Modern Schools: Are We Ever Going to Get There?

Will we ever be satisfied with schools, or is it inevitable that the desire for change – like change itself – will always be a constant? A simple vision for what a worthwhile education might look like was once expressed as follows:

“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”

Writing in 1971, Illich’s vision of a de-schooled society was controversial for its time and for the distinction it made between schooling and learning. For Illich, a de-schooled society implied a new approach to – and validation of – informal learning that involved a liberation of learners from formal curriculum. Central to this thinking was a belief that society needed to investigate the “use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction.” These views anticipated the dawn of a digital age that would make these ideas possible. Illich envisaged a network which gave each learner the same opportunity to share current concerns with those motivated by similar pursuits. In the best case scenario, this is not an alternative to school in the 21st century. This should be school.

Fast forward more than four decades, a different century, no longer a new century, and the disillusion with formal curriculum (Papert’s “one-billionth of one percent of the knowledge that exists in the universe”) persists. No one will ever need to ask Gary Stager to clarify his perspective on education, to say what he really means: “Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who … are self-ordained to prescribe what … students should know and when they should know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student.”

Curriculum is not an innately bad thing, but the constraints its traditional form places upon both students and teachers can be suffocating if not implemented with great care. It strikes one as somewhat ironic that when it comes to curriculum, articulation is often deemed more critical than conversation. Stager identifies the most important aspect of a good education: the centrality of the rapport between teachers and students; between teachers themselves. Nothing is more important. How are these voices empowered in the context of formal curriculum?

When it comes to the narrative about modern education it has been suggested that the further a change proponent is from the classroom, the louder the call for revolution. The corollary has also been suggested: the closer one is to the day-to-day demands of the classroom, the less an educator is likely to embrace change. This is nonsense. Teachers are evolving, designing, reinventing and changing practices each and everyday. Meanwhile, as the history of education so often reveals, the clamour for change endures. Change management, like culture itself, needs to be nuanced and thoughtful. There are no absolutes here: it’s not revolution or evolution, genuine change is cultured and strategic. We need to remind ourselves of the reflective caution of Diane Ravitch:

“School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land “where they never have troubles, at least very few.” Or, like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. … In education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly.”

In many ways, we have arrived at the point where Illich’s vision for schools should now be possible. If we so choose, even for the socially deprived, we should be in a position to “provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.” If such a vision can be grounded in empowering actionable, ethical citizenship and be truly personalized – not just an algorithm playlist or a corporate data grab – then it should be attainable. Are we ever going to get there?

In order to make schools fit for all learners, students and teachers alike, formal curriculum needs to focus more on this vision and in doing so, release teachers and students from constraints that impede learning. We must value creativity, learning by doing, critical discourse, genuine well-being, and an integrity of purpose and ambition beyond school and the test scores that currently denote the end of the work of many schools. We must focus on what is meaningful, not just what is measurable. More than anything, we must extend learner agency to students and teachers alike and empower these learners to operate free of the shackles of formal constraint. Technology can amplify and extend the possibilities of our learners to achieve this vision. To realise this, we need to believe and trust even more in the professional abilities and talents of teachers to create the conditions in which young people will flourish. They are the closest to a magic feather we will ever get. It’s time to treat them that way.

We could be closer to our destination than we dare to imagine.

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. 1971.
Stager, Gary. “Education’s Most Dangerous Idea: Curriculum.” Stager-To-Go, November 10, 2014.
Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Basic Books, 2016.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.