Is our model of school obsolete?

This is one of those topics which is extremely politically incorrect. You risk being stoned to death for even suggesting the things I will here. But, for those people who wish to disagree based solely on habit and tradition, I ask you to read first and at least consider the argument.
Today’s schools are not necessarily failing, but they’re certainly struggling. Part of that struggle is between the traditional of school mentality and the new 21rst Century style of education. We continue to base our current and even future models of education on what we experienced as students. While there are some elements of education that are timeless, the implementations can, and should change as time goes on.
Let’s first define traditional curriculum. What I mean by that is the standard math, science, history, language core subjects with all other subjects’ area being considered elective. The Core subjects are basically required subjects for the entire 12 years of schooling. By 21rst Century curriculum I mean a fresh look at what we teach, what elements about that we teach, how often we meet, and how we delivery content.
Assuming we can agree that the goal of school is to prepare students for the world around them. Prepare them to not only function, but be active contributors and leaders, and make the world a place better than it was when they got it.
As we ask ourselves what subjects need to be taught as core subjects, we need to step out of our comfort zone, and ask some different questions: What is it we are trying to expose our students to; what subject areas are important to teach, how do we get that learning to best take place, what structure should the yearly, weekly, and daily academic calendar and schedule look like. What skillsets and concepts allow for students coming from our school to best contribute to the world they will entering in a few short years. Are we designing curriculum based on trying to prepare students to be participants or leaders in that world.

So, let’s consider an interesting way of looking at curriculum design.
In many areas, students study history for 11(or even 12) of the required 12 years of primary and secondary school. We might ask ourselves if there is an opportunity in there to reduce the time, but increase the quality of content. Students study English all 12 years. We might ask ourselves if what we are trying to accomplish in English takes 12 years. I think we all agree the duration of a class is not what determines its effectiveness.
I think there is a way to ask different questions when we create curriculum that flips traditional education on its end. Instead of telling subject areas “here is a year, fill it with content in your area”….we ask each department “what are your goals for your subject area in Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School and how much time to do need in order to accomplish that. And we ask that of every subject areas that are offered. What we will find is there is actually plenty of time during the course of an educational career to fit in all subjects that we deem valuable. The idea of core subjects or elective classes ceases to exist as we declare all classes’ core classes. In other words, if you spend time in a class, then you may correctly assume that is will be valuable, rigorous, engaging, and worthy of both the teachers and students time. Such mentality virtually eliminates busy work and useless homework assignments because there is simply not time to do them.
Such an approach would mean we completely overhaul our traditional schedule. The idea of quarters and semesters and summer break simply don’t fit into this model. The idea of basing our education system on a farming schedule must cease. The world we are in now values what a person knows more so than what a person can do. That is a dramatic shift from previous generations where the skills and abilities a person possesses determines there worth. There is a fine balance between the two. The tools of the world now are multi-media, multi-tasking, and cross-curricular in nature. To solve the complex problems of our generation now, people must be able to be in command of the tools, both digital and physical, know how to build new tools with those tools, and be able to look at the problem from low level and high level as well as from different perspectives. It will also most likely involve working with a group of people in unison to reach a common goal Seldom is the solution going to be simply to tighten the screw or make one simple adjustment.
I ask you: Does our current design of school, curriculum, and schedule prepare our students for the world?

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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