School in the digital era

A change of paradigm

By Thomas Pedroli



Above the door through which school children pass every day it says in big letters: YOU MUST, YOU MUST, YOU MUST. In school there are many things we must do. We must go to school, we must learn, we must pay attention, we must be quiet, we must ‘get on’, we must do our homework, we must listen.


Meanwhile we know that learning processes don’t work like that; learning is not something we ‘must’ do, we can only learn on a voluntary basis. Insights and knowledge result from astonishment; astonish is not something we can do with intent. The best environment for learning processes is an environment in which I feel safe; feeling safe is not something we can decide to do. Many studies in neurophysiology and psychology in the last decade have shown this. And still our school system is ignorantly infused with things we ‘must’ do. Many principles date back to times past and are no longer relevant.

1. Fear


The first principle still effective in school today dates back to the Roman-Catholic monastery of the Middle Ages. The dogma of “original sin” formed the entire culture of Central Europe: Man (and woman) is born with sin and therefore ‘evil’, only through hard work and by the grace of God is it possible to be saved. 


This idea of fear is deep rooted in western culture: “I am not good enough!” The consequence of which is “You must work hard, maybe it’s enough sometime!” Since the Reformation this principle has been applied on nearly all educational levels and is still effective today.


In school this fear is ever present. We continuously judge what is good and bad, right and wrong. We distinguish between different ‘classes’ and school systems, an education in a grammar school is ‘worth more’ than in a secondary school, there are good and bad grades, good and bad behavior, even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pupils. If everything turns out well, I will be successful, I may get a title like Dr., Prof., B.A., M.A. And I will get a ‘higher’ salary. If things do not turn out so well, I may be characterized earlier by ADHD, Asperger, dyslexic. I may be referred to a special needs programme, I may get a support plan and later in life a ‘lower’ salary.


However, the fear of not being good enough is still alive in most people today, independent of their social position. And this fear pushes them on and on, to strive for ‘higher and higher’ goals, and prevents them from being content with themselves and their lives in the present situation. Contentment is then postponed to sometime in the future. 


Do we really have to wait until later to be satisfied or even happy with our situation? In school as well as in other fields of life we are often told to wait for the future, i.e. to achieve some imaginary next level. “When you have finished school… After your graduation… Once you have a good job… When you have reached retirement age with a good pension...”

2. Obedience


The second, no longer appropriate principle in school derives from military barracks. It may not be a pleasant thought, but school’s hierarchic structure is taken directly from the military of the 19th century. A large group of pupils are instructed by one teacher. The teachers in a school get instructions from the headmaster. The headmaster receives his/her instructions from the ministry. This hierarchy is lives on a culture of obedience. Obedience is the most important duty. Otherwise soldiers wouldn’t kill or expose themselves to the danger of death. Which healthy human being would voluntarily kill other human beings? What would school be like without obedience?      


Obedience is linked with punishment. If someone does not obey the rules, he is punished. And if punishment does not work, he is expelled from school. And even though it has been known for a long time that punishment has a negative effect on learning processes, it is still widely being used. Of course punishment today is often imposed in much more subtle ways than in earlier centuries when physical punishment was still allowed. Physical punishment in school was not abolished in Germany until 1973, the right to a non-violent upbringing in the family was only put into law as late as 2000. That means a lot of today’s teachers were ‘educated’ while physical punishment was still in use.   


There are not many schools in which punishment of any kind is not a part of everyday life. Indeed, isn’t marking in school often used as a reward or punishment? Obedience is a basic principle in school, and the mental program which is installed via obedience reads as follows: “I am powerless” and the ‘survival strategy’ says: “Do as the authority (teacher, doctor, minister) tells you! You cannot decide for yourself.” MUST we be obedient in order to develop and learn in a human way?

3. Enforced conformity


The third principle goes back to the age of Industrialization. When the first factories were founded there was a great demand for workers who could adapt to unnatural working conditions. Those who adapted to them got work and survived. Those who did not adapt were threatened by poverty. Workers could easily be replaced. This caused a great fear: “I am replaceable. I don’t count! I feel alone.” The mental program installed here works according to the principle: “You are exactly like everyone else!” And the survival strategy is to do, think, feel and live like everyone else. Conform to the norm!


Our entire school system is full of norms and standards. These norms and standards are related to economic interests. To begin with these were regional norms, then nationwide norms were established and today schools are run according to European norms. If a pupil does not fit the norm, he is compared to others and often enough the future prospect of such non-conforming pupils are viewed with concern. The fact that every child is unique may indeed be written in the pedagogical curriculum and educational course books – in everyday life, however, it is often annoying when a child does not learn in standardized ways or does not behave in ‘normal’ ways.


Many educators report that more than half the children they work with don’t behave in ‘normal’ ways. If this was the case, a minority would define the concept of “normality”. So far the majority has always been the measure for what was considered to be normal. MUST we conform in order to survive?


Things are changing


The industrial era is over and the paradigm of that era is no longer valid.
There are doubts about many principles which used to be incontestable e.g. the thought that economic growth leads to riches has been proved wrong by consequences for the environment, the unequal distribution of wealth, the financial crisis and global warming. The Arab spring has shown that essential social changes can originate from the bottom rather than the top of society or government. In Egypt it was the young unorganized generation which toppled the government. How was that possible? The young people were connected through digital media, mobile phones and via internet.  We rightly call our era the digital era. The young generation since around 1985 has got absorbed in it by making full use of net-working, multi-tasking and global communication. The internet has a non-hierarchic, “chaotic” structure consisting of many details, which enables people to exchange data and stay in touch worldwide. The older generation has problems understanding the young. In the past “power” was left to the church, the state and the economy. Nowadays each person creates his own reality: we need not wait until the state reforms schools. State attempts are usually belated. We reform our schools and ourselves, our work profile, our training.



When our own fear is involved


Many pupils respond to old-fashioned teaching methods in a way that we become aware that something is wrong. In some cases we may already have felt this. But as soon as we as parents or teachers are cornered by the unusual behavior of a pupil or a whole class, we suddenly say or do things we thought we would never do or say – sentences like “if you go on like this, you will fail”, “a low mark shows you that you are worthless”, “if I do not punish you now, everything will get worse – I only mean well”, “you do not know yet what is good for you. Simply do as I tell you”,  “your future employer will not let you do everything you want”, “without finishing school properly you will not get on in life”, “one day you will be grateful for my advice”, “work first, pleasure later”...


Speaking like that indicates that we are afraid, helpless, lonely, sad, that fear overwhelms us and we are no longer in proper control of the situation. Only when we listen to this fear and not revert to old strategies, can we find security and are we able to help our pupils. This new attitude requires a different job profile, a different training. What pupils need are teachers who practice handling their own feelings i.e. in staff meetings. Pupils need teachers who are able to communicate efficiently with themselves and others. Pupils need teachers who train their intuition, teachers who use meditation on a daily basis, who are able to leave thinking and judging aside, in brief: teachers whose vocabulary does not contain the word MUST.

The new Pradigm


The new paradigm creates security in schools, and security facilitates growth and learning. This security is an attitude where fears of worthlessness, powerlessness and loneliness are replaced by new certainties:



“I am precious – because I am”


before I do something, while I am doing something, and after I have done something – independent of the result.



“I shape my own life “.


I am the creator of my own reality.



“I am autonomous”.


Being autonomous I am connected with everybody and feel responsibility.



The old virtues of ambition, obedience and conformance are replaced by self-esteem, creativity and autonomy.



Above the entrance of the school you do not read "you must" anymore but