Futures: Individual and Community

SMUS-Views-Bob

Last week I mentioned that I would be sharing some of the Futures Project in coming weeks and months. For those who missed last week’s blog, this project is intended to be my personal investigation of the important questions schools in general, and our school in particular, will need to address in the future. Some will find it frustrating that it is an investigation of questions rather than answers. If you bear with me, and with my colleagues and members of the community and the wider world who have contributed, I believe you will find it far from an arid exercise.

When commentators remark – as they often do – that schools are conservative institutions, what do they mean? There have been plenty of educational experiments, and most schools would cringe to be described as “conservative”. Yet it appears to be true in important respects: schools are preservers of deep and enduring values, for centuries schools have professed to pursue truth and goodness, for centuries their defining shape has been to bring students together in one place in order to learn. This basic shape of schools also appears to be justified in practice over and over again – not by people who are seeking to prove it, but by people who are seeking to escape it.

Schools in existence now that advertise themselves as “experimental” or “revolutionary” fall into two categories. There are schools who call themselves experimental or revolutionary mainly because they adopt a teaching or learning approach that diverges from accepted practice. Montessori Schools were like this, to take a well-known example. Such schools still look like other schools: students gather mainly in one location, they learn in a configuration of rooms, and they are guided by a combination of adults, mainly teachers. The second category goes further and even challenges the physical notion that I have just described. Online schools are the clearest example; another wrinkle would be schools where it is intended that the “school” will function as an occasional meeting place to gather assignments, conduct sporadic meetings and plan the next learning experience.

In trying to be brief, I am probably not doing justice to the entire vision of these schools. Certainly their founders are excited, and the students likewise. They glow with the fire of their experimental novelty. We don’t know how these schools will end up. I wish them well, and hope that their efforts yield something authentic that we can all share.

I will observe that past experiments – as I said educators have been experimenting for decades and decades – have not endured. We might wish they had, and we might find some sympathetic ideas in their philosophies. But these schools that rebel against the notion of a school as a physical location seem to have two dénouements in the past: they fold, or they gradually come to resemble schools we are familiar with: buildings, with rooms where students gather, in the company of adults who guide them. To develop a variation on this theme: recently the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offered its students the choice to study away from school, away from class, on their own. Almost all the students chose to come to school.

Some futurist commentators dismiss the notion that a school is a community as a sentimental fantasy we can’t cling to in our modern world. Experience, and past examples, show that this is not the case, even in a world fragmented by technology: a school is a community; students want a community, parents want a community. The objection is that such communities can be terrible instruments of conformity, social manipulation and destructive behaviour. Even if this is true in some cases, the question is not whether we should be a community or not, but rather, what kind of community we should be.

As we at SMUS discuss how education is becoming more personalized, we do ask these questions that challenge the notion of community. We agree that students will be doing a lot of online work; we agree that they will be working individually and in groups off-campus, in some cases far off-campus; we agree they will not all be moving with the same group of friends from grade to grade as they pursue their more individualized programs. The experiments and revolutions I mention above are not as far-fetched as they seem: all the principles that motivate these experiments will operate also in good schools of the future, including SMUS. The question for us is: how is this going to work? I often say that, to an outside observer, the SMUS of the future will look a lot like the SMUS of today: classes, sports on the fields, drama in the theatre, and large, communal experiences like our Christmas Assembly. How will this be true?

Some will say that even before we ask that question, we should question – and possibly reject – the idea that schools will change into places that are more fluid, more flexible, and more shaped by student passions and interests. The answer that we see at SMUS is that this transformation is inevitable, and that it’s a good thing, for one simple reason, which is at the deepest heart of education: students learn better this way. They will learn better if we take advantage of all the technologies our world has to offer, if we shape their program around their passions and strengths, and finally – and equally importantly – if we do so in a community where they learn the values of interacting with other humans.

The Futures Project is a wide-ranging and fascinating exploration that will involve many more people in coming years. Plenty more to come.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

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