The Problem With School....is that it's School






What if the problem with school is, well, that it's school?  Hear me out before you decide I am crazy.  It seems to me that in the minds of many there lingers this notion that school ought to be a sort of prerequisite or preparation for life.  On the surface, this might seem both logical and practical. Many of you may well be saying to yourselves, “well of course it is.” Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to me that such a perspective automatically renders the school experience as something lesser. That is to say, if school is preparation for life, it is NOT life itself. And this is my issue.  The minute we divorce school from life, or reality, we have an uphill battle on our hands.  Or so say I.

I believe it is this distinction, this perceived separation of school from the so called real world, that lies at the heart of so many of the frustrations that exist in school today.  Who among us has not heard the cries:

“Why do I have to learn this?”
“How is this relevant?”
“I am just not interested in this topic.”
“Why do I have to write out the answers to prove I know them.”
And so on….

And while we might chuckle at how universal are such refrains, we should also heed their underlying message.  What they are really saying (I think) is:

“I want to learn something real.”
“I want to see the connection.”
“I want to incorporate my own interests and passions.”
“I want to engage in work that is authentic and meaningful.”
And so on….

It is interesting to consider how much time we ask high school students to spend sitting, or listening, or being told what to do, when most adults I know are not particularly fond of any of the above.

What happens inside the high school classroom should not be seen as something far removed from the world that beckons beyond the brick and mortar. Our kids crave the real thing.  They know the difference.  You know the difference too.  Why solve problems the school system cooks up when the real world has plenty enough?  Why spend time and energy building something for a letter grade or mark, when meaningful work can be done for real audiences, and can receive real feedback?  Perhaps that kid who cannot stop gazing out the window and daydreaming, is really disengaging from work that seems artificial and contrived – school for him is a game of pretend. 

For those whom I have not yet convinced that school as it has traditionally been structured may actually stand in the way of a more authentic and engaging education, let me ask you:

When was the last time you sat in rows at work facing your boss, who dictated how, what, and when you would operate? 

When was the last time you had to ask your boss to use the bathroom?

When was the last time you took a multiple choice test? Or a True or False quiz? 

When was the last time your workplace used a loud bell to signify that all employees must stop what they are doing and move to another spot in order to do something else entirely?

When was the last time your workplace arranged it so that you worked primarily with others born the same year as you?

When was the last time you had to factor a polynomial? Or write an essay?

I thought so.

There is no question that even in this system teachers find ways to do wonderful and engaging things with students.  And factoring polynomials and writing essays certainly has a place. But the world has changed.  And many of the old ways of doing business are just not that helpful anymore.

The more we throw real world problems at students the better.  The more we invite industry and artists and tradespeople into schools, or send our students out into their worlds, the better.  The more we require our kids to complete meaningful work for authentic audiences, the better.  The more we can encourage students to incorporate their passions and interests into their learning, the better.  The more we can promote a spirit of innovation and creativity and equip our kids with the competencies to confront the complexities of a changing world, the better.  The more schools can flex and adapt and leverage the possibilities of technology where it makes sense to do so, the better (even banks don’t keep bankers hours anymore).

Many modern workplaces are adopting a “results oriented” approach to the work environment.  Employees do not need to punch a clock, nor log a certain number of hours; instead, the focus is on performance and not on presence.  The management is ultimately responsible for setting targets and providing resources and feedback, but the employees can determine the conditions in a way that was unheard of before.

Where once we lauded the separation of work life and home life, there are signs that integrating work life and home might be a better way to go.  Maybe you can get more done by staying at home for a few hours in the morning.  Maybe you like to work on-line between ten pm and midnight most evenings.  Maybe a three o’clock walk or jog makes you more productive and creative.  Maybe responding to your e-mails from the comfort of a local coffee shop, away from the interruptions and the hustle and bustle of the office makes sense every now and then.  Or several times a week.  In other words, the workplace is changing (read about Square and Telus and IBM).

And schools should be changing too.  Digital tools, social technologies, and so on, and have made it quite possible for learning to be fluid, flexible, and unstructured. High school students, for example, must meet the requirements for graduation, but suddenly this is possible without us needing to control the conditions for learning that we once did.   It is feasible to learn from home or from a cafĂ© or while traveling some of the time.  It is possible to learn and to connect with other learners and other experts outside the hours of eight am and three pm.  

And it is in this context that I say the problem with school is that it is school.  Sitting in rows, in dated, institutional furniture, waiting for a bell to tell you its time for the next class, five days a week, from 8:30 to 3:00, harkens to the past much more than it anticipates the future.

The residue of the old system is nothing if not very sticky. But change is coming. Indeed, it is already happening.  Blended learning, which combines the best of on-line learning with face-to-face learning is gaining traction, as is a focus on competencies and skills (as opposed to knowing facts).  Initiatives like inquiry based learning and maker faires are expanding all over the place.   The flipped classroom is increasingly common.  Schools themselves are flipping.  And real world problems are being tackled by students for real.


Nevertheless, I believe the time has come to re-imagine school - how it looks, how it is organized, and how it is scheduled (at my current school, Thomas Haney Secondary, we have been fortunate to be able to defy many of the so called conventions of school, with some great results). It is a subject which inspires me, and as I look to the future, my hope is to continue to contribute to the transformation of the institution that is school in a way that will inspire and engage our students and our communities and bridge the divide between the “classroom” and the real world.  As always, feedback welcome.

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