Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Future directions from Aussie

Author Colin Mason. Mason is an ex Australian Senator and ex leader of the Australian Democratic Party. I have selected out his thoughts on education.

Colin Mason is impressed ( as I am) with the Met School established in Providence New York by Dennis Littky, as a model for future schools. He is not the only one impressed, Bill Gates is equally impressed and evidently has donated 52 million to establish 70 more Met Schools. Gates has commented that, 'Americas High Schools are obsolete and limiting - even ruining - the lives of millions of Americans every year'.

Strong words. If I were a Principal of a Secondary School I would want to know more about what is happening at the Met School.

Established in 1996 by Dennis Littky, Met School is based on 'students being helped one student at a time' and students (many from 'the wrong side of the tracks') stay with their teacher 'adviser' for four years, pursuing largely individual goals. The major objective of the school is to teach students how to learn and think, and to pursue their interests in purposeful ways.

Personalised learning!

Mason believes that the future will require innovative happy people who recognise and value their own creativity, abilities and ambitions and are confidant in pursuing them.

To achieve this for all students, he believes, would require dramatic changes for our current schools; a real move away from the conservative elements of traditional academic schooling.

Mason admires the writings of American professor John Dewey, who wrote early last century, that schools should be based on activities and experiments permitting students to develop their natural creativity in democratic communities.

He also admires the ideas of ex Catholic priest Ivan Illich who believed that schools should be abolished and education be based on real life situations.

Teachers in such visions 'visions' are to be seen as learning guides, facilitating each individuals student's learning process, individual needs and curiosities.

Unfortunately secondary schooling has changed little over the past 150 years. Conventional schools continue to use the same transmission techniques and still group their students according to age cohorts taught by isolated subject teachers.

All too often such schools are boring places, writes Mason. I am sure many students would agree. He quotes Alvin Toffler ( of 'future shock' fame), who says, 'mass education was an ingenious machine constructed by industrialisation to produce the kind of adults it needed....our schools face backwards to a dying system, rather than forwards to the emerging new society which will require students with future in their bones'.

The 'future in their bones' - the future needs to be in the teachers bones first! For some teachers it would be like asking dinosaurs to dance!

Traditional education still holds a strong grip on our secondary schools and, so far, few leaders have emerged to challenge such an outdated model.

There are aspects of traditional education Mason would want to hold on to but he believes all young people need:

To develop a respect and love for the planet, all it's life forms and ecosystems, and for this to be taught by seeing and doing; by being involved in nature early in life.

To be involved in classroom democracy learning to handle personnel relationships and responsibility in the process.

To have their human abilities, creativity and potential encouraged and valued.

Literacy and numeracy, Mason believes, should be linked to maturation and be develop as appropriate and not, as at present, being forced unnaturally, creating, in the process, a sense of failure in many students. Mason is critical of system that 'hothouses' early literacy and numeracy and quotes successful countries ( Switzerland and Finland) that don't teach such things formally until age 6 or 7 and still do well in international tests. Research, he believes, shows such students make better reading progress than those taught earlier.

I guess Mason is questioning 'what is basic?'

Eduction for older students needs to be more experimental and flexible and make use of the power of modern information technology. Children learn naturally by asking questions and an education based on following up such concerns do not easily fit into any 'organised' curriculum. Schools, Mason writes, should build on, and amplify, children's' natural way of learning.

Mason appreciates that the ideas he is expressing are in conflict with the 'clockwork universe' ideas of the 19th C which assumed a standard and arbitrary body of knowledge to be 'delivered' regardless of student's abilities, interests, or capabilities.

Schools, he believes, need to offer choice and opportunity for students to learn what is most useful to them. Students should be able to study subjects as long as it takes for them to to appreciate excellence. They need to be encouraged to draw their own conclusions, criticize, and put forward their own ideas, not just sit, listen and regurgitate.

Mason believes we need a 'new' education that values:

originality rather than conformity
excellence rather than mediocre standards
rather than a fixed curriculum
motivation through intrinsic rather than imposed discipline.
freedom for students to choose areas of studies according their needs
maximum use of information technology so students can access the 'best' teachers.

Nothing will happen, in my experience, unless leadership is taken at the individual school level. Such leadership will require real courage to explore such unknown territory.

There are some signs this is happening.


Anonymous said...

The real challenge in education is to transform the year 7 to 10 area of schooling. Plenty of ideas to inspire - just lacking the wit and imagination at the school level to give it a go.

Anonymous said...

The Big Picture site is wonderful -thanks.