Lower Education

When I imagine the best ways to educate children, I am always drawn to a vision of communities built around the concept of learning at the very heart. It is a costly vision, rich with ideals. But as caring for our youth-as well as the need for lifelong learning-move higher on our social agendas, I know it can become a reality in the decades ahead.

I know this because my vision is based on seeds being planted today at schools throughout the world, seeds that are already bearing some fruit. In this vision, education begins in the home, supported by early childhood/parenting centers. These programs might be inspired by the pioneering Family and Intelligence projects in Venezuela, the remarkable early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy, or Parents as Teachers and other fine parent-education and preschool programs in the United States. Future community learning centers with supportive child/family services might replace today’s schools, and Lighthouses of Knowledge, inspired by those now existing in Curitiba, Brazil, might evolve from existing public libraries. New, low-cost educational technologies are already becoming more available throughout the world.

What follows, then, is my vision of the places, teachers, and technologies that will educate our children-and ourselves-some 50 years from now. I’ll start my tour with the newer educational structures for adults and parents and then move on to the child’s classroom of the future.

Lighthouses of Knowledge

Welcome first to a Lighthouse of Knowledge, a large, modern facility once known as the local library but that has transformed into a community focal point. It is made of transparent, shatterproof material. Like glasses that darken in the sunlight, the windows here cut glare when the sun is shining but otherwise let light pour in. As you can imagine, when the Lighthouses in all neighborhoods are lit up at night, the view is inspiring.

Open 24 hours a day year-round, Lighthouses are accessible to everyone, and many of the resources are free-a library of real books (some people still like the feel and smell), databases of electronic books, access to the Internet, satellite broadcast studios and receivers, multicast facilities, rooms for shared virtual realities, and other resources related to finding information and turning it into knowledge throughout life.

Each Lighthouse-keeper is in charge of maintaining a comprehensive database of all the educational resources in the community as well as booking uses of the facility. Businesses and individual entrepreneurs rent space for telework and electronic meetings or use the technologies for specialty training and distance learning. Those fees support the facility and provide space for nonprofits at low cost.

There are also special classrooms used by the Global University-the name that has emerged for adult learning programs-that have become a part of almost every worker’s life. Even though much of the learning is now electronic and connects students to experts throughout the world, there is still a need and desire for learners to collaborate with one another. They frequently meet in small learning teams but also use Lighthouses for meeting virtually with students from other parts of the country or from anywhere in the world. Simultaneous translation is available for those who do not share a common language. The facilities include rooms with interactive video walls so that distant students can see one another as they share information, collaborate on projects, and learn together.

Early Childhood/Parenting Centers

In every neighborhood, early childhood/parenting centers have been created that are free and easily accessible. The first years of life are critically important to healthy physical, emotional, and mental development, as it is during these years that the foundation of successful learning is laid. Because of this understanding, these centers have become an essential part of the educational system and have resulted in more children coming into school with the skills they need to learn successfully.

Prospective parents are urged through all the media to take free parent-prep classes in the centers, usually in the evenings. Neonatal and early childhood specialists offer information and practice on the importance of nutrition, love, sensitive sensory stimulation, exercise, and social interaction. In essence, parents and other caregivers learn how to create optimal conditions for their children’s healthy, happy development. During the day, parents may visit the centers to observe children at various stages of development as well as to participate in programs with their own children. Day care is also provided, and for parents who have not been able to attend classes, there are daily programs on interactive digital television that also provide access to databases of relevant information and links to appropriate World Wide Web sites that offer on-demand guidance.

Parents and other caregivers bring babies and toddlers to the centers periodically, to learn the best ways to nurture and help them develop. Children with physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges are identified early and helped through well-integrated social and health services on-site. There are early childhood programs that prepare children aged 3 to 5 to be successful academic learners, mostly through play and exploration.

Many of the centers are located near retirement homes, and that’s a great source of joy for both the children and the elderly. There is much loving care, active play both inside and outdoors, dancing, music, storytelling, and other human interactions in stimulating, multisensory environments. But because they might pose risks to rapidly developing neurological systems, no screen technologies are used with the very young. These will be introduced later.

Community Learning Centers

Over the years, there has been increasing demand by parents for more choice in the kinds of schools available to their children. In our future scenario, this goal has been achieved. Most children from age 6 to 16 attend community learning centers that take many different forms. For example, some may be located in museums; others may be connected to farms or greenhouses that produce healthful fruits and vegetables for the centers. Some may be located in workplaces or near theaters or hospitals or connected to churches. Some look like malls in the center of the community, to connect more directly with its resources.

What is certain is that few look like the large factory-model schools of today. Each community learning center has been designed in response to the needs, interests, and preferences of the community that it serves. The centers are part of a public, decentralized educational system operated by neighborhood councils, with a coordinator for each. Standards for all the centers, however, are set nationally, and most students meet or exceed them. There are elementary programs for 6- to 12-year-olds as well as a broad variety of educational programs for teenagers, and children with special interests may be accommodated even though they live outside the district.

As in the early childhood/parenting centers, there are support services on-site to identify problems early and provide intervention. Unlike today’s fragmented support services, health, social service, and welfare agencies have integrated their efforts through collaborative, continually updated databases and Web sites, assuring continuity and continuation of help as needed.

The centers are open 18 hours a day year-round and have extended-day programs for both students and adults. Parenting groups meet regularly to learn about and discuss the rapidly developing minds, emotions, and bodies of children age 6 through adolescence, and how best to help them develop to their fullest potential. The centers include job exploration and training programs, branches of social service agencies and health clinics, and recreational facilities that may include theaters, galleries, art studios, gyms, swimming pools, and ball courts. Income from adult or family use in the evening and on weekends and holidays helps to support the facilities.

At the turn of the millennium, some people thought that in the future there would be no need for schools as a result of new technologies that would be developed. If people of all ages could learn anything on any subject through interactive digital TV, videos, teleputers, the Internet, or virtual reality systems, why have schools with walls at all? Most parents, however, whether they are working outside the home or not, wish to have their children with other youngsters in caring educational environments. Also, most human beings are by nature social and learn best with human interaction, although new technologies offer additional opportunities for individualized learning.

By midcentury, there are electronic personal tutors, or EPTs, that are so sensitive to the user that they can interpret facial expressions and sense mood, confidence, or anxiety level and offer appropriate help. Students will learn at their own pace, and as they do the work or answer questions, the EPTs offer new material close enough to the students’ level so that they can succeed but just a bit beyond so that they are constantly challenged. With these technologies in the learning rooms, learning specialists-who used to be called teachers-are able to work closely with small groups of students.

Consider a community learning center that is adjacent to a visual and performing arts facility. Here, students concentrate on acquiring knowledge and skills individually with a variety of electronic devices or in groups facilitated by learning specialists or older students. There is also a virtual library of experts available to both students and specialists. Math and science skills may be applied to home or community projects, business enterprises, or environmental conservation. Writing and speaking skills may be applied to projects such as news broadcasts to the community, communicating with learning partners locally or abroad, or writing books for younger children. Working with visual arts, music, dance, drama, and a great variety of materials and manipulatives helps make abstract ideas more easily understandable.

There is much emphasis on developing interpersonal skills, as students learn to work collaboratively, and attention is paid to creating an environment that facilitates the development of ethical, moral, and responsible behavior. Because students with different abilities and disabilities learn together, they have rich opportunities to learn empathy and compassion. Challenges are often given that require wise and responsible decision making in such activities as student government.

A Classroom of the Future

Imagine a group of elementary-aged youngsters in one of the center’s interactive learning rooms. Each room can be adapted to a current theme, which in this case is the study of marine environments. Do you hear Debussy’s “La Mer” playing softly in the background? On one wall is a digital video image of the ocean, including sound and smell as well as linked databases and Web sites accessible on the students’ computers. In front of the video, the children have hung their mobiles of various kinds of sea life, and overhead are their mobiles of seabirds. On the opposite wall are projections of famous sea paintings from different periods of history.

Some of the children are painting a mural of undersea life, and others are working at their teleputers, researching and producing multimedia reports on various marine topics. Some are working with augmented reality programs, studying ocean currents with flow patterns superimposed over the images of waves. And there is a stage on which this evening there will be a community performance of “Dance of the Tectonic Plates,” choreographed, costumed, and with sets by the students. As an introduction to the performance, four students will present a multimedia explanation of the tectonic system with images and current data from different parts of the world. By the window is a small group of students reviewing their work and planning their next project with a learning specialist.

For the last hour of class today, the video sea wall will link to Neptune IV for a virtual visit to the deep-sea floor observatory off the northwestern coast of the United States. This research project was created in the early 21st century to study newly discovered forms of life in volcanic vents. As part of a search for the earliest life on Earth, the project has now gone far beyond that. The students and scientists will compare what they know about the microorganisms called archaea, or “ancient ones,” with new data coming in about organisms in the sea on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The youngsters are learning about how scientists merge research from the our oceans with that from outer space, a topic that will tie into the next theme 6 weeks hence. At that time, the students and learning specialists will work together to transform the interactive learning room into a planetarium with mobiles of the planets and projections of the solar system on the walls and overhead. Can you imagine Holst’s “The Planets”; playing in the background?

Learning specialists are held in high esteem in the community and are paid accordingly. No longer the primary sources and purveyors of information, their role in educating has expanded and become even more creative and interesting. In addition to having degrees in specific subjects, their training includes studies in the neurosciences, human development, and the most advanced educational strategies from around the world. Because the learning centers operate year-round, there is time to take one day a week for the specialists to learn, plan, and share ideas and materials. During that day, the students go on field trips, do special projects, work on remedial or advanced studies, or do community service projects.

The specialists play an important role in inspiring, guiding, and facilitating learning, but as students learn to use the infinite resources available to them through new technologies, they become increasingly independent. They also learn the importance of interdependence-in meeting rooms or on the Internet, in real laboratories or in virtual labs, in art studios or in museums, in gyms or in gardens, in the wilderness or in exploratoriums, and in the community itself. Students clearly have enormous freedom and choice, but they also learn to take responsibility for their own progress.

The students may be at different levels in different subjects, and they are often with students of different ages, including adults, who are welcome. The students move through levels of expertise, from beginner to accomplished, and at any age, when they are ready, they can advance. There are also exchange programs with other countries, and most centers have foreign students subsidized by foundations and businesses.

There are ongoing assessments that offer timely feedback to guide learners as well as the specialists’ instructional practice. The assessments, usually active demonstrations of achievement, go far beyond assessing memorization and recall to reveal whether students have understood and can apply what they have learned. For example, a learning experience might culminate in a presentation for the community, a multimedia report, a dramatic performance, or teaching other students, even adults, as is often the case in introducing new technologies.

There are still children with learning problems, but they can be helped by diagnosticians skilled at observation, who may use such new technologies as advanced, low-cost magnetic resonance imaging devices that make it possible to observe the brain while it is in the process of thinking. These tools assist the diagnostician in making recommendations for appropriate help with tutors, remedial techniques in the learning room, or innovative learning technologies. A great variety of intuitive, adaptive technologies are also available for the physically challenged, including the sight- or hearing-impaired. All community centers depend on trained community volunteers who assist in remediation and help the learning specialists in many ways. Students have mentors or advisors with whom they meet weekly.

Students of all ages maintain personal Web sites that include information on their learning styles; their strengths and areas that need improvement; academic progress and projects; portfolios of representative work; video interviews with learning facilitators, peers, and parents; and goals for the future. The Web sites also provide another means for assessing academic achievement, and they are updated throughout the years until students are ready to go into the adult world.

All secondary students do volunteer work while they are learning. In the process, they have opportunities to apply what they have learned as well as to develop other practical skills. As part of a teen transition program, students do a research project in the community or beyond to see what resources are available and what needs may be unmet. Then, with fellow students-or even peers in other countries-who have common interests, they design a project that may become a new resource for the community or even a small business. These projects and the products or services they produce must be approved as contributing to the health and well-being of the community they serve. There have been programs like these for many years, but new technologies open fresh fields and make it easier to keep records of accomplishment.

From Now to the Future

This vision is not based on my own idle daydreams. For the past 20 years, through an international education network called New Horizons for Learning, we have been seeking out the most effective ways of helping people to learn at all ages and ability levels. We have gathered information from educators, researchers, parents, and policymakers in our own country and around the world. What we have discovered is that educators everywhere face similar problems-and are reaching similar conclusions about potential solutions. For example:

o Students who come from impoverished environments find it difficult to achieve academically without expanded, integrated support services. Schools alone cannot meet the needs of these students.

o When children of normal intelligence enter school without the ability to learn successfully, it appears that parent and early childhood education have become critically important.

o Students of different social, cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds have different ways of learning, so educators must expand their array of teaching methods to reach all students effectively.

o In this time when rapid change affects every kind of work and every social institution, education must become a lifelong process.

o As new technologies continue to connect our increasingly interdependent world, it is critically important for students to develop technological know-how and to have steady access to the technologies.

Although many teachers are dealing successfully with these challenges, too many educators and policymakers are spending fruitless time and energy debating details of educational practice, such as whether phonics or whole language is the superior method and whether pure math skills are more or less important than problem-solving skills (might it not be “both/and” instead of “either/or”?). Meanwhile, students are dropping out or graduating without literacy, the skills to be self-sufficient, or the ability to work with others. Private charter schools may well cause the public system of education to become further segregated by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and student performance as has happened over time in New Zealand and other countries that have similar ratios of minority populations as the United States.

Anxious to improve the system, policymakers and educational planners have created new academic standards and tests that are simplistic solutions to a complex problem. Educators are feeling intense pressure from policymakers, parents, businesspeople, and other stakeholders in this high-accountability environment. It is important, however, to recognize that educational systems are not the only solution to problems that spring largely from social, economic, and environmental changes.

Numerous crises have raised the level of urgency: violence in the schools, disconnected communities, growing economic disparity, a pervading sense of helplessness over our futures. Moreover, new technologies are emerging at a speed that is surpassing our ability to understand how best to use them wisely and responsibly. This newest challenge has resulted in intense, meaningful discussions of what it means to be human-how to develop altruism and compassion, and how to foresee the consequences of our actions.

All of these challenges bear directly on how best to educate and prepare young people to become responsible, contributing members of society. There is now a call not just for restructuring but for a real transformation of education.

We have all the knowledge and tools we need to create an effective system that can help meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students. In some ways, the community learning centers that we imagine are not so different from some of the innovative educational systems emerging today. We have already seen many new interactive technologies along with a renaissance of the arts in education, hands-on projects, inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, internships, and community service projects that deeply engage students and result in academic achievement.

Throughout this country and the world, there are exemplary classrooms and schools that incorporate the most effective educational practices. But there must be a collective will to bring about the transformation of whole systems based on new understandings of the brain/mind/body system and how it learns; new technologies; more choices in educational facilities; and the integration of child/family services.

Educators are beginning to pay attention to the importance of the first 3 years of life, new research from the neurosciences, and studies in human development. An Institute for Mind, Brain, and Learning is being developed to train educators. Instruction is becoming more individualized as teachers learn how to meet the needs of a broader spectrum of individual differences through recognizing different ways of learning or different intelligences. These include not only verbal and logical-mathematical intelligence but also visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, naturalist, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences, as identified in Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences.”

More educators are beginning to understand as well that emotional intelligence is even more important to success in school and in life than IQ, and they are not only discussing but learning how to include the spiritual in education. In essence, they are beginning to focus on how to create a system that engages students emotionally, cognitively, physically, socially, and spiritually in a humane environment.

Finally, our world now has a telecommunications infrastructure that can support a quantum leap in learning and collective intelligence, and more of us have learned that we can work together as a global community of learners.

How we use these powerful new tools will determine the course of the future. Now more than ever, parents and communities must work together with educational systems to create the vision and means for present and future generations to live in a healthier, more peaceful, wiser world. “And at the end of all our exploring,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Dee Dickinson is the founder and chief executive of New Horizons for Learning, an international education network based in Seattle and in a virtual building on the Internet at www.newhorizons.org. She has taught at all levels-elementary through university-and has produced several series for educational television as well as created nine international conferences on education. She is an internationally recognized speaker, author, and consultant to educational systems, policymaking groups, and corporations. Her publications include “Positive Trends in Learning”, commissioned by IBM, and “Creating the Future”. She also is the coauthor of “Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences.”

Reprinted from Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century 2000 by the Global Renaissance Alliance, permission granted by Rodale, Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling 800/848-4735 or visiting www.rodalestore.com.

For more information on Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century, its contributing authors, and related organizations, go to www.utne.com/revolution.

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