On Friday, staff at the Algoma District School board spent some time listening to Will Richardson speak about the state of education in our world. Part comedian and part philosopher, Will presented the idea that our school system is not well suited to the 21st century learner. I will not summarize his thoughts anymore than that, but I urge people who want more, or who want to view a different idea, to check him out…www.willrichardson.com.
I took many points from Will’s talk on Friday, (I tweeted a few as I was watching, if you check out my twitter feed @davidjaremy) but I will write about two of them today. The first one, is that with the connected world, learners can learn almost anything, on their own, especially if it is content based. The second was that as our kids get older, they get less interested in school, and it primarily because we do not teach them the things they are interested in.
So, in thinking about this problem, one naturally arrives at curriculum. If what Will says is true, then we need to change. How do we change, though, when we have mandated curriculum, including compulsory courses? As well, I suspect the Ministry of Education is not doing away with prescribed curriculum tomorrow. So, we have a problem.
In perusing Ontario Curriculum, one can come across something called “interdisciplinary studies”, which as the name suggest, allows a school to provide a credit that draws from many different curricula. Could this be the vehicle through which secondary schools actually try to change our system to one that meets the needs of 21st century learners?
Could a teacher, walk into a class of senior level students in high school, and write on the board, the first day: “Welcome to “ZZZ4M”. What do you want to learn?”, and then go from there? How would our students, who are at times difficult to motivate, react to that? Furthermore, they would be told shortly after reading that first statement, that they better get used to working, because they are going to be the hardest workers in the class, not the teacher. Once they were over the initial surprise of not being able to ask the question “what is this course about anyway?”, I think they would go forward with excitement. It would be a transition for sure.
The teacher would need to be progressive. The teacher would need to be a person who also wants to learn. The teacher would have to take risks. I believe those teachers are out there. I also believe our kids want this. I also believe our kids can come out of high schools better prepared for the world they are inheriting from us. I also fear that the university environment may prove difficult, considering the way in which those institutions apparently operate, however I think that is a small issue. We always worry about kids in high school and are they prepared for university, or post secondary. How can a kid be prepared for a science program, if they can learn whatever they want? Good question, but I suspect any kid who wants to take a science program in university, wants to for a specific reason, and as a result, will want to learn what they need to learn. Grade 12 physics program co-designed by the learners would probably resemble the one that exists now, but maybe just the fact that the learners are part of the process, makes it even better. Even in turning to my background and passion, history, any student who wants to study history at university, will know that they need to know certain things. However, YouTube and iTunesU and podcasts can teach them an awful lot of that knowledge without you and I as teachers. For example, on iTunesU, one can listen to world renowned first year lectures from leading universities. One of my favourites, is John Merriman from Yale (http://history.yale.edu/people/john-merriman). I have listened to a few of his lecture series and enjoyed them immensely, and learned a great deal. As well, in the spirit of learning in the 21st century, I contacted him via email, and thankfully he did not think I was some crazy person, and we carried on a few conversations. He even invited me to have a glass of wine sometime in Paris, if we are ever there at the same time. Without iTunesU, this would have been difficult to make happen.
However, I ramble. Focus was lost a bit, I fear! Back to our schools. I think we have kids and teachers who want to and can do what I suggested above. With such a rapidly changing world and set of conditions for our youth to navigate, can we really afford to proceed slowly and approach change in little bits? I afraid I do not think we have the luxury, if we want our kids to really learn, and to be engaged learners for the rest of their lives.