A 21st-Century Imperative: 1. Create a Sense of Belonging

The trouble with schools is that we don’t all feel we belong there.   Our one-year-old, new school building is designed to last for 40 years or more.  With that in mind and providing we don’t all destroy the world in the meantime, is there really going to be a need for schools as we know them in forty years?  

We are all well aware of the rapid growth of computing.  This has resulted in a considerable increase in online learning and the development of schools in the cloud such as the Khan Academy.  Many of you reading this will have watched Sujata Mitra’s TED talk “Build A School in the Cloud”, if not watch it here.  It’s well worth the watching, along with some of his more recent talks.  Now take a moment to think about what implications this has for schools in the future.  

Some argue that if we’re under the age of twenty, we may live forever if computing power and cybernetic developments continue to grow at the same pace. The year 2045 (better known as the Year of Singularity) for example, is touted by many scientists as the approximate date when any further advances in computer technology/artificial intelligence, will take computers beyond human intelligence.  (Click here to read more on this).  Take a few minutes or maybe an hour or so to think about what this means for schools.  Will my lovely shiny new school still be relevant?   There are a growing number of parents who may not think so.

It was interesting yet worrying to read recently (See the report here), that the number of home educated children has doubled in the past 4 years.  In the UK around 60,000 are educated at home, sometimes by parents or a collective of parents.   The reasons vary, for example as many as 1 in 5 who are home educated have special educational needs. As I mentioned in my blogs on personalisation, due to austerity and a rise in young people being diagnosed with various additional learning needs, schools are having to re-invent themselves to meet the needs of their students.  But this is difficult, and there are suggestions out there that schools are increasingly working in collusion with parents to off-roll pupils in situations where they can’t meet the needs of the child (Although I can’t say I’ve met directly with this yet).

In addition to this, in urban schools especially, many parents report that they fear for their child safety not only to and from school but also in school.  They are also worried about the rise in knife crime and the ubiquitous drug problem.   This problem is extending to rural areas with the growth of County Lines.   Just another 21st Century growing problem?   And then there are the multitude of philosophical and religious reasons parents have for home educating their child.

Putting aside all the various reasons to home educate, there is one thing clear to me: it is a lot easier today to home educate your child than it was say, for example, 10 years ago.   The ease in accessing material, the growth of online learning leading to virtual classrooms and changes in working patterns, has no doubt helped influence parents’ decisions when deciding whether or not to educate home.   Just read this article in the Guardian which gives “10 good reasons to home school your child”.   This all leads me to believe that, as we progress through the 21st century there could well be a declining need to attend school regularly.   Little by little, young people will begin to question their need to attend school, why should they, when they know where to find the answers at the touch of a button?  

Schools, therefore, must define their reasons for 21st-century existence.  They must do this in partnership with learners and stakeholders such as parents and local businesses.  Schools in the 21st century must not be regarded solely as environments where students come to learn about specific aspects of our world as outlined in our curriculum.   Nor should they be considered as places where we occupy young people as a means of social control (‘keeping them off the streets’).   We need to create learning environments where students want to come and learn together with others.  Environments where learners and stakeholders have a feeling of ownership and sense belonging.  

Our first 21st Century imperative for schools should, therefore, be to:

Create a Sense of Belonging

Schools can provide a hub, which brings people together (face to face) and an environment where young people:

  • feel secure and safe;
  • are listened to;
  • have a base camp for life, from which to soar!;
  • have a say in how the school organises itself to respond to their needs;
  • take an active and accountable role in their own learning;
  • are supported to develop good habits which they will take with them into adult life;
  • are encouraged to try out new ideas and take risks;
  • receive and reflect with others on their progress and development;
  • collaborate and contribute to their learning and the learning of others.
  • develop high aspirations, self-esteem and confidence in an atmosphere of unconditional respect.

To achieve this environment, and continue to attract students to schools in the future, a culture of genuine engagement and empowerment for the learner and a more responsive and relevant student-centred approach must be created.  If you are reading this as a stakeholder in a school, whether as a member of staff, a parent, community groups, local business and most importantly as a student, consider the questions below and begin to discuss these with your school.   It’s vital we all play a part in the future development of our 21st-century schools.

  • In what ways does your school embrace (within its curriculum and ethos/practices) the world within which our students live?
  • What role realistically, do students in your school have in making strategic decisions with regards to the vision, direction and running of the school?
  • To what extent does your school allow students to choose how they learn (where, when, what, how quickly)?
  • Has your school explored the reasons why there are restrictions on the above mentioned freedoms, that a student can be given?
  • To what extent does your school believe that it and other schools are the prime (if not the only) environments within which students can be educated in preparation for their adult and working lives?
  • What barriers if any, does the way your school organise its timetable or timings of the day, work against developing a sense of belonging and ownership of learning?
  • What would unconditional respect for students look like in your school?
  • How does your school building and site encourage students to develop a sense of belonging (e.g. comfort; familiar; safe and secure; ownership)?

If we hope to create a sense of belonging, we need to unconditionally respect and work with who and what young people are, and understand the environment/world in which they live.  If we are successful in creating a sense of belonging, then part of that success will necessitate an in-depth knowledge and understanding of where our pupils are in relation to their physical, mental and emotional development.   In addition to this we must also understand the temptations, distractions and pressures society today (and in the future), will throw at them.   If we develop an understanding of this, it is essential we acknowledge the stage of development they are at and also the environments in which they live.  Subsequently, we can then work with them to facilitate their growth and journey towards fully formed adulthood.

In my next blog I’ll discuss what I consider to be our second 21st Century Imperative. But before I write that, I’ll go off and prepare to be well and truly knocked of my little soap-box and brought back to Earth with a bang. After a restful Easter break, it’s back to school for me tomorrow . . .

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