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Schools of the Future May Not Be Actual Buildings at All

Do Future Schools Need Actual Buildings? - Bidgee
As the UK schools’ rebuilding programme is slashed, now could be the right time to wonder about tomorrow’s education in custom-made structures.

Britain’s schools and colleges are currently wrestling with public spending restrictions. Rapid rethinking is being done on what to spend on updating worn-out, often crumbling infrastructure. The tension between perceived quality teaching and learning in state-of-the-art schools, and what taxpayers and government are prepared to pay, is tangible.

Webster’s Dictionary defines education as “the process of educating or teaching….” Anybody digging deeper into this finds it necessary to define knowledge, skills, understanding, character, development. There is, in short, no universally agreed definition of education nor how it should be accessed. Teachers’ Mind Resources opened a debate on educational definitions in the early part of this century. The definitive meaning is still awaited.

Don Berg of Attitutor Services argues that education is a process of “cognitive cartography” and believes that education as delivery of knowledge, skills and information is misguided. He claims “the proper definition of education is the process of becoming an educated person, with access to optimal states of mind, able to perceive accurately, think clearly and act effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations.” If that is so, does it all need to be in buildings?

Organisational Preoccupations in Educational Settings

In the absence of an absolute benchmark, the school system is tinkered with, assessed and monitored, producing people in various degrees of fitness for their futures. Changes to lengths/timings of the school day; more homework/less homework; more regular national testing/less frequent localised testing; schools with differing specialisms; earlier starts/later finishes; mid-days as social/eating/health opportunities; personalised versions of the school/national curriculum: all these and more are adjusted endlessly in parts of Britain.

Some children have extra tutoring after school for grade-improvement or to learn a skill not available in schools. Others receive home tuition, because they cannot cope or are bullied, or there are other issues that prevent them from being part of a daily school community.

Increasingly, parents are attracted to teaching their own children at home. While the lack of social intercourse is a down-side, the advent of advanced technology has made it more feasible. In many Australian outback communities, there are too few children to justify conventional buildings. They learn at home by School of the Air, originally radio, now satellite communication.

In other areas of the world, from Africa to Canada, distance learning is long established. Universities offer courses to students who stay at home and learn on-line, having work marked, taking part in seminars and discussions. People in huge areas of the globe learn by oral tradition, which often surprises people of conventional mind-sets.

Revolutions are Already Turning Schools Upside Down

Therefore, school as a single-purpose establishment is not universal. Even where “school” is a deeply embedded part of the cultural fabric, as in the UK, some experiments in the previously unthinkable have produced startling results, suggesting applications in the world of work.

“Spaced Learning” is a concept of short, sharp, intense periods of learning (say 8 minutes) interspersed with short periods of totally different activity: physical or relaxing. The information is repeated, and then again after a further break. It seems to produce better results through improved concentration, long-term memory development and more positive teenage motivation.

Partnered with Microsoft Education, UK’s Monkseaton High School in Tyne and Wear has pioneered Spaced Learning. The idea has also drawn on research from USA’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Development, which confirmed a link between effective brain cell development and regular constructive breaks.

The exact opposite of this concept has won as many enthusiasts. In Leasowes Community College in Dudley near Birmingham, UK, lessons can run over several days, allowing students to absorb theory and practice, gain deeper understanding and minimise disruptive, time-wasting movement. In 2008 they won the 21st Century Learning Alliance Award for innovative curriculum approaches. Monday-Thursday they follow a traditional pattern, but Flexible Fridays permit timing experiments to reinforce new learning and applications.

“One Size Fits All” in Education Has had its Day

The notion that every person learns, retains, applies in the same way at the same rate, no longer holds water. Extending the use of costly school buildings for the community into evenings, weekends and holidays barely scratches the surface. The fundamental question is: does the next decade need automatic new schools? Of course, areas like drama teaching do need not only real space, but students to be physically present together.

According to Shift Happens (both US and UK versions), ‘today’s learners will have 10-14 jobs by age 38; the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004; we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t know are problems yet’.

Change, development, advances in knowledge/information are exponential. The number of daily text messages sent exceeds the population of Earth; there are about 540,000 words in the English language, five times the number in Shakespeare’s time; and a week of the New York Times contains more information than anybody alive 200 years ago learned in a lifetime.

While educators, parents, taxpayers, legislators, employers and young people absorb that, architects go on designing newer glass/steel, energy-efficient, environmentally supportive temples of learning, harnessing technology which ages as it’s installed. What else can they do till the future arrives?

First published on Suite 101, 12 July 2010.

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