Online community, work, and education, have been rapidly growing industries, and a world where that is the norm seems like a reasonable prediction of the future. In light of recent crisis, as schools and workplaces around the world are being closed and people are being encouraged or told to work and learn from home, this notion has suddenly become a reality, much quicker than any of us anticipated.

Homeschooling has just become the temporary default for many countries, and enrollment season is upon us for a school year bathed in uncertainty. No one really knows at this point how governments and schools in particular are going to respond throughout the coming months, but my prediction is a huge spike in demand for homeschooling and other distributed learning options.

Homeschooling has historically been chosen (when available) by families or persons who:

  • have physical or mental disabilities or health concerns which would make it difficult to attend an institution
  • intend to travel throughout the schoolyear
  • have specific religious beliefs
  • have specific non-religious beliefs
  • are secluded
  • desire a non-traditional lifestyle
  • are concerned about the school system or learning environment
  • think it’s the best option for them/their family
  • insist on wearing exclusively pajamas
  • refuse to wake up before noon
  • really just want to buy art supplies when back-to-school stuff goes on clearance

I understand that in many places home learning is not or has not been an option, and even where it may be available a family or person might not be able to explore it for a number of very real reasons. For those people the fallout of this situation might prove difficult, and we will have to do our best to make new alternatives available and possible for those with fewer options. But those who are in a position to make this decision right now might choose to go the homeschooling route in the 2020/2021 school year, not to mention how many governments and individual institutions may choose to adopt this strategy.

So schools are a mess right now, but every time something changes is a chance to reshape it into something better. If the way we interact with education systems is going to change, then let’s talk about how to improve them.

What does online schooling look like?

In his March 17th blog post, Seth Godin discussed this idea and came to a very simple conclusion: If you’re going to speak to a group of people online (for work, education, or otherwise), don’t have ‘meetings,’ have conversations. This small change of mindset allows meeting facilitators to improve attendance, engagement, and benefit, but it requires that we change what we think a class ‘should’ look like, in physical space, and in dynamics.

While I was reading Seth’s post, I realized that the kind of learning environment he’s describing is exactly the kind of education I was given.
I was homeschooled my whole life and the year I reached grade ten the British Columbia Ministry of Education decided to switch to a thematic learning model. The school I was enrolled with is called SelfDesign, and they were one of the first to implement it, because it honestly didn’t change much from how they were already running things. So throughout my high school years, my graduating class has had the opportunity to test out and give feedback on this new system to help improve our school. A friend of mine even started a Learner Council to help fill in some gaps, which I was the President of for a while.

In SelfDesign, distributed thematic learning looks like a conversation.
You have weekly online meetings with your fellow theme members as well as a teacher who is equally passionate about the topic, and you all get to look at material together, discuss related debate topics, explain personal viewpoints, participate in small activities, and converse with each other. There are also opportunities to correspond or meet privately with any of your teachers, at any time, and to have discussions in a theme forum between meetings, to share information with your fellow learners.
There are weekly (not daily) projects which relate directly to an individual course, which have two tiers. There is a mandatory section which essentially accomplishes what one of my teachers affectionately calls “ticky-boxing,” and there is a ‘Personalize’ section, which allows individuals to deepen their learning and show their understanding in a way that is relevant to them.

Ticky-boxing is the action of ticking the boxes off a list, and it’s most of what we do in schools.
Tick, yes they can read and write.
Tick, yes they can recall facts.
Tick, yes they can follow directions.

Checkboxes are necessary tools for the teachers to be able to tell the schools to be able to tell the government that a student is or is not passing a class, so that choices can be made and life can proceed.
But, the difference with SelfDesign, and one of the things I’ve loved about working with them, is that they give you, the learner, the checklist, and let you tick the boxes. Yeah, they still have to check your list against theirs, but at least you know what skills you’re supposed to have learned, and the list consists entirely of the Ministry’s learning objectives for the course, not whatever the school decides is important.

This is not a sales pitch for my school. Of course it has it’s flaws, I’ve graduated, and while I would very much like to work for them, it is because I personally believe in what they are trying to accomplish and want to help achieve it.
But I am using it as an example. Because if we as adults want to learn something, we use our own volition to seek out information about the thing we are interested in. When we have a choice to either talk to someone and ask them questions about the things we want to know, or to read something online and answer a bunch of multiple-choice questions, most people would choose to learn the interesting bits from someone who knows the information. Most of us would rather personalise our learning experience to make sure we understand the parts that are important to us, rather than just ticky-box.
If that’s how adults are going to choose to learn, we can assume that that’s also how high school and college students would choose to learn, and it might be worth giving them the opportunity to do so. Understand that some ticky-boxing still needs to happen, but that doesn’t have to be the point.

Education can and should revolve around learning.

A classroom can look like a bunch of people sitting and listening to a teacher talk, and then writing a test. And when that same class gets moved online, Godin points out that the class gets boring and even more difficult to participate in, and no one learns.
Or a classroom can look like a bunch of people independently learning about a common interest, and then coming together to share what they know, under the guidance of someone who knows more and is able to deepen understanding.

A deep understanding of a few specific topics is more valuable than a superficial fact-remembering of several. It allows for passion and true learning and niche-building. It allows for mastery. So while it’s important to learn the basics, and it’s important to understand that the basics is all some people will be able to do, and that’s okay, but for those who can and want to do more, it’s important to create a learning environment that allows for true learning, and for conversation.

SelfDesign has always held this philosophy, and with the changes in the Ministry’s regulations, they have been hard pressed to create new things, to uphold the standards, tick the boxes, and create valuable learning experiences. They are continually changing and growing to create the best learning environment for as many different learning styles as they possibly can.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a co-founder of Friis&Clemme, a Danish design team devoted to physically creating learning environments and school rooms where children can learn easily. We had a wonderful conversation about education and how the school systems are, and should be, changing.

Another Denmark-based company is called Autens, which according to their website is, “an educational consultancy specialising in 3rd Millennium learning, schools and learning spaces. We provide consultancy for visionary projects transforming or rebuilding schools to embrace and support all kinds of children growing up in the global world of today.”

These and similar companies and individuals around the world are the future of education. This knowledge and these ideas are our future.

I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to sit for the next five years in the current college system, and I don’t want to teach classes in the current school systems. But I want to be an educator, a guide. I want to provide information and clarify understanding and discuss interesting things with interesting people who are excited about what they’re learning. I want to help create the individualized, thematic, conversational, learning-centered education that is the way to move forward after school closures and in a growing society.

So I think the question goes out to anyone who is a student, parent, educator, school administrator, platform designer… it goes out to everyone:

What does the 2020/2021 school year look like? And how does education look five years from now?

To learn more, see:
BC Ministry of Education Curriculum Info
Seth’s Blog: the Conversation, Mar. 17 ’20
SelfDesign.org
Wikipedia:
~ Homeschooling
~ Homeschooling International Status
~ Thematic Learning

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