Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What is the Obligation of Schooling?

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.


Karen Janowski said...

When my kids were in middle school, I decided to homeschool them, something we were able to do for two years. Before deciding to work with them at home, I read over twenty education books, many about homeschooling but a number of different topics. One of the things I have never forgotten - it was stated that if your kids have been in public school before you start homeschooling them, they will take a good six months to adjust to the change, basically to become "unindoctrinated."

There are many homeschooling methods, and I chose to use what I call an eclectic approach. One of the approaches is called "unschooling" named by John Holt. This is truly child led education. and I met many intelligent kids whose education could be defined as "unschooled."
What is my point? As David Warlick said, we need to teach students to teach themselves, to develop a learning lifestyle. We were able to do that and it was much easier to do away from public education. I learned a great deal during that process. The greatest lesson was learning that children can development well socially, emotionally, academically and spiritually absent public education. It was a time when we concentrated on our kids being responsible for their own learning. No longer could they say to me, "The teacher told me I don't need to know this" or "I don't need to know this for the test."
We explored together, they explored their own passions and pursuits.
I have to say, I recommend it to everyone.

Alas, they went back to school in high school, which is another story...

Tom Haskins said...

Patrick, I'm on the same page as Dave Warlick about cultivating students to teach themselves. We pick up habits that way and could do much more with a system obligated to immerse students in "cauldrons of adventure" with no escape but to teach themselves new ways to see, do, problem solve and create. When we our survival instincts kick in, the quality of learning we accomplish is amazing. We could cultivate awesome habits for responding with compassion, creativity, empathy and many other kinds of resourcefulness.

I wish schools felt obligated to admit that anytime they are delivering content from prepared materials, they are preparing students for the past - which has a long shot chance of preparing them for anything in the future. Anytime students are being taken into the unfamiliar, that's authentic preparation. (I was raised in New Jersey and also had a mystifying first trip to the Metropolitan). The web offers so much of the unfamiliar world to explore on a screen. I wish schools felt obligated to take the experience to the next level: hands on, self expression, collaborative projects, immersion role plays, etc. From these experiences, students would realize their success depended on their figuring out what to do differently than before -- not from getting the right answer previously defined by texts or teachers.

diane said...


In the spirit of "Student Voice", I'm going to put your question to my Current Events class:
"What is the Obligation of Schooling?"
"What is the Purpose of Education?"

Let's hear from the kids on this issue.


Patrick Higgins said...

We all have such passion for this topic, and it's evident in our comments here.


While I am not all too familiar with homeschooling, the ideas you mention are valid ones, especially when confronted with what the role of educational institutions are within a society. This rings true with my own personal experience with graduate school. The prescribed courses in the program I completed pale in comparison to the topics I engage in daily through my network; most of my education is now self-directed. This took nearly twenty years to learn, or un-learn, as you say.


I couldn't agree with you more in regards to the web not being enough; however, for some, it is a rare experience to ever leave their geographic location. The OLPC initiative is a great case in point here. These students now have the "world" in their hands, and let that experience catapult them into something greater, something tangible perhaps.

My ideas in regards to learning have changed so much lately. I tell the teachers and students I work with that to learn effectively, I now have to take whatever I am working on and break it, then fix it. If it works when I am done, lesson learned. They usually laugh, but it's true.

Patrick Higgins said...


Can't wait to see the results!

diane said...


It took a while, but I finally got my student responses into a post (dated 9-24).

Even the reluctant writers expressed an opinion. I wonder how representative their opinions are.


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