Reinvent the School or Deschool Education? [Slides]

[The slides used in the presentation of the paper transcribed in the last article of this post can be accessed through Slideshare/Linkedin in the address below]

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Reinvent the School or Deschool Education?

[This is the paper I presented, on February 19, 2018, at the Problem-Based Learning Conference of 2018 (PBL-2018) that took place in Santa Clara, CA. The Conference was organised by the PAN-PBL Association. A link to the the slides used in the presentation of this paper are available in the next article of this blog.]

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (Mark Twain)

“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” (Margaret Mead)

“The school is now identified with education as the church once was with religion.” (Ivan Illich)

1. Introduction

The main thesis of this paper is that it is possible and advisable to promote and improve education by creating a society where learning – active, interactive, collaborative, problem-based, project-focused, meaningful learning – is stimulated and facilitated, but in which schools play no significant educational role.

A society in which this happened would be appropriately called a learning society: it would itself be the main learning environment.

This thesis has a main corollary: attempts to change, reform, transform, innovate, rethink,  reinvent the school in order to improve the quality of education are a waste of time, effort and money. These resources (time, effort, money) should be reallocated to the task of effectively renewing education in the context of a learning society.

In the last decades there have been innumerable alerts that:

  • the school has become a place where children’s natural curiosity is blocked and their initial passionate desire to learn is gradually killed;
  • by forcing children to learn what they are not interested in learning, and to refrain from learning what they do want to learn, the school subjects them to a form of “mental rape” or, still worse, to an “amputation of their spirit”, for which there is no prosthetics;
  • by treating all children as if they are alike, not unique, the school transforms them into a standardized group of adults whose mindset makes them unable to creatively and competently address, within a reasonable time frame, the most serious problems the world faces;
  • the school has become a prison to which we sentence, every year, an incredible number of children with multiple and valuable talents to twelve-year terms, out of which they emerge, when their term is completed, totally dumb, with their minds dulled and their creativity destroyed;
  • the solution of our educational problems will not be found in allocating more money to school systems, paying teachers better, training teachers longer and more effectively, finding or inventing alternative curricula, methodologies and evaluation means, creating better libraries, media rooms and laboratories, injecting modern technologies into the classroom, extending the amount of time children stay in school (more years of schooling, more school days in the year, more hours in the school day, etc.), or any of the other myriad of “solutions” proposed every year);
  • the school is dead: it has outrun its utility and no amount of “tweaks” or “fixes”, small or large, humanistic, technical, or technological will be able to bring it back to life.

And yet, public and private educational agents, at the local, regional, national and international level, dedicate, every year, considerable time, enormous efforts and fantastic amounts of money to the goal of improving education by changing / reforming / innovating / transforming / rethinking / reinventing schools.

To the attentive observer of the scene, it is no surprise that results have been dismal or even null.

This paper will propose a different route for the solution of the problem of quality education – a route, however, which clearly is not in any way new.

2. Roots of a Clear Alternative to Schooling

A. Closer Roots

In the very early seventies, when the main digital technologies we use today either did not exist or were not fully available, Ivan Illich (1926-2002), a Croatian-Austrian philosopher and Roman Catholic priest, working out of a monastery-like center in Cuernacava, Mexico, proposed something similar to what his good friend, Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), had demanded only a couple of years earlier: that we educate one another through interaction, dialogue, personal exchanges, collaboration, “mediated by the world” – i.e., in the places where we really live our lives, without resorting to schools, professional educators, encyclopedic curricula, sophisticated teaching methodologies, elaborate testing instruments, etc. [1].

Illich’s Deschooling Society [2], published in 1970, is a powerful summon to renew education in a learning society where the school plays no role.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in English also in 1970, contains powerful passages with the following message (here in a somehow free translation that joins passages found in more than one place in the book):

Nobody educates anybody, but nobody is capable of educating himself alone, either. We educate each other through a continuous dialogue, mediated by the world, in which we use resources that, in traditional education, are owned by the teacher alone. Education is a mutual, world-mediated process in which unfinished beings, conscious of their incompletion, attempt to become more fully human. [3]

B. Intermediary Roots

Any person or institution interested in education must have, if not a precise definition of what education is, at least a clear and definite understanding of the concept.

Education, in the recent past, basically meant transmission or delivery of information and knowledge. Education, in this context, was organized (in the form of schools involving teachers, curricula, methodology, evaluation) to implement this understanding.

This understanding of education may have made sense in a context where information and knowledge were scarce and access to them was difficult. That context no longer exists. Thus we must look for a different understanding of education. We could try to invent, out of nothing, a totally new concept. Or we could recapture insights that, in bits and pieces, have already been with us, sometimes for a long time, but never found real resonance. That is what will be done here in this paper.

Take, for instance, this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile (originally published in 1762), that is, perhaps, the most important essay on education written in the 18th Century, more than 250 years ago, before industrial civilization became widespread and the modern public school appeared to emulate the industrial assembly line:

“All that we lack at birth and need when grown up is given us by education” [4].

This statement feels refreshing today because it emphasizes an important thing, often neglected in our times: everything (“all”) that we need to live our life and that is not innate to us (“that we lack at birth”) must be acquired through education.

Translated into more contemporary language, this means that education has to do, not with the transmission and delivery of encapsulated bits of information and knowledge, but with the very process of human development, that centrally includes capacity or competency building – that is, learning (not teaching). Rousseau proposed and defended a negative education, a laissez-faire education, an education in which the learner is the scriptwriter, the director, and the main, active protagonist.

Development is not the same thing as growth. Development is the product of learning. Someone can grow and not develop as human being. Mowgli, the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle stories, grew up, but did not develop as a human being. If we can speak of development in his case, it is more in terms of wolf development than human development.

Rousseau reminds the reader also that education is not limited to intellectual development. Education involves also other dimensions of human life: psychomotor, social (interpersonal), affective (emotional), aesthetic (sensible), ethical and perhaps even spiritual. This is what is meant today by the expression “human development”. To add “full” or “integral” to this expression is almost pleonastic.

Rousseau does not say it in this passage, but even the things that are innate to us (whatever they may be) can be exercised, extended, improved, perfected through education – in all the dimensions specified.

This means that education will be considerably impoverished if it is conceived only (or primarily) as intellectual development, even if mastery of competencies and skills is added to absorption of information and knowledge.

Education is still more impoverished if it is reduced to preparation either for the job market in the digital economy or for effective citizenship in a democratic society, even though education as human development may include these two things. But it includes much more, such as, for instance, the development of characteristics that culminate in one’s self-realization – what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Achieving eudaimonia implies defining, choosing and actualizing one’s life project.

C. Older Roots

Discussing the concept of education among the ancient Greeks and Romans, James L. Jarrett states, in his magnificent The Humanities and Humanistic Education:

Indeed, neither Greek nor Roman was in the least likely to share the modern confusion that identifies education with schooling. We are shaped and formed by the totality of our environment: it follows that we cannot afford to be careless about any aspect of that environment, architectural, legal, ceremonial, erotic, whatever. [5]

If education has to do with human development in all of its dimensions, and if it takes place throughout the life of the individual, it cannot be accommodated within the confines of a single (and often one-dimensional) institution, namely, the school, without losing its essential richness, its ubiquitous nature, and its personalized focus.

Thus, when UNESCO tries (as it recently began to do), if not to obliterate the distinction between formal and non-formal education, at least to reduce its present importance, it is taking us back to a view already espoused by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But the point of view defended by the ancient Greeks and Romans went beyond giving equal attention to formal and non-formal educational initiatives. They did not favor the schooling of society. They favored making society as a whole the environment in which we learn and thus educate ourselves. According to this view, to be concerned with education is not equivalent to creating and maintaining a good school system (public or private, it makes no difference), much less to extending the time people remain in school (freely or under compulsion). Instead of proposing that the school should become a totalitarian institution in society, the ancient Greeks and Romans proposed that all the institutions and activities of society have an educational focus – that is, that society should become a truly educational (i.e., learning-centered) environment. That is the true meaning of Paideia.

The richness of this idea is mind-boggling. The ancient Greeks and Romans were not contemplating the educational role of only a few institutions of society, such as the family, the church, local community organizations, the communication means, industrial and commercial enterprises, cultural and leisure-focused organizations – not even of the school. They meant that every institution and every activity of society, from the way cities are planned and built, passing through how they organized and governed (including, necessarily, their laws) and through how they are maintained through free economic activities, and arriving at how time for play and leisure is promoted and organized, that all of this be learning-focused – that is, be educational.

Rather than proposing a totalitarian schooling of society, they proposed the total deschooling of society (à la Ivan Illich), because learning should become society’s overall focus and concern. If the ancient Greeks and Romans had known the present digital information and communication technologies, they would probably have emphasized their point much more strongly and realistically.

D. Socratic Roots

Socrates was the first great educator of the human race (at least in the West) – and, arguably, its greatest. It is important to consider how he viewed and practiced education:

  • He did not have a school: he worked in the main square of the city;
  • He did not have a classroom: he worked in the open air;
  • He did not work with groups: he worked with one person at a time;
  • He did not have students: he had partners in dialogue and in learning;
  • He did not have a curriculum: he discussed anything in which his dialogue partners were interested;
  • He did not really answer the questions of his dialogue partners: he replied to a question always with another question, to stimulate them to find the answer themselves;
  • He saw his task as similar to that of the midwife: to draw out successfully, through plain conversation, what is already inside the mind of his dialogue partner, because it is there, in the mind, that ideas are conceived;
  • He did not use any learning resource except interaction and dialogue;
  • He was suspicious of rhetorical oratory, speech making, lecturing, and teaching, because these methods go all in a single direction, are not two way, and so do not favor interaction and dialogue;
  • For the same reason, he was suspicious of books, because they likewise do not favor interaction and dialogue. [6]

Here we have, in a nutshell, the way Socrates viewed and practiced education, almost 2,500 years ago. What Socrates thought and did in the area of education is much closer to the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm than anything anybody thought or did ever since. Whatever else this paradigm may contain, it is a clear defense of personalized education –  and in Socrates’ thought and practice we do find truly personalized learning.

E. Digital Information and Communication Technologies

Many educators, today, when they are not constrained to defend the present educational paradigm, find Socrates way of thinking congenial and admire his educational practice. That explains the partial and relative success of “constructivist” or “constructionist” proposals.

The only legitimate criticism that can be made of Socrates is that his way of viewing and practicing education is impractical in a large society that is committed to universal education, since it is based on one-to-one interaction and dialogue. In other words: it does not seem to be scalable. In a small city such as Athens, that was not committed to the education of its women and its slaves, it may have worked, but how to implement this kind of personalized education in a 21st-Century megalopolis?

What happened in the intervening 2,500 years since Socrates, especially in the 250 years since the Industrial Revolution, to make the education of today a standardized mass undertaking centered on the school was, on the one hand, a gradual but considerable increase in the number of those society felt committed to educate and, on the other hand, lack of resources, human and technological, to continue to educate the way Socrates did.

Today, however, we have fantastic technologies that allow us to achieve “horizontal learning” much better than ever before. They allow us easy access to the Internet’s universal library and to one another – as well as to people with sophisticated knowledge and competencies, that are willing, on a one-to-one basis or in more general environments, to share what they know, and know how to do, in order to help us learn what we are interested in learning, what we want or need to learn.

It is now possible, through social media and networks, to bring the maieutic learning methodology proposed by Socrates to scale, offering everyone a personalized education that satisfies their interests, wants and needs.

Technology, especially by creating social media and making global social networks possible and viable, is also making personalized education possible and viable in large scale. Because global social networks are not only places where we gather information, share information, and entertain ourselves (although they are certainly that), but also places where we learn what we want and need to learn, as defined by our interests, they have become a macro Learning Environment. As a matter of fact, the virtual space has become the embryo of the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm.

F. The Focus on (Redefined) Learning

The focus of traditional education was on teaching. The focus today is on learning – but learning has been redefined.

In the past we worried about teaching methodologies – didactics. It is now more than time that we move on to worry about learning methodologies, or mathetics, as, among others, Comenius, in the 17th Century, and Seymour Pappert, in the twentieth, proposed [7].

To learn, as Peter Senge [8], among others, has shown, is not to accumulate information, but to become capable of doing that which we could not do before. As simple as that. To learn is to build capacity and develop competencies. To learn is to gradually make fully sculpted human beings out of our original selves, to become that which we want, choose and decide to be.

But learning, to be effective, must take place in the context of one’s life project: it must help learners:

  • discover their passions and talents;
  • define and build a life project around them;
  • develop the competencies, skills, values, attitudes and habits, as well as acquire the knowledge and information, that, together, will make it possible to effectively transform their life project into reality.

3. Education as Human Development

When we, humans, are born, we do not know much and do not know how to do almost anything. That is why we have to depend on others for quite some time. But fortunately we are born with three characteristics that are essential to human development:

  1. our genetic programming is minimal and open: within limits, we can become almost anything we want;
  2. our innate capacity for learning (in the sense seen above), which includes the capacity for language acquisition, is incredibly large, flexible, and quite effective;
  3. otherwise we have quite an unique set of individual features, built upon a basic common human substratum, to differentiate us from one another.

Given these features, mass education, education of the type “one size fits all”, should be banned. Personalized education is imperative. And, today, we all can achieve it, with the help of already available technologies.

But personalized education must necessarily be focused on what each individual wants and needs to learn. This means that personalized education must be focused on what each individual chooses and defines as his life project.

School-based mass education ignored the issue of one’s life project because it was intent on manufacturing standardized human (?) products undifferentiated from one another. That is why it came to defend and practice a “one size fits all” education.

Education as human development, however, aims at helping people (children as well as adults) find their “element”, as Sir Ken Robinson emphasized [9].

4. Is this Utopian – or is this Something Doable Beginning Now?

Some people will read this paper and say “Nice and fine… but too bad it is unrealistic…” Others may even say “Beautiful, fantastic… but unfortunately it is totally utopian!”  I assure you that what I propose is not unrealistic or utopian: it is fully doable, and it is doable now – if only we choose to do it [10].

But it will not be done easily, or quickly.

It will not be easy. There will be resistance. Resistance from people who make money from schools, or who achieve power organizing or unionizing teachers, or who make money and achieve power publishing and selling textbooks, videos, lab equipment and materials, sophisticated technologies, or who find their calling to be organizing conferences and giving lectures to educators… But it is doable, if we truly believe in it and chose to do it.

And it will not be quick. It took about 250 years for people to consider a society without schools something inconceivable [11]. Several generations will come and go by before we can see the first fruits of these ideas, and still more for people to consider it unimaginable that we one day needed schools to educate… Home education could help… if it didn’t see itself as home schooling! Unschooling is a good start – but it needs to be conjoined with positive efforts to make society a truly learning environment.

There is a secret – a rather simple secret. Learning takes place best when we are doing something else: playing, working, living our lives in the world, solving problems small or large: fixing a leak in our bathroom or finding a way to rid the world of poverty, disease, ignorance, injustice, violence, war… Jean-François Rischard, in his important book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them [12], has a list of twenty major life-and-death problems which we don’t know how to solve because we never learned how to approach them in our so-called educational institutions. He said we had 20 years to solve them. That was when he wrote it: in 2007. If he was write, we have only 10 years in which to learn how to develop the new mindset that will allow us to solve them. And the world is the stage where we must live and the place where we must learn – and the place where we will die when 2027 comes and we haven’t learned it yet. Education is not preparation for life. Education is the process through which we learn to live as autonomous and competent human beings. And hopefully survive. And more hopefully still, flourish as human beings.

There are many people interested in technology here. Let me say just one more thing to them. The technology that is most relevant to learning is the technology that helps us do the things we want and need to do in life. It makes no sense to speak of learning or educational technologies, as such, that is, technologies that only help us learn.

So, the time is ripe to deschool and personalize education and make ours a true learning society. PAN-PBL’s focus should continue to be concentrated on Problem-Based Learning, Project-Focused Learning and Other Active Learning Methodologies – but it should give preference to the use of these methodologies in learning environments that go beyond the school.

The school is dead – long live learning and education.

5. Conclusion

In this spirit, I leave you with a great quote from Erich Fromm, taken from his Introduction to Celebration of Awareness, the book by Ivan Illich already mentioned in the notes:

[Ivan Illich] has [through the years] remained true to himself in the very core of his approach and it is this core that we share. ( . . . ) This approach can be characterized by the motto: de omnibus dubitandum; everything must be doubted, particularly the ideological concepts which are virtually shared by everybody and have consequently assumed the role of indubitable common-sensical axioms. To ‘doubt’ in this sense does ( . . . ) imply ( . . . ) the readiness and capacity for critical questioning of all assumptions and institutions which have become idols under the name of common sense, logic and what is supposed to be ‘natural’. ( . . . ) Radical doubt is an act of uncovering and discovering; it is the dawning of the awareness that the Emperor is naked, and that his splendid garments are nothing but the product of one’s own phantasy. Radical doubt means to question; ( . . . ) radical doubt is a process; a process of liberation from idolatrous thinking; a widening of awareness, of imaginative, creative vision of our possibilities and options. ( .  .  . ) [Illich’s approach] questions every idea and every institution from the standpoint whether it helps or hinders man’s capacity for greater aliveness and joy. ( . . . ) The importance of [Illich’s] thoughts lies in the fact that they have a liberating effect on the mind by showing entirely new possibilities; they make the reader more alive because they open the door that leads out of the prison of routinized, sterile, preconceived notions. By the creative shock they communicate ( . . . ) they help to stimulate energy and hope for a new beginning. [13]

6. Notes

[1] It is curious that neither of these men had their original cultural roots in mainline Western European countries or in the United States: Illich was Eastern European (Croatian) and Freire was Latin American (Brazilian).

[2] Ivan Illich (1970), Deschooling Society, New York: Harper & Row, passim. An earlier book by Illich is also worth consulting: (1969-1970), Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, New York: Doubleday (which contains an Introduction by Erich Fromm), chapters 7 (“The Futility of Schooling”) and 8 (“School: The Sacred Cow”). It is from this book, p. 125 (chapter 8), that the third motto of this paper was taken.

[3] Paulo Freire (1968), Pedagogia do Oprimido, Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra (original publication, in Portuguese); (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Herder & Herder (first edition in English, translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos, with preface by Richard Shaull); (2000), New York: Bloomsbury (Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of the First American Edition, with introduction by Donaldo Macedo); (2018, March), New York: Bloomsbury Academic (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of the Original Brazilian Edition, with an updated introduction by Donaldo Macedo and interviews with several important educators and other personalities). The quotation incorporates a conflation of various passages freely translated from the Portuguese edition by me.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), Émile ou de l’Éducation, originally published in French, available in innumerable editions; available in English, also in various translations, the title using one or more of the following words: The Emile: Treatise on Education. The translation from the French here provided is that of William Boyd (1962), The Emile (Bi-centennial Edition), New York: Teachers College Press, Book I, apud Jarrett (1973), p. xiii.

[5] James L. Jarrett (1973), The Humanities and Humanistic Education, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 11 (italics added).

[6] The story and the pedagogical views of Socrates can be found scattered in several of Plato’s Dialogues (available in innumerable translations and editions), but especially in Theaetetus (approximate date 369 BC) and Phaedrus (approximate date 370 BC). The first discusses his views on method, the maieutics (or midwifery), the second, his views on writing, of which he was quite critical (as compared to orality: talking or speaking or dialoguing or debating, which he preferred).

[7] John Amos Comenius (1680), Spicilegium Didacticum, originally published in Latin, of very difficult access; for an accessible discussion of the concept, see Seymour Pappert (1993), The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, New York: Basic Books, especially chapters 5-7.

[8] Peter M. Senge (1990, rev. ed. 2006), The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Penguin / Random House, passim. See also Peter M. Senge et alii (1994), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday, and Peter M. Senge et alii (2000), Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (2000), New York: Doubleday.

[9] Sir Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (2009), The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything, New York: Penguin, and Sir Ken Robinson (2014), Finding Your Element: How to Discover your Talents and Passions and Transform your Life, New York: Penguin.

[10] Peter Buckman (1973) asserted this in a sensible manner almost 45 years ago, in his Introduction to the book he edited, Education Without Schools, London: Souvenir Press. This book, out of print for many years, contains and important article by Ivan Illich and is very difficult to find.

[11] Ivan Illich’s observations on Puerto Rican society, made in 1969, are truly remarkable: “Only if we understand the school system as the central myth-making ritual of industrial societies can we explain the deep need for it, the complex myth surrounding it, and the inextricable way in which schooling is tied to the self-image of contemporary man. ( .  .  . ) Puerto Rico has been schooled. I don’t say educated, but, rather, schooled. Puerto Ricans can no longer conceive of life without reference to the school. The desire for education has given way to the compulsion of schooling. Puerto Rico has adopted a new religion. Its doctrine is that education is a product of the school, a product which can be defined by numbers. There are the numbers which indicate how many years a student has spent under the tutelage of teachers, and others which represent the proportion of his correct answers in an examination. Upon the receipt of a diploma the educational product acquires a market value. School attendance in itself thus guarantees inclusion in the membership in the community of saints. From governor to jibaro Puerto Rico now accepts the ideology of its teachers as it once accepted the theology of its priests. The school is now identified with education as the church once was with religion.” From “School: The Sacred Cow”, chapter 8 in Celebration of Awareness, op.cit., p.125 (emphases added). The last phrase is, of course, the third motto of this paper. The second part of the quotation comes from a graduation speech that Illich was invited to give at the University of Puerto Rico, in Río Piedras, in 1969. About this same line of thought the reader ought to consult the book by John Abbott (with Heather MacTaggart) Over Schooled but Under Educated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing our Adolescents (2010), London and New York: Continuum.

[12] Jean-François Rischard, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them (2007), New York: Basic Books. Rischard, an economist, was the first European Vice President of the World Bank from 1998 to 2005.

[13] Erich Fromm (1970), “Introduction” to Ivan Illich’s Celebration of Awareness, op.cit., pp. 7-10.

©    Eduardo Chaves & Mindware Technologies, December 2017, São Paulo, Brazil (chaves@deschooling.education).

In Santa Clara, February 19, 2018

4 – Technology and the Innovative School (*)

1. Linking with the Previous Three Articles

This is the fourth in a series of four articles.

In the first article (“Looking Anew at Education”) I argued that:

  1. Education is a lifelong process of human development that takes place through learning;
  2. Education cannot be limited to the confines of a single institution or organization and so must be seen as the responsibility of the entire society, which is the learning environment par excellence where education takes place;
  3. We learn through continuous dialogue with our fellow human beings about things of the world that interest us;
  4. This dialogue makes us conscious of our incomplete or unfinished nature and leads us to attempt to become more fully human through the implementation of a strategic life project of our own choosing;
  5. This is the path toward human development;
  6. The vision of education that promotes this path (“Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society”) runs counter the present paradigm of education in that it relativizes the importance of formal education, schooling, teachers, and instruction: education, here, takes place in between the lines, as if it were, as we do something else (especially play and work, but also as we simply live our life).

In the second article (“Change, Innovation and the School”) I argued that:

  1. Innovation involves change, but not every change brings innovation;
  2. Change can be divided in two kinds: ordinary and reformative (within the paradigm) and extraordinary and transformative (disruptive of the paradigm);
  3. It is the degree of innovation present in it that differentiates extraordinary or transformative change from ordinary or reformative change;
  4. The changes that took place in the world in the past seventy years require extraordinary or transformative change of — and not simply in — the school;
  5. The school, however, has been quite impervious and resistant to the demand that it ought to transform itself;
  6. Given the dissemination of the present paradigm of education and the consequent penetration of the conventional school in the social fabric, it may be necessary to go through a transitional stage (that of the “Innovative School”) before we can hope to reach the new educational paradigm (“Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society”).

In the third (previous) article (“Innovative Schools”), I argued that:

  1. In the transitional stage education will still depend largely on the school but the school will have to become more and more different from the conventional institution that presently bears the same name, since it will serve, among other things, to spread education out of itself and into other institutions of society, tearing down, so to say, the walls that demarcate, and so isolate, the school from the rest of society;
  2. Thus the Innovative School must be built upon a different vision (a new understanding of its nature, mission, and values, as well as of the outcomes it seeks to achieve), have different organizing principles (curriculum, methodology, learning resources, architectural design, technology infrastructure, and, of course, evaluation procedures), and be staffed by personnel with a distinct mindset and a different set of competencies and talents;
  3. This Innovative School that prepares the path for the “Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society” paradigm will focus on personalized learning that is conveyed, through a large extent, through technology and can only reach scale through technology.

In this fourth and last article of this series, therefore, technology will be the focus.

2. Technology and Personalized Learning

Socrates was the first great educator of the human race (at least in the West) — and arguably its greatest. It is important to consider how he viewed and practiced education:

  • He did not have a school: he worked in the main square of the city;
  • He did not have a classroom: he worked in the open air;
  • He did not work with a group: he worked with one person at a time;
  • He did not have students: he had partners in dialogue;
  • He did not have a curriculum: he talked about anything in which his dialogue partners were interested;
  • He did not really answer questions: he replied to a question with another question;
  • He did not have ready answers to the questions of his dialogue partners: he helped them find the answers themselves;
  • He saw his task as similar to that of the midwife: to draw out successfully, through plain conversation, what is already inside the mind of this dialogue partner, because it is there, in the mind, that ideas are conceived;
  • He did not use any learning resource except dialogue;
  • He was suspicious of rhetorical oratory, speech making, lecturing, and teaching: these things are all unidirective, and so do not favor dialogue and interaction;
  • For the same reason, he was suspicious of books, because they likewise do not favor dialogue and interaction.

Here we have, in a nutshell, the way Socrates viewed and practiced education, about 2,500 years ago. What Socrates thought and did in the area of education is much closer to the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm outlined in the first article than anything anybody thought or did ever since. Whatever else this paradigm may contain, it is a clear defense of personalized education — and in Socrates’ thought and practice we do find truly personalized education (which is equivalent to personalized learning).

Many educators, today, when they are not constrained to defend the present educational paradigm, find Socrates way of thinking congenial and admire his educational practice. That explains the considerable success of “constructivist” or “constructionist” proposals.

The only legitimate criticism that can be made of Socrates is that his way of viewing and practicing education seems to be impractical in a large society that is committed to universal education, since it is based on one-to-one dialogue. In other words: it does not seem to be scalable. In a small city such as Athens, that was not committed to the education of its women and its slaves, it may have worked, but how to implement this kind of personalized education in a twentieth-first century megalopolis?

What happened in the intervening 2,500 years since Socrates, especially in the 250 years since the Industrial Revolution, to make the education of today a standardized mass undertaking centered on the school was, on the one hand, a gradual but considerable increase in the number of those society felt ought to seek to educate themselves and, on the other hand, a lack of resources, human and technological, to continue to educate the way Socrates did.

The solution found, especially around the middle of the eighteenth century, was to create an educational production line similar to the assembly line of the industrial factory, and process children as if they were raw materials to produce standardized industrial organization people.

Students, contents, methods and outcomes all had to be standardized. When the standardized contents to be transmitted were too complex, division of labor and specialization were brought into the picture…

This way, learning gradually became something that took place in the school, during school hours, in school days — not anywhere, anytime, in the place where people lived, worked and had fun. The focus gradually moved from the broad interest of the learners to the narrow, specialized interests of the various teachers. Inside the rooms of the school there was no real dialogue, but classes or lessons, delivered by the teacher to the student, of whom only silence and attention were required. And thus the students gradually adopted the ideas of their masters instead of conceiving their own and then giving birth to them, as Socrates wanted…

But today we have a different context, do we not?

For a while, it looked as if not

For a while, technology (the computer, the multimedia projector, the projected screen, the smart board, etc. and even the Internet) simply reinforced the traditional paradigm of one unidirectionally talking to many, and the many merely consuming ideas conceived somewhere else and transmitted to them, only now with the help of technology

But then the social networks appeared

Initially, few people believed that the social networks would change education much. Curiously, e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, and media sharing systems were made available to users for free by the large software companies, such as Microsoft, which kept making huge investments in digitizing content, developing authoring tools for teachers, perfecting presentation programs, creating digital classroom environments, etc. These initiatives wrongly assumed that, if technology were used in teaching, students would be easily engaged in learning what the school and its teachers expected them to learn… This assumption was a great mistake.

Then Facebook appeared, and now, a few years later, it has way over one billion active users, more than 20% of the overall population of the globe — but around 50% at least of the better informed, better educated, and more affluent part of the global population. And it continues to be for free, as far as the users are concerned.

Now, at last, we do have a different context, do we not?

Here is a quote from Will Richardson, in his book Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, after he described how his son Tucker, 13 years of age, learned to play quite well a highly complex and sophisticated game, Minecraft, without any formal teaching whatsoever, only through virtual conversations with his friends of the same age, who were also learning to play the same game in their own homes, by themselves (as one would say in the past — today, we know best). The passage is rather long but it is worth transcribing it:

“More and more, Tucker and his connected friends are crafting a new narrative around learning. (Millions of connected adults are its co-authors.) It’s a story that challenges the fundamental premise of this thing we call ‘school’. In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like — not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June. More important, it happens around the things we learners choose to learn, not what someone else tells us to learn.

This new story requires us to ask the difficult yet crucial question: why school?

I’m not suggesting we consider scrapping school altogether. I’m suggesting that this moment requires us to think deeply about why we need school. Or to ask, more specifically, what’s the value of school now that opportunities for learning without it are exploding all around us? There is an important, compelling answer to that question. It is most definitely not the same one we’ve been giving for the last 150 years.

Here’s the deal.

The world has changed — and continues changing — rapidly and radically when it comes to the ways in which we can learn, and what knowledge, skills, dispositions, and forms of literacy our children will need to flourish in their futures. Plain and simple, the Web and the technologies we use to access it drive those changes. And those changes are, in a word, profound. Sooner or later, that upheaval will force us to tackle the ‘why school?’ question head-on.

Every one of us has a stake in the answer. It’s not only parents of school-age kids, or the teachers in their  classrooms, who need to grapple with this.  

Schools play an important role in our communities, and not just because they help determine property values. They are part of the fabric of who we are. Moreover, they remain the places where every one of our kids can go (in theory, at least) to get equal access to an education. Between that and the ancillary child care functions they provide, schools as places where children come together to learn will not be going away anytime soon.

But what happens inside of schools is going to change, now that the Web connects us the way it does.

It has to.

[Will Richardson (2012-09-10). Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere (Amazon Books, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 60-76). TED Conferences. Emphases added.]

Technology, especially by making global social networks possible and viable, is also making personalized education possible and viable in large scale. Because global social networks are not only places where we gather information, share information, and entertain ourselves (although they are certainly that), but also places where we learn what we want and need to learn, as defined by our interests and needs, they have become a macro Learning Environment. As a matter of fact, the virtual space has become the embryo of the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm.

3. Technology and the Development of Competencies

The technology that is relevant to the development of competencies is the same technology that is ubiquitous in the world today: digital information and communication technologies (ICT). ICT is a large set of technologies that were developed on the basis of the digital computer unveiled to the world on February 16, 1946.

This set of technologies is fundamental for education because, to adapt a phrase Bill Gates once used in a lecture, “it exists to place people in contact with people and to give them access to the information they need to do the things they want to do”.

If Paulo Freire is right, and we learn in the world, and primarily through human interaction and dialogue, and if this technology exists for these two purposes:

  • to put people in contact with people, and so allow them to interact, dialogue and collaborate with one another;
  • to give them access to the information they need in order to understand and to improve the world in which they live, learn, work, and have fun;

then this technology is fundamental for learning — as a matter of fact, much more fundamental than it is for teaching.

A. Technology, the Curriculum, and Personalized Learning

If what was said about the curriculum in the previous article (“Innovative Schools”) is taken seriously, then it is basically impossible to implement the curriculum in any large school setting without technology.

  • In the Innovative School competencies are the main ingredient of the overall curriculum;
  • The matrix of competencies in which the curriculum is organized reflects the total set of learning opportunities which the school is willing to make available to its students (the school curriculum);
  • It is likely that this set will be fairly large and complex, given the variety of competencies, and their interconnections, that can legitimately be part of the school curriculum;
  • Each student, after consultation with his mentors and with his parents, chooses the sub-set of competencies that is relevant or useful to the definition and implementation of his life project (the student’s personal curriculum);
  • It is quite probable that there will no identical personal curricula in the school, given the fact that individual differences among the students will likely lead to very personal life projects.

If the number of students in the school is, say, in the hundreds, it is virtually impossible, without rather sophisticated technology, to keep track of such a high number of personal curricula and their interactions with the school curriculum (for instance, to keep an updated registry of which competencies each student has already developed and which ones he must still develop at any given time).  This would be the curriculum component of a major Learning Management System.

B. Technology and Project-Based Learning

The basic way in which a student develops competencies in the Innovative School is by participating in learning projects that help him develop the specific sub-set of competencies that is relevant or useful to his life project. The school must have, therefore, a regular set of learning projects that it offers to its students, from which the students will select the projects in which they will get involved. Sometimes if may be necessary, because of specific student demand, for the school to offer ad hoc learning projects in additional to its regular offerings.

The project database of the school must clearly specify, for each project, the problem the students will investigate, which competencies they will develop as they investigate that problem, and how the solution of this problem and the development of these competencies will be assessed.

The student can, based on his life project, search the project database to determine which learning projects address problems he would be interested in tackling and to ascertain the competencies he will develop as he tries to solve the problems proposed by these projects. When these projects are offered by the school, he can participate in them. Once the projects are successfully concluded, the competencies that they contemplate will be credited to the student’s transcript, with indication of the appropriate level of depth in his mastery of them.

This would be the methodology component of a major Learning Management System.

C. Technology and the Assessment of Learning

As seen above, we learn through human interaction and dialogue. Technology, today, not only facilitates interaction and dialogue, but also makes them possible in contexts where they were impossible before.

As also mentioned above, as we interact and dialogue, and so learn, we need access to information, in order to understand and act upon the world in which we live, work, and have fun. Technology, today, is essential to the tasks of searching, organizing, storing, analyzing, assessing and applying information.

It is this kind of learning that must be assessed in the Innovative School.

In order to assess this kind of dialogical learning, it is fundamental that the staff of the school not only interact intensively with the students, but also that they carefully observe the interactions of the students among themselves. And, of course, that they record their own interactions with the students and the interactions they observe.

But the interactions that matter, in this context, do not take place only face to face inside the school buildings: they also take place in virtual space.

Thus,  in order to assess student interaction and keep track of what sort of information students access, use, apply in discussions, and eventually save, the staff of the school must also be active participants in the school networking facilities but also in the social networking systems the students use.

Of course, a careful balancing between the privacy rights of the students and their need to be accompanied in their learning must be sought and the rules that allow the school staff to monitor student activity must be clear and understood by everyone involved.

But, in any case, it is clear the role that technology must perform in enabling and enriching interaction and information access as well as in the recording of all this information and in its timely retrieval by all interested parties in the process of evaluating student learning.

Also, by extending the network of people with whom the students can come into contact, technology allows students to participate in collaborative learning projects with students of other schools, all over the world (assuming the problem of language is solved, and it will be solved by technology as well), and maintain personalized dialogue with multiple partners about the things that they are interested or need to learn.

The development of competencies that involve the building of psychomotor abilities, such as is the case in medicine, dentistry and several other areas, presents special challenges, which, however, will be adequately met with the evolution of technology. Telemedicine is already a reality, and so the acquisition of medical skills through distance education is also around the corner. Preparation of pilots through flight simulators is already de rigueur. There is no reason to fear that other areas will not face similar developments.

4. In Conclusion

The Innovative School is necessary, as a transitional institution, and it will necessarily depend heavily on technology. But the technology it will use is not information dispensing technology that will automate and, to a large extent replace, conventional teaching functions (information delivery).

The technology that is important for learning and managing learning in the Innovative School is basically of three kinds:

  • The sort of technology that young people already master: technologies that allow them to communicate with each other quickly and easily and that gives them access to whatever information they need to learn what they want or need to learn;
  • Technology that helps them simulate rather complex processes — and games are important simulators;
  • Technology that helps them make complex decisions and solve complicated problems in various areas — the so-called “expert systems”.

As mentioned above, learning  takes place as we do something else: play, work, live our lives in the world. Thus, the technology that is most relevant to learning is the technology that helps us do the things we want and need to do. It makes no sense to speak of technology that only helps us learn: learning or educational technology.

Good Learning Management Systems help the Innovative School do something quite important: monitor (track) and evaluate each student’s development toward the achievement of his personal life project. But they must really manage learning, as a process and as an outcome, not school or classroom attendance, teaching, or test results.

São Paulo, on the 31st of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.

 

3 – Innovative Schools (*)

1. Linking with the Previous Article

In the previous article (“Change, Innovation and the School”) it was argued that:

  1. Innovation involves change, but not every change brings innovation;
  2. Change can be ordinary (within the paradigm) or extraordinary (disruptive of the paradigm);
  3. Ordinary change is usually small, piecemeal, incremental, gradual, does not depart much from established thought or practice, and so leads at best to the improvement or reformation of an established paradigm; extraordinary change, on the other hand, is usually broad, deep, systemic (holistic), radical, departs considerably from established thought or practice, and so normally leads to the replacement or transformation of an established paradigm;
  4. It is the degree of innovation present in it (i.e., of that which, in it, is distinctly new) that differentiates extraordinary change from ordinary change;
  5. The amount, direction, rhythm and nature of the change that took place in the world in the past sixty five years or so are such as to require transformative change of every institution of society, including the school;
  6. The school, however, has been quite impervious and resistant to this requirement;
  7. Given the penetration of the conventional school in the social fabric, and given the strength of its attachment to the industrial paradigm, its reinvention in the direction of the paradigm outlined in the first article (Ubiquitous Education, or Society as the Learning Environment par excellence) will need to go through a transitional phase in which an Innovative School will help create the Learning Society (Society that Learns and where one Learns) and prepare us to actively, interactively and collaboratively learn in it.

The last article finished with a description of the main features of the Factory-Style School. This article will seek to describe the contours of the Innovative School, which will help pave the way for a world in which every institution of society will be educational (i.e., learning-oriented).

2. The Innovative School: Vision

To be innovative, a school must have a new vision, which includes a new understanding of its nature, mission, and values, as well as of the outcomes it seeks to achieve:

  1. Its nature must be inclusive: given the undeniable fact that we, humans, have multiple dimensions, and that other institutions of society are not presently capable of fully performing their educational tasks, the school needs to focus its attention on all of the dimensions of its students and help each of them develop as fully as possible as an integral and integrated human being;
  2. Its mission must be to create a learning environment where personalized education is possible and viable: given the undeniable fact that we, humans, are all different from one another in our personal characteristics, interests, talents, levels of motivation and learning styles, the school needs to pay special attention to each student in his specific uniqueness and make sure that he learns what he needs and wants to learn in the way and the rhythm in which he learns best;
  3. Its values must be:
    • recognition of the fact that each student is a unique human being, worthy of full respect in his uniqueness by all those who work in the school;
    • recognition of the fact that human beings develop through learning, that is, by building their capacity to do things which they were not capable of doing before;
    • recognition of the fact that human beings learn best when they are actively engaged in doing things that are interesting to them (interest-based active learning, or learning by doing), in collaboration with partners who have similar interests (collaborative projects), and with the support of persons who can, when necessary, mediate the process and facilitate their learning;
    • recognition of the fact that freedom is essential to the learning process, not only in the choice, by the students, of what to learn and of how to do it, but also in the organization of activities, by the school, in such a way as to provide unstructured time for leisure and otioseness (or idleness) on the part of the students (since intelligence does not prosper without a modicum of idleness and creativity does not prosper without a modicum of indiscipline);
    • recognition of the fact that participation, by the students, in the elaboration of rules and in the making of decisions that affect their lives (including the processes in which they are evaluated) is essential for their learning and development.
  4. The Outcomes that it ought to pursue are:
    • help the students define and choose a life project that combines their talents and their passions;
    • help the students determine which competencies, skills, attitudes and values are required to transform their life project into reality and help them build, master or acquire them;
    • maintain in the school a learning environment that is conducive to integral and integrated human development.

3. The Innovative School: Organizing Principles

To be innovative, a school must be built and function according to sound principles, such as these:

  1. To be innovative the school must contemplate broad and general learning expectations for the students (“curriculum“), personalizable for each student and flexible enough to be adjusted as the student develops, possibly changes interests, and defines and redefines his life project;
  2. To be innovative the school must adopt a flexible, student-centered learning methodology that is active, collaborative, problem-oriented, project-based and research-focused;
  3. To be innovative the school must make available to the students rich and abundant educational resources, including different types of digital technology, books, musical instruments, art material and material for art work, tools of various sorts, destined to all kinds of work, including manual labor, such as carpentry, woodwork, electronic / electric / automotive equipment repair, cooking, baking, restaurant and hotel work, etc.), and must allow these resources, and other resources that the students bring with them to the school (such as computers, tablets, smart phones, etc.) to be freely used by the students in their learning process;
  4. To be innovative the school must consider evaluation an essential part of the learning process, which cannot be dissociated from it, since evaluation is not a set of specific procedures applied at the end of the learning process to assess whether, or to what extent, the student learned what was expected of him;
  5. To be innovative the school must have a novel and modern modular architecture, and its spaces must be both generic and specialized but, in either case, flexible, modularizable, and reconfigurable, and its technology infrastructure must be state of the art;
  6. To be innovative the school must have a novel approach to time: time needs to regarded as something to be used flexibly. Business already adopts “flextime“: it is time the school does the same.

4. The Innovative School: Personnel

  1. To be innovative the school must have diverse personnel: professionals who have multiple talents and competencies to perform the general and specialized functions that are needed to address students with diversified and often rather special educational needs;
  2. To be innovative the school must count upon personnel committed to its vision of education and who are passionate for the work they do;
  3. To be innovative the school must select and recruit personnel who are not afraid to change and who want and feel comfortable to work in an student-centered innovative school that favors student initiative, protagonism and participation and that expects its professionals to be more like mentors, coaches,  mediators and facilitators than like teachers and instructors.

5. Competencies, Curriculum, Methodology and Evaluation Procedures

Human beings, it was mentioned above, have multiple dimensions — at least the following: psychomotor, intellectual, social or interpersonal, affective or emotional, aesthetic or sensible, ethical and perhaps even spiritual. To fully develop these dimensions they need to develop and integrate multiple sets of competencies.

Competence is the capacity to mobilize, or draw upon, skills, knowledge and information (the thing the French call “savoirs”), attitudes, and values in order to perform (“savoir faire”) a set of tasks in a high level of proficiency and with some degree of automaticy.

Contrary to what is done in the school of the Industrial Era, in the innovative school competencies are the main ingredient of the curriculum, and conventional curricular contents (the traditional disciplines or subjects) are, to use a term the Brazilian National Curricular Parameters have made a household word, transversalized. These are drawn upon if and when needed. These contents are to be “pulled” by the students whenever they need or want them. It makes no sense to “push” them into the students just because they may eventually be needed or wanted.

That is why the curriculum of the innovative school must be a matrix of competencies rather than a grid of disciplines or subjects, dosed according to the age of the recipients.

The curriculum, in its broadest sense, is the total set of learning opportunities the school is willing to make available to its students.

Not every student needs to avail himself of every offering. This would be impossible, in the case where the offerings are ample, and it would rarely be recommendable, even when the offerings are parsimonious.

The offerings that a given student does select, given his life project, and after counseling with his mentors and his parents, will constitute his personal curriculum. The personal curriculum of a student is the set of offerings that he chooses to take.

If the student needs or wants to develop competencies that are not part of the offerings the school makes available, the school ought to make every effort to make it available, either through independent study supervised by the staff or, if needed, through apprenticeship supervised by an outside consultant.

One interesting issue is: must the school require of every student the development of at least a minimum set of competencies (such as basic literacy in the mother language, “numeracy”, mastery of the scientific method, etc.?). The answer is a qualified “yes”. The “yes” is qualified because today it is almost inconceivable that a student will spend about twelve years in an innovative school and not choose to learn how to read and write, how to solve numerical problems, or how to tackle problems of an empirical or theoretical nature. If, even though improbable, a student does not learn how to read and write (for instance) by the time he is eight or nine, his mentors and the pedagogical coordination of the school should have a clear idea of what is happening and of what ought to be done, other than compelling the student to learn.

Something else that is important to consider in this context is the fact that students have different interests and rhythms. A student that learns to read and write at eight might be as proficient in reading and writing as a student who learned to read and write at four, by the time both are, say, twelve. Also, a student who wants to be a poet or a novelist does not need to learn a lot of mathematics, and another, who wants to be a mathematician or an engineer, does not need to learn a lot of syntax or literature.

The active, collaborative, problem-oriented, project-based and research-focused learning methodology that the school ought to adopt is based on the fact that there are many ways of developing essential and important competencies, and that all of these ways can be employed in the form of learning projects, which students, individually or in group, freely choose in order to develop competencies related to their interests (what they want to learn) and, specifically, to their life project (what they need to learn). This methodology respects the students’ freedom to learn and thus solves the vexing and difficult problem of motivation.

Finally, the issue of evaluation. As mentioned above, to be innovative the school must consider evaluation an essential part of the learning process, which cannot be dissociated from it. Evaluation is not a set of specific procedures applied after the learning process has ended, in order to assess whether, or to what extent, the student learned what was expected of him.

If this is so, evaluation cannot be confused with quizzes, tests and exams. Evaluation takes place through observation and interaction, duly registered in a learning portfolium.

If this is so, evaluation cannot be confused with quizzes, tests and exams. The student, together with his mentors, coaches, facilitators and mediators, and, if necessary, also with his parents, must be involved in the process from the very start. The student is not less protagonist when he is evaluating his own learning and his own development along the path of his life project.

Also, the curriculum, if well elaborated, must operationally define the competencies and specify the indicators of its development with different degrees of expertise or depth. This makes it easier to evaluate the learning process as it is happening.

6. An Additional Word on Technology

The school of the Industrial Age was an institution that sought massification of education through standardization. The innovative school that will prepare the path for the Learning Society must seek personalized education that reaches scale through technology.

The next article, the last of this series of four, will deal with technology and how it can make personalized education viable and take it to scale.

São Paulo, on the 22nd of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.

 

2 – Change, Innovation and the School (*)

1. Linking with the Previous Article

In the previous article (“Looking Anew at Education”) the following theses were defended:

  1. All that we need to live our life with autonomy and that is not innate to us must be acquired through education (apud Rousseau);
  2. Education, in this sense, is learning-centered, not teaching-focused, and learning is a lifelong endeavor that begins at birth and ends only at death (apud UNESCO);
  3. Education, thus understood, is too rich a process to be limited to the confines of a single institution or organization, such as the family, or the school, or even a combination of both, and must be seen as the responsibility of the entire society (apud UNESCO, OECD, and others);
  4. Society, therefore, in all of its complexity, must be seen as the learning environment in which education (i.e., learning) takes place: the locus par excellence of education is the world, not the school (apud Illich and others);
  5. In this learning environment we educate one another through continuous interaction and dialogue, always mediated by the world, and in this process we all use resources that, in traditional education, are reserved for the school to be deployed only by the teacher (apud Freire);
  6. The final goal of education is human development: through education we, who at birth are unfinished beings, become conscious of our incompletion and attempt to become always more fully human through the implementation of our strategic life project (apud Freire, UNDP, and others).

It is clear that, in this paradigm, the distinction between formal and non-formal education loses importance, and, therefore, the role of conventional schooling in education is considerably diminished.

It is also clear that in the transition from the present to the new paradigm, which can be quite long, we cannot do without the school. But the school must undergo a process of change and innovation in order to participate in this transition.

2. Change and Innovation

The twentieth century was a century of change. If we compare the beginning of the twentieth and of the twenty first centuries, 1901 and 2001, we see that the world, in most respects, was not same in those two occasions. The fact that in 2001 a new millennium, and not merely a new century, began, helped feed the sensation that the world had radically changed during the previous one hundred years.

It is undeniable that technological innovation, even though it was not an agent of change (this role is reserved exclusively for humans), was an important tool of change. The telephone, the movies, the radio, the record player, the automobile, the airplane, the computer, the Internet, the television,  the video camera, recorder, and player, the mobile phone, and many other technologies (medical technologies, for instance) came to fruition in the twentieth century, even if their roots were in the second half of the previous century (mostly in the latter portion of it). In due time, all of these technologies, which originally were quite different from one another, became digital or computerized, in a mechanism frequently labeled convergence.

The changes that these innovative technologies leveraged in the world were broad, deep and pervasive. Pervasive in the case means that almost every aspect of private, social, and professional life was affected by them.

The school was, and has remained, a notable exception. It is true that there were small changes and innovations within the school, but they were mostly superficial or cosmetical, and very often affected only a single dimension of the institution: the institution as a whole was not transformed.

In order to better understand this assertion we must have in mind the relation between change and innovation.

Innovation involves change, but not every change brings innovation.

As many authors have convincingly argued in recent times, after Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), change can be of two kinds:

  • Ordinary change, or change that is contained within the established paradigm;
  • Extraordinary change, or change that leads to the replacement of the paradigm.

In the first case we usually have small, piecemeal, incremental, gradual changes — surface improvements of an established paradigm. The changes or improvements do not question the paradigm: they take it for granted. When they have to deal with practice (and not theory), these changes and improvements do not depart too much from the conventional, almost universally accepted, way of doing things.

In the second case we usually have to deal with broad, profound, systemic (holistic), radical, often abrupt changes, that lead to the destruction of an established paradigm and its replacement by another. The changes here subvert the established paradigm, since they aim at replacing it by another paradigm. When they have to deal with practice (and not theory), these changes significantly depart from the conventional, generally accepted, way of doing things.

If we extend a bit further the use of a political analogy, we could say that the first kind of change is reformative, while the second is transformative. Reformative change is “change within the paradigm”. Transformative change is “change of the paradigm”. Transformative change is very close to, if not the same thing as, revolutionary change. It is also very close to, if not the same thing as, recreating or reinventing that which is the object of change.

The main indicator that helps us differentiate between the transformative and the reformative nature of a proposed change is the degree of innovation that it represents in relation to what presently is thought or done. Innovation has to do with what is new. Its degree can be measured by comparing what is new in thought or practice with present thought or practice. The greater the degree of innovation, the greater the departure from present thought or practice and so the greater the breadth, depth, all-inclusiveness, and radicality of the change.

The following figure, taken from a small book by David Hargreaves called Education Epidemic, available for free on the Internet, helps understand what is being said here.

Change and innovation

3. The School: Reformation or Transformation?

The graphic shows that the two kinds of change mentioned can lead to:

  • Institutional or organizational reformation: when the change takes place within existing structures and maintains the present paradigm;
  • Institutional or organizational transformation: when the change goes beyond existing structures and replaces the present paradigm (to transform is to go beyond [trans] present form, to transcend existing structure, to replace the paradigm).

Something else that is important is the following. If, in a process of change, we concede too much to existing thought and practice, innovation will be the first victim: there will be little that is new and the end result will not be very different from where we started.

Three quotes, coming from widely different sources, corroborate this assertion:

“The only way to drastically change the world is to imagine it different from the way it is today.  Apply too much of the wisdom and knowledge that got us here, and you end up right where you started. If you want to get different results, take a fresh look from a new perspective” (Jay Allard, former Microsoft Vice-President – quote slightly altered for emphasis; bold and underlining added).

“If you keep doing pretty much what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting pretty much what you’ve always got” (Jack Canfield, well-known author – quote slightly altered for emphasis).

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (attributed to many people, including Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein).

As already mentioned, the last sixty years brought about change in the world that was broad, profound, systemic (holistic), radical, often abrupt, and frequently unexpected. This change led to significant departures from existing thought and practice in almost every area of life – enough to cause many important authors to speak of a new Renaissance, a new era, a new civilization. It is difficult to imagine that this sort of change would leave an important institution of society, such as the school, unaffected.

And yet, as mentioned in the previous section, the school was, and continues to be, a notable exception among the institutions that the twentieth century inherited from the previous centuries. While it is undeniable that there have been small changes and innovations within the school in the past two hundred and fifty years or so, they are mostly superficial or cosmetical, and very often affect only one single dimension of the institution: either the curriculum, or the methodology, or the form of assessment, or the kind of technology used, or the other resources employed, or the style of management, or the relation with the world of work, or the relation with the surrounding community, etc. The institution itself has not been significantly changed. It certainly has not been transformed: the school is still basically the same institution created around two centuries and a half ago at the beginning of the Industrial Civilization.

There seems to be little doubt that the school will become an obsolete institution (assuming it is not there yet) and eventually die if we allow it to rest content with a lesser sort of change that keeps too close to existing thought and practice. But that is what will happen if we limit the degree of innovation that affects it.

So, when we speak of innovation, it is this second kind of change – transformative, revolutionary change – that we must have in mind: it is the reinvention of the school that we must pursue. This is the only attitude compatible with the paradigm proposed in the previous article. And yet this will not take place quickly: it will require persistence and patience.

To create itself anew, and before it can renew its practice, the school must rethink its theoretical framework, that is, its pedagogical vision, which includes its view of education and learning and its understanding of its own role in the learning of the students.

4. The School of the Industrial Civilization

The school that we know was created in the Industrial Civilization according to the model that prevailed in the factory. These are the main elements of this model:

  • First, you define the core function of the factory: in the case of the school, the delivery to the new generations of the cultural legacy of the past;
  • Second, you define and organize the processes: in the case of the school, you organize the legacy in compartments (disciplines) and divide it up in dosages adequate to the imagined capacity of those to whom it is going to be delivered (grades);
  • Third, you define a methodology, namely, the way in which this legacy ought to be delivered to the students: disciplinary teaching to groups of no more than forty students for several periods of no more than fifty minutes with small intervals (five to ten minutes) between them;
  • Fourth, you define the professionals you need to deliver the legacy through teaching: specialists in the content of the disciplines (which, if too complex, may require a specialist for the earlier years and another for the more advanced years);
  • Fifth, you define methods of quality control: regular assessments in the form of quizzes, tests, examinations that guarantee that everyone, in a given age group, knows basically the same about any given discipline;
  • Sixth, you define other norms that guarantee that the students attentively receive the delivery in orderly and disciplined regiments, that they do not talk or consult with each other especially during assessments, and that make it difficult, if not impossible, for any student to claim or receive individualized attention or personalized treatment.
  • Seventh, you define what should be the standard profile of the student as he finishes his schooling and final examinations that should guarantee that all graduating students conform to this profile

5. The School in the Learning Society

In the present stage we do not as yet have a Learning Society: a society in which all institutions have an educational focus and contribute to the learning of those that participate in them.

But we must create a new school that performs a transitional role in helping create the Learning Society and in preparing us to actively, interactively and collaboratively learn in it.

In the next article its contours will be discussed.

São Paulo, on the 12th of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.

1 – Looking Anew at Education (*)

Many animals instinctively rear their children – but only humans educate them in a conscious, deliberate, intentional way.

Looking anew at education could mean simply looking once more at it, but in the same manner, as something that has always been with us. But it can also mean looking again at it, but this time, in a fresh and innovative manner. That is the sense in which the expression “looking anew” is intended in this article.

Education does not take place in a vacuum. It always takes place in a specific context: a given place, a given time, for given reasons and with given resources. When this context changes drastically, we must look again at education in a fresh and innovative manner: as a matter of fact, we need a paradigm shift.

There is no doubt that the in the last seventy years (from 1945 up to now) the context in which education takes place underwent profound changes. The emergence of digital information and communication technologies (digital ICT) radically transformed this context. Until World War II the context was one in which information, communication, and therefore knowledge were scarce, and access to them was difficult. Now the context is one in which information, communication, and therefore knowledge (knowledge that and knowledge how) are abundant, and access to them is easy, at our fingertips, anywhere, anytime – often instantaneously.

Given this radical change of context (and only one aspect of it was focused), education cannot, and will not, remain unaffected today. We need to change how we conceive it and how we implement it.

1) Understanding Education

Any person or institution interested in education must have, if not a precise definition of what it is, at least a clear and definite understanding of the concept.

Education, in the recent past, basically meant transmission or delivery of information and knowledge. Education, in this context, was generally organized (in the form of schools involving teachers, curricula, methodology, evaluation, etc.) to implement this understanding.

This understanding of education made sense in a context where information and knowledge were scarce and access to them was difficult. That context no longer exists. Thus we must look for a different understanding of education. We could try to invent, out of nothing, a totally new concept. Or we could recapture insights that, in bits and pieces, have already been with us, sometimes for a long time, but never found real resonance and never were brought together in a unified and coherent concept. That is what will be done here.

Take, for instance, this quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile (published in 1762), that is, perhaps, the most important essay on education written in the 18th century, before industrial civilization became widespread:

“All that we lack at birth, and need when grown up, is given us by education”.

This statement feels refreshing today because it emphasizes an important thing, often neglected in our times: everything (“all”) that we need in order to live our life, and that is not innate to us (“that we lack at birth”), must be acquired through education.

Translated into more contemporary language, this means that education has to do, not with the transmission and delivery of information and knowledge, but with the very process of human development.

Development is not the same thing as growth. Development is the product of learning. Someone can grow and not develop as a human being. Mowgli, the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle stories, grew up, but did not develop as a human being. If we can speak of development in his case, it is more in terms of wolf development than of human development.

Rousseau reminds us that education is not limited to our intellectual development. Education involves also other dimensions of human life: psychomotor, social (interpersonal), affective (emotional), aesthetic (sensible), ethical and perhaps even spiritual. This is what is meant today by the expression “human development”. To add “full “or “integral” to this expression is almost pleonastic.

Even though Rousseau does not say it in this passage, the things that are innate to us (whatever they may be) can be exercised, extended, improved, perfected through education — in all of the dimensions specified.

This means that we considerably impoverish education if we conceive it only (or even primarily) as intellectual development, even if we add the mastery of skills and competencies to the absorption and assimilation of information and knowledge.

Education is still more impoverished if we see it primarily as preparation for the job market in the digital economy or for effective citizenship in a democratic society, even though education as human development may include both of these things. But it includes much more, such as, for instance, the development of characteristics that culminate in one’s self-realization — what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Achieving eudaimonia implies defining, choosing and actualizing one’s life project.

2) Formal, Non-formal and Ubiquitous Education

Human development, thus conceived, begins, it goes without saying, at birth – and ends, most likely, only at death.

In an important article written in 2010, Ecuadorean educator Rosa Maria Torres welcomes UNESCO’s recognition that education (that she correctly considers synonymous with learning, not with teaching) is a lifelong process that begins at birth and ends only at death (“Lifelong Learning: Moving Beyond Education for All”, International Forum on Lifelong Education, Shanghai, China, May 19-21, 2010).

Her text shows that, by changing the theme from “Education for All” (that really meant schooling for all) to “Lifelong Education”, UNESCO changed the challenge that government educational policy and private educational programs around the world must face. In this case, the distinction between formal and non-formal education loses importance, since education is no longer synonymous with schooling and teaching, and learning takes place both in formal (school-like) and non-formal contexts. Concern with education must begin much earlier than regular schooling and involve the whole life of the person in its multiple dimensions. Education becomes an “anytime, anywhere endeavor” that lasts throughout one’s life. In other words, education becomes ubiquitous. Something ubiquitous is everywhere at the same time, i.e., is anywhere, anytime.

3) Society as the Learning Environment

Discussing the concept of education among the ancient Greeks and Romans, James L. Jarrett states, in his magnificent The Humanities and Humanistic Education (p.11):

“Indeed, neither Greek nor Roman was in the least likely to share the modern confusion that identifies education with schooling. We are shaped and formed by the totality of our environment: it follows that we cannot afford to be careless about any aspect of that environment — architectural, legal, ceremonial, erotic, whatever“.

If education has to do with human development in all of its dimensions, and if it takes place throughout the life of the individual, it cannot be accommodated within the confines of a single (and often one-dimensional) institution, namely, the school, without losing its essential ubiquitousness.

Thus, when UNESCO tries, if not to obliterate the distinction between formal and non-formal education, at least to reduce its present importance, it is taking us back to a view already espoused by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But the point of view defended by the ancient Greeks and Romans went beyond giving equal attention to formal and non-formal educational initiatives. They did not favor the schooling of society: they favored making society as a whole the environment in which we learn and thus educate ourselves. According to this view, to be concerned with education is not equivalent to creating and maintaining a good school system (public or private, makes no difference), much less to extending the time people remain in school (freely or under compulsion). Instead of proposing that the school should become a totalitarian institution in society, the ancient Greeks and Romans proposed that all the institutions and activities of society have an educational focus — that is, that society should become a truly educational (i.e., learning-centered) environment.

The richness of this  idea is mind-boggling. The ancient Greeks and Romans were not contemplating the educational role of only a few institutions of society, such as the family, the church, the local community, the communication means, industrial and commercial enterprises, cultural and leisure-focused organizations — not even of the school. They meant that every institution and every activity of society, from the way cities are planned and built, passing through how they are organized and governed (including, necessarily, their laws) and through how they are maintained by means of free economic activities, and arriving at how leisure is promoted and organized, that all of this be learning-focused – that is, be educational.

Rather than proposing a totalitarian schooling of society, they proposed the total deschooling of society (à la Ivan Illich), because learning should become society’s overall focus and concern. If the ancient Greeks and Romans had known the present digital information and communication technologies, they would probably have emphasized their point much more strongly and realistically.

4) How Learning and Education Take Place

Paulo Freire, Brazil’s best known educator, said in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed the following (here in a somehow free translation that joins ideas found in more than one place):

“Nobody educates anybody, but nobody educates himself either. We educate each other through a continuous dialogue, mediated by the world, in which we use resources that, in traditional education, are owned only by the teacher. Education therefore is a mutual, world-mediated process in which unfinished beings, conscious of their incompletion, attempt to be more fully human”.

5) Our Role in Education

What do these reflections, that mix the thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans with the thought of a leading Enlightenment figure and of a 20th-century Brazilian educator, have to say to us, who live in the 21st-century? What does it have to say  to governments, private companies, non-governmental organizations, etc., in fine, to anyone concerned with making a contribution to education, and thus to the betterment, of society?

First, we would do well to set our view, in education, way beyond traditional targets such as digitalizing present curricular content so it can be delivered through digital channels, or preparing present teachers to use digital tools to better deliver content that is in digital format. If we confine ourselves within these traditional limits, we deny ourselves the alternative of following the suggestion of the ancient Greeks and Romans that the whole of society be educational – the learning environment par excellance in which human development takes place.

Second, we would do well to stop viewing our target audience as being only either students or teachers (that is, school-bound people). Our target audience clearly includes present students and teachers, as long as they exist as such, but also, as a matter of fact, everyone engaged in the educational task of, through dialogue, overcoming their unfinished, incomplete condition and becoming more fully human. And we ought to become fully aware that educational work is done in the world, not necessarily in schools.

Third, Bill Gates, in one of his books, underlined an important contribution technology companies can make to the digital economy. However, in line with what I just said, he might as well be underlining the main contribution technology companies can make to education, conceived along the lines here described. Here is what he said:

“Digital tools magnify the abilities that make us unique in the world: the ability to think, the ability to articulate our thoughts, the ability to work together to act on those thoughts.  I strongly believe that if companies empower their employees to solve problems and give them potent tools to do this with, they will always be amazed at how much creativity and initiative will blossom forth” (Bill Gates, with Collins Hemingway, Business @ the Speed of Thought – Using a Digital Nervous System, 1999, p. 415, last paragraph of the book).

If we apply this reasoning to education, we will stop thinking only of companies and their employees and start thinking of society and everyone that inhabits it…  “Digital tools magnify the abilities that make us unique in the world: the ability to think, the ability to articulate our thoughts, the ability to work together to act on those thoughts”. If society empowers its members to solve problems and gives them potent tools to do this with, we will all be amazed at how much creativity, initiative and genuine learning will blossom forth.

If the analysis here made makes sense, then it makes no sense to think of technology companies as entities that do not need (or even ought not) to have a stand on substantive educational issues, since they (as some have argued) cannot get involved with the “pedagogical black box” with which only professional educators would be authorized to deal. In what is here proposed, technology companies become a very important part of the overall educational environment that is our society, and, even if we do not take into account their philanthropic and/or corporate social responsibility activities, their products and services still are part of the educational (i.e., learning-centered) environment which society makes available to its members.

It is clear, therefore, that technology companies would be contributing their due share to our society as its corporate citizens even if they only (as if this were little!) continued to offer to society quality digital tools and services that help bring forth the required creativity, ingenuity and initiative that will help us solve many of our problems. (See Jean-François Rischard, High Noon).

Fourth, the initiatives in the area of formal (school-focused) education and in the area of community affairs, supporting programs and organizations that work with digital inclusion and non-formal education, that most of the main technology companies have taken, are also part of their educational effort, if education is understood in the broader perspective that is suggested here.

Fifth, in the broader perspective that is suggested here, the description that Microsoft, one of the major technology companies of our time, used to make of its “core mission” as a “corporate citizen” of our society is not mere rhetoric: “to help people and businesses around the world realize their full potential”. Realizing one’s full potential is equivalent, in the case of individuals, to achieving self-realization — which is the goal of human development, that is, of education.

But this is a general statement. We are specific individuals, each one with their own interests and passions, gifts and talents, levels of ambition, motivation and energy. The central initial focus of education must be the definition and choice of one’s life project. After that comes the effort to transform that project into reality. In this process, monitoring and evaluation are invaluable to show the need of small course corrections or, eventually, of drastic revisions in the plan of action.

Education, it can be summarized, is equivalent to the strategic planning of one’s life and to the execution of this strategic plan. We do not do it alone: we do it collaboratively.

São Paulo, on the 7th of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.