What are Schools For?

Prompted by ideas about social changes effected by digital communication and the Internet, what do we need to learn in schools? There are several online resources with this very question up for discussion, and rightly so. The Internet, as a wonder of the modern world, is utterly deserving of its capital letter.

Youth work has emphasis on voluntary engagement with young people, but schooling has conventionally been compulsory. Why is this? I can see schooling as teaching young people things they need to know, accepting that young people are not necessarily in a position to decide what is important, and so we conduct a form of indoctrination while they are in this fledgling state. The nature of this indoctrination varies, depending on the society. Later in their development we seek to teach them about choice and responsibility, helping them on the path to becoming active members of society.

The question arising from the context of improved digital communication and Internet access is this:

What do young people need to learn, and what can they simply access via the Internet?

Evidently young people are learning to use technology with great speed. They are almost all equipped with mobile phones now. Online safety is now core education. It is actually the qualities espoused in youth work which become more relevant as young people are becoming active earlier. As they become exposed to more and more information at an early age, we can put artificial barriers to restrict the process, or teach them how to filter and choose much sooner. Given a very primal sense of curiosity, the ‘barrier’ method has limited use and is easily circumvented by young people knowing more than the adults in most cases! On the other hand, as the young people are having to grow up faster, perhaps we should be focussing on basis youth work tenets (summarised from http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/learning/leaving_school/youth_service/youth_service_aims.htm):

  1. Offer opportunities for personal growth through which young people can develop life skills, confidence and self esteem.
  2. Recognise, respect and encourage initiatives of young people.
  3. Act as advocates on behalf of and alongside young people in challenging the inequalities and prejudices arising from their experiences and life circumstances.
  4. Offer a variety of informal education activities, programmes and experiences which are recreational, social and fun!
  5. Acknowledge and value the diversity within youth culture and promote it within the wider community.
  6. Challenge young people’s actions, attitudes and words whilst encouraging them to realise the consequences of, and take responsibility for those actions, attitudes and words.
  7. Provide ways for young people to express their views and be heard.
  8. Offer support to young people through the transitions they experience in moving from childhood to adulthood.
  9. Offer relevant information, advice and education for young people on their rights and responsibilities and the issues which affect their lives, and so enable them to make informed decisions and choices.

Of the above, 7 is actually increasingly redundant as digital communication develops, but the others are very important. In fact, a personal belief that philosophy and lessons in critical thinking should be taught earlier in schools finds resonance with points 3, 6 and 9. So where does voluntary engagement fit in? Well, it seems to me that much of the above lessons are so vital that they might justifiably become part of the junior ‘indoctrination’, but given that such an indoctrination process is deliberately ‘self-defeating’ in the sense that we are wanting young people to make up their own minds, it becomes more of a kind of voluntary disengagement. However, helping young people to understand and navigate around the Internet beyond the online games and porn sites would seem to be an essential piece of fundamental knowledge! There is more to a healthy diet than sugar – as valuing diversity suggests.

What are exams for? Why simulate being cut off from the Internet if connectivity becomes a given part of life, or even a basic human right? I could see connectivity as reaching that kind of status in time, but there are enough other issues at hand first! I suppose a simple test for an exam would be – would it be meaningful for the student to take it with access to the Internet? If not, then why bother? It should be testing for answers that the Internet cannot provide – skills processing and utilising information, rather than regurgitating it.

An impression of the discussion so far: Young people need to learn how to use the new information technologies and resources safely despite a significantly technophobic attitude amongst many adults. Capacity to filter and critically process information making informed choices becomes more important as access to the Internet as a kind of brain/memory extension increases. The ensuing accelerated rate of development requires urgent education according to many youth work values, preparing young people to take responsibility for their actions and respect the diversity available to them.