Picture, if you will, a 7-12 high school, with approximately 100 students per year group. It does not run to a traditional timetable, introduces indigenous language studies, does not use bells and operates within an open plan learning environment where students work independently through units of work and project based tasks. Teachers operate as co-learners and learning coaches. There’s an absence of technology but that can be forgiven, because after all, it’s 1979, I am in Year 7 and we’re just about to watch our teacher boot up an Apple II computer for the very first time.
This is not my blue sky dream for education so much as my very real education experience. It occurred at O’Connor Catholic High School in Armidale in the New England region of New South Wales between 1979 & 1984. I first experienced this kind of learning in 1976 in a public school classroom at Walcha Central School under the tutelage if the inimitable Mr Barnes (who goes down in history as THE best teacher ever). Radically for the day, Mr Barnes and Mrs Potter took down the wall between the two Year 4 classrooms. They rearranged the furniture and built desks that were more like work stations with tools attached to backboards. They brought the library into our classroom and Mr Barnes built a stage on which we gathered from time to time each day to share our learning. I still remember two significant projects I worked on that year; one about bee hierarchy in the hive and the other about imagery in poetry. I was 9 years old.
So here’s the question… if a generation of children was learning this way close to 40 years ago, how revolutionary are we in 2013 and is it only access to digital technology that defines our learning environments as 21st century?
Many of us have listened to or taken part in discussions with colleagues about ‘removing the disconnect between life and school’ (my passion), ‘authentic, student-centred learning’ and about using ‘real-world’ scenarios in our teaching. These are often inspiring but presently they leave me wondering whether this was also how our educational predecessors thought. Because of that I wonder whether these wonderful approaches are not necessarily the things that make what’s currently happening in our schools ‘revolutionary’.
Imagine if you were the person who had tutored Robert Stevenson (engineer who built the Bell Rock Lighthouse) or mentored Washington Roebling (took over construction of the Brooklyn Bridge) or taught Jørn Utzon (architect of the Sydney Opera House). Imagine if you were the one who had taught Sojourner Truth to read people well or introduced Marie Curie the concepts of Chemistry or ignited the passion of Dr Fiona Wood. I suspect you might say your pupil was engaged in authentic learning with real world application… that they were encouraged to pursue their creativity and imagination… that their learning had a strong connection to life and that this was going to impact the world in unimagined ways. I think you would probably also burst with pride.
Fret not! I am not calling for a return to the good old days or to ‘chalk and talk’ (oh dear!). I believe we live and teach in the good ‘now days’, that we have access to far more sophisticated technology than chalk and many more voices than our own. I also know somebody is currently teaching Malala Yousafzai (when she is not teaching us), and that is an extraordinary thing.
In truth, the challenge for education systems, as it has always been, is to be contemporary and contextual. The ‘sausage factory’ model of teaching and learning that was the 19th century education system performed this task brilliantly. It produced what the industrial age required. While we talk in educational circles about moving away from this (which is absolutely necessary) and while we talk about our innovative, revolutionary approaches to learning, the uptake of digital technology to connect globally and redesigning our learning spaces, the dominant discourse must be about pedagogy; the art of teaching in the way that children learn and for what children need. It’s a contextual issue. Should I take my 20th century experience of pedagogy into the 21st century context of the learners in my classroom, it would be fraught. My students don’t need that.
More and more I am interested to hear and to see what is happening in schools. I am more interested to watch a child impact a global audience assisted by digital technology than to hear that they have it. I care less about a learning space than the freedom students have to learn within it. The question is not really about how revolutionary the learning is but what the learning is for.