Tuesday, 15 May 2007


The Student-Centred School System

Imagine a school without classrooms or 45 minute long classes. Imagine a school instead which educates each student as an individual just as the doctor treats each patient as an individual. “Impossible!” one might say. “That’s like individual private tutoring! Only the wealthy can afford such a privilege.” And, indeed, this may be true until Information Technology and a different, student-centred, school system is allowed to fully come into its own.

We are talking about an educational revolution, but one which is overdue.

Let me describe one possible three part student-centred educational system to illustrate the design of an educational revolution. I shall label these three elements:

1 Achievement Units
2 Lab Projects
3 Mentors

With the elimination of the classroom we will automatically eliminate the lesson as we know it, and the need for classroom control and passive learning (“Sit still and be quiet so I (the teacher) may give the lesson”). We will also eliminate the need for a variety of grades at the end of the term and for the inevitable bell-curve pattern of results which necessitates that some students succeed whilst others fail. And we will eliminate the need to ring bells at the end and beginning of classes.

With the elimination of the classroom, it is no longer incumbent upon the teacher to be the sole or primary source of knowledge. We are free to put students in direct contact with the curriculum material, and material beyond this, on an individual basis rather than through a teacher. We shall do this with so-called Achievement Units.

Achievement Units are small pre-constructed units of knowledge, information (lessons if you will), which each individual student has direct access to via DVDs, CD Roms, the internet, audio material and of course all usual written material - whichever is most appropriate. The student-centred school will have hundreds of such Units on a very wide variety of curriculum-based subjects. A student selects the Units to be taken and pursues the understanding and learning of that package of information - alone or with a companion student - in specially designated and equipped areas of the school. Upon learning the content of the Achievement Unit the student asks to be tested on the Achievement Unit. The test is designed to demonstrate mastery learning on the student’s part. There is only one grade: Pass to achieve the Unit. Students who fail try another version of the test again later, when they feel they are ready.

Whilst this may seem rather radical compared to the current examination system, consider that it has been happening in exactly this way in driving schools for decades. If a driving student fails, he or she practices more and takes the test again when ready. In the case of Achievement Units, once the student achieves the Unit, this becomes a part of the student’s cumulative school record of achievements, so that the record is one of 100% success (albeit perhaps eventual) rather than some successes and some irredeemable failures. Psychologically this is very fortifying for the students. There are no ‘A’ or ‘B’ or ‘C’ students. Some students may achieve more Units but all students will have successes - achievements of equal worth.

And Achievement Units will cover a broad range of topics, including all academic requirements and various levels of ability, thereby accommodating various interests and abilities and thereby treating students as individual learners.

Achievement Units offer further benefits. They are easily open for inspection by teachers, parents, other schools, governing bodies and so-on, which is not the case when the teacher closes the classroom door. Achievement Units can offer superior lessons compared to what most teachers can offer. Achievement Units mean that a student is not left behind to the degree that often happens when a student is out of school with the ‘flu for a week and finds it difficult to grasp a cumulative subject such as algebra upon returning. Also supply teachers become less necessary. Achievement Units do not get ill the way teachers do. Now that teachers are freed from classrooms, some are always available when a student needs individual tutorial help with an Achievement Unit. ‘Bright’ students are not held back by mediocre classrooms and less well prepared or capable students are not left behind by the classroom pace.

Perhaps most important, all in all each and every student is more respected as an individual and given more choice (as a customer of learning). When a student needs a break, he can take one. When a student is keenly interested in a particular topic the student can pursue a series of Achievement Units on that topic.

The second element of our student-centred system we call Lab Projects or Group Projects. These are quite different and distinct from Achievement Units. Lab Projects are proposed by teachers or students or an expert from outside the school faculty. These proposed projects are described and ‘advertised’ and interested students meet in an exploratory meeting with the leader to be. If there is enough student interest in joining the project and it seems a feasible project, it becomes part of the school’s curriculum. A typical project might meet once a week for three hours, over several weeks. The project would end at some logical point and would result in a report or a project (the completed production of a video film or a school play, etc).

Lab Projects are much more real life/hands on in nature. There is no test. The result (or failure) speaks for itself. Lab Projects may be related to Achievement Units insofar as Achievement Units may offer information required for the successful completion of the Lab Project. A very simple example could be the undertaking of an Achievement Unit (or series of) in grammar and written English for a Lab Project in which students write and edit the school magazine. This is one obvious way in which the student can engage in ‘enablement learning’ – the learning of something for an immediate and specific purpose, to help achieve a tangible goal.

The leader of a Lab Project is always important and well identified and may well determine how many students join a project. If a teacher, Mr Jones, proposes a Lab Project on The French Revolution or World War II, his Lab Project will get student customers provided that Jones has a reputation as a good teacher. Built into the system, therefore, is a demonstrable teacher review and feedback mechanism. Also if a project is led by, say, a retired architect, the students will have a chance to work with, and identify with, someone other than a teacher. This gives education a scope that extends beyond the walls of the school and into business and the wider community.

Mentors provide the third element in the student-centred system. Ideally each student shall have two mentors and shall meet regularly with them, but may also contact them between meetings when it is felt necessary. The mentors’ role is to help the students achieve their goals.

Also part of the mentors’ role is to keep tabs on the students’ activities vis-à-vis Achievement Units and Lab Projects. If a student is over-specialising in one area, let’s say English, and abandoning other areas, the mentor may make suggestions as to how the student can extend their interests into other subject areas. Recognition will be given to how subjects are laterally linked – for example if a student has a special interest in the English language but dislikes science, the mentor can guide him or her to Achievement Units dealing with the biographies and writings of famous scientists, as a way of igniting interest in that field.

The mentors will consider their students as individuals, having spent an initial session asking the student his or her personal ‘story’ – that is, what the student aspires to, what motivates them, what demotivates them, and so on.

Here we have a brief description of a feasible student-centred school system. This removes the need for parents to shift their children to the right schools with the best level classrooms. Also Achievement Units can be replicated and used in any schools, and can be added to, amended, updated and, if ever necessary, removed with ease.

A student-centred school system will achieve the universal goals the government, parents and LEAs seek. Putting names in a hat and then sending students to schools with the existing classroom system will not achieve much, if anything, other than upheaval and more chaos because it fails to get at the essence of the problem, mainly our out-dated, inefficient, classroom system.

The above described system was approved by the Massachusetts State Department of Education for a new secondary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the American Charter School procedure based upon an application by the International School of America. A more detailed account of the student-centred system can be obtained by emailing karljaeger@easynet.co.uk

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