Canadian schools have increased graduation rates over the past two decades at the same time that they have become more inclusive. By international standards our public schools score very highly. However, the world outside of school continues to change rapidly and fundamentally. To maintain, and ideally increase, their effectiveness, schools need to keep pace, but teachers are, for the most part, working as hard and as smart as they can, and taxpayers, for the most part, seem disinclined to any increases. Since there is no more to be had on either front, what we need is different.
So what could change and, just as importantly, what is it that must not? In considering this question one must focus on the core benefit that schools provide rather than the services they deliver.
Let’s start with what is not the core benefit. It is not providing content knowledge. And it is not even developing technical skills such as writing, mathematics or scientific inquiry. Ways to acquire knowledge and develop skills are now, or soon will be, freely available via the internet. Of course one can argue that not all students have equal access to, or are equally able to benefit from, such instruction, but that is also true of traditional classroom practices. Internet instruction is expanding rapidly and access is becoming ubiquitous, so at a minimum one can foresee large numbers of students obtaining a significant degree of their learning quite independently of schools in the near future. Of course they still have to come to school to write the test and get their credentials, but that is easily changed and it may well happen if schools stand pat and let competing avenues and technologies for learning pass them by.
What then is the core benefit that schools provide? I believe this rests in human relationships, particularly in the student-teacher relationship but also in the social fabric of the school community. This is the wellspring of the safety, support, stimulation, challenge and example that students require in order to thrive in their academic, intellectual and human development.
You can get a great lecture on the internet, probably better than any to be had in most schools, but technology cannot provide a caring, purposeful relationship with someone who encourages, probes, extends and acknowledges learning. It is within such a relationship that assessment occurs and guidance is provided. I am not talking about testing. There is nothing core about that. Summative evaluation is simple. It can be done easily, and probably better, by a computer, but formative assessment is a different matter altogether. That is a teacher’s domain. Computer algorithms cannot replicate the dynamic observation, inquiry, feedback, direction and nurturing support that a teacher can provide. Some students may be able to succeed academically, and even intellectually, without that, but most will not and none will do as well in its absence.
In addition to the teacher’s vital role in facilitation and support, the school community as a whole provides an essential foundation for both learning and growth. Within a school there is not only friendship but also membership, and that membership – school spirit if you like – provides an important anchor for young people. It is in public schools that society is forged, its values and behaviours inculcated. In communion with others, students grow beyond their family and out of their childhood to become independent adults and citizens. It is the experience of community that bonds students to their school, not the curriculum.
The relationships from which the core benefits of schooling arise must be preserved but many of the traditional practices could just as easily be done in other, perhaps better, ways. Specifically, methods of instruction and evaluation need to be deconstructed and reconsidered. Lectures, assignments and tests can come from many sources. It need not be done the way it is today and changing that may create the different conditions within which the essential benefits of schools can be preserved while the outer trappings evolve along with society as a whole.
There are, of course, significant implications for the daily duties and professional identity of teachers if the means of content delivery, skill development and evaluation change, but they are not the fundamental processes that require a teacher. My Masters Degree in Physics prepared me well to be a Physics teacher, but eventually I realized that what my students needed was a Teacher of physics. The former can be done by a computer but the latter requires a professional and it is this professional essence that must be preserved as the techniques and processes of schooling change.