New Directions for Tomorrow's Schools
A View From New Zealand

Murray Coppen

      While I have grave concerns about the relevance of what is called education (both in schools and universities) I'm not sure I would want to change the face of schooling from the top down -- but rather small-scale bottom-up.
       My role in the New Zealand Ministry of Education's Property Management Group is that of the strategic policy manager. One the issues I think about is the school of the future. I'm concerned we too often plan for the future assuming it will be like the past and hence do it wrong around "turning points". I think we are in the midst of something quite dramatic, but I wouldn't prescribe wholesale change. (I am always reminded of the "open plan teaching" fiasco.) Rather I believe we should either have small pilot projects or perhaps ensure that schools are flexibly constructed (most modern office blocks had no internal load-bearing walls -- is this the way we might design schools?).
       I attended an OECD seminar on school property in June this year ("Temples of learning or white elephants? What future for educational buildings") where David Istance (of the OECD) presented "Schooling for tomorrow: six scenarios". It seems to me there is a plausible seventh scenario -- disintermediation (or flight by parents and students from schools directly to the "teacher" -- often using ICT, rendering the school irrelevant). I think this scenario is particularly likely at the middle to upper secondary school. (This process of disintermediation, by the way, has happened in corporate finance where companies now often bypass banks and go directly to the sources of finance. There are also cases where personal borrowers go directly to savers for finance, for example, for their home or to finance their education.) 
       It seems to me there are two indicators of this possible seventh scenario already occurring. First, home-schooling, particularly where the learners access information and "teaching" from web sites, for example, from those of universities (not for instruction but for a research information), individual experts and "research" organizations. Secondly, there is the parallel learning "universe" around IT. Organizations such as Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun, IBM and SAP now provide online competency-based education. Interestingly these organizations confer certificates which are highly valued in the world of IT (probably more so than most university IT qualifications) and it exists beyond the government's notice or control ("A Parallel Universe", by Clifford Adelman, Change, May/June 2000. 
      Why do I think we have reached a turning point? There appear to be three different "forces" at work here. First, the world of work is changing. Secondly, more people are questioning just how relevant what we learn really is. And, last, recent work (both pedagogically -- Constructivism and brain research -- e.g. "four quadrants" and where learning is located in the brain) on how people learn meaningfully doesn't support the widely used teaching and learning models.

World of Work
      I have been thinking about the whole notion of "schooling and the future" and some of the material I came across on my recent visit to Europe. I am concerned that we may be looking to design schools looking at the past rather than trying to think through what the future might hold. I think that education/schooling (and hence the school) largely reflects the society that it takes place in. In my view we are moving more towards a knowledge (or whatever one wants to call it) economy (KE) and away from a largely industrial base.
      In the past book learning was (and still is) highly valued. Spokespeople for business talk about the need to have a literate and numerate workforce. This sort of schooling focuses on information transmission -- to be regurgitated in exams -- and puzzle solving techniques (although mathematics may appear to the problem solving it is in reality puzzle solving) also to be regurgitated in exams. Also this sort of schooling focuses on working as an individual. It is probably (on grounds of efficiency) best done in the traditional classroom with the desks in neat rows.
      It appears to me that the key competencies for the KE are, in addition to analytic thinking (puzzle solving):

  • creativity (synthesis type thinking);

  • communication (being able to communicate [orally, in print, video etc] in ways which lead to action on the part of the listener);

  • relationships (forming and managing productive relationships with other people -- in particular being able to form a team and to work as part of it); and 

  • enterprise (not just inventing something but being able to "sell" it).

      One of the key features of modern knowledge work is working in teams -- not something we teach much in the school system (particularly at the secondary level).

Has The Schooling Most Of Us Received Been Of Any Use?
      I think the traditional curriculum and method of teaching may well still be desired by most of society. (Hence my view that the best way would be to start the paradigm shift small and let learners vote with their feet.) On a personal note I have a PhD in chemistry and a Masters degree in psychology, I am very hard-pressed to think of where I have used any of the "facts" I learned in the process of gaining either of these degrees. For seven years I was a secondary school math teacher and would be hard pressed to give real practical uses for much of what I taught. Too much of what I taught and what I have learned was simply repackaging old information not using it to solve problems (note I'm not talking here about the usual puzzle solving which masquerades in the school curriculum as problem solving). An Australian, Judith Atkin has characterized the current education as "just in case". For example, we do differential calculus just in case we become an engineer.
      The more I look at the current education system -- or what passes for education -- I wonder if we can afford to continue to waste the time of so many students. As for the notion that I may have learned some processes or thinking skills in the course of my traditional education, I'm pretty skeptical.
      Some teachers recognizing that rote learning and or information transmission is pretty useless have latched onto "project learning". However, all of the project learning I have seen (I'm a father of three boys aged 6,10 and 12) seem to me to be information transmission projects rather than a project with an actual output that required the use of the information. For example, children do a project on, say, flight that simply results in a large poster of pictures and text about flight. However the children didn't have to use this information to design something that would fly. In other words, their project didn't involve using information it was simply a transmission exercise [or glorified cut and paste exercise].)

Changes In Pedagogy And Learning Theory
      While not an expert in learning theory or pedagogy it seems to me that over last 10 or so years there has been quite a sea change in these two areas. From talking to some of my curriculum colleagues I get the picture that the passive learner model is out and that to get meaningful learning one requires the learner's emotional involvement -- a subset here is the experiential learning movement. The fancy name for this approach appears to be "Constructivism". Also from a learning theory perspective it appears there is far more interest now in what part of the brain does what (left brain right brain, layers of the brain etc). Again what comes through from this is that for transformational learning what is learnt needs to be meaningful to the student.

Schooling (Education?) For The Future
      For me education is all about self-reliant learners and the need for teachers to recognize their task in the promotion and development of learner's personal skills etc. I'm reminded of a quote I came across on the George Lucas site (teachers will need to change from being "a sage on the stage to the guide on the side"). 
     With regard to the school of the future it seems to me that we (property personnel) need to ask questions like:

  • What are schools for? (Or subtitled will the knowledge economy impact on what is taught and how it is taught at the school sector level?)

  • Are changes in schooling likely or will be new ideas on the nature of learning require a rethinking on property provision? (For example Sweden has changed, as far as I can ascertain, in the last decade, from a teacher centered education system to a pupil centered one)

  • What might be impact of ICT?

  • What lessons can we gain from current "school (s) of the future"? 

  • The drive to lifelong learning -- do we need to provide a different type of school environment?

Design Share, Inc. & Murray Coppen, November 2001 | Design Share