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Ideal Schools of the Future
Oct 1, 1994

Physical setting

Where the school is situated effects the quality of education it can provide. Ideally it should be detached from urban centres. Noise and disturbance around the school can be just as disruptive as noise within the classroom. The easy access in town to cinemas and cafes, to sports stadia, to shopping or amusement arcades, prevent the pupils from committing themselves fully to their school life. Away from these temptations, pupils will be able to devote more time to reading and relevant conversation and, when they need to relax, to active, useful pastimes in each other's company. In this way, they will have the freedom to become more broadly cultured. They will develop self-reliance, and independence and will be able to concentrate more on their academic achievement. Also, the beneficial effects of exposure to the freshness and restful colours of a rural setting are well known - to say nothing of the advantages for students of nature, whether artistic or scientific, of having the real thing outside the window

Physical design

As well as setting, the design of the school buildings and equipment are vitally important. For example, desks and chairs that are too comfortable may encourage an over-relaxed, even lazy, attitude in pupils; on the other hand, if they are too luxurious and ugly they may cause distress and restlessness in class. Each individual pupil should be assigned a desk and a locker specifically for his or her use. This would free pupils of the burden of carrying too much around with them from lesson to lesson. The general character of the school buildings should, I suggest, be traditional. At present, the primary consideration in the design of buildings is cost - the 'best' design is the cheapest. By contrast, in the past, efforts were made to surround the schools and universities with green, with trees and walks in wooded lanes, rivers and ponds, besides which the pupils could relax. Consider how well the learning environment was designed and presented in the ancient seats of learning like Oxford or Cambridge - their buildings seem, in a sense, to improve as they age. They used stone to build thick walls and walled many interior spaces with quadrangles and cloisters which owe their form and function, ultimately, to Islamic originals in the Maghreb and Spain.

Nosy cost-cutting has led to the building of separation walls so thin that teacher and pupils can hear what is being said in the next room:the resulting distraction can lead to irritability and loss of learning time. Lighting is another important factor, too often neglected. Artificial lighting is not as satisfactory as natural light. As well as being costly to run, many pupils daim that it leaves them feeling tired at the end of the day The maximum possible use should be made of natural light. Apart from being 'free', it is conducive to the well-being and cheerfulness of both teachers and pupils. Similarly air circulation should depend on openable windows rather than on noisy (and expensive) air coolers and fans.

It is necessary to give adequate attention to the maintenance of a mean temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold. In view of the cost of heating, it may be advisable to invest in a system that, although costly to install, may be cheaper in the long term, such as solar energy.

Tower block construction is quite unsuitable for educational buildings as it inhibits direct, physical contact between students. Again, telephone or computer networks, important as they may be, are no substitute for direct personal contact which is indispensable for teaching and learning.

The detachment of the school from the urban centre means that its buildings complex must be self- dependent. Facilities need to be provided on or very near the school so that leisure activities, vital to the enhancement of study can be easily accessed. They should include sports fields and gymnasia. It is important that the school caters for the needs of pupils so as to allow them to play and compete in a proper way: failure to do so will only encourage truancy.

The ethos of the school should encourage self-discipline and self- improvement. The school should not, in other words, try to mimic the society at large, rather it should aim to reform and improve that society. To this end, chewing gum and smoking and other such habits should be banned altogether, not only in certain areas or at certain times. The walls and halls of the school should bear the portraits, or record the achievements, of the men and women who have set a good example in their particular walk of life. The decor of individual buildings or rooms should, as far as possible, reflect their particular character and purpose: a biology laboratory should look and feel different from a chemistry laboratory; the walls of the dining room should not be the same as those of the classroom, and so on.

The school library should be one of, if not the, most important resource and access should be made easy. It hardly needs saying that books and periodicals should be as up to date as possible, that many kinds of newspapers should be made available to enable students to keep up with (and have informed discussion about) current affairs. In general, the equipment used by pupils should be the best and most modern available. It seriously damages morale if the pupils know that, for instance, the computers they are using are obsolete models. Also, the relevance of what is learnt using certain equipment is significantly diminished if that equipment is no longer in service outside school.

Relevance is a principle that needs to apply to course design as well as to decor and equipment. Unfortunately; too much of what is taught in existing schools is known (and felt) by pupils to be merely 'academic'. It is particularly important in science and technology that pupils have the opportunity to try out, to apply in practice, what they have learnt in theory. Otherwise, pupils will leave school with a mass of information into their heads but no experience of how to translate that knowledge into practical design or actual manufacture.

The teachers

The teachers are the essential key to whether an educational institution succeeds or fails. A good teacher is one who stays abreast of the latest developments in his or her field and knows how to pass on that knowledge to others. Although there are worthy arguments against doing so, I favour the regular resting of teachers to ensure that they are keeping up in their subject areas. There are, alas, too many teachers who use the same notes they used twenty years before, and whose work (for the pupils as well for themselves) lacks freshness and appeal.

Beside intellectual and teaching ability teachers should be trained and selected for a number of other qualities:

  1. strict punctuality - the teacher should not arrive late to class;
  2. fairness the teacher must have an understanding of the personal frictions that can develop between teacher and pupil and how to overcome them;
  3. sense of humour - while retaining some distance and authority the teacher should not be solemn for the whole of a teaching period, but vary and lighten the tone of the teaching in order to keep the attention of the pupils;
  4. openness to innovations - new equipment and new techniques are always coming onto the market:the teacher should seek to exploit these effectively not avoid them because it might mean changing established methods and habits;
  5. freshness - the teacher should seek to adapt and combine different teaching styles and methods in the way most effective for pupils doing that particular subject at that particular level: in language training, for example, some ready- to-use courses require the teacher to lecture, others to merely observe, others to participate with pupils, etc.- a good teacher should know how to mix and match from what is available to suit his pupils' needs;
  6. sensitivity - the teacher should be alert to the social and cultural norms of his pupils and go with care when mentioning or discussing ideas or symbols which have special resonance for them, even when he or she does not share the same norms.

Teachers need to be well-trained to start with. However, they also need to be provided with opportunities to further their knowledge and skills, if necessary going abroad on a direct or exchange basis with foreign establishments. And finally, to secure high morale among teachers and commitment from them in a taxing profession, they need to be much better paid than they are at present in Turkey for example: many, alas, have to devote some of their time and energy in a second job, simply to make ends meet.

The pupils

An effective class is one made up, more or less, of pupils of the same ability at the same level. To achieve this, testing of pupils before, and perhaps also after, they are admitted is essential. Mixed ability schools are one thing but mixed ability classes are quite another and impose intolerable burdens on the teacher who cannot know how to plan the pace and level of difficulty of what he is teaching: going too slowly he or she risks losing the attention of the brighter pupils, going too fast risks driving the weaker pupils to opt out of the lessons altogether.

It is important too for the school to screen the pupils it admits for personality or character as well as for academic potential. If such information is available to teachers, they will not overreact when a pupil with, say, a record of bullying or stealing, bullies or steals. Too harsh a punishment by a teacher could further intensify the pupil's problems which would, in turn, affect class and school performance.

To diminish the effects of social class differences, at least during school time, pupils should wear a uniform or the same or very similar clothes. Teachers can be expected to behave more fairly towards pupils if they appear the same.

The administrators

Administrators, especially principals and heads of school, should be authoritative and serious. Their concern for discipline should be equitable, and focus on teachers as well as pupils. They should encourage and enable parent-teacher meetings at the school to discuss an individual pupil's progress with his or her teachers. It is the duty of administrators to see to it that the school is clean and fit for all normal activities. It also falls on them to advertise the school effectively so as to raise its image in public perception and so attract more pupils.

Finally administrators need to keep abreast of the latest developments in educational psychology and innovations in methods or equipment.

The family

Parents mostly entrust their children to schools (rather than teach them themselves) and for many 'out of sight, out of mind' applies. However, education and upbringing are very much within the responsibilities of parents to children. The parents may be disappointed by their child's performance but must not blame the teachers for it. Rather, they should openly acknowledge the effects of family life on the stability of children's character and on the quality of their performance. Parents should exhort children to do their homework, to take part only in such leisure activities as are beneficial, and help their attendance at school by accompanying them to it.

Instruction and teaching materials

Instruction hours should not be overly prolonged as pupils' attention span is limited. Particularly to be avoided is the habit some teachers now have of combining two periods into a double period which is simply much too demanding for ordinary pupils. Instructional material exists in great abundance hut only appropriate use of it benefits pupils. TV and video need not be a means of passively wasting time; they can be applied to the job of teaching many hundreds of pupils at the same time.

Computers, will never replace human contact but are useful tools which ease organizational problems and can stimulate children. They may match certain temperaments and help children over specific learning difficulties.

Always relevant are the traditional instructional materials such as pictures, tables, diagrams, maps and illustrations. But the technology exists to operate these maps and diagrams through the computer by scanning images, or transferring them to overhead projector slides for a modern version of the blackboard.