The new normal that is going to seriously challenge most likely every school and education system is the expectation that learning with the digital, in a socially networked world will be strongly individualised.
The individual will expect to make the key decisions, not have the state.
Allied will be the growing recognition that all in society, from the early years onward, should be free and actively encouraged to grow their desired traits and capabilities, to pursue their own interests and passions, and in the process to develop the competencies they believe most apt.
Ironically this is happening at a time when many pressure groups in society are pressuring governments to compel the young to conform to a perceived ideal form.
The question for all schools, do they want to better individualise their teaching and learning?
If so how do they;
- transition from a teaching and learning environment strongly geared to mass schooling
- create an ecosystem that gives students greater agency over their learning, and allows the students to pursue their interests and passions and to grow their particular strengths
- in their school, at this point in its evolution provide an apt balance between the core learning society expects schools to grow in all the young, and student’s desire to develop the skills and attribute they value?
It is an immense challenge, that bids each school community address the purpose and nature of schooling in a rapidly evolving networked society.
In going digital and social networking the world has provided all, the young and the old the opportunity and tools to take charge of their learning and to learn what they want, when and where they want, how they desire.
Negroponte’s 1995 prescient observation has become the new normal.
In being digital I am me, not a statistical subset (Negroponte, p164, 1995).
A quarter of a century on the dramatic shift from the mass to the more personalised is evident in most every facet of society.
A notable exception is the world’s schools.
There the focus continues to be on the mass; on teaching class groups, on all students following the same, state mandated syllabuses, and assessing all students in the same way.
Near every facet of the school ecosystem is directed to mass schooling. Internally the schools are still invariably organised around common age class groups, with those class groups moving in a lock step manner through 12 -13 years of schooling. All classes invariably follow a common, externally prescribed curriculum, with every student obliged to sit the common tests.
Externally the exam boards, the curriculum authorities, the teacher educators, inspectors, and invariably the local universities and media all work to reinforce the focus on the mass.
While these bodies can provide the flexibility to individualise the teaching more fully most have chosen to strengthen the focus on mass schooling.
It is seemingly an educational given that every student must learn the same things and develop the same competencies.
Moreover, the sameness is being increasing imposed on teachers, on the competencies all must all have, what they’ll teach and how.
Decades of bureaucratic and political control of schooling have spawned the assumption that the state, and not the individual, the parents, or the professional educators, should decide what the young will learn, how, when, where and with the ‘right’ technology.
It is not the reality of everyday life and work, particularly within a digital and networked world. Rather every one of us – regardless of government desires – controls our own learning. We as individuals decide what we will learn, how, when, and where, with what tools and rightly develop the capabilities that go to make each of us who we are.
While many schools, and even systems have over the decades striven to better individualise the teaching and the learning most have struggled, stymied by an ecosystem preoccupied with sorting and sifting the masses, identifying the future leaders, and weeding out the perceived also rans.
If anything, the last fifty years have seen an increased emphasis in schools on shaping a conforming mass, in a manner the government and the pressure groups deems appropriate. Where some of us were fortunate to create an education system in the 1970s that sought to better individualise teaching and learning, and to cater for the full range of students, including the non-conformists, one will struggle today to find a system or government that seriously espouses nurturing the individualism of the young, of applauding the growth of distinct competencies and readying individuals to thrive within an ever more networked, inclusive, and interconnected world.
One wonders how serious many schools and systems are about democracy in their schools, of readying every young person to take ever greater control of their learning and nurturing their individualism?
The provision of a more individualised schooling will, as flagged, be difficult.
The most important step is deciding it should happen.
It is appreciated there are heads and senior bureaucrats who have no desire to change or to cede any of their autocratic control.
The next is clarifying and strategizing one’s desires, and over time shaping a school ecosystem that naturally facilitates, grows, and recognises each student’s capabilities, all the while lessening the impact of the key elements of the mass mode of schooling.
It is about getting the balance right.
Respect, trust, empowerment, agency, inclusiveness, genuine collaboration, and the willingness by heads to distribute the control of the teaching and learning will be critical.
As will curriculum flexibility, the willingness to use different class configurations, project based teaching, collaboration, remote teaching, the recognition of, and the building upon student’s out of school learning —- and teachers willing to cultivate a class teaching environment that better individualises the teaching and learning.
The great aide teachers have today, compared to 50, even 25 years ago is the array of ever more sophisticated digital and network technologies.
In the 1960s many of us individualised our teaching using a typewriter, a duplicating machine, reams of paper and a library of books.
Countesthorpe College (UK) in the 1970s famously sought to individualise all its teaching, using the same paper base.
The shortcomings of the paper technology invariably proved too much.
Most all of those shortcomings can be overcome by the digital and networking technologies.
Serendipitously the COVID experience and the extensive use made of the digital resources and competencies of the connected families has alerted schools, parents, electorates, and treasuries to the relatively inexpensive facility to better individualise the children’s teaching and learning.
Now is not the time for me to propose how your school might better individualise its teaching.
That is best left to each school, its teachers and community.
What this post can do is alert schools and systems to the growing expectation worldwide that schools will continually mirror the ways and expectations of society, and that in time it will pressure schools and electorates to shift the focus from a strongly mass mode of schooling to one that better individualises every child’s teaching and learning.
- Negroponte, N (1995) Being Digital Sydney Hodder and Stoughton