Ideas toward a New Way to School

In a very long discussion a few years back, I had the opportunity to engage on the subject of how a school system suited to the needs of many different kinds of students might work if the starting premise wasn’t to force everyone toward some sort of norm.

While I hold out little hope that something like this will come to pass anytime soon — McKinsey, in a survey of the major institutions of society and their adaptability, placed education dead last with a 1/20 chance of changing: everything else — health care, the military, the political system, the role of corporations, etc. all placed much higher (the next worst likehood for change still rated 1/2.5 odds, or 8 times better).

However, one can dream, and perhaps these ideas may yet prove useful somewhere.

If so, that somewhere is likely to leapfrog forward in a very dramatic way. Then people will be saying “where did they come from?”

The Core Idea

Every student progresses in every subject at their own rate.

This is a truism that is overridden in the current school system, which “marches” classes through material.

So my core idea is: allow every student to progress in every subject at their own rate.

Partly this reflects each student’s current ability and inate character, partly this is their desire, partly external circumstances (family life, society in disarray, etc.), partly will (the “I’d really rather do x” syndrome) … and partly it is affinity at this juncture for what is offered as “the next steps”.

If you’ve ever bought a book you really wanted to read, and tried several times but couldn’t get going — then picked it up again a year or so later and raced through it with all the passion you expected to have — then you know what “affinity” is.

As a result, there are no grades as such.

There are multi-age classrooms, and flexibility when it’s time to move on to the next grouping — a period of a year in which, at some point, the student will probably move (not unlike how the Scout Movement handles transitions from Beavers to Wolf Cubs, Cubs to Scouts, Scouts to Venturers, and Venturers to Rovers).

This keeps children of roughly the same weight and atheletic skills together for physical activities and peer group bonds.

The school is divided into five groups, each forming a three life year cohort:

  • Casa (ages 2-5) – pre-school & kindergarten, but offers for a full school day
  • Lower Elementary (ages 6-8) – establishment of the great frameworks for later years
  • Upper Elementary (ages 9-11) – foundations in place in all disciplines & in tools (e.g. writing)
  • Lower Secondary (ages 12-14) – a time to explore the breadth of human endeavour
  • Upper Secondary (ages 15-17) – a time to deepen several subjects toward what comes next

Schools would also offer Advanced Placement curricula beyond upper secondary for those students who had advanced in (a) subject(s) beyond the upper secondary level.

Moving, in a subject, from one level to the next involves a demonstration of competence and mastery. This would probably involve either oral or written examination (essay-style questions, not multiple-choice, or problems with development), term papers/assignments, oral presentations (including impromptu debate), projects for display, etc.

Rote memorization is not sought (except where this is helpful, e.g. the 47 sounds of English mapped to the 26 letters), but the ability to extract “the situation” and put the elements found to work.

In this example, as well, as students bring different biases to the table (being deathly afraid and freezing up in the face of an examination, or an oral presentation, for instance) the top three marks (so from examination, papers, presentations, and projects the lowest one would be discarded) “count” although all must be done.

A minimum 70% is required to move up in that subject to the next multi-age block.

Students will end up being in different blocks in different subjects — as they will not be required to present all subjects at upper secondary to receive a diploma (and go on to university) no one should “fail” in the sense of being denied graduation if they apply themselves.

I would like to see, certainly in the secondary blocks, a “don” system emerge, where a student has a faculty member assigned to them to oversee them on a personal basis.

This would allow for a further form of evaluation: the “don interview”. The student could demonstrate competence in a one-on-one conversation similar to an area oral examination.

It is likely, in this sort of system, that:

  • Gifted students will take more subjects, so as to better sample and explore
  • Excellers will focus on assignments and examinations, where marks can be “prepped for”
  • Work-readiness campaigners will propose specific subjects over others for their children
  • Those who Struggle can get the added help they need.

I would like to see the Montessori “teach others” philosophy put to work in the multi-age groups if only to teach something that is not a subject, but important: you need to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

There would be no socially compulsory subjects. No mandated anti-drug class, no career planning class, no leadership class. They are available as options in the curriculum and those students (or those parents who believe in these things) who want them can select them.

The “great story” structure of Lower Elementary would be, in part, the means of motivating an interest in history, geography, the sciences, maths, literature and languages, and the arts.

Even though I believe, for instance, that knowing your history ought to be deemed “essential”, I do not propose that here.

Students would be free to work at their own pace in a subject.

If the passion for mathematics takes over, they may do two whole groups’ worth of maths in a year (the equivalent of six grades in our current system). More is unlikely if only due to the time required.

This is something to encourage: passion is not only infectious, it spills over into other things.

Teachers in the classroom would act as coaches to try and “sell” a more balanced approach, but there would be no requirement that a student lose their passion for something.

Teachers are also there to oversee an arts and talents curriculum. Drama, film, music, etc. require organization and practical training, as do industrial arts and sports.

Other subjects that do not require so much “hands on” work may be made available through library resources, self-study kits, and eLearning (not every school can have a faculty member experienced in every subject, but they can certainly close the gap electronically and use regional resource teachers for questions, etc.).

I think to start something like this it would be necessary to begin with a fully independent school.

If this requires taking no government money in order to escape curriculum overheads (mandated courses, foundational and standardized examinations, etc.) then so much the better.

After all, although public schools seldom acknowledge or identify the kindergarten and lower elementary changes they’ve made since the 1950s as originating in the ideas of Maria Montessori and her educational philosophy, the fact is they have taken this in — often, quite a long way.

So, too, the existence of this kind of private venture would slowly have its effect on the public institutions around it.

It is not enough to whinge about society — one must offer ideas for what would be better.

This is my starting point for a long-overdue discussion about doing education differently, in a way suited for the post-industrial, post-mass age that is the 21st century in the West.

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