The School of the Future

By Rattan Khushiram

With the democratisation of knowledge and availability of technology for easy access to information, the focus should move towards how to teach, rather than what to teach

The school as it is now won’t be around in the next 5-10 years with the pace at which digital technology, robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are all working to enhance human life and our day-to-day experiences. The school of the future will no more be a building with students sitting for hours behind a desk and the teacher standing at the front. No, it will be more of a virtual classroom operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Students will be able to log in at home or anywhere else and view the classroom. Anyone logging into the virtual classroom will be able to see and interact with classmates who are online as if all were physically present in the classroom. Students will be registered online and will be working in their own environments, on their own or in groups through the virtual classrooms or labs. There will not be any need for big school buildings as we will not be dealing with many students on site at one time. We will be having sophisticated labs where, once or twice a week, students can access the teacher when they need one or for special tutorship and individual attention.

This school of the future has been based on the success of “The School of the Air” in Alice Springs, Australia, where students living too remotely to be able to access a school building receive their lesson materials either via post, radio or internet where a connection is available. Studies have shown that such education achieves better results than traditional methods of schooling.

There are many such schools now in Australia and the United States striving to bring the future into the present. At Seashore Primary School, an imaginary school of the future created by the Education Department of Australia, technology is the glue that holds classes together. “All teachers and students have laptop computers, teachers check voicemail and return students’ calls on a special telephone system, students use telephones to find information or speak to experts in subject areas they are studying, all lessons are multidisciplinary and all students have individual learning plans created by teachers.”

In the United States, one of those schools is the A.C.T. Academy in McKinney, Texas, an actual school of the future, where knowledge is actively constructed by the learner on a base of prior knowledge, attitudes and values. Sophisticated technology is in place to support the pursuit of knowledge with “remote learning” – the trend of tomorrow. Accessing “classrooms” from their home computers, students learn at times of their convenience and teachers assess student learning through portfolios and creative performance tasks. The object is to use real-life approaches to assessment.

But does the school of the future improve the learning environment for our children? Unquestionably, it will foster more of intimate, self-directed learning and collaborative spaces and a shift away from exam-centric objectives and enable more diverse curriculums that focus on the development of real-world skills and involve whole community participation. It will also drive more of independent thinking, moving away from the teacher-led model and will allow the student to take a larger role in guiding his learning.

Education is about enlarging the horizons of human perception. But unfortunately, today, education has slowly shifted into a mode where people believe it is about accumulating heaps of information. Because of AI, there will be less focus on memorization. With the democratisation of knowledge and availability of technology for easy access to information, the focus should move towards how to teach, rather than what to teach.

There are now unique possibilities for developing new models of learning, ground-breaking programs that emphasize interdisciplinary learning, critical thinking skills and individualized learning plans. It will be a new learning environment where the learners can set their own goals, build knowledge collaboratively and create their own content and questions.

It makes different kinds of learning processes possible. The learning environment will support socially shared cognition by enabling interaction among the learners and peer learning in a learning community, among other things, as well as by supporting different kinds of interaction models and the sharing of expertise.

As for the learning environment, the change is already happening, for example in the Alt Schools in US, a series of micro schools are focusing on a personalized learning approach, where students are encouraged to work independently and at their own pace on assignments tailored to their interests and strengths. These schools are already abandoning our current model for a more individualized approach. Every school is making this shift to learner-centered education. The transformation journey has already started in leveraging powerful technology to extend and capture “anytime, anywhere” learning.

Education has travelled a long way and will continue to flourish. The dynamics or tectonic shifts will give rise to a profound question about education: in what way should our education system be rethought to equip it for future challenges? Much of today’s educational approaches, thrust and content will have to change. Are our Education authorities listening? Be prepared, the future starts now.

* * *

Some insights from the Education renaissance in Rajasthan

Despite being home to one of India’s most enterprising communities – Marwari traders – and having large deposits of hydrocarbons, Rajasthan was considered economically backward and it lagged behind in educational standards and outcomes. In just three years, a massive transformation was brought about. Now, not a single child remains absent from school. No one discontinues studies after Standard VI, unlike earlier, even though most of the villages have only one primary school.

Rajasthan has boasts one of the lowest literacy rates, including the female literacy rate. The results have been eloquent. In the last National Achievement Survey (NAS), conducted in 2017, which tests children in Classes 3, 5 and 8 for language, science, mathematics and social studies, Rajasthan scored the highest in Class 8 among all states.

Besides, in the Performance Grading Index for school education (2017-18) prepared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Rajasthan ranked the highest in ‘learning outcomes and qualityʼ, scoring 168 out of 180 points. But the real transformation was the quiet revolution sweeping through Rajasthanʼs government schools implementing the State Initiative for Quality Education (SIQE), which has as its four pillars: Pedagogy Change, Capacity Building, Management, and Institutional Development.

Focus on improving learning levels has seen an entire education department recalibrate its workings. From tracking every childʼs learning level to identifying the ones who have fallen behind and teaching them in smaller groups; from teachers making 15-day teaching plans for the class and for individual children; from Activity Based Learning kits to workshops through video conferencing to help teachers make maths and science less dreary, SIQE involves everyone: from the local panchayat to the education secretary and all in-between – principals, teachers and the students themselves.

Under the SIQE programme, 4,068 schools in Rajasthan have a designated room for Activity Based Learning (ABL) sessions for the primary grades with specially designed ABL kit and the display boards, painting work and desks. Recognising a “severe learning crisis” in India, the government has recommended a similar model of activity-based learning in the primary and pre-primary classes. “Classrooms will allow flexible seating arrangements; learning materials will be safe, stimulating, developmentally appropriate, low cost, and preferably created using environmentally-friendly and locally-sourced materials… (such as) picture cards, puzzles, dominoes, simple musical instruments”.

Every child in the primary classes has a “portfolio”, usually a paper file which holds his/her worksheets done in class and assessed by the teacher. The file also tracks the childʼs progress through three Summative Assessments and internal tests. Across Rajasthan, for two days every two months, teachers assemble in select schools for a live videoconferencing session, during which experts and educationists talk to teachers in far-flung areas about simple activities to make learning fun.

In one village, Dholpur, the school has just completed work on ABL. As children sit around in little groups around colourful tables, playing pretend games with fake currency, the principal says, “This is how learning should be. We were probably doing it wrong all this while.” He then joins the children in a song and dance session — about a paper doll without ears, eyes, arms, etc., and how it uses a rabbit’s ears to hear, an owl’s eyes to see and so on.

Recent neuroscientific research shows that playtime is critical to developing the cognitive, creative and communications skills needed in the future, yet time set aside for play is being squeezed everywhere. University College London has led the research on this issue. It has identified “play gaps” in more than 40 countries. Closing these gaps in access to play can be proved to support deeper learning, which science tells us is when learning is joyful, experimental, social, meaningful, hands-on and minds-on.

The experience and methods used by Rajasthan in its attempts at making its schools less dreary and more child-focused resulting in better students’ outcomes in the country’s National Achievement Survey may be of some help to us in tackling the low achievers in our primary school system and our extended stream.

* Published in print edition on 9 August 2019

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