For 150 years, formal education has adopted an ‘inside-out’ mindset – schools and colleges have usually been organised around the needs of the educators, not the learners. In areas such as research, this is nothing to be embarrassed about. Ground-breaking inventions and pioneering new thinking often arise from the selfishness that informs so-called ‘blue-sky’ research. Defending such freedoms from the external drive for practical and commercial implementation has often encouraged a necessary insularity.
The new landscape presents a significant upheaval. Inventors and researchers are increasingly working independently outside academia, finding collegial collaboration in the Global Learning Commons. Learners also find themselves in the driving seat because formal education is no longer the only game in town for those eager to learn. How colleges and universities adapt to the customization and personalization of education will largely determine their survival. Let me explain.
The challenge presented by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a high-profile example, but not the only one, of a desire for us to ‘hack’ our own learning. The development of MOOCs has been likened to the creation of online music stores. The emergence of the mp3 allowed listeners to assemble their own playlists of music. Whether paying for it, or pirating it, suddenly, they didn’t have to buy a whole CD to get to the one song they really liked – they began to ‘hack’ their music listening. And we all know what a cataclysmic event that was for the music industry. It has to be conceded that they did themselves no favors by persecuting 13-year-olds, when they should have been rethinking their business models to reflect consumer preferences.
Similarly, educational institutions have to grasp that having enjoyed an historic monopoly as the go-to-guys for learning doesn’t mean they always will. As we gained control of our listening with the arrival of the mp3, so we will increasingly gain control of our learning, thanks to the arrival of MOOCS, social media and informal learning. We will want to determine whom we learn from, and with whom, at a time of our pleasing.
Although this upheaval is currently taking place in tertiary education, schools are far from safe. As we find ourselves increasingly able to ‘hack’ our own education, I would expect, for instance, the homeschool market to expand rapidly. Once the possibility exists for students to study informally, at online (and offline) schools, compiling their own learning playlist, putting together units of study that appeal to their passions, the one-size-fits-all model of high school will appear alarmingly anachronistic. So, if educators want to keep their students engaged and inside their buildings, they have to look at the way they learn outside, and bring those characteristics inside.
Schools In Search Of A Purpose
If schools are coming into direct competition with the learning opportunities available in the informal social space, it has to be said that this is a pressure, which barely registers within the political discourse. Indeed, the gaping hole in the middle of the public debate on schooling is that we can’t even agree on what schools are actually for. Do they provide a set of skilled employees for the labor market? Or are they about developing the ‘whole’ child – emotionally, intellectually, creatively? Do they serve to ensure national economic competitiveness? Or are they about civic cohesion through cultural education? These are questions around which there has been no public consensus, as absurd as this may seem, given that in the U.S. and most of Europe we have had state-organized systems of compulsory schooling for over 140 years.
This failure to define a clear purpose has fatally held back progress in understanding how we learn best. For if you can’t agree on a destination, how can you possibly agree on the best route? Instead, what we’re left with is a public discourse permanently afflicted by the curse of binary, oppositional arguments. The either/or positioning isn’t helped by constant political interference, resulting in a series of pendulum swings with every change of administration. Polarized arguments prevent real progress being made: selective vs. comprehensive school systems; instruction-led teaching vs inquiry-led; head vs hand; academic vs vocational; knowledge vs skills. Can you imagine doctors in the 21st century arguing over the use of flu vaccines?
With No Particular Place To Go
It goes without saying that, if we don’t know our destination, and therefore can’t agree on the best route to get there, we might struggle to measure distance traveled. When I look at the radically differing educational strategies currently being adopted by most developed countries, I think back to how I learned to drive a car. Please allow this diversion. It has a point.
It was the late 1970s, in the Republic of Ireland, at a time when, inexplicably, learner drivers were allowed to drive unaccompanied. Working in County Clare, in the south-west of the country, my employer let me drive his car so I could prepare for my driving test on my return to England. One day, I was driving down winding country roads, and realized I was hopelessly lost - anyone who has experienced Irish road signs will know this is easily done.
Stopping a passing farmer, I asked if I was on the road to Kilrush, my destination. The farmer paused for some considerable time, looked up the road, then down at me, and pronounced “You are, but your car’s pointing the wrong way...”
So it is with educational policy. When the political pendulum swings in western nations, getting ‘back to basics’ in education (shorthand for focusing upon literacy and numeracy) becomes an easy exhortation. If confirmation is needed that ‘progressive’ methods have failed, one only has to cite steadily declining performances in international comparison tables like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This decline is then contrasted with nations like Singapore and South Korea, who excel in these assessments.
What is being measured is entirely dependent upon the intended destination. While the UK and US urge their schools to be more like those of Pacific Asian countries, the pressure there is to travel in the opposite direction. Addressing teachers in 2012, Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Minister for Education, argued for a radical shift in policy:
“The educational paradigm of our parents’ generation, which emphasized the transmission of knowledge, is quickly being overtaken by a very different paradigm. This new concept of educational success focuses on the nurturing of key skills and competencies such as the ability to seek, to curate and to synthesize information; to create and innovate; to work in diverse cross-cultural teams; as well as to appreciate global issues within the local context.”
These comments came shortly after South Korea’s ex-minister for education Byong Man Ahn cast doubt on the usefulness of a high PISA ranking, despite Korean students ranking first in reading and maths, and third in science, in the 2009 PISA survey:
“While Korea's students excel at learning, they believe its purpose lies not in self-development based on personal interest or motivation, but in entrance into a highly ranked university. Students have no time to ponder the fundamental question of "What do I need to learn, and why?" They simply need to prepare for the test by learning the most-effective methods for digesting tremendous quantities of material and committing more to memory than others do.”
Both Heng Swee Keat and Byong Man Ahn were, effectively, repeating the advice given to me by that Irish farmer. Their respective countries had traveled a long way, but they’d realized that their car was pointing the wrong way. We in the West want to be more like those in the East, who, in turn, want to be more like we in the West. We call for learning fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century, while recommending teaching methods belonging to the 19th century. We have no clearly agreed purpose for education, but agree that spurious international comparisons should inform future educational policy.
In short, we’re really, really confused.
In the following pages, Price describes three cases across the globe -- in London, Sydney, San Diego -- that have mapped a vision that answers the questions above. Here's what they have in common:
By insisting that their teachers and mentors share their learning, all three have de-privatized teaching and learning.
By opening up the commons, and by designing workspaces without walls, they have brought Edison’s ‘machine-shop culture’ into education.
By bringing into the commons, experts, parents and investors, they have given an authenticity to the work of their students that is impossible to simulate in an enclosed classroom.
By modelling collaborative working to their students they have fostered the peer learning which is at the heart of ‘open’.
By emphasizing adult and real-world connections, they ensure that students are preparing for the world beyond school by being in that world.
By making their expertise and intellectual property freely available, they have created high demand from their peers and ensured that knowledge travels fast.
By seeing technology not simply as an aide to learning but as the imperative for change, they ensure that their programs are relevant to societal needs and societal shifts.
By trusting in their staff and students, and by giving them freedom and responsibility in equal measure, they have fostered a culture of learning that rewards respectful challenge, shuns unnecessary deference, and therefore constantly stays in motion.