New schools: #LearningForLife in 21st century

| June 22, 2017 | 0 Comments

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump to the highest seat in American politics, and a widespread resurgence of populist politics across Europe and the US, the West seems to have been delivered a wake-up call: issues of unemployment, underemployment and the struggles of the working class remain, despite appearances, unresolved in the 21st century. The demise of experts in tandem with persistent youth unemployment point to deep inefficiencies in educational systems across the Western world and, much like the transition from analog to digital, from print to online, a deep rethink of the education of future generations of leaders has become of paramount concern to policymakers worldwide.

A Europe-wide study has revealed just how unequal social inclusion has become across the continent. The Bertelsmann Foundation’s study, which surveyed over 1,000 experts, this year concluded that reforms undertaken to eliminate social imbalances have drastically failed to have the desired effect. Further, many EU member states, including Germany, have now been shown to have implemented less than 50% of identified reforms in key areas including poverty, education, employment, social cohesion and non-discrimination. The OECD paints a particularly grim picture, where one fifth of students have not acquired the skills to participate in today’s society. As public finances dwindle, the burden of financing tertiary education has increasingly shifted from the state to individuals. Left unaddressed, this trend points to a continued worsening of standards in the long-term. The #EducationInFocus conference, hosted at the United Nations Office in Geneva between 20-23 June will try to address exactly those issues.

One option available to policymakers would be to redesign brick and mortar schools entirely, and embrace a new generation of smart schools. A recent survey found groundswell support amongst IT leaders for using Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a means of transforming classrooms into interactive learning environments, replacing traditional notebooks and pencils with wearables, sensors and smart lighting. In Australia, a steady increase in government spending on education over ten years has been met with stagnating performance in reading and writing skills country-wide. In response, school initiatives are doing away with desk-based learning in lieu of outdoor learning spaces and an emphasis on tablets and computer programs as the new tools of the trade.

A similar initiative has evolved in Russia, where a $58 million Smart School in Irkutsk promises a deep rethink of the relationship between students and their communities by wielding architecture as an educational tool. The School, which will be opened in 2019, was designed by the prestigious Danish architecture studio CEBRA and involves “a ring of connected buildings with overhanging eaves and a landscaped ‘meadow’ in the centre”. A key element is that for the first time ever, a single educational complex for foster families will be built.

As Mark Sartan, the general director of the project, told this site, the Irkutsk project is a model for “education, upbringing and socialization of children with diverse starting opportunities” that could easily be implemented in both developed and developing countries. “The Smart School falls under the scope of the UN agenda for sustainable development” and, Sartan adds, “redefines the key goals of education focusing on responsibility towards oneself, the world and future generations.”

But most importantly, the Smart School envisages a greater role for parents and teachers to chart individual educational paths, best adapted to the pupils. Coursework will be tailored to their individual profiles and psychological characteristics, allowing them to perform better. Finland, long renowned for the quality of its state education and consistently high-ranking in international league tables, is another country that has been toying with these ideas. Rethinking education in the digital age, schools now place skill-building at the heart of curricula, rather than subject-based learning, in a form of teaching described as phenomenon-based learning (PBL). In August 2016, it became compulsory for each Finnish school to teach collaboratively; in practice, this means that students choose a topic relevant to them, and subjects are adjusted respectively.

How effective, then, is replacing arithmetic and grammar with lessons in identifying fake news, installing anti-virus software and 3D printing? Critics of the new Finnish system fear that PBL is failing to provide students with a strong enough foundation to study subjects at a higher level. Anecdotally, some teachers are pointing to a widening gap between the most and least able students, with PBL failing to work for students who require comparatively more guidance. Others point to an increase in teachers’ workloads, arguing that, given Finland’s already high standard of education and small classroom sizes, PBL merely represents an attempt at reinventing the (3D printed) wheel.

Another option may be to shift focus toward virtual education, and encourage the growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs). It has been more than four years since Harvard and MIT launched the nonprofit learning platform edX, and the results have been encouraging: cumulative participation has grown steadily, with participants from a range of backgrounds pursuing a broad spectrum of subjects. Computer science remains the most popular subject of choice, routing students to other disciplinary areas along the way.

Whatever the solution is, being open to innovation in approaches to education represents a significant first step. The anticipated approach of the fourth industrial revolution is timed with a greater awareness of the political and social implications when social inequities are left unaddressed and, if political willpower aligns with the capacities of modern day technology, there is hope yet for the next generation of learners.


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Category: A Frontpage, Apprenticeships, Education, EU, Skills and competences, Universities, Youth unemployment

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