I recently watched a video where the young educational campaigner Nikhil Goyal, was interviewed about his new book ‘One Size Does Not Fit All’. He was getting on just fine until he was asked to describe ‘The Ideal Classroom’. I have nothing but respect for Goyal but the truth is he stumbled when answering the question. There are a lot of people who can clearly articulate all the problems with the current education system. The problem is they don’t have a clear vision of the ideal alternative.
When we attempt to imagine the ideal school or classroom, we tend to begin with a vision of schools and classrooms as we’re familiar with them. We see a big school building divided into classrooms which are filled with rows of desks for students to face a single desk at the top of the room for the teacher. We then start trying to tweak this image – “What if we arranged the chairs in a circle?”, or “What if we got rid of the chairs and desks altogether?”, “maybe if we put mirrors on the ceiling?” This method will take you nowhere, and fast. So what does the ideal classroom look like then?
Breaking news folks – There is no ideal classroom.
We need not create a space solely and specifically for learning. Our whole lives, and the world, are our learning space. Instead of starting with the idea of a classroom filled with rows of chairs and a teachers’ desk. Imagine a great big white space, empty save for a group of people from a variety of demographics – with only one thing in common – they all have problems they need to overcome in order to be 100% happy, fulfilled and productive. Learning is at its core, a problem solving tool.
Now, starting at the beginning(namely, with our learners), let’s start to kit out our ‘classroom’ based on the unique needs of our students. This can take us to places and environments we would never expect:
Stephen Ritz teaches a classroom in the South Bronx, in what would be considered by many to be a poor and underprivileged area. But he got attendance of his class to grow from 40 to 93 per cent in a year. How did he do that? What does his classroom look like? Well, it has a garden. Yes, you read correctly – a garden. It has seed incubators and fish tanks, mini ecosystems and Lego Sets! Every ninety days the class produces enough greens to provide a vegetarian meal for the other four hundred and fifty students at the school. The students have gone on trips employing their new horticultural skills for money and experience. In the Hamptons they were paid three and a half thousand dollars each a week, and learned to surf! So – they were engaged, as evidenced by the explosion in attendance, they learned valuable real life skills that earned them a pretty penny plus some great experiences, and they developed healthy eating habits.
“Yes but realistically not every classroom can look like that!” I hear you cry. That’s right – we’d be educating a world of gardeners. It might be good for the environment, but we’d have no one to steal our money and mess up the economy. Of course, every classroom wouldn’t look like that. Do you think any of the other classrooms in the school Ritz taught in was like that? No. The point is there does not need to be a set-in-stone model classroom,in fact, there needs to not be one. Educational environments need to come in all shapes and forms, just like the kids they are there to inspire.
Let’s replace the word and concept of ‘classroom’, with Educational Hubs or – “EduHubs”. We’re going to kit out our EduHubs based on the needs of our learners and the problems they need to solve. Like any group of people, they’re a diverse bunch with diverse needs. So different needs for different people means one EduHub might look very different to another. They would be changing environments to meet changing needs. Some needs though, are constant. Anyone looking to solve a problem is going to need access to information so they can research that problem. So clearly we need to equip our learners with the best tools available to access and dissect information. Namely: a laptop or tablet, and access to humanities’ collective brain – the internet. Secondly, you need someone to talk with, to share your goals, hopes and fears etc. Someone more experienced than you – a mentor. In other words, teachers aren’t going anywhere. But as the aforementioned Goyal(who’s book is also where I heard of Stephen Ritz) puts it –
“Traditionally, the role of the teacher has been the gatekeeper of knowledge, the all-knowing fountain of wisdom students, or the “sponges”, are expected to soak up. The interests of the students are given no regard… Now everything has changed. All the information we desire is only a click away. The teacher is not the “know-it-all” anymore. Thus the role of the teacher must change from a gatekeeper to a guide, a facilitator, a mentor, and a broker of learning opportunities… It’s time for you (teachers) to fade into the background… Remember teachers: It’s not about you. It’s about them (students)”.
How can we make it happen?
Radical change only ever comes out of a need, never just a want. In other words, for all the education crusaders trying to convince legislators and educators to do things differently – it’s never going to happen. Why? Even if teachers and politicians did want to change things, they need them to stay the same. Flawed as it may be, their lives are structured around and dependent upon, the current system. They have a vested interest in it, whether they agree with it philosophically or not. I am not going to blame anyone for prioritising the bread on their kids table over the brains of someone else’s. Nor am I going to blame students in fighting for their rights. A compromise can be reached between us, but the current compromise is nothing more than intellectual slavery.
That is why it is up to us, the students, to change things. We feel so powerless to change things but the truth is we are the ones with the most power in this situation. If we boycott school in favour of an idea I call a ‘Learn-In’. Heard of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s love in for peace? Think of this as a ‘Learn-in’ for a better education. It’s like the Occupy Movement, except we’re going to unoccupy schools, and meet up ourselves for days of idea sharing and collaboration, along with all the food and craic and banter of movements like the Occupy Movement – Learning should be fun, it shouldn’t be divided into forty minute segments sitting on your bum.
What will the Learn-Ins achieve? They will upset the apple cart that the Powers That Be have their vested interests in. The truth is the powers that be are not the powers that be. They have successfully convinced us that they can control us, that they are in charge, but we are the ones with the real power. More often than not throughout history it is young people who have brought about great societal upheavals – The Civil Rights movement was driven by masses of young people, the sixties counter-culture, Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, The Occupy Movement, Arab Spring – whatever about the people who headlined these revolutions, the majority of active participants in all of them were under thirty.
What will happen when we boycott school days? When we refuse to sit down and shut up in class? when we boycott our homework and end of year exams? Our parents (the voters) will get angry, wondering first of all why their children are not in school, and second of all why they are so much happier and more productive. This will scare the politicians and legislators into taking action, at the risk of losing out in the polls. We have to make them remember that the bread on their tables depends on our cooperation. Because guess what? It does. So let’s not meet their demands untill they meet ours.
We may not have all the answers to exactly how we want things to be, but how would we have all the answers after receiving such a poor education so far? When push comes to shove it won’t matter, once we refuse to be their slaves, the ‘Establishment’ will be forced to change. Learning happens in tandem with doing. We cannot study the transformations that need to take place so thoroughly that we have a precise step-by-step guide to something that has never been done before. Our starting point must be the will to change. From there we will explore various possibilities and learn as we go along. We can’t do much worse than the experiment-gone-wrong that is the whole of standardized education so far, can we? Where there is a will, there are usually a few ways to explore before you hit upon the better ones.
According to legend it took Thomas Edison a thousand attempts to invent the light bulb. Asked by a reporter how it felt to fail 999 times, Edison replied “I have not failed 999 times. I have simply found 999 ways that do not work.” We must apply the rationale of one of histories’ greatest inventors to education. How would Edison have fared had he sat around thinking till he felt he knew perfectly, exactly how to create a light bulb? You’d be reading this by candle light, never mind a monitor. Or if he had stuck stubbornly with his first attempt, making minor tweaks in the hope that by some magic it would come ablaze? The only thing he’d have set fire to is his own sanity.
So we have to be honest about our own shortcomings. Something I never saw any of my teachers do. Either you agreed with them or you were outside the room and on detention for backchat. But we we have to show that we mean business, and that means a lot more than just backchat; it means action. We can no longer accept the pressure, boredom, and uniformity that is foisted upon us as the norm in our daily lives. From now on whenever we are mistreated we must have the moral courage and pride in who we are to stand up and walk out the next time we are disrespected. If we are to be sent out when we are disrespectful, we can very well walk out when we are not provided that same respect.
Walking down the hall one day in my old secondary school, between classes, I heard my vice-principal shout down a pupil who dared to question his judgement, roaring “This is my school! You don’t have a voice”. Well, let all the self-righteous roaring we’ve all heard in our ‘educations’ be our collective wake up call. Let’s show them that we do have a voice, and now is our time to make it heard. Let’s take back our childhoods, take back our dreams. The ideal classroom does not exist, but the idealistic youth always has, and always will – Let all of us who are still young and idealistic at heart, fight for those ideals. For if we forfeit our ideals – we forfeit ourselves.