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I Used to Think - School and Our Assumptions

I used to think that once a child turned 4 or 5 years old, she automatically started school. This wasn’t a point of discussion or an option – not only was it compulsory, it was customary, as normal to our culture as breathing is to our bodies. I never questioned it. That was where learning occurred - at least the only learning that counted. As a child, I went off to school every year, obediently, marching from class to class as instructed, trying to be silent, well-behaved, on time, alert. And, when I had children, they did the same. I sent them to school, again, without question, hoping they’d try their hardest and all would go well. I worried about whether or not their teachers would understand them, but, more importantly, whether my children would be able to detect the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) signals of what was expected of them and react appropriately.

Now a state senator from Utah is proposing that school no longer be compulsory. State Senator Aaron Osmond has proposed that parents no long should be compelled to send their children to school, that parents have not been assuming enough responsibility for the education of their children, while schools have assumed (by action or default) too much. It’s not that he wants to eliminate schools, just not have them be compulsory as the state re-defines the purpose of school.

It would be naïve to believe his motives are not politically driven, but he raises an interesting point. We accept school, subconsciously ascribe certain purposes to it, but rarely stop to question our assumptions or see if schools are, in reality, really designed for these purposes and delivering the anticipated results.

This need to question shouldn’t stop there. Too many of us accept the form of school as the essential defining component of the institution. We see its form as intrinsic to the nature of school as the form of our bodies is to our sense of being human. Its form – the same one that existed when my children were in school and when I was a child– seems to be immutable. And although there has been some tinkering around the edges, - breaking down walls, but not changing teaching practice or teaching subjects in their own silos, or adding computers but using them to do worksheets or take multiple choice tests – school in “school form” is what exists in almost all such institutions. There are a few exceptions – THOSE schools, that stand out because they are so different, but they are rare and there’s not a large enough number to serve as models. They are oddities rather than models and too few educators have the opportunity to see what they are doing.

What these schools have done is question ALL assumptions about what form school should take. Instead of changing one aspect of school or tweaking another, they’ve looked at what they want to do, what factors and forms are needed to get to this vision, and how each of these connects to the others. It’s as if they asked, if we just invented school today, what would we mean and what would it look like?

This is a question I often ask myself and it’s a hard one, since the familiar school form keeps creeping into my thinking. But I admire those schools, such as Hellerup in Denmark, or High Tech High in the USA, that are working so hard to do this.

What do you think is the purpose of school?

What form best suits that purpose?
July 30th, 2013 @ 1:54PM