Radical Education Reform: Opening Remarks

The graduating class of 2016 will be underprepared to write at the college level. They will also tend to shy away from STEM careers because of a quasi-collective mathematical incompetence. Something is going wrong. What do we need to change to better prepare these kids for college and careers?

I would be willing to bet that in answering this question, practically every reader automatically began to focus on some problem at the school or classroom level. This seems intuitive: Students aren’t being educated well enough? Fix the schools! To most of us, the entire education system—from the department of education to legislation like No Child Left Behind to the debate about charter schools—is nothing more than the undergirding of the neighborhood school. Schools are where the rubber meets the road. We think education and we think schools.

That just might be our problem. We have conflated education and schooling.

This conflation is problematic not only because it delegitimizes non-scholastic learning, but because it allows us to overlook our collective responsibility to care for and educate each other. Our conflation of education and schooling is blinding us to the innumerable educational opportunities that exist or could exist outside of school. It also blinds us to those things that really seem to matter for long term success, most of which are not explicitly taught in schools—things like social capital, mentorship, and the abilities to collaborate, to adapt, and to take initiative.

Schools are our scapegoat. Because schools exist, we have somewhere to point our fingers. Johnny doesn’t know how to read? That incompetent teacher! Angela doesn’t get fractions? What a terrible school!

But before we remove the mote from the school’s eye, let’s consider the beam in ours. Johnny doesn’t know how to read because somehow society (i.e. us) has ignored his illiteracy and, shrugging off any obligation to him, has allowed him to go on without reading. The same goes for Angela’s fractions. Even if we angrily insist that schools fix this problem, we ignore the role we could play in her education. This is where we are blind.

Imagine, for a moment, a society without schools that still has an educated populace. Although they never had an AP English class, many people are familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedies. While nobody in this society took Physics in high school (there are no high schools), they seem to understand Newton’s laws. How can this be? How would they learn this without schools?

Obviously (and this is not necessarily different from our society), primary caregivers fill the role of primary learning-facilitators. Parents and parent figures read to and with their kids, set an example of intellectual hunger, celebrate their children’s curiosity and progress. But education is not restricted to the home; it is threaded throughout the fabric of society. Perhaps employers sponsor their employees in taking certain online courses. Perhaps children have multiple apprenticeships. Perhaps instead of just taking private piano lessons, people sign up for private chemistry, philosophy, or literature lessons. (And perhaps the government provides some kind of voucher to ensure that everyone can take these lessons.) Perhaps people on the bus talk with each other about what they have recently read. In short, although they have no formal educational system, the society itself is educational.

Although this may seem unique to this imaginary world, in reality, every society is educational. For example, people learn how to send text messages, how to play basketball, how to buy groceries, etc. without any formal instruction, because society has systemically provided access to and motivation to acquire this knowledge. So the question is really—what kind of learning is embedded within and encouraged in the society? As I have briefly suggested, I think there could be a society that inherently educates its populace in meaningful ways; that even prepares its youth for success in college (if college exists) and careers without having K-12 schools.

One more note: Because there would be no public schools, this society would not attempt to cram “common knowledge” into the timeframe of compulsory education—with often unwilling students and frustrated teachers—but would instead provide a lifetime of opportunities to learn what is interesting and relevant. If we myopically think of reforming education through schools, we limit ourselves to thirteen years of a person’s life—years in which this person generally does not enthusiastically engage in the work of this formal schooling. By extending our sights beyond schools, we multiply the possibilities of making significant and lasting change.

There is no doubt that we are not preparing students for college and careers, but it is not just the schools’ fault. Society as a whole is also to blame, and must likewise shoulder the responsibility of reform. But it must reform itself, not schools.

19 thoughts on “Radical Education Reform: Opening Remarks

  1. You are echoing my homeschool philosophy–when did we last ask fellow adults, “What is out there that you learned today?” Additionally, mission, and vision are imperative to help a child see their lack of knowledge and to instill a passon for learning. I believe teens think they “know it all” because they are not being challenged in their area of interest and they are not being taught by professionals in that field–mentored. The idea that we return to apprenticeships is insightful. I believe that inquisitive nature is driven out of youth by neglecting to give the child a framework to hang knowledge on–that framework is how everything connects–taught by whole-learning, not by specific subject education. (i.e., what do you remember of historical date memorization?) Life-skill education through community education would accentuate that. By highschool, students are learning by rote, not through intrigue. This can–in part–be blamed on passionless teachers, but mentors who teach by “living their love” instill it in youth. Your vision of an ongoing education is pie-in-the-sky imaginings. One I will seek to join.

    1. I love the focus on mentoring and apprenticeships within genuinely interesting fields. Glad to have you join our imaginings!

  2. This post seems more directed to K plus ages, but here’s a Deseret News article on the importance that kids hear thirty million words before the age of four.


    In many ways it addresses a similar issue: surrogate care and education, and how as a society everyone needs to be involved in this.

    1. I agree that’s related–thanks for sharing. As parents and/or fellow members of society, our language usage impacts our children and, perhaps, those around us. The same is likely true of any literacy (broadly defined to also include non-linguistic competencies).

  3. I love the move from placing blame uniquely on schools to challenge all of society to share in the guilt/burden. And I love how _Democracy and Education_ doesn’t start with school, but with life, and how one generation passes on its learning to the next, and school only comes onto the scene when the civilization is so complicated that we can’t just watch what the brain surgeon is doing in the O.R. to understand what’s going on. We need some formal training to get it. So maybe I need a few more intermediate steps. What would it look like for the wider society to take a larger share of the burden instead of the whole burden? Or maybe you’re taking a more extreme position like that schools are only necessary when society isn’t doing it’s job? Heck, I’ll even take your top 3 recommendations for how individuals can do a better job of helping educate our society’s young…

    1. Ben, thanks for the comment. I agree that we need some intermediate steps. I wrote this as an intentionally extreme opening statement to begin a conversation. Since (spoiler alert) I’m not actually in favor of disbanding schools, I’m most interested in the first question–and I hope to have some follow up posts along those lines.

  4. Awesome. I’m excited to read the follow up posts. You can read my comment not as a criticism that you need to provide more immediate steps in order to convince me, but expressing an interest in how you would imagine intermediate steps, or what ways we, as a society, might be shirking our responsibility. But if these are the opening remarks, I definitely want to attend the whole conference…

  5. This is an interesting and insightful take, as always, David. I love the concept of society collectively and innately shouldering the weight of educating the youth as well as the idea of education happening more organically, as opposed to viewing education as a sort of isolated transaction that happens only within the confines of a school. I think apprenticeships and mentorships are awesome examples of a more natural and relevant way to educate outside of schools and to get more people involved in the process of educating the youth. I do not, however, believe that the entirety of a child’s education can most effectively happen in the absence of schools and at least some form of traditional education. While I believe an ideological shift like this could potentially happen in some segments and populations, it fails to account for those populations where school (the actual physical building, the schedule, the teachers, the learning) is truly the saving grace for youth, the only place where they can receive the education that they need, and sometimes the only place where they get inspiration and affirmation from adults. There are many populations where families cannot afford private classes for their children and parents/relatives are working multiple full-time jobs to try to support their families. In those situations, parents are either unable, ill equipped, or unwilling to be the driving force in the education of their child, and many of the caregivers in these situations are simply unable to make education a priority for their kids. So, the K-12 public school becomes the safe place to learn and sometimes the only option for receiving and education, and the K-12 teacher often becomes the meaningful adult who awakens a dedication for or value of learning. The public school, in all of its shortcomings and disfunction, for these students, is essential. With that being said, we cannot ignore school reform when talking about educating a society as a whole.

    All of this is to say that I agree that education should ideally be a less-compartmentalized and more organic part of society. It would benefit students and society if we eliminated the perspective that education is isolated to the classroom. But, I guess I am thinking along the lines of a middle-ground or intermediate steps as well. If there was a way to marry the two perspectives and reform schools to better fit the needs of students (placing less emphasis on standard “core knowledge,” particularly at the high school level and more emphasis on courses that will best serve and pertain to student interests and needs) while also reforming society to value and have a more active role in the education of youth, that might be the answer. While I do believe that the problems and pitfalls in the realm of education are far bigger than the walls of the classroom, I do not think that education can properly be reformed without addressing, nurturing, and ultimately reforming schools, perhaps in conjunction with a radical reformation of society’s role as well.

  6. I look forward to more dialogue because I think there is a lot of truth to what you are saying. I was trying to pose some counter-arguments that immediately came to mind. I am interested in what you would say are some tangible steps to making this happen and, as a classroom teacher, how you believe I can instill this perspective into the students I see in my classroom daily.

    1. Great to hear from you, Kendra. And I agree. I think a school-less society is an interesting thought experiment, but as you say, it’s not feasible in reality. But I think it’s worth pointing out that a failure of society (as in the instances you mentioned) always precedes a failure of schools–and we end up blaming the safety net instead of what’s causing people to fall in the first place. Ultimately, we must address both ends. (I’m not actually in favor of closing schools.) I’m looking forward to ongoing conversations.

  7. This is an interesting idea. I think you are spot-on in terms of the potential for a much broader audience to take responsibility for the education of others. The question that came to mind as I read is related to issues of inequity. If I live in a community where there is great depth of highly useful knowledge that is readily available, then my potential for learning is great. However, if I live in an area where the pool of useful knowledge is more shallow, then my potential is limited. I recognize that this situation or something similar already exists, even with formal education in place, but is there some way that your model could account for existing or potential inequity?

    1. I think that’s exactly the question. And I don’t actually think we can change society enough to do away with schools. But I have realized simply that the inequities which justify the institution of schools represent a failure of (as opposed to the reality of) society and could, theoretically, be addressed themselves rather than through schools. This is certainly not novel, but it intrigued me.

  8. Interesting post. Have you read the book, Most Likely to Succed? If not, I’m sure you would find it of interest. I am currently an independent elementary school teacher, but have taught PK-7th grade in settings from rural mountain communities to inner city projects. The education system is in dire need of reform. It is just not preparing people for adulthood in today’s world where communication and collaboration are so much more important than the isolated work skills encouraged in our current factory-like model. The idea of returning to apprenticeships or homeschooling has some merit, but I think we would miss out on the richness of learning with people so different from our families. I’m not a religious person, but count an evangelical and a devote Muslim among my dearest friends because I met them in schools. Also, schools are where I, as a child, was exposed to adults who shared passions and talents that my parents didn’t share. For instance, the poster of the first reply incorrectly used the Latin abbreviation, i.e., which translates to “that is” (used when the following words directly restate the preceding words) when she/he should have used e.g. (For example). Any decent Latin teacher would teach her children that, but they likely won’t be taught this common mistake if their only teacher is their mother. If we look to newer pedagogy such as Project Based Leaning and Design Thinking we can preserve what is wonderful about schools without isolating ourselves in our religious or cultural communities. Of course, there may never be one right answer for every family. I hope parents like you will continue to have these conversations and encourage your communities and schools to as well. When parents and students demand change teachers and administrators will step out of their comfort zones and explore options.

    1. Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. And thank you for the work you do as a school teacher. Although I think it’s interesting to consider how we as a society can reform out-of-school learning, I am actually very much interested in in-school learning. I hope you’ll continue to join the conversation.

  9. This was a fantastic post with many insightful thoughts. As I read, I felt that your whole premise boiled down to one thing that you didn’t expressly state, but is definitely woven through the fabric of your ideas.

    It’s this: As a society, we now undervalue the experience of the engaged, actively participating learner. Our focus (not just in schools, although it is pervasive there) appears to have shifted to an ideal where teachers/parents are fully responsible for disseminating information, and students/children are expected to acquire and understand that information with osmosis-like speed and form — and without putting forth any sustained effort to engage in the process of learning themselves.

    With this shift in education/parenting, we now have several generations of learners who truly do not know how to learn — and, instead of recognizing and addressing this fact, our efforts appear to be aimed at reforming the teacher or teaching process rather than the learner. When students (anyone engaged in learning) fail to take responsibility for their own learning, how can we expect to have an educated society?

    Your idea that society must reform itself first is spot on! And I believe that we do this by changing the way we approach learning. Many of my children’s teachers only engage their students in what I term spoon-feeding — they’ve taken completely able students and, for a host of reasons, are teaching them with wonderfully controlling, but ultimately ineffective teaching methods. Can you imagine literally spoon-feeding your children their entire lives? It might be more efficient and less messy, but what happens when those children become adults and have children of their own? Yep. They’re completely unprepared to do for themselves. We have failed to teach them, and they have failed to learn. Sadly, our hyper-focus on reforming the teacher/education methods is only teaching us that learners aren’t competent enough to feed their own learning.

    I loved this thought from your closing paragraphs: “By extending our sights beyond schools, we multiply the possibilities of making significant and lasting change.” This is it! I believe that we can achieve this significant and lasting change when we truly understand that we are each individuals who must act for ourselves, rather than merely being acted upon. When we take control of our own learning, we engage more deeply, and that deeper understanding naturally leads to significant and lasting change. If I begin to act as an agent of my own learning, and if you do it, and then we all teach our children to do it, the possibilities for society’s learning and engagement are endless.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts — and for all the readers who shared their comments! It engaged me in a profound way that enlightened and brightened my day.

    1. Valena, thanks for sharing these thoughts! I think it’s interesting that you connect our treatment of education reform with our thinking about parenting. I also like the metaphor of spoon-feeding learners. It really captures how that method should not persist beyond a certain point. I hope you’ll continue to join the conversation!

  10. Thank you for the article. I have four children, two of whom have completed the requisite 12 years of public education. Two others are currently in eighth grade. Watching them attend schools in five different school districts (due to a number of relocations), one takeaway I have stumbled across in every part of the country is this:
    Parents are quick to blame for the schools for the frailties in their children’s learning experience. Some parents are even quick to throw money at the school systems in the form of educational bond issues and persistent raises in teachers’ pay. What parents are NOT as quick to do is dedicate their own time to their children’s ongoing education when NOT in a school building. Yes, many parents are involved in the PTA or contribute to fundraisers. But what I am referring to is time spent sitting beside your child, reviewing homework, making progress on projects, asking questions and essentially being engaged with the education your child is personally experiencing. This can be work that may bring you a sense of accomplishment and pleasure; but it may also (and I assure you it will) bring frustration, exhaustion and a sense of an uphill struggle at times. That being said, however — I firmly believe this is exactly what children and parents need.
    Yes, it cuts into whatever “free time” or “down time” parents try so hard to hold on to (with good reason). Yes, it means you sometimes have to re-learn linear slope equations or even learn a language that is foreign to you. But the payoff is…the payoff is immeasurable. Particularly for your child. And if your child ends up better educated because you engaged DIRECTLY in the process? Where is the downside in THAT?

    1. Thanks, Beth, for these comments. I agree that parents can play a bigger role in consciously educating their children. I also think that society as a whole can do more of that kind of thing. I hope you will continue to visit our blog and share your thoughts and experiences.

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