Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to the Future

About the time I started teaching two American futurists, Kahn and Weiner speculated on the shape of society in the year 2000. They correctly guessed the electronic communications revolution - home videos, automated banking, pervasive surveillance systems, and global business use of computers. But they got the consequences wrong. They foresaw a growth in leisure and pleasure for all, and they completely missed the widening gap between rich and poor. Neither did they spot the environmental and women's movements.

How things have changed. One area, however, that has changed relatively little is the secondary school classroom. It has not kept pace with the many changes that have happened elsewhere. In stating this I am not engaged in the too-popular sport of teacher bashing. Secondary teachers themselves are caught in a structural bind. Indeed, when you talk to them, many express dissatisfaction with their lot. They feel besieged and under-valued. In my early days we encouraged bright young people to think of teaching as a rewarding career. Nowadays, there is much disencouragement.

Education is still being delivered in an Industrial Revolution model - a production line. Whereas the Information Revolution consists of interactive networks. Maybe we should get rid of the age cohort concept. It is not how people learn naturally. I count myself lucky that I went to Okuti, a little sole teacher country school where we all learnt together in the one room.

The cohort model also makes another assumption; that one finishes learning when one leaves school. The modern knowledge society assumes life-long learning. The shelf life of much information is short. As work patterns, both paid and unpaid, continue to change, people of all ages will increasingly require upskilling or new skills. Schools should be transformed into community learning centres which, as well as delivering compulsory education, and necessary upskilling, are also be places where digital technology is available for all?

In most societies the old help educate the young. We have an increasing number of senior citizens. Fresh learning for such people is more than beneficial to them personally; it widens the opportunities for them to make continued contributions to the community. In the context of a learning centre this would mitigate against the atomisation of society that many present American futurists predict. Some call for a return to community to counter a number of current trends. The local learning centre where people of all ages from the community mix and learn together could be a powerful lever in such a return.

Just as Kahn and Weiner did not foresee the environmental and feminist movements, there are no doubt at present seeds germinating for social change of which we are unaware. Maybe a re-emphasis upon the local could be one of them. A responsive, flexible, responsible, local learning-centre could be a means of empowering people again. The present model is becoming outmoded. That is not the fault of those who designed it. That was for their times. We need to foresee our different future. And this is not just an educational truism. It fits many aspects of contemporary society.

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