I have been asked to present some issues on the future of schooling post-covid for a group of educators in Australia in early September. Any feedback to this post would be appreciated.
In my research on schooling, I have found that the education system is a lagging indicator. First technology, business, and society change, and then formal education aligns with them. So I will try to see what is changing outside the school system and how that will affect schooling.
The one-room school house represented the agrarian landscape of North America. It transformed into the modern public school with divided grades and several classrooms when good roads and motor vehicles arrived. For example, in our town, there is an abandoned one-room school about 12 KM from the current regional high school with several hundred students. But that road was not plowed in Winter until the 1950’s, so even that short distance was impossible to travel on a daily basis. Now this school serves several small communities and students travel by bus and car for the most part. Physical distancing requirements under the pandemic are now a new consideration on what is the best technology to ‘deliver’ students or to ‘deliver’ education.
Most of our 20th century public education systems were created to give equal access to all citizens (a good thing) and to prepare workers for industrial jobs (a self-serving thing for the industrialists). Public education was embraced by reformers as well as factory owners. It was a shotgun wedding. Has the pandemic changed this arrangement? Is a standard curriculum delivered in a single location what reformers and business would still want?
When I went to school, 50 years ago, school started at 9:00 AM. Now in most places here, school starts at 08:30 AM and students can arrive even earlier. Schools 50 years ago could start later because most families had a stay-at-home mother, while the father went to work. Now with both parents working, or in single parent families, it is more convenient for the entire family to leave home at the same time. Since most workplaces start at 8:30 AM, school reflects this practice.
Today, many companies have decided to continue to work from home for the next year and even permanently, like Twitter and Google. The US recreational equipment cooperative, REI, has decided to sell its headquarters campus even before finishing it, and focus on working from home for most of its non-retail staff. As more parents work from home, will there be pressure on schools to allow for more flexible schooling options?
Most people have seen what schooling from home looks like now — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Will the underlying principles of ‘delivering’ curriculum be questioned by more parents? Is a six-hour class day, plus homework, really necessary for learning?
Here is a thought about the delivery model, from management expert, Peter Drucker, written in 1998.
“Delivering literacy — even on the high level appropriate to a knowledge society — will be an easier task than giving students the capacity and the knowledge to keep on learning, and the desire to do it. No school system has yet tackled that job. There is an old Latin tag: Non schola sed vita discimus (We don’t learn for school but for life). But neither teacher nor student has ever taken it seriously. Indeed, except for professional schools — medicine, law, engineering, business — no school to the best of my knowledge has even tried to find out what its students have learned. We compile voluminous records of examination results. But l know of no school that tests the graduates ten years later on what they still know of the subjects — whether mathematics, a foreign Language, or history — in which they got such wonderful marks.
We do know, however, how people learn how to learn. In fact, we have known it for two thousand years. The first and wisest writer on raising small children, the great Greek biographer and historian Plutarch, spelled it out in a charming little book, Paidea (Raising Children), in the first century of the Christian era. All it requires is to make learners achieve. All it requires is to focus on the strengths and talents of learners so that they excel in whatever it is they do well. Any teacher of young artists — musicians, actors, painters — knows this. So does any teacher of young athletes. But schools do not do it. They focus instead on a learner’s weaknesses. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths. And these the schools traditionally ignore, in fact, consider more or less irrelevant. Strengths do not create problems — and schools are problem-focused.” —Peter Drucker (1998) Adventures of a Bystander
Perhaps this pandemic will give us a chance to question the underlying premises of our education systems. This is an opportunity for all educators. For instance, according to Professor Kieran Egan, in The Educated Mind, three premises compete for attention in most of our public education systems:
- education as socialization
- education as a quest for truth (Plato)
- education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)
But no single premise can dominate without weakening the others, so we continue to have conflict in our education systems. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in every single flavour-of-the-year initiative from departments of education. Egan also explains that these premises are no longer valid in this network era.
“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.” —Kieran Egan
So what should be the underlying premises of public education in a globally networked society that may have to remain periodically socially isolated and physically distanced, as well as for future pandemics?
Perhaps we can learn from the past, and get beyond the European traditions of our education systems. When we teach through modelling behaviour, the learner is in control, whereas teaching by shaping behaviour means the teacher is in control. In Western society, shaping has been the dominant mode for a very long time. But in other societies, it has not been the norm.
For example, Dr. Clare Brant (PDF) was the first indigenous psychiatrist in Canada and a professor of Psychiatry at University of Western Ontario. In 1982 he presented Mi’kmaq Ethics & Principles, which included an examination of the differences in teaching between native and non-native cultures.
Now the Teaching; Shaping Vs. Modelling
“This is a more technical kind of thing. The white people use this method of teaching their children – it’s called ‘shaping’. Whereas the Indians use ‘modelling’. Shaping is B.F. Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning’, if you want to look into that one. Say a white person is teaching a white kid how to dress – he uses the shaping method, one way being “rewarding successive approximations” of the behaviour he wants. Some are really complicated; for instance, if a white woman wants to teach her kid how to dress, she puts his sock on halfway and encourages him to pull it up, finishes dressing him and says he’s a good boy having done that much. The next day he learns to pull the whole sock on, then the other sock. Now that process takes about six weeks.
But the white mother who does not have all that much to do can take that time to do that sort of thing every morning to teach her kid how to dress. So in this group that we ran, with these young Native people in London, we started to sniff this out, and there is nothing random about this, as a matter of fact. I asked Mary, a Native person, how she taught her kid to dress and she said, ‘I didn’t, he just did it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ It came to me that she did it until he was four or five years old, and then one day when the kid felt competent, he took over and did it himself. He did it then ever after, unless he was sick or regressed in some way.”
Brant concludes this section by stating:
“I’ve been having some collaboration with a professor of education, and he says that modelling is the best way to teach people. But shaping is the method that has to be used because there is so much information that has to be imparted in the system that you cannot use modelling. I suppose that the ultimate method would be for the teacher to go up to the blackboard and do algebraic equations for 7 or 8 months and invite one of the kids to come join him and do one with him and maybe if one of the kids got interested, or knew how to do it, he could start solving the algebraic equation. But that’s not going to happen in the school system. There’s just not enough time.”
With a standardized curriculum and constant testing, there is never enough time for most school students to fully learn. There is too much information and much of it is without context. But mastery often comes from modelling. It is how the apprentice becomes a journeyman and in time a master. It is not done in isolation. Are there opportunities — especially online — for more learning in communities of practice, and not based on classes and courses?
Shaping worked when our environment was seen as complicated (knowable), but it really is complex (understandable only through continuous probing) and this is becoming obvious with our global challenges. As knowledge expands and new information is constantly added, what teacher even has the base knowledge to do the shaping anyway? In our digitally networked world, modelling how to learn is a better strategy than shaping on a predefined curriculum.
This pandemic has given us the opportunity to re-examine the foundational pillars of education in a meta-modern society. Should we go back to the old systems and just hope that society will be resilient enough to face the next pandemic, climate change, and whatever else comes our way? What can be changed in view of what covid-19 has already taught us?