I was asked to write this as a contribution to a useful document on school design, in the broad sense, put together by the excellent Dyer Group who amongst other things are significant architects. I wrote it early in 2009.
The finance industry's collapse was not much of a surprise to many observers, although it shocked those within the industry. It had seemed pretty clear to many of us watching that continuing to offer mortgages to those who could not repay them, was foolish. But within the sector eyes were focussed on the short termism of the next quarter's targets and on the bonus payments that would result. There was a clear view that if it was really foolish, then somehow "they" would intervene to stop the foolishness. In the end, of course, there was no "they".
For a very long time in learning we have been clear about the components of 21st century schools. Paper after paper, report after report, project after project confirmed the effectiveness well tried and tested ingredients of 21st century learning: smaller units of learning organisation - in particular the small "home base" type groupings of around 150; of the effective engagement brought by project based working; of the power of the learners' voice not just in guiding new learning but in generating that meta-level learning reflection that is so infectious; of the wasted expense of corridors in a world where children move so much less around the school; of the need for agile multi-faceted space that can respond rapidly to learners' needs; of the effectiveness of much longer timetable blocks, or even no timetable; of the paucity of current furniture focussing as it mostly does on the individual doing non collaborative tasks; of the effectiveness of some mixed age learning and much, much more. Everyone from the World Bank to President Obama's current advisers generate cogent, rational papers arguing for the effectiveness of learning recipes assembled from these many ingredients. 21st century learning, in all its forms and iterations, works and in many cases can be stellar.
And yet because our metrics of learning success are so blunt, short term and unambitious (for example the number attaining 5 GCSE passes above grade D) it is quite possible to build a school that ignores the certainty of so much research and advice and simply delivers on these unambitious incremental targets, with the inevitable consequence of disengagement and dismay amongst its learners. I have yet to read a report from Ofsted, for example, that chastises a school for continuing to "deliver" factory learning and ignores this solid consensus that we are not now in the 20th century. Somehow our systems seem incapable of realising the foolishness of keeping doing the same thing when the evidence is that it is wrong.
It all sounds alarmingly like the finance industry with a headless chicken dash forwards, just about attaining the incremental targets, but ignoring the damage in terms of disengagement from a love of learning, that accompanies these continued errors. "Don't worry" might be the cry, "if it is all so foolish 'they' will intervene to stop the foolishness". Unfortunately, as with the finance industry, the key insight is that there is no "they". It would only take 15% of students or so to finally walk away from factory learning ( a "run" on the school mirroring a "run" on the bank" as parents queue to withdraw their children) for the whole financial assumptions of state education to collapse.
Hopefully, we are not as foolish, or as greedy, as bankers, but to be convincing in this assertion we - everyone engaged in the wonderful task of transforming our schools - need to raise our heads from the short termism of unambitious and imposed targets and start asking instead just how good might our children really be, if we gave them the chance to show us. That is the most exciting design task any of us will face in our careers.
Prof Stephen Heppell © 2009
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