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An experiment in what school could be

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For every school community that has lived through what is being referred to as an annus horribilis (2020), it’s not surprising that a technology-enabled future for learning is high on the education agenda. The conversation has shifted significantly, even in the most underserved spaces; educators, parents and leaders are contemplating how to build a flexible, resilient and open education system that is both fair and inclusive. 

Developed as a forced opportunity to reimagine the how, what and where of learning, the phrase “never waste a crisis”, has accelerated the overdue transformation of inefficient education models. But the reality is that the whiplash move to digital learning has excluded large numbers of learners and amplified existing educational disparities. 

Recent public discourse centered on definitions of “success” and “quality learning” has clearly divided teachers and leaders as they reflect on the outcomes of education during 2020. There are merits about remote learning that those involved at the coalface share — and so “going back to the way things were” is not a useful point of departure. 

Given where we currently find ourselves in 2021 — with a new strain of the virus forcing further lockdown measures — a more useful question to contemplate is: how can all the education stakeholders (including learners) think about and plan for a learning future that is inclusive, flexible and resilient?

Providing internet access and digital tools to all learners is desirable, but on its own it’s not a sustainable solution, as evidenced by the “paperless classroom” experiments. The heart of the conundrum seems to be the erroneous perspective that schools are organisational structures rather than organisational processes. 

The organisation as process, first proposed by Margaret Wheatley, points to relationships as key to the development of an adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient and intelligent learning organisation that reinvents and innovates, not only during a crisis, but as part of a living and ongoing evolutionary system. 

The interdependence of teachers, leaders, parents, learners, community members and anyone with a stake in learning is possibly the best answer in addressing the conundrum that every school and its leadership team must address as they journey into the uncertain year ahead — and perhaps beyond. 

In this regard, two lower-quintile school principals in the National Education Collaboration Trust Sandbox project, at BB Matlaila Primary School and Hector Peterson Primary School located in rural Limpopo, have taken on the challenge of reimagining “school[s]as an organisational process”. 

Both principals have committed to a self-selected project as part of developing and enhancing a culture of learning where the co-creation of the strategic learning agenda for 2021 will be conducted by adopting a “beginner’s mindset”. 

Shunryu Suzuki once wrote: “In a beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

A beginner is therefore:

• Open to discovery, and novel ways in which learning can happen;

• Free of expectations, and able to engage confidently and courageously with experimentation and pedagogical problem solving; and

• Engages curiosity about learning, because there is a need to understand context and culture more deeply.

Through this approach to collective action there will be a deliberate letting go of the norms that previously served education so well. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to push boundaries, school communities such as BB Matlaila and Hector Peterson are being forced to learn how to explore ways to connect with learners who do not have access to the resources of the privileged, and can engage with experiments from which new practices and new models may emerge.

My research team and I, together with principals Michael Mashishi, Rebecca Mahapa and their school communities, are contemplating some ideas that could enable the use of a beginner’s mindset. 

In an “imagine if” process, the following emerged:

1. Imagine if we created smaller learning communities that share the need for a sense of belonging, connectedness and accountability for learners?

2. Imagine if we created personalised pathways for learners to meet, where they can get what they need?

3. Imagine if school is reorganised as a “pandemic camp” to engage learning through problem solving, with a focus on play as pedagogy?

4. Imagine if we expanded options for learners so that they can use contextual and indigenous knowing as resources to evoke learning?

5. Imagine if we reimagined homework so that practice and learning can happen in the community, and with guidance, rather than as a sole endeavour in isolation at home?

6. Imagine if we harness all available technologies in our community and invest in cellphone technologies and freeware to support learning wherever possible?

7. Imagine if we empower learners to take ownership of their own learning and that of those younger than them, so that they can create new knowledge and ideas?

These are not exhaustive ideas by any means, but a good starting point towards engaging an organisational process approach to school as a living system, where home and community partnerships are invited in service of the kind of learning that ensures equity for all learners. It is hoped that these two schools, at least in 2021, do not expend energy on finding ways to go back to the way things were, but rather explore a beginner’s mindset that frees them from expectations of what their schools should be, and enables possibilities of what their schools could become.

Kathija Yassim is associate professor in the University of Johannesburg’s department of education leadership and management

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