Re-Imagining Schools: Addressing Real World Challenges

Since the time of the American Common Schools Movement in the mid-nineteenth century, schooling has been organized around blocks of content in distinct subjects, taking on a top-down mirroring of collegiate education.  With standards movements starting in the 1980s, school curriculums organized around content-laden subjects geared toward high-stakes achievement tests have become the norm.  In such an environment, teachers and students addressing real world challenges doesn’t even make it onto the agenda.  

The compartmentalization of subjects, isolated from one another in time (on the schedule), space (divided into different classrooms) and people (taught by different teachers, especially in the upper grades), are often dealt with in and of themselves without any relation amongst them or any relation to the world.  The bell rings and students go marching into history class to be told facts about World War II to memorize and reproduce by the history teacher in the history classroom, writing notes in their history notebook and reading from their history textbook until the bell rings again and they move on to the next subject following the same pattern.  After a few weeks there is a test to withdrawal all the facts and figures deposited to then be forgotten about, in many cases, as the next topic in the curriculum of each subject is then served up in fast food fashion.  

Many students are disinterested and unengaged.  Many ask questions: Why am I learning this?  What does this have to do with the real world?  How and when will I use this in life beyond the classroom?  Schooling should start here, integrating different subjects interdisciplinarily to address real world issues that challenge humanity in the twenty-first century, putting students in an empowered position to do something about them.

Some countries, such as Finland, have proposed changes that partially attend to this call; encouraging teachers to teach in teams according to phenomenon rather than distinct subjects.   A history, geography and language arts teacher may co-teach the phenomenon of World War II, for instance.  This reorganization of schooling is certainly more holistic and can help students view a phenomenon from multiple view points, however the question of why students are learning about World War II remains unanswered.  

Project Based Learning, or PBL, has taken hold in many American schools, focusing on student-driven projects that mirror real world problem-solving.  Students who are studying World War II in history class may create a project to memorialize the victims in their town or call for the cessation of a current conflict through a letter-writing campaign.  The PBL approach, however, is not necessarily interdisciplinary and it may aim only to answer students’ immediate questions about World War II itself, rather than to address a real world, contemporary challenge.

What if we put these approaches together and took it a step further?  Imagine a school organized around real world activities that integrate students’ needs, interests and dreams.  Imagine a school where these activities are co-taught by interdisciplinary teams of educators, interconnecting knowledge and making meaning across subjects.  Imagine a school where students take concrete actions to address real world challenges, thus transforming the world and themselves in the process.  What would that look like?  

Imagine history, geography and language arts educators co-teaching an action-oriented real life activity chosen by students such as: preserving the eye-witness testimonies of local people who played a role in World War II by interviewing and archiving them for future students to study; creating a micro-lending project for the reconstruction and economic recovery of recently war-torn regions; or adopting a sister school in a recently war-torn region.  Students would learn about World War II in a more robust way by analyzing its events from the various points of view offered through the disciplines of history, geography and language arts (Imagine if science were included with the study of atomic energy and the race to build the nuclear bomb during World War II?), as well as putting their knowledge to work to take concrete actions to transform the world by addressing a real world, contemporary problem.  Students’ engagement would peak as active agents in not only the teaching-and-learning process, but as protagonists of change beyond the walls of their school.    

The essentials of this type of school organization are collaboration amongst teachers of different subjects in connecting content from each of their fields of expertise in an interdisciplinary work, aligned with caring, criticality and creativity on the part of teachers and students in designing activities that address contemporary, real world problems in a transformative way.  The organization of schools could remain largely unchanged (in terms of time and space) by  teachers meeting frequently to integrate work and/or setting up online platforms for students to share ideas and negotiate actions through posting and commenting on their joint work.  School organization could, however, revolutionize by structuring schedules, spaces and people (students and teachers) around interdisciplinary real world activities that take on contemporary problems through concrete actions, giving students from multiple ages the chance to choose which activities in which they would like to participate as active learners and active agents for change.  The possibilities are endless; it is just up to us to reimagine schooling and turn it into a reality.
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To transform education in order to move humanity forward to face the challenges of the 21st century, increasingly globalized world in a collaborative, creative, critical, connected and caring way.

The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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