The Harry Potter fantasy school, Hogwarts, is based on the traditional English model for secondary schools, a model that was exported around the British Empire and throughout much of the rest of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on classroom based learning and a house system that, while identifying the student within a fraternity of fellow students, nevertheless supports the hierarchical operating structure of the school. More importantly is based on a book centered learn culture where knowledge is packaged into parcels called subjects. Teachers with alternative views of a more experiential view of learning and of proposing modifications on how a school should be conducted have rarely been encouraged to speak up. Tradition it seems in secondary education is more important than innovation.
True, one would be hard-pressed to say that Hogwarts thwarted enlightened thinking and inspiration, given the incredible intuition and ingenuity of the main players in the plots of the Harry Potter novels; yet there is much to suggest that in real life our schools suppress creativity and foster a fear of experiment, while promoting conformity of thinking, and the adoption conservative values. Should we continue with this model both the individual and the society are likely to be losers. The model has a well-deserved place in history but not in the future.
Looking into the organisation of present day schools it is apparent that the idea still prevails in many educational jurisdictions that teaching based on set syllabi and the allocation of regulated time slots to subject areas by means of a weekly timetable is essential to school order and, by inference, to achieving results. I am not alone in also believing that the prevalent use of textbooks has two evils. First, the child forms a habit of depending upon them and comes almost instinctively to assume that the book is the chief, if not the only way of being educated in the disciplines. Then, the use of books, as texts, throws the mind into a passive and absorbing attitude. The child is learning instead of inquiring.
In addition I believe that assessment through written examinations makes the false assumption that scholastic progress can best be measured by performance in the form of written responses to questions set by an external examiner. This examiner has no knowledge of the students, their social or emotional background, or the nature of the learning environment of particular schools and classrooms. During the end of term or final exams the student is usually confined with hundreds of others to a single desk in a musty room without climate control or time to think. It is a sure way to suppress the splendour of what the human brain can achieve through enlightened educational initiatives.
Of course any campaign against the philosophy behind detailed curricula and standardised texts is nothing new. In the late 1960s the open-classroom movement commenced in Britain and ultimately gained traction in Australian schools a decade or so later. In particular it was argued that teacher-led classrooms were suppressing creativity and holding back individual development. The open classroom movement changed the way many primary schools operated with less sitting is rows of desks and more flexible teaching spaces. Moveable dividers and screens were used to re-configure open spaces for large and small group projects. Teachers were encouraged to teach in teams making the best use of their own special interest and skills in sharing the educational load. Teacher-aides were employed to help in the preparation of a wide range of teaching resources. Activity based and self-directed learning was given the thumbs up.
But there was a hitch. It proved difficult to measure many of the gains attributed to child-centred open classroom teaching. How do you evaluate progress in cooperation, teamwork, imagination, the ability to question and debate, or thinking ‘outside the box’? Conservative politicians feared there was too much emphasis on environmental issues and civil rights. They defended their position by generating fear that the basics were being overlooked. Straightjacket teaching was back on the agenda in most schools.