What schools might be

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Recently, I came across a piece about an ideal school day, and this prompted me to reflect on my own understanding of what schools could be if we designed them with the best possible overall outcomes in mind.

From the outset let me say that I cannot forward a model, simply because I can’t hope to simplify schooling down to such a singularity. Furthermore, I am not scholarly i such things. I am a person who has worked with young people in schools around the world for thirty years. This, along with the formal learning that I have been fortunate enough to acquire in this time underpins these thoughts.

Schooling is a highly complex issue, as schools are not educational institutions; they serve many roles. Schools have economic purposes: they provide babysitting so that parents can work, jobs for people and greater social benefit in the form of more learned and enterprising students. Schools serve political purposes: they inculcate specific broader values seen through anthems and flags and constitutional allegiances, they promote a dominant language, and state curricula define items of importance. The very existence of schools, and of the discipline of schoolery (days in school, times, vacations) defines a particular social structure as normal and by cleaving students from their parents, schools can challenge any family influences (think of values) that exist in students.

On the ground, within the schools themselves, the hidden curriculum imparts values and cultural pressures as young and old are exposed to certain ways as being normal. Schools serve a social purpose. We emphasise particular power differentials, learning conditions such as specifically timed blocks, peer relationships, all of which serve to promote certain values and marginalise the less prominent of those within a “community”. This very act of writing this piece, of having access to the means to survey the broader world is available to me, yet is not available to many students in rural areas of Canada, for example.

Critically and unfortunately, schools play an incredibly important custodial role in the lives of many students. The school is the place where the child is safe.

Finally, schools serve an intellectual purpose: the learning of the what, the how, and the why. Much of this purpose is couched in terms of preparedness for the world beyond and, typically, takes the form of providing students with checklists of criteria to address or competency levels to achieve to give access to the next level. And many of the authors of such pictures do so from a position of privilege, having successfully navigated the pathway through schooling to where they are now, leaving out the voices of those who, for whatever reason, have not.

So when thinking about what we would like schools to be, it is urgent that we, whoever we are, are critically aware of the complexity of what exists. It is crucial that we acknowledge that schools themselves are made up of at least as many cultural forces as exist in their populations, and very few of these forces have any access to engaging in the dialogue that may be present.

With this in mind I asked myself whether I could think of what a school should be, and started with the question of “why?”

If we are to consider learning rather than schooling, why would I choose a particular school model over another?

And the answer is – I couldn’t. There is no way I would ever posit as a one size fits all model for such an act is blatantly cultural invasive: it clearly posits learning within an externally defined framework.

Within my Western world, some of the more interesting, though still conventional, approaches to such an issue include making schools more accessible, with open hours, and self chosen learning opportunities such as independent study, community service, experiential learning, options for solitude and self growth, apprenticeships and communitarian pursuits. And of particular emphasis are approaches which ask students to identify issues of importance, to learn about these and to act.

On this issue, one of the more intriguing positions that exist suggests that because of the immediacy the current situations have, because of the intellectual lack of access that we have to such issues, because of the noise that exists around issues such as climate change, for example, that young people (and old people for that matter) do not have the means, desire, discipline and/or emotional resilience to be able to confront many of the real issues that exist. The response to this then, is to delve back into issues in the past (yes with all of the problems these may have) and analyse these with the tools that we have learned to use. It is through such lenses that people then develop the methodological acuity to be able to address contemporary issues.

Interesting yes, but I have to remember that it is my world that is defining such things as important, and that if I have learned anything as a global educator, or likely teacher, it is that we must, must respect the dignity of others. And such others may have very different values to ours.

However, if I had to define what it was that would drive my vision of what a “school” might be it, would rest pivotally on peoples’ ability to understand, question, relate to and interact successfully in various areas. I call these proficiencies literacy. Such literacy, be it linguistic, critical, analytic, mathematical, financial, cultural, health, emotional and cultural, is essential if we are to comprehend the world we live in. For me, how students learn this is not clear, but I cannot believe that such learning should be acontextual, nor opportunistic. Somewhere, if we believe that these are necessary to be able to engage in dialogue with others, then we have the responsibility to provide for the tools and the ways in which to use them.

Such literacy, one that is locally embedded but one that must take on the influence of the broader world has to be present in order to provide the framework for dialogue. It is these organised frameworks, those that identify the unities within groups, that also allow us to find the unity between groups. It is such frameworks that allow us to find the areas of harmony and contrast that occur between different peoples of the world. It is such awareness that give us the opportunity to open up meaningful dialogue about what the world might look like, and about what we as learners could do about it.

None of this grand vision requires any one particular model. It does require, however, an awareness that without the emphasis of such literacies as I noted above, that any model would merely serve to replicate the systems that currently exist. It is not until we all step back and look in the mirror that we can start to question how to change the world so that the problems that exist may never do so again.

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