Is our traditional schooling system soon to be side-lined?

Written by Lizzy Van Lysebeth 

Our current traditional schooling system has taken quite some heat lately. The pressure on teachers is great, the department of education reacts slowly to a changing market and personalized education does not seem to take root. In the meantime, in the background, an educational system is developing which does not seem to be cumbered by these drawbacks.  Already much more than programming and 3d printing, the maker community is devising a system soon challenging our traditional education.

The traditional schooling system is a system that finds its roots with the Romans and the Greeks and knew an immense expansion during the industrial revolution. These early days laid the foundation for the hierarchical structures within the taught subjects. A structure which still stands today, with languages and science at the very top. The rhetoric, the oratorial art, or also known as the art of eloquence, was then a bitter necessity in politics and justice. But also sciences knew their importance during this time. Although for a long time mainly practiced theoretically by philosophers, astrologers and priests, their importance was confirmed during the industrial revolution.  A time in which we were able to reproduce products, processes and such more in a controlled manner. To do this in series we built factories resulting in a massive influx of the rural areas to come and work in the city. Men, women and children alike would start working there in large numbers. Soon however the child labor act would pass and compulsory education would be introduced and thus children were sent to the schools in large numbers. During this new era, education was hardly questioned and to a large extent a multiplication of the systems that already existed. Languages and sciences were the most important subjects, followed by human sciences. Arts and sport served to foster a broader development but had little economic value within the industrial revolution.

Our world and economic landscape have since changed dramatically. Oddly enough our educational system not so much. Current social and technological developments force us to rethink our educational system entirely. Where in the past we could compare information and knowledge to a large lake, today it behalves more like a large river. Information and knowledge change so quickly that what is current today may already be history tomorrow. And the speed by which that river is flowing, by which that information evolves, increases exponentially by the day.

Providing our children standardised exercises and predetermined learning objectives will not arm them for future challenges. And there are many! Instead they will have to learn to creatively interpret this everchanging stream of information and translate it into solutions that will improve their lives and world.

Listening to today’s politicians and company leaders, we need to invest in innovation. Innovation is the key word when it comes to solving the current and future problems of this world, to push our economy forward, to increase our resilience and to secure our future. The basis of innovation is creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and the courage to fail and start over. Studies have shown the importance to introduce these subjects early in life if we want them to be effective in adulthood. However, if we look at our primary- and high school systems, there is no program which puts as much focus on these subjects as it does on mathematics or languages. In certain countries students can still get end of term results that excludes them from such subjects as math’s and languages but allows them to continue in the arts, although arts were never part of the student’s curriculum before.  This hierarchy in subjects is sadly enough still very much alive and the subjects that should lead to innovation are still in the lower ranks.

The future of learning no longer focuses on achieving set objectives and absorbing quantities of information, but rather stimulates the individual child to get the most out of his or her specific abilities. It stimulates, collaborates, communicates, fosters enthusiasm and is extremely creative. The child learns a system that allows him to acquire knowledge and information in a way that is in harmony with his own personality, abilities and social environment. Knowledge itself is no longer the main goal. It is but the result of the child’s absorption, learning, evaluation, and implementation capacity.

Does this mean that children can no longer be taught in groups? It certainly does not, but we will have to redefine the definition of a group and re-evaluate the learning objectives. We cannot continue to divide students exclusively into age groups, but we’ll have to approach this dynamically. Pupils will probably spend time in several different groups during the day. Groups formed on the basis of their personality, learning methods, interests, capabilities, etc. Learning objectives will be flexible and not the same for every student. We speak about adaptive education. We no longer conform the student to the educational system but adapt the educational system to the student. The system is agile, engaging and personal.Some people question if this new form of education is achievable within the traditional education system that is chained to rigorous curricula and where every change and decision must go through a political merry-go-round. Slow, conforming and not flexible.

Society is not standing by passively however. Many questions are being raised and initiatives are being taken.Especially from the open source community there are examples that could eventually undermine the traditional educational system. Within the open source philosophy, the maker community is developing rapidly. Where 20 years ago it mainly consisted of nerds coding and hacking electronics, today we see a fairly large network of organizations with a well-defined educational program. A program not exclusively limited to computers and technical related topics, and rapidly expanding as time goes on. The maker community network adapts with easy to a market in constant flux. It is not tied to rigid learning objectives, strenuous decision-making processes and above all it focuses on the individual. It is furthermore linking up with the industry and recently there are initiatives to validate the acquired knowledge within a makerspace and have it supported by business and the industry. Validations which could lead to jobs. If those links are firmly established, the traditional educational system could have some competition.

Although the maker community may seem to the outsider as an odd bunch of individual initiatives, they are in fact well connected in an organic network. A kind of network that is very representative of current social developments. This network culture, that is so typical for the new way of thinking and learning allows these organizations to gain expertise in a very fast and efficient way. Like this they succeed in offering high quality education without the disadvantages of the traditional system. In the meantime, they are infiltrating in various sectors of our society. They already take part in activities and educational programs in libraries, schools, companies, leisure organizations and have been the foundation of the many fablabs, techshops and hackerspaces that exist in this world.

In addition, the 4 C’s, Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity are ingrained in their genes. The 4 C’s considered by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a non-profit organization formed by a coalition of, among others, the National Education Association (NEA), United States Department of Education, AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Inc., Cisco Systems, Inc., Dell Computer Corporation, Microsoft Corporation and SAP as the key skills for the 21st century.

Currently however, the maker community or any other initiative is still a long way from offering a complete educational system (one can still not take language or history courses through the maker community), but it is clear that what is offered works and works well. The question is how long will it take before traditional subjects will be part of its curriculum? Given the exponential growth of these types of networks, it could well be much sooner than the traditional educational world is expecting. Will the maker community take over education? It’s doubtful, but lessons can be learned and a joint venture between the two is well worth encouraging.

Lizzy Van Lysebeth is a furniture-, product-, and interior designer, thinker and educator who has been active in the design and maker community for the last 25 years. He is also a founding member of Bulb Gent an initiative which fosters creativity amongst adults and children.