Why School Shouldn’t Be Designed for ‘Learning’
School is not just about individuals — it’s also how we create our society.
In Silicon Valley (where I currently live), tech reigns King. It’s being hailed as the way to solve all of society’s problems, from fast delivery of groceries, to grabbing the best travel deal, to finding a life partner.
In education, many of the tech solutions being developed aim to ensure more “personalized” learning (a.k.a content acquisition). While these technological advances may allow students to access and “master” content in a way that seems more efficient at first glance, I’m certain they will never be the solution to schooling’s problems. Why? Because these kinds of apps and platforms are solving a fundamentally mis-defined problem.
Any problem solver worth her salt knows that the most important part of developing effective, innovative solutions is making sure you have the right problem to solve. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as having said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Learning — especially when defined as content knowledge acquisition — is not the primary design problem to be solved through schooling.
First, individual development or “education” involves much more than acquiring content knowledge. In school we are developing the capacities (knowledge and skills), character, and beliefs, we use to make choices in our lives, and to work with others to create our world. Content knowledge is one small part of one aspect, yet all three of these are being developed through the experiences students have in school.
Kids spend about 14,000 hours school between K-12 — during this time they develop habits and ways of being and doing that are likely to last a lifetime. I wrote more on this here. These are habits of how students relate to themselves, their learning, and the world — and also habits of how they relate to others, and co-create and participate in communities.
Many people want to then say, “okay, fine, supplement content acquisition with socio-emotional learning or character programs”. Besides the fact that curricula in these areas tends to ignore that character and socio-emotional learning is happening all the time (e.g. kids are more likely to learn empathy if they’re treated empathically in the classroom than if they’re taught about empathy — but this is a rant for another day), it also ignores a bigger issue and the main point of this piece: individual development, or education, is not the sole purpose of school.
Schooling is about more than developing individuals: Schooling also creates our society.
There are four main purposes for maintaining a schooling system as a society (see 2x2), and both of the possibility purposes need to be used to design school structure and pedagogy. Read more on why here.
While we should design for both the individual and social possibility purposes, the social possibility purpose may be the most important.
Without knowing what kind of society we want to create together, how can we know the capacities, character, and beliefs, individuals need to develop to be active participants and co-creators of it?
School is where we send our children to develop their potential, and where we create our society by establishing social norms, culture, and perspectives on the world by socializing individuals in the collective. When we forget this and only focus on the individual outcomes, we undermine our ability to thoughtfully design for the kind of community we want to be and become.
Yet none of the graduate profiles or “reimagine school” initiatives I’ve encountered include the collective or social possibility goal for schooling. We design for individual learning, or even individual potential, but rarely do we talk about our goals for creating community. Even when we say we want children to grow up to be active democratic citizens, we don’t talk about the kind of school community they will be creating together to help them practice this. Read Nicole Hensel’s blog for more on what this actually looks like in schools.
In the same way that individuals’ capacities, character, and beliefs are formed through the daily experiences and practice of them daily, so too do our societies develop out of how we practice being together. This means we have to have a vision for the kind of collective we want to create together. Knowing and designing for this requires asking different questions, like:
What does it mean to be a thriving democracy? What does it meant to practice justice, to practice fairness, to practice collaboration, to practice democratic deliberation in schools?
Amongst many other reasons, this is why online charter schools or schools that focus primarily on “personalized learning” via technology are a potentially dangerous addition to the schooling ecosystem. They’re a potential solution to the question of, “How do we more efficiently deliver content knowledge?” and they may help students score better on exams (though there’s limited evidence of this); however, besides the often fundamentally poor assumptions about what learning is[i], and the fact that individual development is broader than learning — these solutions cannot replace schooling because they don’t solve the question of, “how do we socialize our youth into our society?”.
Social possibility was, in fact, the original motivation for establishing a common schooling system. In the U.S., the movement for common schooling arose during a time when it wasn’t clear if the American experiment in creating a democratic republic was going to work. America was headed into a civil war, tensions were high, and there was a dire need for a way to socialize all citizens into being part of a larger imagined community[ii] called “The United States” and incorporate “American” as part of their identity[iii]. Founders and proponents of common schooling like Horace Mann were not primarily interested in “learning,” per se, but socialization.
While our vision today for who might be included in the national narrative will hopefully have evolved[iv], it’s interesting that, as this collective purpose for schooling has been increasingly lost in the conversation, we also seem to be declining in our ability to get along and co-create a thriving democracy.
Our political institutions and ideals are arguably under greater threat than they have been since our civil war. We seem to have lost our vision for the kind of society we want to create together. And, we’ve lost our vision for schooling as a place where we learn to be together and practice our democratic and collective ideals.
The thing about the individual and social possibility purposes is that they are happening through school regardless of whether we are intentional about them. So, we are already socializing our youth into our society by how they interact with one another and adults in school every day. But what is the collective we’re creating when students primarily, or even to a large extent, interact with computers all day?
If we want to co-create a thriving democratic society together, the main questions we should ask about any proposed structural or programmatic change to schooling include, “Is this designed to help students practice democratic ideals? Will students be socialized into the kind of community we hope to create through their experience? Will they practice collaboration, democratic deliberation, participative decision-making, perspective-taking, fairness, empathy, and the other capacities, character, and beliefs that a just society requires?”
The kind of community students practice creating together in schools is the kind of nation we will become.
So who do we want to become?
At REENVISIONED, an organization I co-founded, we’re facilitating a massive national re-visioning process with 10,000 people around the country to better understand how people think about the kinds of lives and society we want to create together and emerge a new shared vision. We have a powerful student-centered classroom visioning project in which students interview each other and the adults in their lives and learn to analyze and share their findings and vision. Learn more here!
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[i] Furthermore, most of the online type programs, particularly for young students, ignore the fact that learning is a sociocultural phenomenon, not solely a cognitive one. We make sense of things through talking about, reasoning with, and arguing with others — not just by memorizing or reading through content.
[iii] This wasn’t just in the U.S. Schooling was adopted by newly formed nation states around the world to solve this issue of how to socialize citizens. Considerable theoretical work and research has looked at how schooling has been used by nation-states to construct a national historical narrative and unified national polity, (e.g. (Anderson, 2006; Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997; Meyer, Ramirez, & Soysal, 1992; Ramirez & Boli, 1987; Weber, 1976)
[iv] Socialization in schooling has historically reflected the values and ideals of the era (and often simply of the people in power in a particular era). Should we want a more inclusive society today, and a more complete understanding of different groups’ contribution to our national history — for instance, the contributions of women and people of color — we need to design our schools to both teach and live that vision of inclusion today.