A New Type of School – Our School

This is a transcript of a lecture given by Haggai Borkow in the 17th Annual Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Rotterdam, in January 2004.


Borkow, the co-founder and CEO of a software company (www.channelstorm.com) who had established a regional school where Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians study together (www.nirschool.org) presents here his vision for a new type of school, a school "of the people and for the people" that facilitates the ‘creation’ of vastly empowered humans who will then create vastly better societies.


This school – Our School – is to achieve these goals by adopting a new set of values (such as solidarity and courage), adhering to unique pedagogic assumptions (such as the importance of associative thinking and daily ‘non-academic’ skills), implementing heterarchies, emphasizing a multi-layered integration into the physical, communal and human worlds, and by introducing the revolutionary concept of cyclical learning.






Each of us in the Western World spends about 12,000 quality hours at primary, junior and high school. That is probably as much quality time as we ever get to spend with our whole families. In a sense then, we’re as married to school as to our spouses and family. It is therefore clear that we should make the school too our own, "Our School".


Unfortunately however, when looking at mainstream education worldwide, what should be a glorious matrimony looks more like the wedding cake left out in the rain. Of course, many thoughtful and honorable attempts to reform the educational system, making schools our own, are on record. However, none of these reforms, to my mind, tackles the fundamental issues, and thus most, if not all, failed. In what follows I will present a blueprint for a different type of reform, which I call Our School. In my humble opinion this suggestion offers a mixture of sound and original ideas. As they say, I just hope that you will not think that none of the sound ideas is original, and none of the original ideas is sound.




As you’re all experts, I suggest we begin by quickly analyzing the impact of a traditional school, where the vast majority of the youth in the Western World is spending, some would say – serving – their 12,000 hours of school education.


As I was lucky enough to attend what are widely considered excellent schools, we can use my personal experience as a sample to generalize from:


As a small child I was so eager to please my teachers that I often agreed to their value judgments without sufficient reason. Obviously I was praised for it, so this practice was constantly reinforced, culminating in a person (me) that was externally directed beyond my own, or my group’s interests.


Furthermore, praise was often a "sum zero" entity. So when the class was asked a question and I raised my hand to answer, I had to hope that nobody else would raise their hand, or get permission to answer, or answer correctly, thus ensuring that I will get a chance to answer. Really, whenever one of us succeeded, it seemed as if a little something in the rest of us died. Without ever stopping to think about it, and without choosing it, we found ourselves amidst a fierce competition against everybody else.


Our teachers’ answer to this fierce competitiveness was what they called ‘work in groups’ which of course was nothing of the sort: lacking any incentives to do otherwise, whenever assigned to work in a group, each of us tried to reduce the amount of work we had to individually do, manipulating the circumstances so somebody else in the group, the group’s ‘dork’ or ‘sucker’ or ‘suckers’, would pick up our share. In those cases where those who presented the work were not those who made it, we learned that the world is divided into those who do things, and those who get the credit; and in the other cases we learned that cutting corners and dumping our work on others doesn’t really affect the one important thing – our grades.


In any case we learned that as Bierce said, our conscience is merely the inner voice that warns us that somebody may be looking.


Yes, schools instill in us an exploitative ‘cutting corners’ mentality, or in short cynicism and egotism.


But coming back to grades for a second – the worship of grades taught us to believe unrelentingly that the ends justify the means, feeding onto our already ferocious competitiveness, creating a shallow ‘bottom line’ mentality.


With the other side of this "Bottom Line Grades Worship" being fear – I remember we feared failure knowing that no extenuating circumstances will really be accepted. Actually, I remember how fear was used, even more than praise as the main motivating factor in our education (if you’ll fail in 5th grade, you will fail in 6th grade, ad infinitum becoming an old and lonely bum). To fear ladies and gentleman is not why we were born into this world.


In an expected cancer-like fashion this "Grades-Related Fear" soon seeped onto most other school-related phenomena, inhibiting our thoughts and feelings to such an extent that we never dared to make the same mistake even once. Really. With this fear prompting us to lie and sneak and cheat and avoid our responsibilities.


An all-inclusive inhibition that paralyzed our development, making us devout adherents to the "truths" that were stamped upon us at school, while being close-minded and fully immune to anything different. Really, schools weaken our nature so much that we mistake our ingrained fear of new ideas for strength of character, proudly exclaiming, "Hey, I am cool – I am wholly unsusceptible to influence".


All of which turned us into hypocrites of course – we pretended to accept what the grownups were telling us about us – that we study because we’re interested, that we wish other students well, that grades are just a means to identify our weaknesses, that the learning process is important in itself, etc. None of which we, nor our teachers believed. Would pedagogues be hypocrites if they’ll claim that hypocrisy learned at school, prepares the students well to their "life after school"?


As implied before, these overwhelming conflicting messages corrupted our natural impulses. The lesser evil of which is that today, for most of us, to be natural is one of hardest poses to keep up; and the bigger being that we don’t have an innate natural voice to guide us in our dealings with the world. Most of us are confused and frustrated.


A predicament that is exacerbated by the early morning disorientation, the totally disconnected classes, the bogus claim we constantly try to justify that these disconnected and irrelevant classes are somehow supposed to "Help Us In Life", the unjust punishments, etc. etc.


With ever increasing numbers of youngsters who are hospitalized with mental breakdowns, it seems that for some this turns to be a medical confusion and frustration. It is not atypical to talk to a graduate who’ll say something to the effect of "Great, so I’m now cured of schizophrenia – but where am I now that I need me?" And more to the point in our context – where are the others when he needs them? Schools – being so large, impersonal and "bottom-line" oriented – tend to neglect the different and needy individual, exacerbating his feeling of loneliness and alienation. Really, pretty much like TV shows, schools are quite phenomenal in that millions of students go through the same process at roughly the same time, and yet remain lonesome and isolated.


And of course, confusion, frustration, alienation and loneliness breed violence…


And as students become more assertive teachers often become more tyrannical, alienating the students further so the students stop meekly asking for their rights, demanding privileges instead, kicking off a vicious circle that breeds not just violence, but righteous violence to boot.


I could go on and on, but there’s no more room on my slide and I think you get the picture…


The bleak picture of what should be a glorious matrimony and looks like a wedding cake left out in a rainstorm. The bleak picture of a system that breeds, almost deductively, in a "Cogito Ergo Boom" fashion, violence. School violence is regarded by many the most serious problem in the system. Maybe thinking about the Columbine massacre and other such incidents, some say education is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much more serious than that. The long-term actions we’ll undertake following our educational discussions here and in similar places are not really geared to determine who is right, but rather if we will be even left at all. Education is after all the Archimedean point of social change. And it has to be wholly rethought.




Rethought from scratch.


And as Bertrand Russell writes in his classic treatise On Education: "Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve" we should, in other words, begin by asking what are the aims of education.


In Our School we strive to facilitate the ‘creation’ of vastly empowered humans who will then create vastly better societies.


We’d like our graduates to possess the qualities mentioned in the slide I would show you in a second. Please take your time reading them. Sure, they will look a bit funny in our context – too much like a personals ad in the newspaper. But hey, that only means that people consider these to be really desirable characteristics.


Here they are: Happy, Loving, Content, Confident, Resourceful, Self-Reliant, Resilient, Courageous, Personally Integrated, Balanced, Knowledgeable, Curious, Experienced, Diverse, Aesthetically Astute, Spontaneous, Fun, Modest, Friendly, Kind, Considerate, Sensitive, Able to Show Weakness, Tolerant, Trustworthy, Dependable, Internally and Externally Attentive, Socially Integrated and Socially Responsible.


Now, these characteristics were carefully chosen. In spite of the partial overlapping, each is different and thus requires different implementation modes, which their combined, synergistic effect, addresses the students in their wholeness, making these characteristics achievable.


Obviously, anybody will find faults with this hypothetical graduate of Our Schools.


Upon seeing it Christ may have thought that love is not emphasized enough, while Kant may have complained that ‘The Courage to Think’ is not emphasized enough. Aristotle will not find his ‘Magnanimous Man’ in it, nor Neitzche his "Super Man". The elder Brutus will note that ‘Affection to the State’ is wholly missing, while Confucious will feel that his central ‘Affection to the Family’ is merely a consequence of the other characteristics, etc. etc.


Actually, even people who agree about this ‘List of Ingredients’ or characteristics or qualities may differ as to their relative importance.


Not to mention the type of antagonism that the underlying values – Solidarity, Diversity, Equity, Self-Management, etc. may evoke.


So I will just leave the ‘List of Characteristics’ at that, acknowledging that each community should be allowed to modify and prioritize these ingredients in ways that suit it, a topic we’ll return to later, and focus now on how to best achieve these desirable characteristics.




Allow me to quote Russell in this context too. He writes that "Scientific education … does not help us to decide what ends we shall pursue … nor will it give you that instinctive understanding of human beings … It cannot teach you patience, it cannot teach you sympathy, it cannot teach you a sense of human destiny. These things, in so far as they can be taught in formal education, are most likely to emerge from the learning of history and great literature" assuming that these "enter into the texture" of students’ everyday thoughts.


So here is, at last, where I may differ with Russell. In my mind, these characteristics are not to be instilled by the subjects taught, be they science, history or literature; but rather by the ways in which these subjects are to be taught. These ways hold the key to the question of whether the desired attributes will or will not enter into the texture of students’ everyday thoughts, feelings and actions.


And here too is where I differ with other, more recent, reforms. Take for example the high profile Dalton reform that many of us witnessed in action yesterday on the day-trip. According to their credo, and I am quoting here: "…students participate in community service and outreach projects which are integrated into the curriculum. Age-appropriate activities, reading materials, class trips and guest speakers on varied topics of service and civil responsibility are an integral part of a child’s education at Dalton."


Great and delightful stuff of course, but as these changes are not part and parcel of the curriculum itself, as they don’t affect the ways in which the subjects are taught, they’re insufficient, I think, to achieve even Dalton’s declared goals.


In Our School everything is quite different. In Our School the subjects are not being taught at all. They are being learned. And those are not really subjects. And they’re related to each other in intricate and surprising ways. And they’re wholly derived from the students’ everyday experiences. And they are clearly related to their everyday concerns. Etc.




In order to understand these claims, let’s look at Our School methodically, even if, due to time constrictions, only partially. And let’s begin by the way in which the students learn.


Students learn cooperatively in working groups. Lessons begin with a carefully crafted and intriguing problem posed by the teacher (or educator), which the students’ groups then tackle from various different angles. As it is often the case that a self-taught person has a poor teacher and an even worse student, teachers’ guidance is of course crucial.


After the allotted time, each group shares its dynamics, findings and insights with the others. Each group shares its internal dynamics by explaining to the other students how the group members shared the work between them, making sure that the needs of all the members are met, overcoming each member’s weaknesses and utilizing each member’s strengths.


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