The existing large and pervasive structure for teaching and learning in our schools and colleges is well-known and documented. By structure I mean things like learning progression through defined years of schooling, periodic assessments, organization of a large population of students into more “manage-able” units called the classroom, fixed physical spaces for learning, assignment of class and subject teachers to these classrooms, lesson plans and curricula and so on. There are variations across countries in these parameters, and they may vary in terms of gross indicators like the student to teacher ratio, PCs to students and other indicators.
Schools may also innovate on methodology, extent of blending technology, assessment techniques and other processes and techniques. Some schools may also be single-teacher or multi-classroom, or may have multiple teachers co-teach or peer teach, or may even have student led teaching. There is also discussion around the question – Is ‘Multi-Classroom’ Teaching in Your Future?
But in essence or systemically speaking, they follow a structure with the variations born out necessity or by explicit design. It is this system that we incessantly tweak in order to achieve certain outcomes based on difficulties or challenges we face ranging from challenges around achievement of educational & holistic objectives to employability or societal concerns.
When visitors walk through the gates of the kindergarten (‘KG’ – children of four and one-half years of age) and the Lower Primary (‘LP’ – children from five to eight years of age) sections of the school, they see a world of chaotic activity: running, laughing children being chased, children digging furiously in the sand, water splashing, swings flying, a small knot of children bending over a picture book, a house built of bits of colored cloth, a lively cricket game, a group of easels with brightly painted pictures, a table of children busily cutting and pasting and so on. There is no apparent organization.The pace is swift, the mood, lively and energetic. Yet this enthusiastic learning environment is carefully orchestrated and planned, given the proper number of teachers with the proper training.
Some of this has found echoes in the Indian movie called 3 Idiots. The trailing scenes of the movie show precisely the extent to which the traditional system can be re-imagined. Doubtless, there are many more people thinking this way.
As Knutson comments:
A number of years ago futurists Toffler (1970, 1980) and Naisbitt (1982) predicted the break-up of the standardized, bureaucratized, factory model school system. They indicated that if the changes did not come from within the school systems, they would surely come from out side of them. They also said that the information and technological age in which we live would require of its citizens creativity and diversity, not the sameness underlying the operation of the standard school system.
An interesting framework is provided in Towards an Alternate Typology of Alternate Education Systems (Aron, 2003) who references Raywid’s typology (Appalachia Educational Laboratory 1998) as well.
Such typologies document the effort to move away from factory-age conceptions of the education system to “systems” that disaggregate parts of the traditional school structure and aim to personalize them to specific who, what, how and funding factors. Included thereby, are many systems that appear substantially different.
Models range from schools-within-schools to magnet schools, charter schools, schools without walls, experiential schools, career-focused and job-based schools, dropout recovery programs, after-hours schools, and schools in atypical settings like shopping malls and museums.
What is important to analyze is whether these “alternate systems” are variations within an existing traditional system or whether they are truly alternate. The point is, that mere disaggregation and recombination within an overall formal structure of traditional education, although can definitely be called innovation, but it does not point to a truly alternate system of education.
Consider the term “at-risk”. What are students “at-risk” of? They are at risk of not being able to complete goals set by the traditional school system. Consider the term “home-schooling” or “open-schooling”. There is a traditional system at work which immediately evokes the standard parameters of the traditional system. Consider “school without walls”. Again it plays on one parameter (the boundaries) of traditional school systems.
A real approach at inventing a new system of education must necessarily avoid taking the existing traditional system into consideration, both in terms of vocabulary or parameters. This is not inside the box vs. outside the box innovation thinking – it is invention. Illich was remarkable in that sense, because he presented an “institutional inverse” conception of education, and this may surely be one approach. But perhaps we must also consider approaches that don’t make a play on “opposites”, but rather on being different, like apples and oranges.