The school system is a modern phenomenon, as is the childhood it produces

Good old Ivan Illich with today’s quotation-as-title. If you haven’t read his Deschooling Society yet, you must. Given actions speak louder than words, it really makes you think about what we’re actually doing to children when we send them off to the world of formal education.

The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

ivan illich

I left teaching almost a decade ago and still have a strong connection to the classroom through my wife (who’s a teacher), my children (who are at school) and my friends/network (many of whom are involved in formal education.

That’s why a post entitled The Absurd Structure of High School by Bernie Bleske resonated with me, even though it’s based on his experience in the US:

The system’s scheduling fails on every possible level. If the goal is productivity, the fractured nature of the tasks undermines efficient product. So much time is spent in transition that very little is accomplished before there is a demand to move on. If the goal is maximum content conveyed, then the system works marginally well, in that students are pretty much bombarded with detail throughout their school day. However, that breadth of content comes at the cost of depth of understanding. The fractured nature of the work, the short amount of time provided, and the speed of change all undermine learning beyond the superficial. It’s shocking, really, that students learn as much as they do.

Bernie Bleske

We’ve known for a long time now, that a ‘stage, not age‘ approach is much better for everyone involved. My daughter, sadly, enjoys school but is pretty bored there. And, frustratingly, there’s not much we as parents can do about it.

If you’ve got an academically-able child, on the surface it seems like part of the problem is them being ‘held back’ by their peers. However, studies show that there’s little empirical evidence for this being true — as Oscar Hedstrom points out in Why streaming kids according to ability is a terrible idea:

Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.

Oscar Hedstrom

I worked in a school in a rough area that streamed kids based on the results of a ‘literacy skills’ test on entry. The result was actually middle-class segregation within the school. As a child myself, I also went to a pretty tough school in an ex-mining town, which was a bit more integrated.

The trouble with all of this is that most of the learning that happens in school is inside some form of classroom. As a recent Innovation Unit report entitled Local Learning Ecosystems: emerging models discusses, ‘learning ecosystem’ is a bit of a buzz-term at the moment, but with potentially useful applications:

It remains to be seen whether the education ecosystem idea, as expressed in these varieties, will evolve as a truly significant new driver in public education on a large scale. These initiatives reflect ambitious visions well beyond current achievements. Conventional systems, with their excessive assessment routines, pressurized school communities, and entrenched vestigial approaches, are difficult to shift. But this report offers a taste of the creative flourishing in education thinking today that has emerged against, and perhaps in response to, the erosion of resources for public education, often abetted by indifferent, even hostile government.

Local Learning Ecosystems: emerging models

My go-to book around all of this is still Prof. Keri Facer’s excellent Learning Futures: education, technology and social change. I still haven’t come across another book with such a hopeful, practical vision for the future since reading it when it came out in 2011.

Hopefully, taking a learning ecosystem or ‘ecology’ approach will provide the necessary shift of perspective to move us to the world beyond (just) classrooms.


Also check out:

  • Flexible working is possible if schools focus on outcomes, not hours (TES) — “Children deserve access to experienced, specialist teachers at a time when they are needed most. To achieve this we need a step change. We need to drive a culture shift in the education community to make teaching more family-friendly.”
  • Why Constant Learners All Embrace the 5-Hour Rule (Inc.) — “Franklin’s five-hour rule reflects the very simple idea that, over time, the smartest and most successful people are the ones who are constant and deliberate learners.”
  • This App Helps You Learn a New Language With Music (Geek.com) — “Okay, they don’t literally use “Baby Shark,” but Earworms MBT can teach you Spanish, Italian, German, and French and is great for common situations like getting directions, taking a taxi, or going to a restaurant.”

2 Comments

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  1. Good stuff. Nice article. Always love a bit of deschooling society.

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