School of the future

Prompted by my daughter’s recalcitrance, I have been considering what the school of the future might look like.  In his address to the RSA Sir Ken Robinson was pointing out that the current educational model was devised to satisfy the needs of the Industrial Revolution with a curriculum designed by age of enlightenment academic thinkers.  Indeed having read further on this, Seth Godin points out that the genesis for schools was to persuade factory workers to employ adults rather than child labour with the incentive that schools would turn out productive factory workers.  This is evident in the education of large classes of children of the same age (“batches”) in rooms set out in formal lines of desks with a great emphasis on discipline and conformity.  My wife who was a state school teacher for some years was advised in her first year of teaching not to smile before Easter.  The primary focus is control.  Thus, sadly, teachers are often those who are skilled at control and value conformity.

In our current environment where there is such a wide range of new technology and jobs and where factory style jobs are increasingly automated, this mode of education looks increasingly outmoded.  Our children have access to so many creative stimuli and it seems time to move away from this conformist model to an approach to education which is centred on the child.  As I reflect, my own job as a coach in business did not exist when I was at school and my wife’s as an equine therapist following natural horsemanship has only become a possibility in the last few years.  Having been the chairman of governors at a Steiner school for over ten years it is clear to me that, of schools, Steiner schools come closest to genuinely fostering an approach based on the child and believing in their potential.

Much of my own experience in career terms has been concerned with dispelling the myth, which is currently so dominant in education, that there is a boat and you can miss it.  This pervasive fear has created a system based on measuring achievement on a very narrow academic set of criteria and leaves the majority of children, who do not make it to the academic pinnacle of university professorships, feeling that they have in some way failed.  The Steiner schools seem to focus on loving children and on a belief in the inherent potential of children, everyone is special and valuable not just those few who get A grades.  The focus is not on finding a place in the world of work but rather on growing as a person with a belief this will allow the child to contribute most fully to the world and find their truest expression in it.  Critically, the Steiner schools also differentiate the children by the 4 humours or temperaments (Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine and Melancholic) and so expect children to behave and learn differently.

All this is fine, but it nevertheless leaves the institution of school untouched and even the Steiner schools persist with a largely conformist model where adults know best and where discipline and the institution are both fundamental.  My daughter was a catalyst for me, because whilst my son had been blissfully happy at a Steiner school my daughter was not.  Indeed she had no desire to go to school and felt she was wasting her time.  As astrologers we had insight into her personality.  With the Sun conjunct Mars in Gemini on the descendant opposite Pluto in Sagittarius rising this was not a child who was going to tolerate having someone else having power over how she learnt.  With Chiron in the 11th house she did not like being part of a group either.  This was definitely a problem.  We had a child who was not motivated by school but was very motivated by being with horses (my wife runs an equine centre working with a wide range of autistic children and those with behavioural problems as well as adults and children who want to learn to ride).  We struggled for many years with every strategy we could think of but nothing seemed to work.  In the end my daughter said she wanted to move schools, we were open to this but warned it might not change anything.  Then my wife suggested the option of being home educated and my daughter leapt at it.  I was very nervous, I had some prejudices about home education and the social isolation.  However, since my daughter was now determined to do it, we decided to follow her and we agreed to do a half-term trial.  We knew of a tutor who could teach her French and on the advice of my friend Mario, who knew all about tutors, we decided to employ kids who had just finished school to cover other subjects.  Returning from our week’s half-term holiday my wife commented that she was going to have work hard on motivating our daughter.  I was nervous about this – I did not want to replicate the role her teachers had played in trying to make her learn so I asked my wife to give it to me and said I would take responsibility.  My wife was sceptical but she agreed.  I thought about it and said to my daughter that she could design her own curriculum.  I told her it could be whatever she wanted and suddenly I began to see something I had been wrestling with since listening to Ken Robinson’s talk.  At the time I had tried to envisage what a new school, a school of the future, would look like but I could not envisage it.  As I have learnt from the I-Ching, I had put it on hold to wait for further input and suddenly here it was.  As I described to my daughter that she could design her own curriculum, I suddenly saw the scope.  I realised she could do anything; dressage lessons with her horse, trips to equine centres, cooking, emotional intelligence, the I-Ching, Astrology etc. etc.  The scope was almost limitless.  My daughter went straight off and worked solidly for 45 mins, full of enthusiasm, only coming back to ask me the odd question and by the end of the time she had designed her own curriculum.  I told her to show it to her mum who was amazed that she could think of nothing to add or change.  It confirmed my belief that children are amazingly responsible if you give them responsibility.  Most of our systems assume that they are just children and we know what is best for them.

What I realised was that the obstacle to the school of the future was the institution of school itself.  If you took away school the whole thing shifted (what adult would agree to being incarcerated in an institution for at least 11 years of their life which they were legally obliged to attend, being put together in a large group of peers not of their choosing who could only be the same age and having adults who had complete power over them, capped off by having to learn what they were told to learn?).   You could allow children to build their own curriculum and share it with children across the region or country who shared their interest.  You could organise trips for kids who shared similar interests and lessons could be as long or short as you liked.  You could also have lessons with kids of different ages based on interest.  This would allow for enormous variation and creativity and could be organised on a regional basis (or whatever basis you chose – from very local to national or even international).  My friends challenged me – how would you pay for this, how would you organise it?  On the payment front, I realised that the cost of school buildings and infrastructure is a huge proportion of the cost for education.  If lessons instead took place in people’s homes and in community spaces you could be far more flexible and it made children and learning far less separated from the rest of the community.  You could also put the money you saved back into providing community spaces.  It also solved a particular problem that I saw in schools, namely that the needs of the institution dominated and they unwittingly began to serve the needs of teachers rather than children.  Also, teachers become institutionalised; this way teachers served children rather than dominating them.

Others started to contribute to the idea, my friend Chrissy suggested that people in the community who were brilliant in their area could give up some time to offer to teach others about their speciality.  I realised that farms, equine centres like my wife’s, cafes, businesses, community projects could become focal points.  For those children who loved to be with others in larger groups they could be with others who loved to do that, for those who wanted to dip in and out they could etc.  My friend Steve set me thinking about adults; what would be to stop there being a cross-over with adults learning together with children? I thought we could have brilliant facilitators with emotional intelligence who would help children design their curriculum and work with parents; they could also help resolve conflicts between the children and teachers and even between parents and children.

At the same time we discovered an astrology programme which gave scores against 25 headings for charts.  We all scored ourselves and the results were fascinating.  The average score was between 75 and 125 with scores 125 -150 being high and above 150 very high and scores between 50 and 75 being low and below 50 very low.  My son, who had loved his time at school scored just under 150 for his need to be part of an organisation, company or club or contribute to a group effort.  My daughter scored 1!  Not only that but she scored 138 on her need for solitude, quiet and retreat and 161 on intensity of bonding.  This was a child that did not want to be part of a large group but wanted a more intense relationship and some peace and quite.  This was great as it provided insight into what individual children might need.

This was all very exciting but how to start?  I met with my friend Mario to decide how to set this in motion.  Mario is brilliant at structuring and organisation and he questioned how we would organise it.  Thinking about this I realised that we couldn’t and also I realised that that was what was backwards about school.  People had creative ideas for schools and they created these institutions and then they tried to find and fit in the kids.  So I suggested we go the other way and start with the children and let it emerge (my training with the I-Ching and my friend Chrissy had taught me not to lead but to follow).  On this basis I decided to start with the one child I had and let it build child by child.  Over the summer, a friend of ours was telling me she did not know what to do with her daughter who was a close friend of our daughter.  She did not want to go to school and stayed at home whenever she could.  She was popular and bright but did not want to be at school.  I told her about my idea for a school of the future and the school doubled to two!  We have just finished our first week as a school of two.  They are being taught by teachers who are mostly eighteen years old and full of enthusiasm – they love this but the range goes through teachers in their 30s, 40s and 60s!  The two of them are like different children.  It is very early in the project and it may only be for the benefit of my daughter and her friend – who knows?  But it has already been worth it and we will see where it goes.

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