that is going out the door with many young people, according to a recent newspaper report commenting on a youth survey, believing this to be the last generation. Personal desperation and innate despondency are sadly apparent elements, with young people developing short-term attitudes based on their perception of the future.

These attitudes and the lack of character definition imbuing too many young people deserve focus. Instead, we fixate on academic outcomes, and orbit our attention around ICT, testing, measurement and some sort of misplaced self-justification.

Future schools and future schooling need to focus on rebuilding a quality social fabric, where the warp and weft are competent, confident, caring individuals.I want for futurist education to go back to the past. We need to regard children and students as people and to develop within them a sense of longevity, social awareness, conversational capacity listening acuity and personal pride.  We have lost too much. Educational focus and our prioritising methodologies are largely to blame. Future schools and future schooling need to focus on rebuilding a quality social fabric, where the warp and weft are competent, confident, caring individuals.

1. Payne, Alexandra (ed.), Love@ Work. 2006. Australian Institute of Management, Wiley. Sourced from John Reynolds ‘In search of more love, more joy, more humanity’ in Management today, Issue 28, September 2006, pp. 34-39 & 42.
2. op cit, p.35
3. Op cit p.34
4. Op cit.

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