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Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning?

March 25th, 2009

In most developed countries over the last couple of decades we’ve seen a lot of different pressures that have resulted in certain kinds of changes and shifts in the ways secondary education is organised.  Here is one quick example:  in the past, only the minority of students stayed til the final years of secondary school, and they were almost all planning to go onto higher education. Today, a much larger proportion of students stay on til the end of high school, and there are now many more pathways and possibilities for further education and work once students do leave school. In New Zealand and other countries, these kinds of pressures have lead to changes  designed with the hope of  better meeting the needs and demands of present-day students in the present-day world. Examples include: the development of new subjects or cross-disciplinary areas for learning that weren’t part of the secondary curriculum in the past (like education for sustainability, for example), or  changes to assessment and qualification regimes designed to recognise and accredit a much broader range of learning (like New Zealand’s introduction of the NCEA, for example).

There have been lots of other pressures  too – like economic and social changes, technological changes, and so on -  and secondary school systems have changed in various ways in response.

In 2008,  a book Jane Gilbert and I wrote  called Disciplining and drafting, or 21st Century Learning? Rethinking the New Zealand Senior Secondary Curriculum for the Future was published. One of our goals in this book was to look back at the way secondary education has changed over time, and to provoke people to think about whether we’ve yet reached a point where our system really promotes and supports the kinds of learning that we think are going to be important for life in the 21st century world.

In the book we drew a series of pictures to think help us about some of the shifts that have happened to secondary education over time. We call them our river metaphors:

The Forked River

The Forked River

The Forked River is our metaphor for the traditional senior secondary system. Here we have students paddling along through their senior secondary years, navigating through the “rapids” of exams and qualifications, and gradually getting sorted towards one of two pathways – the academic, and the vocational. If a student has been heading towards one fork of the river but decides they want to change to another, this can be difficult (though not impossible).  Indeed, in decades past, students were often told which pathway they were best suited for, usually based on how well they did (or didn’t) perform in their academic subjects.

The Braided River

The Braided River

The next metaphor, the Braided River,  is  is quite similar to a lot of senior secondary education systems around the world today. This  braided river metaphor acknowledges that people will take different pathways when they leave school, but the ‘rapids’ (i.e. qualification structures) are organised so that people’s options are not closed down early by early subject choices, and to allow people to change courses. Students can follow their interests, but also change their minds and work towards a different post-school pathway, all the while continuing to move down the secondary school river. They can mix academic and vocational learning throughout their secondary education, whatever they think they will do after secondary school.

Our third metaphor is similar to the braided river one, but it adds in a stop-off point—or safe haven—for students who are having trouble navigating or even staying afloat. These could be students with learning difficulties, or students with other difficulties in their lives that have meant that school has either not been a priority or has not met their needs. To avoid allowing these students to drown, or be washed up on an uninhabited part of the riverbank, a camping ground area is set up to give these students a different, non-‘mainstream’ senior secondary experience, the eventual aim being that they have the skills and confidence to go back into the river. The camping ground teachers are more like mentors and the students spend time learning together as a group, mixing work experience learning with programmes designed to develop life skills, personal development skills, and the educational basics.

Campground for "drowning" students

Campground for "drowning" students

In countries with these types of systems, educationalists are asking questions, like:  is it desirable to separate these students off in ways that are likely to limit their future options? Alternatively, aren’t there aspects of these non-mainstream programmes that all students would benefit from—like the focus on learning work skills, working and learning together in teams, different studentteacher relationships, and so on? Are the students in the river going to miss out on these?  Metaphors One, Two and Three maintain the traditional screening and sorting function of senior secondary education, but you can see how each new change is designed  in ways that genuinely attempt to better meet the needs of all students. With minimal disturbance to the traditional university-bound pathway, they broaden the choices and pathways available to everyone else, and provide more support for students who are struggling. However the traditional secondary subjects are maintained, as is the traditional notion of senior secondary assessment as a key adolescent rite of passage.

However in Disciplining and Drafting Jane and I explain why we don’t think Metaphors One, Two, and Three allow us to make the shift to the 21st century educational aim of building everyone’s capacity to learn.

The Networked Camping Ground metaphor below is our very beginning effort to represent quite a different idea about how we might think about organising our schooling systems (including the senior secondary system) to truly promote learning for 21st century for all students.

In Metaphors One, Two, and Three the river was central. It represented ‘the system’: a one-size/one-speed-for-all system that students must fit into and keep up with if they want to ‘get anywhere’. However, in Metaphor Four the river’s importance is greatly reduced. Its only role really is to bring students to the camping ground, and maybe carry them away later, when they are ready to move into the world beyond school.


The Networked Camping Ground

Metaphor Four represents a more personalised approach to learning in which it is possible to get somewhere by a variety of different routes, at a speed that suits the individual. Because, in the 21st century, we are less sure that we know exactly where that somewhere is (and what it looks like), we can no longer be so sharply focused on the one best way. Metaphor Four thus refocuses the traditional educational landscape. The river system moves into the background, as do the old hurdles and the old emphasis on subjects. Lifting everyone’s game is in the foreground. The central goal is to develop certain key competencies in everyone, to use—and build on—people’s strengths and interests, while also ensuring that everyone has the basics, via a system that allows people to follow personalised learning pathways.

The centre of the campground picture is the place where students and their teacher/mentors plan their learning personal programmes. The camping ground could have several different ‘loop tracks’ that lead to a variety of different learning experiences. Some of these could resemble traditional work experience programmes; or they could involve researching the skills and knowledge required for different kinds of jobs. Other experiences could involve designing, setting up, and carrying out a research project that investigates and recommends solutions to a real local issue or problem.  The purpose of these experiences, together with others, is to provide contexts which will develop students’ overall capacity to learn: to do things with knowledge, to be curious and questioning, to think and learn independently, and to evaluate—and improve—their own thinking and learning.

There is lots more we could say about our metaphors – but really the idea here is to use them as a stepping-off point for discussion. What do you think?

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  1. | #1

    Last year as a staff (secondary), we looked carefully at the metaphors in ‘Disciplining and drafting or 21st century learning’ since the river concept fitted in well with our thinking about different but equally valued pathways for students. At the time, there was some reaction to the camping ground metaphor since it conjured up images of leisurely time in the sun, when we were trying to push the work ethic message with our young people. However as we have progressed and shifted in our own thinking about the importance of the key competencies, of personalising learning and of our responsibility to ensure that each one of our students is prepared for life and work in the 21st century, the more the camping ground metaphor is taking hold. In particular, it embodies our moral purpose as educators to expand the horizons of our young people, to meet each one’s particular learning needs as they progress through the school system, to learn how to learn and to share responsibility for their own education.
    In terms of shifting thinking, from time to time a bloated and stinking dead cow moves up and down on the tidal river which flows past our school. Eventually the cow will either rot away or float out to sea. It reminds me that shifting people’s thinking to a 21st century model of learning is a little like putting up with the dead cow. Eventually, if one persists, it moves on!

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