It is worth considering how the DoE of any nation can assist school communities in being producers and not simply consumers. Subtle shifts in how the DoE interacts with schools in matters of school design, curriculum and instruction could dramatically change teaching and learning in a nation.
The DoE plays an essential role in the efficient implementation of educational policy in any nation. I fully agree that it should have a leading role in the design and implementation of curriculum, school design and instruction in individual schools. In the case of curriculum, the DoE ensures that basic standards of learning across all subjects are defined and met by all students nationally. This is a good thing. Similarly, in school design, the DoE plays an important role in ensuring that functional learning spaces are designed within certain budgetary and safety requirements. This is also good. Through various Professional Development bodies it will ensure that teachers are given ongoing exposure to best practice in the classroom. This basic structure (theoretically) ensures that students in one part of a nation are as well prepared for future studies and work as those in another part of the nation. Where the DoE is flexible and uses its remit as a framework and not a diktat, individual schools can flourish and be production-orientated. But where it is intransigent or over-reaches, schools tend to be uninspiring and prescriptive. This can be reduced to a simple question: Is education something that is done to people or is it something that people do themselves?
In many countries it is common for the DoE to have a set policy for school design. School architecture both on the school-wide scale and at the individual classroom level has a profound effect on the nature of teaching and learning in that community. Where these DoE policies are inflexibly imposed it can lead to conflict, especially where school design does not fit the prevailing culture of the school. Now this is not always a bad thing. For example, in New Zealand the DoE’s “Innovative Learning Environments” initiative, which is rather strictly regulated, has placed a strong emphasis upon designing schools which make teaching and learning transparent, which create student-centred, democratic and collaborative learning spaces. It is a nation-wide push to implement the findings of the OECD’s “Innovative Learning Environments” project and an attempt to ensure that schools are more holistic and less focused on student academic achievement alone. In Ireland the situation is similar. The DoE’s Technical Guidance Document TGD-022 lays out in detail the design expectations for any new primary schools nationwide. While the document stipulates that the design is to be used as a starting point, thus indicating a willingness to work with individual school communities, the layout could be called traditional and conservative. In the example provided in the document 16 modular classrooms up to 80m square account for approximately 73% of the entire ground floor space of a new school. The issue here is that even though the DoE is willing to negotiate somewhat with school communities in new builds the starting point is so traditional as to render any significant or dynamic change highly unlikely. While the Irish design process is more flexible than the NZ one, it is inherently more traditional. In both cases school design is largely dictated.
The role of the school community in the design of curriculum has long been a source of contention in many nations. A good example of this is the current battle that is being waged against the Common Core Curriculum (CC) in the USA. This even took a central position in the 2016 election cycle with all of the final five Republican candidates (except for John Kasich) during the primaries promising to scrap CC and leave all curricular decisions to the individual States. The seeming irony in the US case is that CC should be something of a dream scenario for schools to implement. It simply identifies what is considered to be core literacies and expectations at the national level without prescribing significant content. Promising to scrap CC is an easy political option for Republicans who want to seem tough on reducing the influence of the Federal Government in the affairs of the individual States (though CC was originally devised by a coalition of individual States), but they should be careful of what they wish for. In Germany for example, where curriculum design is the business of the individual Bundesländer or States, there is marked difference in the reach of the local government in determining content. For example, in Baden-Württemberg (BW) the curriculum (which is about to undergo a significant revamp in the next year) is broadly comparable to the US CC. Standards are identified across subjects and grades but individual schools are free to choose content and thus can produce significantly personalised curricula. In next-door-neighbour Bayern (BN), content is largely prescribed. The entire curriculum of every grade and subject in the BW curriculum (Grundschule, Mittelschule, Realschule and Gymnasium) would fill approximately the same amount of paper as the Grundschule (Elementary School) curriculum alone for Bayern. In this case, State control of curriculum has resulted in less autonomy and dramatically less personalisation for individual schools. All students in all Bavarian schools are expected to cover the same standards using largely the same content which can only result in students producing the same results. This is certain to create consumers and unlikely to enable producers.
A third and connected area that defines the nature of community in a school is the methods of instruction employed by the majority of the teaching staff. It is today the case that the most used teaching method is Direct Instruction (DI). Often that is mistaken for lecturing and is not correctly employed. Further, when not thoughtfully employed, allowing time for student mastery and the creation of new knowledge and artefacts, DI can be simply a means of “delivering content” rather than one of fostering authentic learning and production. It is still too often the case that teachers feel under pressure to “cover” a heavily-prescribed curriculum and in these cases DI is used as the best means of “delivering” instruction. It is seen as the fastest way to get through content. This results in a cycle familiar to most educators: a teacher lectures, students rote-learn, the teacher examines, students forget. Again, this is the antithesis of innovation and production. However, this cycle is often embedded in school design. A school where the traditional modular classroom dominates naturally lends itself to compartmentalisation of curriculum by traditional subject groupings which are taught in isolation from one another – the maths classroom, the history classroom etc. Where traditional classrooms exist it feels comfortable or “normal” for teachers to arrange desks into rows and this in turn facilitates Direct Instruction over any other method. It takes a conscious school-wide effort to break this traditional teaching and learning mindset. But this balance could be shifted by redefining the DoE’s relationship to schools.
At the moment this relationship is one of consumption. Schools are given directives on design, on curriculum and in turn teachers push that consumption onto students in the form of DI and traditional learning-space arrangements. It is a top down management structure. What is needed is a shift in this relationship. It must be a given that the DoE must be expected to be flexible in their policy implementation and as under-prescriptive as possible while ensuring basic health and safety regulations are met in school design and by focusing on identifying core competencies without excessive demands for curriculum content. The key, however, is to shift the balance in all three processes to make them school-initiated. All schools should have a Mission Statement and set of individual teaching and learning principles. If they do not then they are set up to be consumers. If a school has these documents but if they have not been democratically devised with the input of the whole school community, it is set up to produce consumers only. Such a school passively take whatever it is given by the DoE because it has no mission, no driving goals or raison d’être.
Schools which do have a strong and lived Mission Statement and set of teaching and learning principles have a need to personalise their school environment and their curriculum and adopt teaching methods that suit their goals. These are production-driven schools. They are interested in the creation of new and personalised knowledge, the production of academic artefacts, the development of students who are imbued with communally-valued mindsets and “soft skills”. Because these schools have such a strongly-defined sense of community and vision, it is desirable that the DoE adopt a role of facilitator for this vision. To enable such schools it is essential that all school planning, all talk of curriculum and all pedagogical support stems from a school-led discussion with the DoE. That discussion must begin with the school explaining its Mission Statement and vision and with the DoE asking ‘how can we help make it a reality?