Paul Hillsdon is a 16 year old youth currently residing in the suburbs of Vancouver, Canada. He spends most of his time perusing the internet, catching up on TV shows, and thinking up crazy ideas. Paul is currently muddling through the last years of high school. Afterwards, he intends to pursue his dreams and ideals as long as financially possible.
Paul initially developed his ideas around education through some turbulent times in school. After being the straight-A, teacher’s pet, top dog student in school for a few years, he hit a wall. Succumbing to the social pressures of high school, he discovered that there were only two reasons to be in school: socializing and learning. Being able to focus entirely on the educational aspect, he realized how screwed up it was.
After a rough Grade 9, wherein he experienced two terrible teachers, he lost all motivation for schooling and refused to return. He continued his studies for Grade 10 onwards with Surrey Connect, a local district-funded online school. Realizing that distance education was 10 times worse than regular school, he intends to return back to a building and graduate with grades that will enable him attend university, in the case that he may one day wish to.
Paul would be interested in your feedback after reading this article. Please contact the Initiative with questions or comments.
Education was written in 2006.
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Our education system is in a dire situation. Based on 19th century needs, the system has become cluttered, complex, bureaucratic, and most importantly nearly useless. The only reason most people stay in school is because it’s simply it’s much easier to get a well paid job by getting a degree. To get a degree, you need to be accepted into college or university. To get accepted you need to graduate grade school with good grades. And there’s where it begins. Focus shifts from teaching and raising an aware, creative, inspired and capable creature, to advancing to the next grade. It’s not about the child, it’s not about his or her capabilities; it’s about the grades. They have become the one single and most important variable in a student’s school experience.
But it’s not just grades that are deteriorating the school experience. It’s the bureaucracy. With the rise of unions in the 60′s, many people who shouldn’t be teachers are have guaranteed protection. Whether they’ve lost their excitement for teaching or they just arent good with kids; the unions keep them safe from firing. However, it’s not just teachers the problem. There’s a constant lack of discussion between not only teachers and administration, but school districts, unions, and government. Frankly, these “organizations” have gotten so caught up in themselves for the past decades, that they’ve completely forgot what the number on focus is and should always be: the student. Tech support should not take over a month to arrive, principals should have some control over not just students but the teachers and the resources of the school, secretaries should not be looked down upon, special education teachers should not be teaching P.E., and school districts should be able to competently balance their budgets much more efficiently than they currently are.
And our final problems in this ghastly learning trio of problems is the students themselves. The kids that are in our school today are very much different than their parents of their teacher’s generation; what Marc Prensky calls digital natives. These kids were born into a rapid, constantly changing world rampant with the key behind our information and communication revolution: technology. Whether in the form of computers, the internet, video games, television, cell phones, biotechnology, robotics, portable audio players, etc.; everything is shifting from analogue to digital and has been for a long time. While many studies continue on how this new world is affecting how these children learn, one thing is certain: they are not the same kids our education system was built for.
To change the way our education system works, we’ve got to start from the ground up. Not only do we need to determine how these kids learn and how that affects the curriculum and learning styles, but we need to realign our school workers mind’s to be set on the goal of the student and change the public’s perspective on what school is about.
There are many different opinions on what school is for. Some say it is to learn the academics, others believe school’s also teach social and civic responsibilities. Frankly, our education system need a rehaul now and cannot wait other ten years until scientists divulge through their studies what school is for. In my opinion, school should be about raising a child who is not just a capable worker for the GDP, but one who is a fundamental requirement to society. Schools need to be facilitating the full development of young children to a young adult; raising people who are vocal enough to question the unquestionable, creative enough to imagine the unimaginable, resourceful enough to answer their own questions, and radical enough to believe they can change the world for the better. We cannot stick by the lowest common denominator, hoping to have kids come out of high school being able to read. We need to reach for the stars! We should be striving to raise the next Neil Armstrong, Pierre Trudeau, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Alexander Graham Bell, James Naismith, or Steven Spielberg. We need to be raising kids who are able to advance the human race. That alone is a colossal fundamental change in the way the education system currently works.
Fine, so we’re raising kids who can change the world. Wait, raising? Yes, raising! Another complete twist of the mind is the idea that we are no longer teaching kids. Because, well, even today we aren’t teaching them. With the advent of the internet, they can go learn about anything they wish to know in well under a second. As soon as children are competent enough to surf through the world wide web without help, they’ve already surpassed the limits of teaching. And are teachers actually teaching? You imagine a teacher up in front of a class. But wait, they aren’t actually explaining anything are they? They’re just handing out worksheets. And scribbling down which pages student need to read to get their high mark. And that’s where change needs to happen. Teachers have not only lost control of their student minds, they’ve also lost their zeal to inform students about something they do not know. This is where we shift from teaching into facilitating. By facilitation we mean providing students with the resources necessary to complete a project or assignment on their own or in a group, and being available if they are needed by students. Here, teacher’s learn to give up their false idea of control. They truly have no power. All the power is in the hands of the student; where it has always been. While it may be against the law is not be in school under the age of 16, it’s definitely within the control of the student whether he or she wishes to actually learn something.
Just as teachers fit well with the idea of students sitting and consuming information from this one talking head, facilitators fit well with the idea of project-base learning. Projects have, for a long time now, emerged as the single, best way for a student to learn something. Not only does a student have to learn how to research and discern between which information is suitable and from a reliable source, they also have to arrange their information research into their own words and own form of communication, whether that is a poster-board, model, or Powerpoint presentation. The reason this form of learning is not used all the time is because it takes a lot of time, energy, creativity, problem-solving skills, and planning. Regardless of its superb facilitation of learning, many teachers and students alike choose to go the low road and complete worksheet after mindless worksheet, because it is easier in the long run. If we want to be raising people who are going to change the world, they can’t be used to taking the easy road in life. But just as worksheets are to projects, tests are to portfolios. When you facilitate learning, you never know what is going to be acquired; teachers no longer have control of what the student is taking in. As such, things a student learnt through a project may or may not have been included in the test. Tests, just like worksheets, are the easy road. Students don’t have to present their work, teachers don’t have to accurately and fairly judge a project, and Administration and the Government can easily rate and rank schools based on marks attained through tests and exams. So what’s a portfolio? It’s a collection of a your work and your achievements. It’s something to represent your capabilities and efforts. Presumably that would encompass multiple different projects a student completes throughout a year. They can then go around and present their projects, in the form of a portfolio, to whomever they wish to tell, whether that’s a employer or an organization.
Now stop. Think about what I just described to you. No more idle rows of students sitting in front of one all powerful being telling them what the all mighty wants them to know. Instead, you’ve got student who learnt through experiential trial and error how to collect, judge, catalogue, and present information whether on their own or with a group. What does this sound like? It’s exactly how many new cutting edge businesses work nowadays. They research, infer, index, create, and display projects and business ideas that are going to move the company forward. This is another paradigm shift in the way the education system works.
But remember, these kids don’t think the way the older generations do. Do projects fit within their wired world? Of course they do. In fact, they facilitate all 6 of the well-defined 21st century skills, put forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills organization. They claim, in the flat world, and global economy of the 21st century, students will need these 6 skills to excel: Critical thinking and problem solving, communication, creativity and innovation, collaboration, information and media literacy, and contextual learning. As I’m sure you can plainly see, and this is something I can attest to, project-based learning enables the development of all 6 of these skills. As you can understand, projects and portfolios will enable students to make that leap and be prepared to go out in the 21st century and achieve their goals in life.
However, while a project on Napoleon may make sense, how does one complete math in a project-based form? The simple answer is, you don’t. As you may recall, it is before the age of 8 or 9 when a child becomes capable to competently navigate the virtual world online. Thus what happens before then? Elementary as it has been for a while now; but with one exception: grades based on age. Compare our school of tomorrow with the business of tomorrow; the one difference is ageism. While it may make some sense from certain points of view to keep kids of the same age together, it really weakens their capabilities to communicate with others of different ages. Being able to understand how to communicate differently to certain people (such as a teen to teen versus a teen to senior) is a very important ability. Thus, grades need to be based on ability. Children come into the school system at all different learning levels, generally based on both genes and how much parents taught their kids. Now, if a student comes in with math skills of a Grade 2 level, he or she should obviously not be placed in a kindergarten class. But, that raises the question of, what about this child’s normal capacity with language skills. If he or she is simply mastering math, does that mean he or she should automatically be moved up? Not only are grades opening up, but so are classrooms. Later on you’ll read about integrated studies, another key component in a reformed education system. Continuing with the subject of the elementary classroom however, you’ll notice what it ultimately is for: learning the essentials. Those essentials include: competent language skills (reading, writing, speaking), all basic forms of math necessary in our daily lives (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division, and other main math skills), an appetite for questioning their world (science and socials) with introduction to basic problem solving skills, and a fire for the creative and innovative world of the arts (dance, music, media, painting and drawing, etc.). All the basic skills a child needs in higher levels of schooling, and that form the crux of our daily lives.
Moving from the more standard elementary school to the reformed middle school, what do we discover? A school that blends traditional teaching forms with the project-base learning style. Students are still too young to effectively manage their time alone, and properly solve many bigger problems they may have recently discovered. Middle school is the time when puberty kicks in and a very turbulent time for many. Teachers, or facilitators will focus many classes based on informing and discussing subjects like puberty and sexuality, drugs and alcohol, decision making, peer pressure, emotions, and basic philosophy. Because basic skills have been accounted for, through these subjects and more, students will learn to work alone or as a group, and discover how to properly research subjects, develop projects around ideas, and present and discuss these projects with others. It’s now only a major shift in the student’s lives, but a major shift in the way a classroom works. Here is the first example of the dissemination of standard subjects, and integration on the development on those basic skills through project based learning. Facilitating will commence through this time of discovery of one’s self and one’s capability. Once a student feels capable that they have discovered their place in the world, and has completed a series of projects concerning multiple subjects, a teacher will conduct an interview will them one on one. Here, the child presents their first portfolio and discusses how and why they are ready to move into the final step of schooling; the secondary school. It is also the middle school that introduces manager use of technology. While children may use the technology daily before, here is where is begins transferring into schoolwork. Intensive use of the internet will commence for research purposes, and students will learn to collaborate and communicate in multiple ways through the web (blogs, podcasts, video, etc.). Every student will be given a laptop and they will eventually eliminate most of all paper-based note taking or writing. While the students have one main teacher, or facilitator, there will be numerous specialists coming in and out of the classroom from time to time. Student will also venture beyond the classroom, encouraging many field trips and more natural, everyday learning experiences.
Secondary is the final shift over to project-based learning and allows much more freedom to students on their choice of topics, such as web development, graphic design, dance, chemistry, algebra, writing, psychology, civilizations, etc. Teachers, or facilitators rather, will begin with several assigned projects that cover certain required subjects of study, such as World Wars, or the establishment of Canada. However, through meetings with these facilitators, students will be allowed to wander off and research any subject they wish and present it in their proper way. Students will no longer have one facilitator; they will have several throughout the course of the year. They will learn whom to go to for certain problems. Students will not be in classrooms much at all anymore and will plan their own schedules quite independently. They will have to organize their time properly and meet with peers and facilitators when necessary. Also, if a student has completed a goal ahead of time or wishes to go out for lunch, they are allowed that privilege. They do not have to arrive at school at a certain time; however if they have a meeting or require the resources of the school, they will show up accordingly. Much like the real world, except they are being overseen by facilitators and are expected to keep in touch and show their progress. During presentations and discussions, special guests will come in and enable the students to network with local business owners or even people across the world through video conferencing. After a student has thoroughly covered so many subjects and topics, and feels they are ready for graduation, they must prove to their facilitators that they are ready to move on into the real world. They present their projects, and must show that their skills are up to a pre-determined bar. The facilitators, if approval is put forth, will then assign on final project that the student must complete that uses all 6 of their 21st century skills. Once completed, if done thoroughly enough, the student will progress to graduation. Using their skills, portfolio and connections, they will then be able to sell themselves and their capabilities to employers or organizations, or advance to university.
Children are no longer tied down to completing 100 worksheets or writing a two paged, double spaced essay to get through to the next step. In this new system, students only have three levels of progress: elementary, middle, and secondary. It is completely up to them to learn what they need to know and what skills they need to develop. Grades aren’t tied down by age, teachers aren’t taking the easy road and marking seventy pages every night, kids are taught to use these essential 6 skills to become fully developed human beings of society, school is no longer based on making the grade, and technology is not just a computer room but the single most important tool of the student. These ideas are a radical change to our perception of education, but they are necessary if we hope to ever educate and raise not just readers, but people who are capable of changing the world.