The Complexity of Schooling

I’m currently sitting on a porch overlooking a river valley as I serve out Day 9 of my 14-day mandatory Covid-19 quarantine, following my recent move. I flew out from Singapore on the morning of Saturday, August 8, leaving behind the school I had worked at, a school which went back into face-to-face teaching a few days ago.

Last week I was privy to an online meet of teachers in a public school here, and I listened intently as they discussed how they will tackle the new school year which will begin in just over two weeks’ time.

What struck me most was not the conversation of the planning that was being considered in order to make the school safe for students and staff, but the breadth of questions that were asked. They asked about students who need academic support, the stress that carers would go through, how they might deal with truancy issues, the impact that banning students from leaving campus for lunch might have on local businesses, and more. You see, we tend to take the functions of schools for granted, we tend to substantially regard schools as places where students receive an education that will prepare them academically for the next chapter of their lives. In doing so, we tend to lose sight of the complexity of schools and of their many purposes in our societies. The following recent exchange with a couple of friends came to mind.

James: Don’t students just learn in front of a laptop like they would in class?

Me: Well … no

Alan: I think they’ve figured out online teaching and it’ll be much better

Me: That’s not the point

As I mulled over these thoughts, I reflected back to something a colleague had once written, his version of a perfect school day. The model presented was based on a desire to help students understand the world, look after their physical health, and empower them to act to make the world a better place. It was about individuals pursuing their interests, and about them finding like minded others with whom they could forge working relationships in their endeavours. This is not the place to address that model, but it is the place to look at the schools we have and the impact they may have beyond their walls.

My thoughts on this are pretty open; I honestly don’t believe that there is any such thing as a perfect school day, any more that I believe that there is a such a thing as a blanket perfect school, simply because we cannot simply account for all the factors that schooling is affected by and affects. What the Covid-19 situation has made abundantly clear to anyone who cares to look is that that schools are social, economic and political constructs which serve many, many roles.  For example, as schools have switched into hybrid online and face-to-face, or into full online modes, in order to maintain physical distancing, we have seen undue pressure put on those in lower socioeconomic communities where parents are having to choose between work, parenting, or paying for supervision for their children

Unfortunately, rather than critically or thoughtfully examine the many functions that schools serve, what has been first and foremost in the global education news is the way final assessment grades were allocated in a number of systems where these grades were required for university entry. In short, without final examinations being held, student final grades were awarded based on certain algorithms created by the examining bodies that relied on past performance of schools, any assessed work that students had completed, and teacher predictions of grades. Many students received grades lower than they were expecting and this impacted on their future academic aspirations. To be fair, students certainly do perform below their expectations even in examination sessions taken under regular conditions, but then this is a full measure of their performance, so it is accepted much more readily by the community.

For those people who believe that schooling is all about credentials, such an emphasis on grades has, in many cases, served to steer the focus away from the other functions of schools.  Nevertheless, much of the internal dialogue recognises how intricately schools operate in the community.

Not only do schools serve the functions already mentioned, they are also tremendously diverse both within their own regions and across the world, as they should be if they are to serve the communities they are embedded in.

Moreover, many schools are cultural melting pots. Every child and every adult (including parents and educators) bring with them ways of acting, beliefs, and values that are their own. Every member of the community is unique, and to make matters more convoluted, the school, and in some cases, the state, have their own missions in play. This makes for an incredibly complex scenario where it is very easy to overlook significant issues that are not part of our own cultural awareness. Put simply, there is no way we can satisfy the needs of everyone equitably and so we prioritise. 

It is important to consider that student academics may be impacted by some of the choices we will make in the wake of the current pandemic, but it is also critical to regard the physical, mental and emotional consequences that our decisions have on our extended communities.  Bearing in mind that this broader view is a perspective of schooling that much of the global education community seems to pay little attention to, it is imperative that we consider how much the actions we take might extend into the ways we live well beyond our schools.

The irony, of course, is that regardless of pandemic, such choices do impact sections of communities in all sorts of ways that we tend to be blind to. The choice to have students undertake a broad curriculum robs them of the opportunity to specialise in certain areas of interest and informs them that this is what we value. The choice to start and end schools at certain times dictates the necessity of childcare and/or student self-care and shapes our perspective of the role of a parent. The choice of assessment methods demands that certain skills are privileged over others, the choice to marginalise the arts communicates the value that we place on creativity and imagination, the choice to offer articulation to work programs might recognise societal stratification but also assents to this as a given.

Consider that, despite what we know of nutrition and cognitive processes, that many schools assume that students arriving at school are prepared for the day; that they have eaten and slept. Moreso, and despite the prevalence of convenience stores in many districts surrounding schools, there seems to be an assumption that such preparation is nutritious and consists of more than packaged snack foods grabbed on the way to school.

Keep in mind also that schools are places where people work and where their work forms part of their identity. While we would like to think that all staff in schools want the best for the students they are responsible to, it clearly isn’t that simple when their own lives and aspirations are part of the mix that exists. What is the best for students is certainly not the same for everyone; values between people differ, and with such difference comes variable action. I am not denigrating teachers, but I am saying they are not mass produced in factories, and that shows in many, many ways.  Carers recognise the richness that such diversity offers, and this is one reason why they continue to place their children into brick and mortar schools rather than in online learning, where that option exists.

Certainly, the current situation has allowed teachers and curriculum writers to explore new learning models that exploit the strengths of digital spaces, but these models and the practices based on them haven’t all taken into account the impacts that such an environment may create.  For example, if the student is at home with a carer who has had to cease or curtail employment, the student’s demeanour may be affected in unfamiliar or unexpected ways which can then  impact on the learning that is planned, less money is coming into the household, less money is being spent in local businesses, tax revenue decreases and so forth…

None of this is to attack anything that schools are doing or trying to do, though we should never be afraid to ask questions. And while current circumstances are extreme, they do point to the fact that schooling is woven into our societies in complex ways that we tend to overlook.

If we examine these factors, and do so thoughtfully, we might be able to find the “white space” in schooling and consider how we want our schools to best serve our broader communities.  We might find ways to emphasise what many missions aim for – how to grow young people such that they are positive contributors to the overall health of the world.

And so as we use this opportunity to delve into what schools actually do I think it is important to identify possible choices for further action.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does provide some options that we might want to consider and prioritise. We should pursue practice so that students are: nourished and alert, literate linguistically and otherwise, academically critical, creative, active mentally and physically, emotionally aware, able to pursue areas of interest, prepared to act, and understanding of differences and the reasons for them. By the same token, when considering how to act on these priorities, we also need to consider the broader effects they may have as time progresses.

Of course this is not a model, but it is a set of ideals that can provide a framework for the schools that we have to help grow young people who won’t simply be another “Brick in the Wall”.

Don O’Brien – Abandoned Schoolhouse, Ohio, USA

With many thanks to Rivka for the timely and thoughtful feedback

Published by Athan Rodostianos

Educator, world traveller, dreamer. The world is there and open. Live it, love it, breathe it share your experiences, be kind, be good.

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