Chapter Five

Learning Environments


The major changes discussed earlier in the way we educate high school learners will require matching changes in the nature of “school” itself. Today, for almost every learner, school is a specific building to which they report during rigidly set hours to meet in assigned rooms in fixed groupings of same- aged peers. When the school day ends, learners leave the building. Most will regard their learning as done for the day, except for assigned homework.

This rigidity of schedule, and the clear demarcation between learning and the rest of life, needs to change. The key principle underlying this change is flexibility. A more flexible approach to learning will transform schools from tightly scheduled hierarchies into much looser and more mobile groupings of learners. In an education system centred around in-depth projects, learning will spill out beyond the walls of the School, empowering learners to take advantage of learning opportunities wherever and whenever the occasion arises.

In the sections that follow, we will discuss in more detail our vision of greater flexibility in student groupings, in learning spaces, in school schedules, and in out-of-school learning. We also discuss the related issue of the expanded role that schools can play in the broader community, as a cultural focal point and centre for the life-long learning we seek to foster.

Flexibility of Groupings

As outlined in Chapter 3, high school learning should happen mostly in the context of in-depth projects addressing topics of student interest and local community need. Each project offers a unique set of learning opportunities and draw on a unique set of skills and interests. As a result, every project is likely to involve a different collection of students.

Often, these groups will involve learners of different ages and abilities. This allows learners to experience a diversity of roles within the groups they participate in. Sometimes, especially during the early high school years, a learner will follow the lead of others, taking on tasks that support someone else’s plan. At other times, especially later in a learner’s high school career or for topics of particular interest or ability, a student will help lead the group and direct its efforts. This reinforces the useful life lesson that roles change throughout life according to context.

Note that we are directing our proposals specifically at high school education. Thus, “mixed-age” groups will involve students who differ in age by only a few years. Mixed-age groups spanning a wider range of ages, such as 6–18, would pose a much greater challenge, though the benefits could also be great.52 We have not addressed the feasibility and desirability of broadening student working groups to include much younger ages, though this may be a question worth revisiting later, particularly in smaller communities where all ages attend a single school.

In addition to their project-based groups, each learner should be part of a “home group,” a set of same-aged students that, as much as possible, remains together throughout their high school career. These home groups meet at regular intervals to provide a peer group with deeper connections for social support.

In this project-based model of learning, it is no longer relevant to speak of an optimal class size. Groups will be as big as they need to be for a particular project. Some projects, such as operating a school farm, may involve most or all of the learners in the school, with subgroups forming as needed to address particular tasks and questions. Other projects of tighter focus may need only a few learners or, in special circumstances, even just a single individual.

What matters instead of class size is the overall student to teacher ratio. Schools will need to provide an adequate number of teachers and other learning professionals to serve as facilitators and resource providers for every group. As outlined in Chapter 4, these professionals will shift from a “one teacher-one class” deployment to a more flexible system in which, for example, one teacher may provide support in statistical analysis or computer programming for several different projects running concurrently. The details of this flexible support system are likely to vary from school to school. Often, especially in regions where trained teachers are scarce, some of these resource needs may be drawn from others in the community. As a result, we cannot specify whether this model of learning will require more, fewer, or a roughly similar number of adults compared to the present system.

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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