The End of School

The schoolrooms of tomorrow won't resemble even the best of those we have today—and they shouldn't

If all of this is true, then what is the alternative? The key to good education, almost totally overlooked by the putative reformers, is to be found by taking the viewpoint of the learner, and, more particularly, by focusing on the interaction between the learner and the learning environment. We can say that the effectiveness of any learning experience depends on the frequency, variety, quality, and intensity of that interaction. Unless the interaction is improved, any and all proposals to improve education are moot. With this premise in mind, one can easily see why school is doomed.

Start with the fact that the human being is a learning animal, pure and simple. What sets him or her apart from all other known forms of life is the ability to learn prodigiously from birth to death. By the time our children start to school, almost all of them have completed one of the most spectacular learning tasks on this planet: the mastery of spoken language with no formal instruction whatever. Rather than any kind of formal instruction, they have enjoyed a feast of high-intensity interaction with their learning environment, which in this case comprises all the adults and older children around them. Here are teachers who react immediately to success, permit approxima-tions, and aren't likely to indulge in lectures—that is, the best kind of teachers. School as it is now constituted minimizes interaction and thus minimizes learning among our children, while yoking teachers to a frustrating, essentially impossible task.

What can we do? We must summon the courage to recognize that the present system is entirely inadequate to our present educational needs. We must move as swiftly as possible to end it. We must empower our educators to create interactive learning environments rather than merely presenting information to passive students. We must shift our national educational goals from improving school as it is to building something beyond it—call it metaschool.

A number of educational experiments that move us in the direction of metaschool are already under way. Albert Shanker points to the success of a secondary school in Cologne, Germany. There the Köln-Holweide school uses team teaching, cooperative learning, and peer tutoring to create a close-knit learning community for some 2,000 secondary school students from middle- and lower-income households. Teachers, rather than administrators, make all instructional decisions at this school. They work in teams of six to eight, keeping the same group of eighty-five to ninety students for their entire six years at the school, from the equivalent of our grade five to grade ten.

But these teachers don't hold forth from the front of the room. Actually, the room has no "front," no rows of desks lined up in the same direction. Instead, the students sit around tables, working with the same "table group" of five or six students, integrated by sex, ability, and ethnic origin, for at least a year. The table group is the basic unit of learning, the key to the school's success. Students are in constant interaction, helping one another learn. "If a student has a problem," the headmistress, Anne Ratzki, explained in an interview in American Educator magazine, "he doesn't have to wait for a teacher; he can ask his table group for help. If the group can't help, then the teacher will—but the first responsibility lies with the group."

The school day at Köln-Holweide is long, from 8:15 to 4:15, with a thirty-minute pause in the morning, an eighty-minute lunch period, and, for each student, generally one or two pe-riods a day devoted to tutorial or project work or free learning. School closes early every Tuesday, so that students can take care of doctors' appointments, piano lessons, and other non-school activities. What we would call homework is mostly taken care of in the tutorial or free-learning periods, during which other students or teachers can help out. The extended lunch period is time for sports in the gym, special lessons in such things as theater and ceramics, and dancing in a disco.

What are the results? A dropout rate of one percent, as compared with a West German average of 14 percent, and an astonishing 60 percent rate of admission to four-year colleges, as compared with a national average of 27 percent. And this despite the fact that Köln-Holweide's student body is far from an elite one. Best of all, the kids seem to enjoy their education. Parents report that they can't wait until the holidays end, so that they can get back to school. By ending frontal, lockstep teaching, maximizing interaction with the learning environment, and putting the natural human bonding drive to work for rather than, against the educational process, Kö1n-Holweide travels a good distance past school as we know it and toward the metaschool that lies beyond.

Recent developments in computerized interactive multimedia can take us considerably further. The filmmaker George Lucas is one of a number of innovators who are devising tools for electronic learning. Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas, is devoting a quarter of his time these days to long-term research and development in education. He hopes over the next few years to create a "curiosity-driven" demonstration project, perhaps an entire semester's eighth-grade curriculum, combining still and moving pictures, sound, and text, all computerized so that the learner can intervene and interact at any point along the way.

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