Reinventing School

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.

Richard BachIllusions

We’ve had a hard lockdown, and everyone is tired of it. I understand. We’ve got to get people back to work, get The Economy working again. I understand. So that means we’ve got to get the kids Back To School. And out of the way. Anyway, not all of the children forced to try and School At Home have good access to the internet for taking classes online. Especially not here in the Global South!

But if we send the kids back to school we place them and their teachers at much greater risk of catching The Virus. There’s a hell of a lot we still don’t know for certain about the mechanisms by which it spreads or the conditions for its survival, but there are a few Rules Of Thumb we do pretty-well know for sure are a bad idea if we harbour any notion of containing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and avoiding a massive resurgence in Covid-19 infections:

  • Gathering people inside a building is a Bad Idea
  • Many people close together is a Bad Idea
  • Prolonged contact is a Bad Idea

Schools are all three. So why are we putting children, their teachers and their families at greatly increased risk of infection? Remind me again…?

Some countries have successfully returned kids to school, at the cost of extreme social-distancing measures and rigorous disinfection protocols. “Success” in this means, “We managed to not trigger another wave of infections”. Not every attempt has been successful by this measure.

Success in returning kids to “normal” schooling seems to strongly correlate with countries that have demonstrated success at containing and suppressing spread of the pandemic in the first place.

The countries that are pushing hardest to return kids to “normal” schooling at a stage when their infection statistics strongly contra-indicate a return to previously normal social interaction seem to correlate with the governments that have demonstrated the greatest incompetence in managing the crisis — among them South Africa, the USA and England.

It seems to me that there’s a massive failure to grasp the opportunity given us by the Covid-19 crisis — an appalling failure to take advantage of the reboot offered to us.

This is one of the most clear-cut “Old Stack vs New Stack” battles being played out, worldwide, before our eyes, in real time.

There is another way…

First we should note what schools are really being used for.

Nominally schools exist to provide “education” to children. (The true value of that “education” is frequently questionable and riddled with hidden/subversive agendas and ideological biases. Another subject for another day.) Really, though, a major, usually unacknowledged, function of schools is as a day-care/child-minding facility — a “safe” (at least a supervised) space where parents can leave their children so that Mom and Dad can go off to work and be productive cogs in the consumer pipeline, unfettered and untroubled about what their kids might be up to.

A significant proportion of schoolwork — I’ll thumbsuck and say as much as 85% of it! — is mere busywork — a way to keep children in their seats and off the streets, minds minimally engaged, work of negligible value in terms of skills acquisition and development. (And I use the word “skills” in the broadest possible sense, not merely confining it to stuff deemed economically useful.) Teachers, learners, prospective employers,… everybody knows this. Most of what we do in school is bunk.

No wonder engagement levels are uniformly poor. No wonder kids just want to bunk of to the poolroom, the beach or,… anywhere else really. They know (you know, if you remember your schooldays with any real clarity and honesty) that most of it is sheer time-wasting.

The stresses of the Covid-19 lockdown have cracked this charade wide open and exposed it to the cleansing disinfectant of sunlight.

I have come across many, many reports and stories, from friends and family, of children, forced by the lockdown to do their own schoolwork at home, where the kids are finishing their work in record time. One child I know about is done with the teacher-set schoolwork for the day by about 9 a.m., and is done with the entire week’s work by Tuesday if she puts her mind to it.

Some teachers, caught off-guard by this unanticipated learner productivity, are struggling to keep up. Certainly a lot of WFH parents are struggling with it.

And everybody’s surprised?

Designer Mind Says:

There has to be a better way. All of the necessary elements have been described, discussed and even piloted in years gone by, but until Covid-19 there’s not been a compelling need to put all the pieces together.

The pieces are:

Tablet computers for every student to replace text books, deliver video content, present tests and score answers (for those sorts of tests, to the extend they remain necessary/desired) and gather “homework”. This is already being trialled in SA — at least the “replace textbooks” part.

Lean on the cellphone companies to provide free bandwidth for the education system and lock those tablets to EduNet (or whatever you call it) making them worthless as targets for theft. The cost of a cheap device is way less than the cost of textbooks, so funding this is the simple part.

Lean on Google to provide YouTube hosting for lessons. (Not much leaning will really be needed.) Run the lessons on TV as well so that no learner in the country has a reason why they cannot attend “classes”. (Already been done. Years ago.) Everywhere I go, through the meanest country towns and the ramblingest tin-shack settlements, I see satellite dishes on every roof. There’s no coverage problem to solve. In addition, use this as an excuse to roll out a National Broadband Network that reaches everywhere. If it can’t be done with WiMax, go and persuade Elon Musk to hurry deployment of LEO satellite broadband over SA.

Find the very best teachers in every subject and have them prepare lessons for gamified video delivery. Back them up with teams of graphic artists, video production professionals. Then pay them like rock-stars. They also become leaders of large teams of teaching assistants. Unburdened with paperwork, free them to focus their talents on creating the highest-quality, most engaging learning material possible. (Obviously there’s quite a bit more organisational structure to this than I’m going into here. Let’s not get distracted by detail. I’m not saying it’s easy or simple, but it is stuff that plenty of people know how to implement. There’s no New Science we need to invent to do this.)

What about the schools — the physical infrastructure?

Repurpose, remodel, rebuild. Rather than the prison-style classrooms, desks in rows fronting the blackboard, turn them into the daycare centres that working parents still need. Remodel them to look and feel more like a hybrid coffee-shop/open space/social club/place-to-hang-out that happens to also provide access to resources like libraries, model-building workshops, computer labs, theatre space, sports facilities. Mostly we want kids to want to hang out there. Bright, light, open, attractive. Lots of niche spaces where kids can just hang out being kids. Fun places.

Staff them with the aforementioned Teaching Assistants — call them Teachers, call them Education Guidance Consultants, call them anything you like, as long as the titles are prestigious and imply high social status. They should! After all, these are the folk who are going to take care of the actual child-minding function on a day-to-day basis. They will need to have some inkling of the educational imperatives in play, but they need not be qualified educators nor subject experts. They need perhaps a year of training, mainly in psychology and child-development. Primarily they’re child-minders and guides, there to facilitate kids’ access to more advanced resources/troubleshooting as they need/want it. Select and train for age-appropriate temperament and preference. In a transition phase from the current school-as-prison system to a more open, child-centred, results-oriented education system, the current teaching cadre would likely be the primary skills-pool to draw from, keeping today’s mediocre teachers productively employed, enjoying a higher-status job with lower stress and no responsibility for education outcomes. That responsibility lies ultimately with the child.

Mostly children love to learn stuff. But school-as-prison seems to make every effort to squelch that instinct. This is the heart of what we have an opportunity to change as Covid-19 breaks existing forms and norms.

Testing — where it can sensibly be automated — and I am firmly convinced that much of the “testing of knowledge acquisition” that goes on in schools is totally unnecessary — is formulated and presented as a way for a child to self-assess their understanding/progress.

“Homework” is generally either a way of enforcing practise in a skill — much as someone learning a piano needs to practise scales or an athlete needs to repeat rote moves again and again to build mind/muscle memory — or it is a means of testing a person’s absorption/retention of specific knowledge. (We’ll gloss over the many times we copied one-anothers’ homework to stay out of trouble with the teacher.) All of that can be automated and metered and presented to the child as positive feedback. It is up to the child to do or to not do. And if they don’t do… that’s their choice. A combination of ambition and peer pressure frequently sorts out persistent non-participation, but this is one of the places for our Guidance Consultants to step in in their role as psychologist/guidance counsellor/mentor. But a child’s progress through the education system (or lack of progress) is otherwise entirely their own responsibility. The only formal testing would be something like the GCSE and HGCSE system, indicating that an individual has attained a “high-school leavers” level of skills and knowledge in the former case, or the “higher” level certification for those contemplating continuing education at tertiary levels.

We end up with self-starting, entrepreneurial, curious, engaged and thinking adults ready, skilled and willing to engage the “real world” economy. Because those are the habits/skills they’ve learned as their path to success through the K12 education years while we kept them off the streets so that Mom and Dad could go to work during the day.

Adjust all as necessary for younger children in the early reading/writing/‘rithing foundation years where more direct teaching by skilled and qualified educators is still needed. The principles still apply.

And for the few who don’t/can’t/won’t adapt to that? Well, unskilled labourers will remain in demand. I’ll point out that the current system produces plenty of the won’t/don’t mindset already, so no real change there, except…

I have experienced directly such a schooling system, one that demanded self-directed learning, imposed little testing except as self-assessment, and allowed kids the freedom to do or to not do at their own discretion. My kids occupied such a system through their high-school years, and I participated as a teacher in that system. And. It. Works.

Sure, you get a few goof-offs who exit the process with little gained. The world is not a perfect place. That happens in the yesterday-schools already.

But here’s an additional advantage of this self-paced, self-assessed, mostly-online, open approach: If one of our goof-offs decides, after spending a few years getting stoned and failing to find paying work, to return to the school system to catch up… there’s no penalty! There’s no social stigma about returning to high-school at the age of 27 or 37 or 57. You can simply re-enter the system, and hardly any of your peers will even know about it.

Now that’s something that’s difficult — verging on impossible — in the current scheme of things. And SA desperately needs to find ways of getting adults better access to foundation education, because the system we have has so badly failed to provide that foundation in the first place.

You might not agree with my (quite idiosyncratic and personal) re-imagining of K12 schooling. You may think some of my solutions quite unworkable, that I’m too negative about the current/past system…

That’s all beside the point. The point is not this detail or that, the point is that we have been presented with a perfect storm, a chance to redesign the future, to make something better than the past instead of throwing vast and precious time/money/energy at trying to get schools back to the way they were last year.

Covid-19 has given us this opportunity; has broken the learning habits and teaching patterns of centuries and and rubbed our noses in the vision: there is another way. The exigences of crisis have thrown light on some of the tools we can use to re-invent education and make something an order-of-magnitude better for everyone involved. All the pieces are lying about, just waiting to be put together.

It’s only up to us to not waste the gift.