Reforming education – Learning 2030

Learning 2030 is the title of a week-long conference held at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. It focused on the 134 million children born into the world in 2013 who will be ready to enter high school in 2030. What will that experience be like for the students, their parents and the school system of teachers, administrators and those who shape the system such as trustees and politicians?

The conference summary is posted at: (it consists of four pages).

http://www.wgsi.org/sites/wgsi-live.pi.local/files/WGSILearning2030Communique_0.pdf?__utma=1.1696866397.1380914282.1380914282.1381001999.2&__utmb=1.6.10.1381001999&__utmc=1&__utmx=-&__utmz=1.1381001999.2.2.utmcsr=interactive.tvo.org|utmccn=(referral)|utmcmd=referral|utmcct=/012_learning2030/&__utmv=-&__utmk=172258467

In addition five one hour long panel sessions of issues discussed at the conference are posted on the TVO website moderated by Steve Pakin on The Agenda for Sept. 30th, Oct.1, 2,3,4, 2013. If one was to watch one of these, I would suggest the Oct. 1st discussion at:

http://ww3.tvo.org/video/195721/learning-2030-without-teachers

The conference summary reflects the week long debates. Rather than try to summarise the summary, the following are my thoughts on the school and to some extent the university systems from the viewpoint of someone who has lived the past half century in Ontario.

  1. The Ontario school system is based on an industrial and agrarian model. It is characterized by schools with classrooms in which a teacher interacts with a group of students. The school terms are set so that students are available to help with farm chores in the summer time, thus the long summer vacation. Today’s timing is a hang over from the past; less than 2% of the Canadian workforce is now involved in agriculture.
  2. The students in a class are all taught the same material and are moved to the next higher class at the end of the school year regardless of how well they perform. The teacher teaches the same material to all the students regardless of their ability either to work faster, or their need for more assistance than the average student. One size is supposed to fit all regardless of ability. The system assumes that all students of a given age require the same amount and type of instruction. The result is that some are bored and some find it difficult to keep up, become disengaged and may give up.
  3. Schools attempt to tailor programs to students with different academic and other abilities and interests, but, with the existing industrial system, this is difficult as teachers are forced to teach to a curriculum and are assessed on their ability to do so. In a sense the schools are put in a straight jacket by the educational authorities who are mainly bureaucrats and elected politicians. Parents play a role in the process but have limited influence on overall school policy. They may have considerable influence on their childrens’ education but only by arranging for additional activities to supplement the formal process.
  4. While each child of a given age is different, the school system treats them as though they are all the same. The result is the creativity of some is not challenged, and that of others not stimulated. Some teachers and students have ideas for changing the system but to do so is like getting a large oil tanker to change direction. It requires a lot of force and takes time.
  5. Students propose getting more student involvement in the classroom in terms of the content of the curriculum and how it is taught. Some think students can teach each other, but most see the value of having teachers in the classroom, but performing roles as moderators rather than lecturers. The position of students reflects their understanding that each student is different in their ability to absorb material. This truism comes into conflict with the prevailing view, that while it would be desirable for each student to have an individual tutor, the costs would be prohibitive. How then to move the system from mass production and consumption to more individualized instruction without bankrupting governments? Healthcare is already doing a good job of the latter.
  6. Factors which may help to make changes are the internet and communications technology. All instructional material can now be recorded and made available through search engines and databanks on computers and other devices. Much of what students have to study in books, articles and lectures can be accessed and consumed on an individual basis without being present in a classroom. How this will be incorporated in the existing school and universities systems is a matter for experimentation and debate. One possibility is that students access lecture material individually, and then meet with a teacher present to lead a discussion of selected topics, and to raise questions for general discussion. This would replace the in-class presentation format with the teacher presenting material which can now be initially accessed from databanks. It would also allow for more student input.
  7. I am currently enrolled in an online history course which provides an illustration of how an online lecture could be combined with an in-class discussion of the material. It could be a more cost effective way of transmitting knowledge. Today, some classroom lectures employ this type of format by using Power Point in the lecture with copies made available after or even before the lecture.

 

Some further observations from Learning 2030

  1. Many of the participants were young ranging from 18 years up. The young people had some of the more innovative ideas; some had published books on their ideas; some were involved in educational experimentation.
  2. One older participant was a high school teacher who had home-schooled his own children before they went to high school. I gained a much better idea about some of the advantages of home-schooling. There are numerous ways to deal with issues associated with the socialization of children, an issue often raised.
  3. The politics of actually getting the educational ship of state to change course was hardly touched on in the conference. The speakers and participants were often in agreement on what should be done, but seldom addressed how it might be done.
  4. I offer no solutions but suggest that a combination of technology and putting more power in the hands of consumers, probably the parents, through a system of vouchers to spend on the schools they choose might make a change. It’s been tried in a number of places and worth further experimentation.
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