A 21st Century Imperative for Schools – Introduction

The trouble with schools is that we want to change, but we don’t want to change.  Yes I know it’s a tautology, but that’s how it appears to me.   This particular blog and many more to follow (apologies in advance), arises from years of frustration with our education system and more recently frustration at myself.   I want to radically change the way we operate as a school, but I never seem to really get around to it. 

As a teacher, during the nineties, I became really excited by the constant reminder of the ‘Brave New World’ that was just around the corner for education in Britain.   Every educational document I read, or presentation I listened to, would make reference to the wonders of 21st-century learning.   On what seemed like a daily basis, new pedagogical theories were pouring out from every corner of academia, and that coupled with the promises that ICT hoped to deliver, we were on the cusp of transforming the what, where, and how we learn.

In 2001, fresh into this Brave New 21st Century World, I was given a chance to write the curriculum for a new school (one of the first Academies to open in the country; a school that would be in the public eye).   “Make it innovative,” the suits from the Department told me – “be creative!”.   And so, I set out equipped with all the wonderful theories that were buzzing around at the time and did what I hoped would be a good job.  On completion, I went to present my ideas to these same people.  I thought they were good – they, unfortunately didn’t.  “It involves “too much change for staff” they cried.   “Parents will not understand it!”.  

“But the students would benefit” I replied. 

“Change it!” they said with a hint of menace which clearly implied: “or else . . . ”.  And so, I went back to a safe model.

On another occasion, I participated in a Government led working party of Head Teachers looking at the possibilities for a 21st-century curriculum.   We were all enthusiastic and were buzzing with ideas, resulting in what we felt were a coherent and workable set of ideas and plans.   We presented it to the Government officials who liked it but would take it no further.   “We’d have to change the whole exam system,” they said.   “It’s too sensitive politically, how would we convince the popular press?”   Needless to say, we went off downcast and defeated. 

I’m sure I am not the only one who has met resistance to changing our established ways of learning in schools and yet there are countless numbers of academics, practising teachers school leaders and Government officials across the world calling for change and justifying the need for change in very many objective, personal and eloquent ways.  

So why is there still comparatively little happening? Why are we (in the words of Sir Ken Robinson) still trying to improve a model that is not fit for purpose?  Theories relating to pedagogy really took off in the late eighties and throughout the nineties.  We had Thinking Skills and Learning Styles and then a whole host of competencies and dispositions bombarding us accompanied by claims that they were all vital for the successful 21st-century learner.   Much of this was initially ‘taught’ in specific lessons, which were then in some cases developed into competency curricula.  These were mostly restricted to Year 7 (first year of high school), where the ‘teaching’ of competencies resulted in them becoming to some extent – ‘neo subjects’; still taught within the same model schools had used since Victorian times.

I go back to Sir Ken Robinson’s 2014 RSA video: “Changing Education Paradigms” (see it here).  In it, he rightly points out that we are enthralled or hypnotised by the last century.   We still view education in a linear way; an industrial model that we expect everyone to progress through and pass the same check-points at the same time – a ‘manufacturing’ model.   There is not enough resource, space or time for a personalised approach in this model.   However, education should reflect our organic nature by developing an ‘agricultural’ model within which we nurture the individual in the same way we create a multitude of conditions to ensure individual crops flourish. 

I agree with Sir Ken wholeheartedly; we do need an education system for the 21st Century that is organic, flexible and personalised.  Surely the purpose of schools is to enable our learners to go on and flourish in life (I’ve covered this in an earlier blog on vison), therefore we must put the needs of the learner first.  I’m not so sure we do that at the moment.  Marcus Orlovsky of Bryanston Square, highlights, in various presentations and Tedx, this issue well when he states that in schools we still:

  • Teach distinct subjects discretely
  • Teach in groups of 30
  • Divide people into year groups based on their age on Sept 1st
  • Use bells
  • Have separate staff and student toilets
  • Ban mobile phones (much like we banned calculators and biros in the past)
  • Have desks in rows and a teacher desk at the front
  • Get pupils to hand in work rather than submit online
  • Spend a lot of time enforcing a uniform policy
  • Move pupils from one classroom to another every 50mins
  • Expect students to be in between the same hours each day

Schools have a 21st Century imperative they must address, but it is a complicated and long journey to embark upon.   One which we haven’t taken seriously yet and one which if we ignore, we run the risk of losing all that is good in schools, as the advancements of the 21st-century begin wash schools to one side. 

In my next blog, before going on to explore the 21st-century imperative more fully and the journey we must embark on, I’ll focus on some of the barriers we have faced and are still facing.      

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