Look at any school district’s Mission Statement and you’ll find the term ‘Lifelong Learner’. Education, the thinking goes (correctly), is a universal necessity to all human beings in all walks and stages of life. A school’s job, then, is not merely to impart knowledge or skill but create citizens who never stop learning. It’s not enough to learn to read and write and count; everyone needs to know HOW to learn to read and write and count, so they can go on to learn a zillion other things.
But nothing quite exposes the hypocrisy or contradiction of our education system than the ‘Lifelong Learner’ proclamation made by schools.
Because as true as the sentiment might be, schools hold a monopoly on ‘learning’ that they rarely or willingly relinquish. To schools, the only legitimate lifelong learning is that which occurs under their watch, through their methods, and by their measurement. They define what counts as worthy of being learned, dictate inflexibly how all learning must occur, and stamp every act of learning with their own narrow standards. The education system may declare it wants to create ‘learners’ more than ‘the learned’, but it rarely acknowledges that it has sole authority over what counts and how it’s done.
‘Learning’ is a pretty plastic term. One learns to read, but also to throw a ball. One learns to count, but also to navigate a neighborhood. One learns their history, but also how to grill a steak. One learns to write, but first to speak. Every new day is an act of learning and growth, some more dramatic than others, and when we go to sleep, by some accounts, every act of dreaming is a continuation of the learning process. A ‘Lifelong Learner’ is, on one level, every human being on the planet.
But schools do not allow such an all-encompassing definition. In fact, schools go to great lengths to ensure theirs is the ONLY ‘true’ learning.
To school, many things we learn — that we must learn, even — are ignored. The world of food, for example. Not just the cooking, but the growing and processing and measuring of it. The world of plants and animals, too. Not just pets, but our relationship with every other living creature on the planet, from lawn to forest, dirt to sky. Building and mechanics. Woodworking. Clothing. Child-rearing. Utilities such as plumbing and electricity and infrastructure. Little that we actually do with our hands and bodies, really, is under school’s eye. One neither studies those things in school, nor is measured by her skill in them.
Other aspects of a rich human life are sidelined, often into frivolity. Take music. It’s first to go when budgets are cut, or when testing (certain, ahem, important skills) takes precedence, or when a student must choose between classes. And popular music is rarely given the kind of instinctive respect of other subjects, even though most kids today spend more energy on their music than anything else in their lives. Let’s not even get started on games, which are treated, in the classroom, as a tool for everything else rather than the fundamental human need that they are.
If one pauses to imagine any of these things — cooking, cleaning, building, playing, gossiping, maintaining — it’s almost impossible to place them in the same arena as ‘school’. When we think of learning, and the places that ‘learning’ occurs, and the demands of things that require ‘learning’, and the standards by which we judge that which is ‘learned’, little of a person’s daily life comes to mind at all.
There is a reason that many vitally important and meaningful parts of our lives are considered childish or unserious or unworthy of genuine respect, and that reason is school.
‘School’ is this: English, Math, History, Science. But what does that mean? Is not ‘English’ the language we speak and write daily? So what then of text messaging, talking, idle conversation, this scribble here, or any of the other million printed words we navigate daily? Is not ‘Math’ taxes, temperature, mileage, calories, hourly wages, or any of the immeasurable numbers we use every day? History is not what happened in the past; history is the life we live now. And science? We could not turn our heads nor move our fingers without running up against the products of science. Your eyes on this screen, and your fingers near the keyboard are proof alone. But how much this is ‘learned’ in school? How much is a part of school rather than incidental to it? And if not, where was it ‘learned’?
School, and by extension ‘learning’, is a very narrow alley. It is dominated by only one kind of storefront, that of ‘Academics’. Schools prioritize and privilege specific skills and knowledge: Academic reading and writing, and Abstract number sense. The vast universe of human knowledge and achievement is sidelined to what the University values most, not only in content but also in practice.
Now, it must be noted that the situation we find ourselves is not deliberate. It’s a product of structure and history and a multitude of other factors. It is easy to marry the dangers of monopolized power to selfish intent, to point the finger at some enemy (who we’ve implicated here, our Universities). This is a road we got on a long, long time ago, in a machine that we’ve been building as we go. It’s a journey that still provides far more good than harm, but we could do better.
Many of these circumstances are incidental to the structural and financial limitations of churning large groups of disparate children through a system. We are no longer in a place where one person can teach her child all that she needs to know and thrive. The facts and skills are too vast, too complicated, and too varied, and so we must rely on complex institutions to do the heavy lifting. These institutions are themselves guided not merely by their mission, but social, physical, and economic realities. So we have hive-like schools, and classrooms, and age-based groupings, and specialized teachers. If we allowed ALL learning to take place in school, we’d be overwhelmed. Some things must be prioritized
Some of this is simply the result of taking up the massive burden of educating every child fairly and justly. That task, necessary and invaluable, means we’ve had to seek out basic fundamentals and hope they are universal. In early education, this is true. Basic literacy and number sense are universal, and while these mental skills are also acquired outside school, especially in our information-saturated and screen-driven modern world, visible mastery is most easily managed through a classroom.
Some of this is the result of time and calcification. Bureaucracies are slow to change or adapt. Schools started hundreds of years ago when almost all human knowledge could only be found in books, and books only found in a few places, and the reading of said books was the only certain way to grasp that knowledge. It began when a human being actually could navigate their world without the ability to read or a sense of what numbers do. Human beings are a learning species, and we will learn everything that is demanded of us for survival. Whether in school or out, it’s hard to imagine anyone in a modern country not learning to read today.
And much of our current situation is a direct result of where teachers come from — where they are trained and what they are inclined to value most. Teachers come almost universally out of Universities, and universities prize a particular kind of knowledge and thinking. They have a specific way of reading that they take very seriously. An adult university graduate has acquired and mastered and even sanctified a way of understanding the world. Most leave the University with that thinking as a tool for other purposes. They go on to make things and money, manage people and institutions, serve and be served, and so on. But those who stay, stay in education. Many step back into their old classrooms, all the way down to the beginning. But they carry a specific, adult way of understanding the world, and they can’t help but emphasize it over all else.
Whether by history, accident, or design, this is where we are with school. And while it’s easy to say ‘education’ is broken, that’s not fair at all. It’s simply untrue to say ‘broken’ because the system still does the invaluable, necessary job.
But it could be better. It could help more, it could provide more, and it could do more.
School has a monopoly on education that is holding it back. We can, with a few shifts, allow it to do more.
First, we could revoke school’s hold over assessment.
School defines what’s tested, how it’s tested, and the credentialing power the tests have. Not only do those tests tend to focus exclusively on Academic subjects and Academic thinking, whether by design or not, they also force a privilege over it. It might be cheaper or more convenient or more encompassing to seat students in rooms grouped by age and test them alone through multiple choice questions and then stamp those scores with a universally recognized seal. In the University, it might be the best method altogether. And in the past it might have been the only feasible path.
But it’s not really fair and it’s no longer financially or structurally necessary to be so limited. Within classrooms, especially in high schools on down, we are actually assessing our students in far more ways, and on far more aspects of individual skill, than pen, paper, and choice or essay. Students create, perform, collaborate, research, draw, film, sing, construct, and combine. We have devised countless ways to measure and evaluate and judge their work, whether it’s portfolios or videos or self-assessments or specific tiny demonstrations.
Yet little of what students actually DO is carried or used outside our classrooms. What students carry away is a piece of paper with a grade attached to an invisible class and a piece of paper with a grade attached to a standardized exam.
It’s not impossible to change that. All we have to do is start accepting and using what students produce to demonstrate their mastery of material. The digital, virtual world allows it. It’s up to the world outside school to start asking for it more.
Second, we could shatter school’s inflexible structures.
Covid is revealing just how limited the 7 am to 3 pm, in-person, age-centric, hourly-blocked, classroom-designed, teacher-directed, face-to-face method for ‘learning’ has become. Covid has also exposed the hold of our unquestioned assumption that ‘learning’ only takes place in ‘school’, and ‘school’ is only this one thing. Rather than re-examine the traditional classroom, we’ve mostly attempted to replicate it. We’re still meeting our students at the same times and in the same groups, only through Zoom. We’re still struggling to administer traditional assessments and attach traditional grades, or abandoning the effort altogether until we can meet in-person again. We’re still schooling through single teachers managing 20 or more kids in blocked increments.
But none of it is necessarily optimal, much less sacred. Some students are thriving on-line but others are not. Yet all of us are simply waiting to go back to the old methods. We are neither aggressively looking at every alternative available, from different hours to different ways of meeting to different ways of reaching students.
If human beings are always learning, we should make the attempt to reverse the single-minded funneling of ‘education’ into the time and place and structure of the school building. The school building and classroom works for communities for reasons of money and location and convenience, but this is a very different thing than the reasons the classroom works — or doesn’t — for individual students and actual learning.
The truth is that schools are also babysitting services. They gather up a community’s children and house them and feed them and monitor their well-being. And that’s fine. That’s a noble effort, and a necessary one. In fact, the classroom is a great way to babysit. It’s just not always a great way to educate or learn.
We will never be able to abandon the schools we’ve created because they have a far larger role in our society than education. But we ought to be willing to open up education to all that the world offers.
And third, we should dethrone school’s ‘Subjects’.
Literacy and number sense are absolutely fundamental skills that every person in society needs to have. We actually do a decent job of building that foundation into our elementary school students. But even though elementary schools grapple with a lot more than reading, writing and math, those are the only real subjects we take seriously.
And by high school, we have narrowed the subjects not merely to aspects of reading and writing and math, but a very very specific type; namely, that which is valued by college. We ‘offer’ other subjects, and then call them ‘extra-curricular’, as if they are frivolous and less valuable. ‘You MUST take math and English,’ we say. Everything else? ‘Whatever.’
And yet. History is not just the events of the past, in a timeline and in a place. History is everything that’s ever happened in whatever form. History is fundamental to understanding business and religion, culture and psychology and sports. (Few of these, by the way, ‘Subjects’ in high school, much less required.) English is not just ‘Literature’ and the 5 paragraph essay. It’s journalism, texting, game reviews, sports. It’s not merely the research paper or narrative either, nor should it be condensed to such narrow specifics for every student.
It may once have been convenient to force every student through a narrow range of material regardless of where they might end up. There may have been a time when the kind of advanced academic reading and theoretical math of academia represented not a variation of language and numbers, but the end of a continuum, the most advanced form on a single progression. This is no longer the case, and most students are now shoved into academic skills even though the majority need different forms when they enter the working world.
The adult world offers a near-infinite variety of things to learn. Once past the basics of reading and number sense, which generally solidify by 8th grade in most people, skills and knowledge fracture and diverge. Even teachers have a vast range of interests and skills they can pass along, though they are held to a pretty narrow curriculum in their classrooms.
If Lifelong Learning meant mastery of whatever skills or knowledge demanded it, and if the methods for acquiring those skills and that knowledge were open to whatever method, timeline, or environment suited it best, and if the assessment and demonstration of that learning was tailored to the thing itself, THEN we might be living to the ideal.
Until that time, we’ll continue to struggle hopelessly with what we’ve got.
It still works, for some, but it could work better, for a whole lot more.