Saturday, October 08, 2005

Liza Loop

Why do Schools Have Walls? Another Look at Barriers to
Paradigm Shift in Educational Infrastructure

Liza Loop, LO*OP Center, Inc.
Thursday, September 29, 2005, 1:15-2:00 pm

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If we didn’t have a school system and we had to invent something to encourage learning, what would we design? This question has been with me all of my adult life.

In 1983, after working with kids and computers for 8 years, I wrote out a brief description of the Open Portal School and published several versions of it in magazines and newsletters for educators. Although positively received, no one offered a further developed blueprint of how to migrate from a 1980s style “little red schoolhouse” to a school of the future. Many educators of the time became deeply involved in building and marketing educational hardware and software. These inventors promised that their technologies would revolutionize the processes of teaching and learning. Marketing these products required that they be either “entertainment,” and therefore compete with educational activities, or easily adapted to the traditional classroom. Much progress was made in delivering traditional curriculum to distributed locations via radio, video and teleconferencing. The Internet made many types of mediated courseware available to students of all ages any time, anywhere. However, in spite of all this progress, the basic concept of school has not evolved significantly. Why not?

I think the answer to this question lies in our collective global mindset. Even in developing countries parents, government offi cials and community leaders view building schools and providing trained classroom teachers as essential to the growth of self-sustaining economies. We expect to educate people in “teaching factories” even though the nineteenth century industrial model may never again be viable in many parts of the world. We need a mindset appropriate to the information age.

It’s time for envisioning, inventing, interlinking and, eventually, implementing a set of organizational structures to promote “open” learning environments for all people. To facilitate this process I pose the six “formative questions” listed below.

1. What do schools do? What functions does a school perform today? If we are inventing educative systems to replace or exist along side today’s schools we would be wise to know what they already do. We wouldn’t want to lose functionality we already have. However, cataloging current functions may help us identify additional outcomes to incorporate into schools of the future. We may also find activities that no longer need to be coupled with formal education. We might ask what other social institutions can do this better?

2. What kinds of educational programs currently exist worldwide? People all over the world learn in formal and informal ways. Let’s look around before we launch our educative revolution and compile an inventory of different kinds of learning institutions already invented. Every city in the world has examples of private and government sponsored, formal educational institutions. But learning also takes place in nonformal venues such as museums, theatres and libraries. Home based tutoring and schooling used to be the rule for most children before the industrial revolution. Now it is experiencing a revival across the United States. Can parents now take more responsibility for “education”? What about workplace education, coaching, and the school of hard knocks? We must look beyond the traditional school and college campuses for models of how people really acquire the skills and information needed to thrive in the 21st century.

3. What counts as educational and why? What characteristics differentiate “educational” activities from other kinds of activities? We judge activities—our own and others’—against a standard that is often unspoken and unexamined. We value some experiences more than others. The term “learning” is usually applied by teachers to changes they have mapped out for others designated as “students”. But as information and skills training becomes more mediated the learner gains control while the teacher transforms into a coach or facilitator. How do we draw a line between teacher and entertainer?

4. Who grants degrees and certificates? From whom or from where do degree-granting organizations get their formal authority? Who says Tom can have a high school diploma and Harry can’t, Mele can practice medicine or Nga can represent you in court? The local school board, the State of California? The Educational Testing Service? The Minister of Education of India? An important modern-day function of many schools and universities is the granting of degrees. Changes in the structure of education must address the question of certification.

5. Who is responsible for the care and safety of those who cannot fend for themselves? Today many schools function as glorified babysitting services. Hospitals, senior centers and rehabilitation centers teach older people how to manage medications and infirmities. Families and nursing homes may not offer any learning opportunities to their elderly or handicapped. Our modern infrastructure often intermixes the functions of caregiver, social skills developer and intellectual coach to such a degree that none of these roles is well done. There may be better ways to care for people then sending them to “school.”

6. Who gets to learn? What formal and informal conditions control access to various educationalexperiences today? How should we arrange access for tomorrow’s learners? We agree that the learner needs to come to the educative experience with the skills needed to benefit from it. We wouldn’t send a person who had never been on skis to the top of the expert slope. Aside from lack of prerequisite physical or intellectual skills what other barriers are there to learning opportunities? Money? Time? Motivation? Social class? Cultural capital? Educational infrastructure?

Participants will be invited to refine these six questions during this presentation and then contribute their comments and answers to an ongoing wiki web site on these topics.

Original paper, updated paper in process.


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