When Les Anges Montessori Academy started nearly 40 years ago in the basement of my great-grandmother’s home in Lahore’s then leafy Gulberg, the world was a very different place.  Though man had (apparently) charted a course to the moon just a few years earlier, we were living in relatively simple times.  If you had told somebody then that, one day, all information known to humankind could be searched in a split second on a liquid-crystal display, that telephones would fit in the palm of your hands, work without wires and play movies, that watches would measure your pulse and potentially send health updates to your doctor’s watch (and probably Mark Zuckerberg’s) and that you could marvel at your Birmingham-born grandchild’s first footsteps in real time – all the way from Gujrat – and that it would all be completely free, they’d have told you to go hang out with Captain Kirk.  Yet, in today’s world, you can do all this and much more for a fraction of the cost of— well, nothing, since you couldn’t very well do any of it in 1975.

As the world has evolved, so too have schools, because schools are a reflection of our changing needs.  Other than the physicality of it – for instance, the sad reality that Gulberg is no longer terribly leafy (thanks, in some measure, to two gentleman whom Freud might have argued were transport-deprived as children) – much else has changed in ways that are both physical and deeply psychological.  For one, schools are no longer the ‘carefree’ places we imagine them to be, with advanced weaponry now as fundamental to the landscape as advanced math, and dropping off your child’s forgotten lunchbox about as simple as visiting an inmate at a prison – an experience I well remember as a child, but that story’s already been told (http://archives.dailytimes.com.pk/editorial/20-Jul-2002/a-hitchhiker-s-guide-the-perfect-compromise-low-cool-kasim-kasuri).  And what of the psychological impact of growing up in this idyllic situation? What of the child who is just too nervous to go back to school after a long summer break and the mother who wishes she didn’t have to send him, but must instead offer hollow assurances?

As school administrators, we face the unenviable task of maintaining the balance between the fortification of school buildings and its impact on the psychological wellbeing of children, teachers and parents. The scariest part? There’s no textbook for this; we are truly learning by doing.

Ladies and gentlemen, schools have changed – and they’re not changing back anytime soon. But what does this have to do with the School of Tomorrow? Simply this: if ‘learning’ is to once again become the raison d’etre of a school, then schools have a lot to learn.  I do not pretend to know the answers but I know that the ‘schools of tomorrow’ had better have some answers unless we want to raise a generation of nervous wrecks.

I am also inspired to understand the emerging yet powerful pull of media and technology on our children – and am simultaneously curious about how we, as educators, need to respond. Let me illustrate with a small anecdote: a few years ago, I walked into my children’s playroom where I found Kyan, then aged 5, and his non-Urdu speaking nanny Evangeline watching ‘Dora the Explorer’ on some unknown cable channel.  (For those without young children, Dora is a popular children’s show about an exasperating little bilingual girl who speaks English and Spanish, aimed largely at the US market.) However, on this strange cable channel, Dora was entirely dubbed in a foreign language that I couldn’t even begin to recognise. When I asked Evangeline what on earth they were doing, she replied chirpily ‘Oh, Kyanu and I are learning Urdu!’ While this odd little vignette will hopefully not creep into more normal Pakistani households, my broader point is that media has led a cultural invasion into our homes that is so insidious that we don’t yet understand its full implications. Whether it’s Dora bombarding our heads with ‘uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco’, or the equally annoying Japanese cat Doremon moaning and groaning in Hindi, our children’s brains are constantly being bombarded with a heady mix of visual, linguistic and cultural confusion.

There is simply too much we need to understand – whether it’s news channels flashing graphic images that are inappropriate even for adults, “talk shows” showcasing screeching politicians who are no role models for anyone, minute-to-minute live coverage of the latest disaster, or inappropriate Internet content. The impact of today’s media on developing minds is a powerful force that cannot be ignored by the schools of tomorrow, unless they wish to be complete ostriches.

And now onto my love-hate relationship with technology, a pendulum that moves from day to day:  should you really be proudly bragging to your friends that your 1-year-old can switch on your iPad all by herself? Is finger swiping on a glass surface a necessary and sufficient motor skill for your toddler? Is there any connection between the excessive use of digital devices and – say – obesity, shyness, social awkwardness, anxiety, learning disorders, depression or some other mental illness we’d rather not think about? Are the doomsayers that are posing these questions simply miffed that they didn’t have access to the same gadgets when they were growing up? Why do they stubbornly keep overlooking the obvious benefits of technology? Should you really worry if it’s okay for your 10-year-old to be on Facebook?  Is it true that Steve Jobs did not allow his own children to use the iPad?  What are the benefits and pitfalls of social media for the very young? Is there any such thing as an online predator, or is it yet another monster that Western parents have invented to keep their kids away from the Internet?  (After all, nobody preys on children in Pakistan, right?) How can our children derive the maximum benefit from digital technologies without being exposed to any of this stuff?

So what does all this mean? Clearly, the potential pitfalls posed by unhindered access to media and technology are not as obvious as the threats discussed in my opening thoughts.  But here’s the difference: unlike the former, the more recent scenes are being played out in every home that I know – day in, day out, unmonitored, unknown.  And yet, high technology is humankind’s most glittering achievement; it is what keeps our race moving forward. So what do we do?

I don’t know, but I certainly hope that the parents, teachers and schools of tomorrow can reflect on these questions and make necessary adjustments before it’s too late.  We need to continuously challenge all our ideas, even those very progressive notions we picked up in the 1990s and have held dear for so long – truths beyond question!  And we need to understand that all of today’s emerging forces (of which I’ve only touched upon a few) will truly mean the end of education – as we know it.

End of Part I.

This is hopefully the first in a few posts about the School of Tomorrow. Given this blog’s track record, however, it may also be the last. 

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