The Fall of the Wall

We often talk about the need for schools to change, to become more relevant to the needs of the 21st century learner. And sometimes we talk about it like we know it’s something that ought to happen because, well, the times they are a-changin’ and maybe we should start change with them. But I think we need to start talking about it more in terms of this change being an imperative. The need for this change is quickly becoming not optional. Schools are becoming dangerously irrelevant to many of our students because we continue to focus on ways of doing things that simply don’t connect to the way many of them see the world.

I was browsing through YouTube tonight and I stumbled across some old footage of the collapse of the Berlin wall back in 1989.

This video got me remembering a quote about education I once read from Seymour Papert. It was this…

“I think that it might be useful to think of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that seemed to be a system that was as unchangeable as our education system seems to be. It’s a system, I think, that was becoming increasingly incompatible with the modern world for reasons not very different from those that operate in the education system. It tried to run a country as a production line, as a top-down command economy in which what people made would be determined by a committee somewhere. We try in our school systems to decide what people will learn in this top-down, centralized way, and, for the same reason, it is not compatible with the complexities and dynamic possibilities of the modern world.

I think the subject is increasing strain. The decision to be made is not whether we will continue with school or change it. It will collapse. Our question is whether we’ll wait until we’re driven to the wall and the system collapses from within from its own internal contradictions before we decide that we’re going to create conditions that will allow a new system in which there’ll be diversity of learning paths, diversity of teaching methods, diversity of subjects to be learned.”

You may think that a comparison between the former Soviet Union and our current education system is a little drastic, but I think there are many valid comparisons. Traditional school systems are usually very top-down organisations, and still many teachers believe that running a classroom is all about maintaining control. Our schools are still filled with systems that try to control and direct most of what students do… we have timetables to manage what our students should be doing at any given moment of the day, and we ring bells to tell them when they can change what they are doing. We lead them through a preplanned curriculum, lockstep, progressing from grade to grade at a rate designed for the average student, drip feeding them content that we think they need, whether they need it or not. We insist that they dress a certain way and follow certain rules, even if many times we have forgotten why the rules were there in the first place. We ban mobile phones and iPods because they are a threat to the established order. We track every movement our students make across our networks and we block any websites that we think might not be “educational” enough.

Then, when our students go home everything changes. They engage with a range of ideas, usually all at the same time. Our students are great multi-taskers. They follow their own interests, learning what they need to know, when they need to know it. They build networks of friends, many of whom they have never met but who share similar interests and ideas. Our students may not all be highly organised when it comes to school work, but many of them manage a hectic social life and a part time job. Many of them live online, constantly connected to their networks, relying on communication technologies like their cell phones, instant messaging, and their social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Track the out of school activity of the average student and compare how much overlap there is with what school tries to tell them is important. There isn’t much.

So we talk a lot about the need for school to address this gap. We talk about introducing new technologies into our classrooms to “engage” the students. We keep hearing about “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants”, and while it’s an interesting way to think about the generational differences, the fact is that the world these kids live in has become one big digital neighbourhood and everyone needs to get comfortable with that idea, whether you are a native or an immigrant. Being able to have that distinction is a luxury we can no longer afford.

I agree with Papert. This incompatibility between “school” as it so commonly stands, and the “real world” that engages our students has to be addressed, and soon, or we will face an unavoidable backlash in the next few years. The need for drastic educational change is on our doorstep, and it cannot be held back for very much longer. As Victor Hugo wrote, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

How we manage the tension between these two ideologies will be critical to our success. But we need to start really rethinking what “school” is about because our students are starting to gather on one side of the wall right now. The cracks are starting to appear. This always-on generation is armed with picks and shovels in the form of their social networks, their communication technologies, their access to instant information, and they are eager to smash this wall down, drive through it and explore the big world on the other side.

As teachers, the question facing us is this… will you be there helping them swing the pick-axe and encouraging them to tear down the wall, or will you be standing in the middle of the stampede trying to force them back? If we aren’t part of the solution, we might just be part of the problem.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 The Fall of the Wall by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.