BY Angelo Fernando

You’ve heard the loud complaints: education is broken and schools are diploma factories stuck in the industrial age in which students move through the assembly line from kindergarten to Grade 12. And that knowledge gained is obsolete by the time the widget leaves the factory.

It sounds harsh. But if ‘educashen isn’t werking’ it’s up to teachers and parents to try to fix it. The stats are stark. In the US, which ranked 38th among 71 countries in a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the usual factors are at play: high teacher-student ratios, standardised curricula and low teacher pay levels.

NO BLUE PILL Thankfully, we do have options although some are disruptive. We know that students today are open to learning from a variety of sources that range from online portals such as the Khan Academy and tutors who may reside in a different time zone, and through MOOCs – i.e. the acronym for ‘massive open online courses’ offered by established universities. These courses are typically free. But beyond this, stuck in the matrix, students have no choice but to ‘take the blue pill.’

They must continue to listen to the same lesson and master a skill or theorem – it’s the factory setting, so to speak. As a computer and technology teacher, I could offer you a glimpse: students must still learn the likes of keyboarding despite the fact that they communicate very differently from a ‘qwerty generation.’

One of the six standards to which I align lessons is effective communications and digital interactions. When this was written up as a standard around 2009, email was becoming highly impersonal, having been hijacked by social media.

By the time a new generation of students who share ‘stories’ through Instagram hit the colleges, email was as quaint as pagers. Remember those?

Though many schools frown on digital and social channels that include cloud based platforms that enhance collaboration, the reality is that 11 year olds are on Snap outside school and ‘digital interaction’ to them means something else entirely.

Do we still give them the blue pill that symbolises falsehood, security and the blissful ignorance of illusion?

‘Student engagement’ has been a buzz phrase in education for many years. It is more talked about than implemented. So too is gamification and something called ‘makerspaces.’ But attempts to implement these hands-on learning experiences often bump up against a rigid system. Tablets and 3D printers are sexier, while investing in workshops and hackathons aren’t as sexy.

LEARNING There have been many attempts to disrupt the factory model. One such technique is the flipped classroom… more on that later.

Some high schools ask students to collaborate using apps such as Kahoot, which enable teachers to turn lessons into a game like quiz. The teachers post questions through an app and they are projected on the screen. And students’ responses through their personal phones or tabs are seen in real time. To enable this, schools must adopt a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy.

The World Bank once recommended that a school should be a place where “learners are responsible for their own learning.” It should be flexible enough for students “to enter and leave the system at different points” and be a place for “lifelong learning.”

In this new ‘un-school’ like environment, textbooks and testing conventions might be irrelevant. That is precisely the context in which disruptors of the old school model – like the Google Classroom project and Khan Academy – have legitimacy.

The Khan Academy is the best example of a flexible learning environment known as the ‘flipped classroom.’ It is also the antithesis of the ‘factory model.’ The non-profit Khan Academy has an online portal with tens of thousands of videos subtitled in five languages.

A teacher can assign students to watch these videos and let them learn a topic at their own pace. Valuable class time that would otherwise be devoted to the lecture is used to work with students – ‘differentiated learning’ in education speak. The class now becomes a problem solving environment, which creates more time for peer-to-peer collaboration.

“Our goal is to use technology to humanise what’s happening in education,” observes founder Sal Khan.

Likewise, Google Classroom, which became more open this year, allows teachers to differentiate instructions to a subset of students, link documents to assignments and even grade students.

But the internet may not be the only disruptor. A highly vocal critic of the present education system Sir Ken Robinson thinks we could be looking at even earlier models. He suggests: “We must go from a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity, to a model that is based more on the principles of agriculture.”

Educators must find a way to nurture students and create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

It’s time to humanise the factory. Or dismantle it and begin a farm!