Regardless of where I venture in my tidy little PLE, I am confronted with the same question in various forms: What is the duty of a school in the life and development of a person? Bach has asked this of me on several occasions in the last few months:
Is the purpose of school to get students ready for the world of work? I argue, no. I think the purpose of school is the encourage students to do, read, see, and learn things that they wouldn't do if left to their own adolescent devices. For example, if left to me, I never would have read half the "classic" novels I read in high school, watched classic films, read the NY Times, or gone to certain museums. Now as an adult, I am glad that I was pushed to do those things. It has made me a more rounded person.We read constantly about preparing our students for the 21st Century Workforce, the new economy, and for a future that has been described as one where we can't possibly have answers for questions we do not know the existence of yet. But in looking more closely at Bach's comment, I remember the wonder of walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an 11-year old, never having been anywhere remotely resembling it before, besieged by it's majesty and mystery from various parts of the world. Was that feeling a preparation for the work I am doing now?
School as we know it has always had underpinnings of competition: students are given grades based on performance on uniform assessments--a system ripe for separating the wheat from the chaff. In our social groups and networks we are thinking differently, however, and as we begin to redesign how we want our schools to function and who they will produce, does that element remain or is it yet another piece of the 20th Century? Are we truly "competing" against a nationalistic entity anymore? Is it the role of schools to produce the future workforce to compete with a nation or nations?
Wanting to be true to this question, I've sat on it for a few days and asked around for some input, and the best insight, naturally, came from my wife, a 4th grade teacher. I asked her what she thought the role of schools in society and the development of a child should be. Her response, paraphrased slightly, changed my mindset immediately:
Our role is really an academic one, but also has huge socialization responsibilities. By the end of my time with them, I want them to have learned and enjoyed the process immensely, but I also think they need to feel safe and secure while they are here.As she said this, the factory model of our schools past (wishful) began to become less hidden: our role is not to fill with content, or as Dewey said, back in 1907:
Just as the biologist can take a bone or two and reconstruct the whole animal, so, if we put before the mind's eye the ordinary schoolroom, with its rows of ugly desks placed in geometrical order, crowded together so that there shall be as little moving room as possible, desks almost all of the same size, with just space enough to hold books, pencils and paper, and add a table, some chairs, the bare walls and possibly a few pictures, we can reconstruct the only educational activity that can possibly go on in such a place. It is all made `` for listening" -- for simply studying lessons out of a book is only another kind of listening; it marks the dependency of one mind upon another. The attitude of listening means, comparatively speaking, passivity, absorption; that there are certain ready-made materials which are there, which have been prepared by the school superintendent, the board, the teacher, and of which the child is to take in as much as possible in the least possible time.but rather to do what David Warlick spoke about the other day: teach them how to teach themselves. From that basic premise, we equip them with the ability to do the nearly impossible, and do it on their own terms. In School and Society, Chapter 2: The School and the Life of the Child, Dewey tells the story of trying to equip schools with desks that allowed students to be artistic, hygienic, and kinesthetic, only to find only desks suited for "listening." Have we moved away from those desks in meaningful, if not radical ways? If that answer is no, our role has to change, now.
John Dewey. "The School and the Life of the Child," Chapter 2 in The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1907): 47-73.