A few days ago, I met with the core academics team at Beaconhouse to review our progress since the last School of Tomorrow conference in Lahore two years ago. I think it would not be incorrect to say that the general consensus was that, while we have made considerable progress in a number of areas, it is still a ripple in the ocean that is Beaconhouse. The 8,000 soldiers of Beaconhouse are undoubtedly our teachers and unless each of them understands what it means to be a school of tomorrow, we have little hope. So, while there has indeed been a paradigm shift in the thinking of people in the corporate offices of Beaconhouse since 2000 when we started organizing these conferences, our key challenge remains how we are going to cascade this new understanding to the front line – our classrooms.
The good news is that we do not have unrealistic expectations and appreciate that such fundamental change takes time. A great deal of strategizing (followed by carefully planned implementation and change management) is required to mainstream the pockets of excellence and best practice that undoubtedly exist in many of our schools. Let us take one such example: project-based learning at TNS Beaconhouse (established 2007), an IB school in Lahore that is the outcome of the School of Tomorrow conference of 2005. However, it has not been an easy journey. Even though TNS is now in its sixth academic year, it has taken time for the understanding of project-based learning (and indeed its underlying philosophy, experiential learning) to take root. And, with due respect to the good people of TNS, the roots are still growing in strength and connectedness.
So what exactly is experiential learning – and what does it have to do with schools of tomorrow? Experiential learning is an intuitive way of learning that is timeless (certainly far older than the modern school that we all know) and encourages learning through experiences, or learning by doing. I find that the simplest way of explaining ‘experiential learning’ to people is to offer the example of learning to drive a car. You can read a 1,000-page manual (or textbook) on how to drive a car with detailed calculations of how much pressure to exert on the accelerator in order to attain corresponding speeds, animations of how to effectively manipulate the steering wheel to make the car turn left, and so on, but until you go through the ‘experience’ of driving a car and make a few (hopefully not fatal!) mistakes, you don’t learn to drive a car. ‘Learning to drive a car/driving a car’ is the perfect example of learning by doing. Indeed, Aristotle had the right idea in 384-322 BC when he said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (I suppose that’s why he was Aristotle… and we’re still figuring it out 2,334 years later.)
So, even though the School of Tomorrow conferences sometimes evoke fleeting images of androids teaching human children in high-tech, virtual reality-equipped environments (and indeed some of that may be a part of it), that’s not necessarily the driving thought here. What, then, are we talking about?
I cannot pretend to possess a blueprint for the school of tomorrow (if I did, we probably wouldn’t need to organize these conferences). What I do know is that a school of tomorrow probably should not organize its teaching days purely on the basis of 45-minute compartments of disconnected knowledge (i.e., subjects) that are delivered in a manner devoid of any real-life context, where children learn things without knowing why they are learning them (i.e., studying complex equations on how much pressure to apply to an accelerator or a brake without ever stepping inside a car) and are ‘examined’ soon thereafter with mind-numbing questions like “If the vehicle is going at 60 miles per hour and you wish to decrease its speed by 18%, how many degrees of pressure do you need to apply to the brake?” What, I wonder, is the relevance of such decontextualized question-mongering if the child is never going to drive or, as it were, ‘do’? (I can think of one reason: so that he may pass an exam and then wipe his memory clean.) This simple metaphor of ‘learning to drive by driving vs. studying the theory and mechanics of driving’ applies to the modern curriculum as a whole because we provide very little opportunity for application of knowledge but much emphasis on the transmission of abstract concepts.
Often, when I say things like this, people ask: “Excuse me! Aren’t your schools doing the same thing?” My answer to this is always the same: this is not about Beaconhouse, it is not even about Pakistan. It is about a global education system that developed in response to the industrial revolution and hasn’t changed much since.
To be continued…