I was in college during the late 1960s and then as now it was a time of unrest and reexamination. These characteristics extended to our thinking about education. I have never been a student of history and it is probably too late to start now. How ideas come and then go does intrigue me. Innovation is often not that innovative.
I remember reading a couple of books during this time that proposed learner independence and self-direction. The one I remember was A. S. Neill’s Summmerhill.
According to Wikipedia, Summerhill continues to exist, but I remember the logic of the experiment as being largely discredited. Young learners were mostly not capable of making productive decisions when it came to guiding and motivating their own education. Fascination with these ideas faded.
These ideas are experiencing a Phoenix moment. Are the ideas now appropriate because of new opportunities or new demands? This is not for me to say. There are certainly new circumstances. Work opportunities, if preparation for these is a primary goal of K-12 education, are certainly changing. It seems there will be fewer “good” jobs, but these jobs will be far more lucrative. Perhaps revisiting Summerhill is a way to avoid educator responsibility – you will face far more difficult circumstances so students play your hand as you want and see what happens.
Perhaps general anxiety associated with a changed future have led to a focus on vocation and an abandonment of other educational goals. The time devoted to personal interests must be subtracted from something else. Will it be history, social sciences, arts, and/or government that are sacrificed for STEM, entrepreneurship and explore your own passions?
Back to Summerhill. What might be proposed as a way to avoid another failed fantasy? My recommendation would be a combination of individualization through technology and mentorship. I recommend individualization with technology because I see no other way the general public will pay for a system allowing sufficient adult encouragement and oversight of individual student needs and interests without a way to free teachers from some present responsibilities. This combination will not be ideal for all students, but too many forget that many students do well with the present system. No system regarded as financially practical is ideal for all.
You see little of this type of thing in public schools, but major donors have been investing large amounts of money to explore this possibility. Mother Jones (I admit a surprising source) provides a lengthy and deep analysis of the big money folks investing in these ideas. The motives of these individuals have been quested because their ideas encourage a large role for technology and for-profit resources. Of course, paying for curriculum content is pretty much the way education gets done.
I keep hoping more public schools will involve themselves in truly innovative approaches to education, but I fear most decision makers see the personal risk as too great.