Are Children Really Starved for School?

I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard from parents or other teachers, in speeches by politicians, or on some news media regardless of whether it’s more ‘independent’ or more ‘mainstream’ that children are starved for school. It feels like almost everyone is in agreement with this idea and that it’s something that’s completely true just by the nature of it having been said a number of times.

But my observations of and conversations with students have led me to an entirely different conclusion: They’re starved for society, they’re starved for access to people (adults and other children alike), and they’re hungry for more collaborative learning opportunities.

And most of these do not require a school.

Most adults seem to conflate the socialisation of children with going to school. This is probably because it’s one of the only institutions that is intentionally made for children (even if it doesn’t always seem like it), and it’s one of the few places where they can find some freedom (even though school can have seriously rigid curriculums and terribly inflexible rules). It’s a space that is (supposedly) meant for them.

Plus, as adults, many of us have been indoctrinated into how important school is. I know I was.

This conflation has been going on for ages. Despite the fact that most children were initially educated in the home and a lot of learning and education took place almost anywhere, we’ve managed to change our minds in only a few generations and assume that the socialisation of children can only happen in schools.

Why do we assume that children can only socialise in places that bombard them with tests? 

This is something that I’ve noticed with regards to families who choose to homeschool their children. Simply googling the phrase “homeschooling socialisation” brings up a number of papers and articles that elaborate all the ways in which it’s antisocial and stifles children’s social skills, harming them for life and causing irreparable damage to their ability to socialise. All of this is despite the fact that there is no evidence backing up this claim, and the evidence that does exist starts from the most biased of places: the very researchers making that claim and searching for anything that supports it.

It’s interesting because if you talk to parents who homeschool, many of them put in a lot of work to ensure that their children’s needs are being met both socially and educationally. Most of those parents consciously try to enrol their children into programs that allow them to socialise with other children, that give them the opportunity to participate in the community; they consciously build schedules that enable them to work with other kids who homeschool or to interact with children at public parks and playgrounds.

Much of this research rarely, if ever, pays attention to everything that the families who actively engage in the educational process, those who have gone out of their way to learn something alongside their child or have found someone else who could. Many of the people doing this research never really look at all the ways that parents and their children interact with the educational process; they rarely look at how complex learning can be and how varied it needs to be to engage everyone, instead backing up the assumption that all children must attend the state-sanctioned system because they won’t learn the appropriate ways to socialise.

They won’t learn the obedience that the state requires to continue. They won’t learn their place in the world.

Oh, and just to note, much of the research rarely ever makes a distinction between families who remove their students because they believe the state has failed them and has created an unsafe environment for their children (such as the parents of queer or disabled children) and the parents who remove their kids because they’re angry about school claiming support for queer children and how that impacts on their so-called “religious freedoms.”

But this conversation about the socialisation of children has continued into quarantine, and it’s found a new target: Online school.

There have been a lot of issues with moving schools online. Namely, the biggest issue was the speed at which most schools required it be done by their teachers due to sudden closures in most places. Since nearly every school on the planet hadn’t made any such plans to accommodate students who couldn’t attend in person before the pandemic (such as disabled or chronically ill students), they were woefully ill-prepared to shift to the online environment. This was an active choice that was made by the people in control of this system; they consciously decided to exclude people to their own detriment.

Plus, many teachers simply didn’t have the training or the tools, especially because they were never prepared for the possibility of having to teach at home (and rightfully so, since they assumed their work was in the classroom). Teachers and students alike may not have had reliable access to the internet; some of my own friends in rural parts of the United States were running through their data plans because they didn’t have stable access to the internet (and their employer refused to reimburse them for any charges they incurred in order to do their job). A lot of families had shared devices (if they had one at all) that the whole family used, and schools refused to take this into consideration; this impacted both teachers and students.

The way it was implemented was a total mess, and it showed us a lot of the pitfalls of our current school systems. Namely, it showed us how ill-prepared they all were to educate anyone because the people running them actively refuse to listen to anyone who had been fighting to improve accessibility, attendance policies, and every other aspect of the school before the pandemic happened.

Plus, some teachers and professors have gone seriously overboard in trying to control students at home in the same way they did in the classroom, which should’ve been sparking a lot of questions. Why are children required to spend six hours on the computer in some places, as if synchronous learning is the only option? Is there a reason for giving students homework and expecting the parents to drop everything and create a home-school environment according to a curriculum they had no choice in? And why is it that a teacher would think it’s fine, for example, to call the police on a 12-year old Black boy for playing with a Nerf gun in his own home?

It’s completely possible to talk about all the problems encountered without completely throwing away online learning and implying that students must be inside of a school building in order for them to learn or “get an education,” but we need to address these problems for what they actually are: These are problems that were created by unjust systems that have created inequality which have been negatively impacting families for years; they are issues that are being caused by trying to enforce irrelevant rules that are designed to control people and teach them obedience within their own homes.

Exactly none of these so-called “problems” need to be happening, but they persist because people who want power refuse to imagine what things could look like.

We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years as we’ve slowly reformed a system that is no longer, if it ever truly was, functional for most people. We’ve had so long to take note of everything wrong with the system and of all the things we could get rid of or change, but we’ve collectively refused to engage with them.

We could be offering a range of educational opportunities to everyone; we could be allowing them to engage with education outside of school and in contexts where they can apply what they’ve learned. We could be making everything far more accessible to all students, and we could stop pretending that grades have any actual meaning. We could allow students of all ages to work together; we could enable more asynchronous learning, even in offline environments.

We could be taking some time to experiment and some time to dismantle the schools we’ve built in favour of something healthier than what we’ve built before.

Perhaps, as some curriculums tell students, we could be doing more critical and creative thinking.