Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thinking in a loud voice back in 1998

As I was trying to "organise" all the files I have in my desk PC, I found this paper I wrote back in 1998 for a course I was attending. It feels strange to read what I thought and read back then...  The idea of computers in classrooms was science fiction for me at that time still, some ideas hold true. 

My generation stands in awe as we see how much things change, mainly regarding technology and communications. Life has become so accelerated that changes are outdated before we can truly understand them and integrate them into our lives. 

Immersed in this situation schools and teachers are facing complex questions: What should schools teach? What knowledge is essential? What knowledge will be most needed when our students leave school? Schools and teachers have a very important challenge ahead; provide our students with tools in order for them to live intelligently in today’s world and become  useful members of society. John Holt in his book “ How children fail” (1964) sustained “Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned”

We could start by doing away with certain ideas which have governed our schools for many decades such as the notion of a curriculum as a body of essential knowledge which everybody should know in order to be considered educated. As Holt sustains “The idea of the curriculum would not be valid even if we could agree on what ought to be in it. For knowledge itself changes... Moreover, schools today cannot possibly judge what knowledge will be most needed forty, or twenty or even two years from now.”

Another aspect teachers could consider is what happens to our student's innate desire to learn, it is lost before they are halfway through their primary school. Peter Senge suggests that "the social and organisational structure in which we are brought up shifts our "natural" generative learning abilities into adaptive learning skills ... predestining them to mediocre performance."  Senge introduces the concept of Learning Organisation and five disciplines, system thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision and team learning. In his book "The Fifth Discipline" he describes a learning organisation as a place where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where people are continually learning how to learn together. Systems thinking is the framework, a body of knowledge and tools to help us see how to change things effectively. Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies and of seeing reality objectively. Mental models are the deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Building shared vision is the practice of developing skills to share pictures of the future which will foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance. And team building starts with dialogue so as to enter into a genuine thinking together, this is vital as teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organisations. In a learning organization with such characteristics  learning would not just be taking in new information but expanding our aptitudes so as to produce the changes we want.

One of the greatest challenges to schools today, is to develop an ethic of continuous improvement among staff, teachers and students. If all these groups keep looking for improvement, the accumulation of these actions will lead to the improved education that we all seek. Continuous improvement is a difficult concept to implant, it requires extra time and effort. But what can be gained from this is the pride and sense of accomplishment and feeling responsible for its outcome: empowerment. According to Peters (1973) “to be educated is not to have arrived at a destination; it is to travel with a different view”, Byham sustains that “improved education is a destination, and continuous improvement is the road to that destination, a never ending road. Empowerment is the engine that moves people along on this road". People are motivated to make continuous improvements because they enjoy the sense of pride they obtain from their accomplishments, it also improves quality of life. Empowered individuals regard work and learning as interesting, challenging and rewarding. Dewey said that “the purpose of education is to allow each individual to come into full possession of his or her personal power” thus we must prepare students to achieve and develop the self confidence needed to handle the hurdles they will encounter in their lives beyond the classroom. 

Teachers need to have the skills to empower, but before they can do so, teachers themselves must be empowered.