Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reform school: Goodbye formal teachers, classrooms and schedules

Just an iPad and apps for some kids in the Netherlands

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Plenty of schools use iPads. But what if the entire education experience were offered via tablet computer? That is what several new schools in the Netherlands plan to do. There will be no blackboards or schedules. Is this the end of the classroom?

Think different. It was more than an advertising slogan. It was a manifesto, and with it, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs upended the computer industry, the music industry and the world of mobile phones. The digital visionary's next plan was to bring radical change to schools and textbook publishers, but he died of cancer before he could do it.

Some of the ideas that may have occurred to Jobs are now on display in the Netherlands. Eleven 'Steve Jobs schools' will open in August. Some 1,000 children aged four to 12 will attend the schools, without notebooks, books or backpacks. Each of them, however, will have his or her own iPad.

There will be no blackboards, chalk or classrooms, homeroom teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, seating charts, pens, teachers teaching from the front of the room, schedules, parent-teacher meetings, grades, recess bells, fixed school days and school vacations. If a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it'll be OK. And the children will choose what they wish to learn based on what they happen to be curious about.

Gertjan Kleinpaste, the 53-year-old principal for one of the schools, is aware his iPad school could soon become a destination for envious -- but also outraged -- reformist educators from all over the world.

He is convinced that "what we are doing will seem pretty normal in 2020."

The Steve Jobs school will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on every work day. The children will come and go as they please, as long as they are present during the core period between 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The building will only be closed for Christmas and New Year's. The children's families will be able to go on vacation when they please, and no child will have to be worried about missing class as a result, since classes in the traditional sense will be nonexistent.

Only in exceptional cases will a teacher direct classes in groups. Normally, the children will learn by calling up a learning app on their iPad -- which will be turned into a sort of interactive, multimedia schoolbook -- whenever they want.

The program is more patient than any person ever could be and turns learning into a game-like experience, partly with the help of amusing noises and animations. In each exercise, the children are corrected the way players are in a computer game. They don't have to work through entire chapters, as they did in the past. The goal is to enable them to reach the next level in the learning program at their own pace. The teacher's role is to help them, not as conveyors of knowledge but as learning coaches. "The interaction between the child and the teacher remains the foundation of the lesson," as Kleinpaste puts it.

As such, the school day never really ends. Pupils are welcome to keep working on their iPads at home, on weekends or on vacation. But as much as the program offers freedom and continuity, it also comes with a substantial monitoring component. The iPad keeps teachers and parents constantly informed about what children are doing, what they have learned and how they are progressing.

Every six weeks, teachers, children and parents decide together what is to be achieved in the next learning period. To do so, they meet at school or virtually via Skype.

And when they are not working on iPads, the future principal insists, students at Steve Jobs schools will lead the lives of perfectly normal children. Drawing, building things, playing and physical activity are all part of daily life at the schools.

The initiator of the iPad schools is Amsterdam public opinion researcher Maurice de Hond, 65. His daughter Daphne, born in 2009, pointed the way for him.

Before she was three years old, Daphne was learning how to draw letters with the help of an iPad app. De Hond is constantly astonished by the things she can now do with the device, effortlessly and of her own volition. "We are experiencing a revolution of little children," he says. This generation, he explains, experiences real and virtual life as one big entity. But analog schools threaten to suppress half of that equation, he says.

"At home, Daphne learns naturally, according to her own pace, interactively and using multimedia tools," says de Hond. Why should she feel "like she's in a museum" when she's in school, he asks? The classic chalk-and-blackboard teachers, he adds angrily, "are preparing children for a world that no longer exists."

-- Der Spiegel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 D6

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