A Zero|Base system for secondary education

Photo Jean Salmona / J&P Partners & ParisTech Review / April 14th, 2010

This first article in our Zero/base series, like all the ones to come, is purely an intellectual exercise. This one describes what a secondary education system might look like if it ignored all existing educational models and was based on current information technology resources and on the way children and adolescents behave today.

About the zero|base series

In almost all countries the secondary education system has changed little since the Republic of Athens, 2,000 years ago: “masters” pass on their “knowledge” to groups of students by speaking directly to them in “classrooms.” Students listen and write. Yet today, most “knowledge” or information is located outside the “master’s” brain, in millions of databases, easily accessible through search engines. Moreover, there are many ways of transmitting information other than the direct human voice. The current generation is more likely to focus on and acquire “knowledge” in dialogue with a screen than listening to a “master” face-to-face. New technologies are used in schools today in many countries, but only as a means of support, more or less marginal to the system. The principle remains the same: a master speaks to students.

A purely rational approach
Let us suppose Earth calls in an education expert from another planet. In France he would be called Sirius, an idiomatic representative from a distant star, with a clear vision of our planet. Spock-like, he uses perfect logic to define and design an educational system from scratch. His mission: to turn 10 – 11 year-old earthlings who can read, write and count, but have minimal knowledge of the world around them, into productive members of society in seven years.

Upon graduation, they should:
• have a body of knowledge at their command
• have the capability and the desire to learn more
• be driven by the desire to innovate and create, and
• have assimilated and adopted the values of their national community.

Sirius begins by analysing his raw material. He will likely make a series of observations that includes:
1. Their learning model is highly variable: some learn foreign languages easily and quickly, others mathematics or history; still others learn everything easily, and some struggle to learn anything at all.
2. Their favourite and most efficient means of communication are television/internet, computer, and mobile phone; they read few books and adults have difficulty getting and keeping their attention.
3. Most only work in groups for sports and via social networks on the Internet (eg. Facebook, MySpace, interactive on-line video games).
4. They love to compete in sports and video games but not academic subjects; group pressure generally opposes learning and leads to a levelling down.
5. Classrooms neither help their concentration nor their ability to learn (except in rare exceptions of high-level homogeneous classes). However, in front of a screen, they concentrate and learn quickly because it is fun and exciting.
6. Their ability to listen to an adult for more than a few minutes is based, in large part, on the adult’s charisma.
7. The more independent they feel, the greater their learning ability. Their actual capacity for autonomy is low at the age 10 but grows with age.
8. All adolescents need some kind of adult role model to develop their personalities. Computers, though necessary, are not sophisticated enough to pass on knowledge and values. A human expert has to be involved in the learning process for two reasons: to understand and adapt material to the personality of the student, and to provide feedback that makes the process rewarding for the student.

A new education system: flexible, individualised and screen-based.
1. Learning should be individualized and not done within a group because students’ abilities vary.
2. Consequently, the duration of the study program for any given subject or multi-subject programme cannot be fixed. Children learn different things at different speeds. At the end of an “academic year” pupils in the same age group will reach different levels in a variety of subjects if their individual learning characteristics are taken into account.
3. Video games should be used to impart information for all subjects, given their hold on students and effectiveness in promoting knowledge assimilation. For the arts, video games will play a role in learning grammar and spelling. These video games can be designed and built at the national level by competing publishers. This will identify “hits” that will capture audiences. Each student will be offered a choice for a given subject to allow for personal preferences. (Usually a student will choose a game in which he/she identifies most with the central character).
4. Before learning through video games starts, there will be courses in the form of video “sequences” to introduce a student to a given subject.
• The length of a sequence must not exceed the student’s natural attention span (about 15 minutes).
• Each sequence will be presented by a charismatic adult, chosen because of his/her ability to engage children. This could be a celebrity given Earth’s obsession with celebrities. The sequence will include illustrations, images and animations, links to websites, etc. Several versions will be available to give students maximum choice for the greatest appeal.
• The student may “replay” a sequence as often as he/she wants.
5. Group participation is essential for child development and socialisation. There will be group activities in two areas:
The Real World for sport and music. The current model is deemed suitable. As now, sports teams and music groups will not necessarily be made up of students of the same age.
The Virtual World for linking students with common interests (eg. children with a passion for a particular video game) and common languages, irrespective of geographic location. Students may be encouraged to form the most international groups possible, so as to give them experience of interacting with children from different cultures.
6. Students will need tutors to guide and help them organize the various available activities. A tutor will not be specialised in a subject but in teaching skills and the psychology of teenagers. • Students choose a tutor from a group of possible tutors, all quite different from one another; this limits the possibility of rejection. The choice will be easy as it is based on empathy (ie. the tutor the child likes best and not necessarily one who would drive the child hardest, which would be the rational decision for high achievement outcomes), which matches child and teenager behaviour. • Students are grouped in tutor groups in key subjects, following analysis of their learning abilities, and according to age. Children are unlikely to have the same tutor for more than a few years and would have the opportunity to change every year.

The Learning Environment
The Cyber-Classroom. Students with the same tutor (about twenty) will be grouped in “cyber-classrooms.” Each student will have his/her equipment (computer, Internet connection, headphones etc.). Learning (sequences of video “lessons,” video games, etc.) will take place under the supervision of the tutor with the exception of oral language learning and practical work (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), which will take place in labs. The tutor will guide children in their subject choices but at the same time leave them a fairly wide freedom to choose; this freedom increases over the course of the seven-year curriculum. The tutor will ensure that students do not neglect the subjects that interest them the least.
Specialist Teachers. Subject specialist teachers will not teach classes rather they will have office hours for small groups of students. They will comment on and develop the “courses” given in video sequences. Their role is to mentor and monitor. The relationship between student and teacher should be as flexible as possible and orientated to individual needs.
• For each subject, students will be divided in “trinomials” — teams of three pupils each with the same level of learning abilities in a specific subject. These teacher-trinomial sessions will have different frequencies and durations, depending on subjects. They will increase in length and frequency over the seven-year curriculum as course materials become more complex, and they could be longer and more frequent for literature and philosophy, for example, than for the hard sciences. They will not be necessary for all subjects.
• Teacher specialists will validate the acquisition of knowledge. A student, who considers that he/she has mastered a given program in a given subject will make an appointment with a teacher specialist, after consulting his/her tutor. The teacher specialist will assess whether the student has mastered the course curriculum. There will be no specific period allocated for these “validations”. Failures will be rare because tutors will assess when students are ready. • Specialist teachers will be available to students throughout the year to help any student at his/her request or at the request of his/her tutor. The student’s tutor shall make the appointments.

The institutional environment
The current model, redesigned to include cyber-classrooms and enough specialist teacher offices, is not without merit. The Secondary School brings together a large enough number of students to justify the sports, music and fine arts facilities (group activities) that enable pupils to spend their whole day at school. Learning in cyber classes, supervised by tutors, takes place in the morning. The afternoons are devoted to group activities (sports, music) and practical work. The trinomial sessions and individual appointments with the teachers take place in the morning, and the second half of the afternoon. Specialist teachers analyse the sequences and video games to which they will refer in their discussions in the first part of the afternoon. All learning takes place in the Secondary School. There is no homework. Students attend Secondary School all day. It is likely that Sirius will keep to the academic year, as defined now, with vacation periods common to all students. Students will progress at their own pace so the number of program units validated at the end of the school year will be variable from one student to another for a given age group. Not all students will be validated in all subjects at the end of a school year. This does not matter. The programme will continue the following year.

Disadvantages and dangers of the new system and how to overcome them
1. Achieving the four goals. Three of the four goals outlined initially are easily achieved: mastering a body of knowledge, instilling the capability and the desire to learn, assimilating and adopting the values of the national community. The focus on the individual learning experience will enable this. The fourth, having the desire to innovate and create may require additional individual workshops designed to promote technological and artistic creativity.
2. Standardising teaching materials.
How to ensure the video materials convey the same educational value across different societies with different political profiles and technical standards? The making of video sequences and games is centralised in the hands of private publishers / producers. The national government defines the targets for the curriculum. This centralisation guarantees that the students get the same quality of education wherever they live; but “formatting” is a thorny issue if left to market forces. This is likely to lead to waste. In a democracy, the functional specifications of video sequences and games will be defined and their implementation monitored by a committee involving various components of civil society and political parties, to ensure both the neutrality of products and some diversity. In a non-democratic political regime (single-party, theocracy), the system will derive a clear benefit from centralisation. In all political systems, a national institution of educational research should oversee the making of video sequences and games, and validate them before distribution.
3. Can technology teach everything? How to ensure that the products are compelling for a youth population and serve their educational purpose given that the target audience is fickle and almost programmed to reject adult opinions and tastes? The most current popular games scenarios do not impart specific knowledge. Constructing “games” to teach calculus, for example, may not be possible. The system may have to be more flexible to combine games with “old fashioned” learning to reach optimal levels of knowledge transfer. In addition, value systems in popular games are not always conducive to socialising.
4. The gender gap. Will this approach suit boys and girls equally? Boys are more compelled by video games+ learning than girls. Girls use current technology more for social networking. It will be a challenge to develop educational video sequences that take this into account.
5. Ensuring the quality of staff. The recruitment and training of tutors is key to the functioning of the system. They have to monitor progress and ensure course materials are compelling. The fact that tutors have only to guide the learning process for each student under their care, and to assist students without playing a role in the teaching of subjects, makes their selection and training relatively easy, though quality control and training of tutors will be an issue.
6. Creating good communicators. Oral expression may be sacrificed as cyber-classes will generally be silent. The trinomial interviews with teachers (which happen about three to four times per week) will require each student to speak, which is not possible in groups of 20 pupils. These smaller forums will also avoid the negative group pressure cited earlier. However, if groups are drawn towards all-classroom discussion in some topics – literature and philosophy for example – time will be made available.
7. Handwriting skills. Handwriting may be the big loser in this system. It will be up to national political institutions to define the national policy in this regard. For a number of reasons, not simply cultural, the practice of writing will generally be regarded as indispensable. Therefore, writing assignments will have to be integrated into the curriculum.
8. Reading books. Finally, reading books, especially fiction (novels, plays, poetry), is a major component of all civilizations. Chances are high that in a system such as this, reading longer texts falls into disuse. One could combat this danger by imposing, in the cyber classes, a time for reading paper books under the supervision of tutors (rather than text on a computer or e-books).
9. The role of parents. The system will not presume an active role for parents. Should parents wish to be involved and monitor their child’s progress this will be welcomed, but because there is no homework, there will be no expectations of parental support. This compensates for the different levels of current parental involvement today. Clearly not all the advantages and disadvantages of this zero/base educational system are addressed here. We welcome your comments and suggestions to enhance or criticise Sirius’ 21st Century secondary education model.

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