Monday, 7 November 2011

A Model for 14-19 Schooling

Schools are expected to create the same outcome: young adults who are ready to contribute to society in a meaningful and fruitful way. As a benchmark for their readiness, these young people carry with them currency in the form of GCSE grades.
In industry, we are also expected to create outcomes. These are wide and varied dependent on the sector that we operate in, but in more or less all cases, there will be other organisations attempting to create the same outcomes. The models adopted for running these organisations are as wide and varied as the landscape itself.
So why is it, then, that all schools seem determined to stick to the same model?
There are some laid down constraints. Students should have access to the National Curriculum, students should have access to 190 days of schooling per year, teachers should work 1265 hours per year, universities require exam grades in order to help their selection of new cohorts.
But as far as I am concerned, everything else is up for grabs. What follows is my model for schooling.
Firstly, let's start by abandoning the notion of lessons, timetables, teachers, classes, year groups, terms, school holidays and subject areas.
Instead, simply considering the desired outcome that we create young adults ready for the world, I will build my model around the understanding that none of the above structural mechanisms are necessary.
I would like students to be able to operate in secondary schools in a fashion much more akin to the world of work and in a way that is more reflective of the lives that they will lead once they have left the education system.
In life, one never encounters a problem or situation and thinks, gee this requires me to think only in terms of mathematics or biology or geography or whatever. The mark of a learned individual is that, when faced with a situation to overcome, they are able to recognise features in the problem, connect those to knowledge and skills that they have, see how to combine these and use models or examples of similar situations to solve the problem.
So putting subject areas in to silos in secondary education and asking students to work on these subjects as though they are disjointed and disconnected is false and, in my opinion, harmful to their future success.
So no subjects.
Instead, let's think about a system that models more closely the real world. One in which problems and scenarios arise that need to be overcome or where interesting situations come to light and there is a deep desire to explore and know more.
I start my model for schooling with this premise.
At planned hook moments in the year, the school would come together – perhaps in the guise of a whole school summit or conference. At this, several interesting or relevant problems would be posed, topics discussed, debates had. These would be drawn from events that are occurring in the world. For instance, following the 9/11 attacks that would have been the summit focus, or the world banking crisis, the Olympics, climate change, the role of technology in our lives, Christmas. Students might vote on summit foci.
At the summit, each student would prepare a series of questions or points that they would like to know more about. Taking a real example, following 9/11, these questions, with my students included: Why would a human being want to kill another? Why did the aeroplane not emerge from the other side of the building? What was going through the minds of the people on the plane that had been able to call home? How many people watched the TV coverage? What is the difference between being a Muslim and Christian?
The questions and thoughts come from the students themselves, based on their own line of enquiry, linked to their own living histories. The students are all ages and their questions are equally important and valued.
Armed with the questions, reflections, interests and problems, the students are now given a period of time (perhaps a month or two) to find out the answers.
In our school, there are no teachers and no lessons and no subjects and no timetable. So how do the students find out the answers?
Well, in our school there are Experts and Knowledge Holders. It is made clear to the students from the day that they join to school community who these people are and what expertise they hold. The child wanting to know why the towers collapsed, might wish to explore the engineering issues with a mathematics, physics, engineering and design expert. With each discussion, their knowledge grows and their questions continue to evolve in to deeper thinking. They may wish to engage in independent research, using the internet or discussing with experts in the field via web-conferencing.
Each student has an assigned mentor, who is able to act as their focal point for help, but also monitors the progress and guides the learning journey via a tech solution (could be a VLE or Facebook type application).
These mentors ensure that their assigned students have the necessary access to learning. They are, returning to our industry analogy, the student's supervisor.
It may be that 60 students want to seek the input of the physics Expert. Again, tech can help here, by allowing students to register interest and pose questions. The physics Expert can then decide the best course of action – this might be to advertise an Expert Seminar from 2-5 on Wednesday afternoon. Students can then opt in to these as they feel necessary.
Knowledge Holders might be Experts too, but they can also be other students who have already studied and mastered a skill or area of knowledge. So, as well as making requests for Expert input, students can also pitch to host seminars and disseminate their own knowledge.
Can you picture the school? It is tempting to think that there might be chaos, but pause for a moment and ask yourself why you think that? It is too tempting for many teachers to underestimate students. But watch them in other walks of life, or look at a similarly sized business staffed by teenagers: people can self-program.
It is tempting to think that some students would waste time and mess about.  But what are they doing now?  And why do students waste time and mess about?  Largely because they see school as irrelevant, dull and uninspiring or because they find the work too easy or too hard.  In our school many of the drivers of poor behaviour are removed.
Of course, a large part of the role of this school is that it constantly reinforces the need and points out the means to be self-programming.
As the month (or whatever period) progresses, the problems are addressed in a deep and meaningful manner because students are given the scope and time to truly get to grips with the issues: in our example, a student's investigation might now consist of mathematics, science, engineering, theology, languages, media studies, geography, history, computer science. The problem has a defined deadline and outcome – perhaps the school will create a 1-hour TV programme to be broadcast on a set date over the internet, which could then be used by other schools.
I also said in this school model there are no terms or school holidays. Instead, at our school, students must bank 190 days of learning in each academic year (this structure only stays because of the restraints of national examinations and university entrance requirements). They can bank these days whenever they choose.
Similarly, staff (our Experts) must bank 190 days at work. They can take holiday by booking it in the way that millions of adults in industry do, day in, day out. Because the expert has no classes, there is no dent in continuity – there will be several colleagues with similar expertise that can fill the gaps. In the case where the Expert is also a Supervisor, the students are trained to understand that they won't always have access to this person, so they must take responsibility for their own learning and ensuring that they liaise with their Supervisor at appropriate times. The school operates on a full year calendar, so the learning is spread out, with students banking their 190 days when they choose. There are no points in the year when the school shuts down (well, perhaps Christmas!).
Teachers would also be required to bank at least 5 days of professional learning.
Tech would play a major role in facilitating this school model, so that access to learning in 24/7. Tech would also handle the mundane day-to-day tasks, freeing up the Experts to have rich relationships with the students.  It would also allow for Supervisors to have constant, real-time access to their students' work, thoughts, questions, suggestions and evidence.
Sounds a bit radical? Not to me.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
What would your school model be?