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Vision 2020 by 2020

Richard Fransham

'It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students' parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.'

John Gatto wrote this more than twenty years ago in Dumbing Us Down. In the interim, public education has changed little, but the number of people who can imagine another way to do things has grown substantially. They view traditional schools as too impersonal and too curriculum-driven. They see the benefits to giving children more control over their learning and they understand that relationships are more important than test scores. They are the people who favour child-centered learning and democratic decision making over the teacher-centered, autocratic methods prevalent today.

Despite the commonality in these people's views, there is considerable disparity among them. The article on Human Scale Education published in the January 2013 issue of Lib Ed recognizes this variance in views and it alludes to how it can be self-defeating. 'It would be a shame to continue with our mutual disdain, when there are so many important areas in which we agree,' it said.

Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and coined the term 'paradigm shift', puts this kind of disparity into perspective with his idea of 'normal science'. He presents it as the search for answers to questions arising from a paradigm, and it works to resolve the differences among people who subscribe to the same basic premise.

Disciples of Copernicus accepted the sun as the centre of our solar system and then set about solving the problems related to things such as orbits and gravity. Disciples of democratic learning are at the stage where they need to provide answers to questions about the amount of freedom that can be extended to children. They need to ascertain whether or not some pre-determined curriculum is necessary to take essential learning and optimum learning times into account. They need to investigate the potential for democratic learning environments to expose more children to experts in other fields, and to study challenging ideas like that presented by Sharon Caldwell in Turning Points (edited by Mintz and Ricco, 2010): 'A school that is democratic without being Montessori,' she says, 'is depriving its students of a myriad of wonderful opportunities for self-directed, individualised learning.' They need to find out how teachers can best serve as facilitators and how children can best acquire the skills of self-directed learning and democratic living. The optimum size for a school, the size that eradicates anonymity and maximizes diversity while preserving healthy relationships needs to be determined. The ways that democratic schools can provide better support for families, and how they can be integrated with social services are also topics for the normal science of the democratic learning model.

There is, however, the big obstacle to overcome that John Gatto describes with the quote at the head of this article. Intentionally or not, traditional public schools make it virtually impossible for advocates of democratic learning to conduct research in a properly scientific way. Kuhn recognizes this problem as a battle of paradigms and he presents insights into how a dominant paradigm works to keep promising contenders from replacing them. 'Critical mass' is the term used to describe the point at which the growing number of people subscribing to an idea becomes too large to be ignored, the point at which a dominant paradigm must allow for a challenger to compete with it. In my opinion the number of people who believe public educators need to be vigorously exploring real alternatives has quite likely reached its critical mass and now it just remains for them to come together as a single force. This is where Vision 2020 by 2020 is focusing its attention. It is proposing a common action that can open the doors to the normal science of democratic learning. Once those doors are open, the people who are currently reduced to arguing among themselves could become practitioners constructively resolving their differences with informative studies.

It has been said that fundamental change is a process, not an event. In American Schools - The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, Sam Chaltain says, 'the more drastic the intervention, the harder it is to reach your goal. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.' Taking this into account Vision 2020 by 2020 presents a workable starting point. It describes a one-classroom pilot project where a mixed-age group of students are given more control over how they learn, but no more control over what they learn. They are assigned full-time to a classroom in their community school and they work as they see fit on mandatory courses with a teacher acting as a facilitator. Initially the pilot sounds too conservative to accomplish the big task of transforming public education, but this is what it promises to do. By eliminating the two most constraining characteristics of traditional schools, age-segregation and timetabling, it creates the possibility of evolving public education into something new.

The proposed pilot is something students choose to take and through it they can learn what it is to assume responsibility for their own learning as they develop the skills of self-direction. The pilot also creates an environment where teachers can perfect their skills as facilitators, guides-on-the-side, and co-learners. For students and teachers it provides for democratic decision-making and learning what it is to be 'equals', both of which are vital contributors to strong relationships. As one of these pilots proves itself it can be easily expanded to accommodate more students. The mixed-age span can also be gradually increased to include all ages. As these programs grow, studies on optimum sizes for learning communities would naturally follow. If at any time school authorities are willing to relax mandatory curriculum requirements, studies can be done on how to best help students to develop their own unique interests.

The Vision 2020 by 2020 pilot program therefore meets necessary conditions for large-scale, fundamental change. It provides for people to adopt democratic learning practices as they feel ready, and by operating as a school within a traditional school, it is both highly visible and easily accessible. Equal visibility and accessibility are what level the playing field to allow a new learning model to compete with an old one.

Some people think that the educational establishment is uninterested in pursuing fundamental change, but this is not the case. Many public (state) school educators would welcome the chance to run a pilot program that studied elements of democratic learning, and Vision 2020 by 2020 is seeking to provide them the credibility they need to make these programs happen.

Like change itself, an initiative for change must be taken a step at a time, and the first step for Vision 2020 by 2020 is to amass support for the proposed pilot programs. If all of the people concerned about the future of public education do nothing more than just lend their names to the Vision 2020 by 2020 initiative, they will empower others to obtain the approval they need to conduct pilot projects. Imagine if simple pilots were undertaken in just one-tenth of the world's secondary schools. By the year 2020 a clear vision of where to go with public education would likely emerge and with it the processes by which to get there would be revealed. Vision 2020 by 2020 is therefore appealing to people to make their support known. This can be done by adding your name to its Supporters page at .

The Vision 2020 by 2020 website can be visited at .

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