On How We Think About School and Education

We’re coming at schooling and education from the wrong direction.

We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it shows as I’ve been sitting here researching the history of schooling and translating documents to better understand different educational experiments that came out of European anarchists. There are a lot of assumptions we’re all making, presuming that certain things should stay as they are while others are incrementally changed.

It’s everywhere. So I’d like to outline some of the things that I’ve noticed us getting really wrong, highlight reasons why those things might be problematic, and suggest possible pathways we should explore.

Seriously Rethink ‘School’ as a Concept
Whenever people discuss how to change or improve, there’s something that doesn’t seem to change: the fact that it’s still in a school. It’s still a space that is its own community, segregated from the society surrounding it; it’s still a place where we send children to “become educated.”

For a lot of kids (and even teachers), schools are buildings that are exclusionary and uncomfortable; they feel oppressive, and they were largely developed to be oppressive institutions that would indoctrinate people into the “correct” culture and into their “appropriate” purpose. They’ve never really been spaces of inclusion, genuine exploration and curiosity, or providing people with opportunity to improve.

I’ve written about this multiple times. I’m a disabled teacher who never receives any accommodations because administrators “don’t want to play favourites,” even when I specifically request them; I’ve had to fight for students’ rights to access services they needed, which can often be denied despite the amount of paperwork a person has. I’m a queer teacher who has had to constantly out myself to abusive bigots who were my colleagues just so I could help protect queer students from their abuse. I’ve been targeted with harassment  by my administrators for including resources from people who are part of marginalised communities in my curriculum for social sciences and literature, trying to portray a more accurate representation of the world around us.

I’m no stranger to the sorts of things that really make kids uncomfortable in schools because they happen to me, too. I’m also no stranger to them because I was one of the kids who hated going to school because I’d rather have been anywhere else.

And on top of all that, I knew that I could learn more outside of school than in it; I often did. And I still have students who tell me this. Kids who said they learned more about environmental science from getting interested in the Climate Strikes; kids who’ve realised they actually understood maths when taught in a practical manner but realised they just didn’t get it when someone forced them to memorise equations. I even have students who say they can’t learn at that time because they’re just so tired and that they learn better at night.

So with all of that in mind, throw away the concept of ‘a school’. What would you develop in its place?

My first inclination is to develop community centers that are built for everyone to use and are open all the time. In some places, these are spaces that we already have.

Before even getting to classes or workshops, they would have spaces where people can learn organically: gardens, greenhouses, libraries, playrooms, sports fields and recreational spaces. They would have spaces where people can access necessities such as food and healthcare; they’d have spaces for arts and music, and they’d have installations for art.

Perhaps they’d even have some kind of ‘internet café’-looking space that enables people to collaborate on projects, learn, or play games at different times.

There would be a range of classes that are taught by teachers, focusing mostly on basics of subjects; non-teachers would be encouraged to participate in the classes as guest speakers or creating small-scale demonstrations, helping to connect the subjects to reality and also create genuine community between the world and the ‘school’.

They’d have workshops taught by a range of experts, and these could provide so many topics. Off the top of my head, I wish I could’ve had more time in my formative years learning skills like cooking, sewing, and woodwork. One of the workshops I read about in researching the Prévost Orphanage was book-binding, and that could have been amazing to learn about.

And all the buildings would be accessible or have spaces that people need.

But the biggest part for me in changing the concept of ‘a school’ is that it needs to be part of the community. Children deserve to participate in their culture and in their society; there is no reason for them to be separated, hidden in a set of buildings until they “come of age” to participate.

Get Rid of the Subject Hierarchy
The subject hierarchy already creates a lot of problems. Currently, in schools, we spend more time focusing on STEM subjects because they’re the “most profitable,” and we push subjects when they have “more jobs” available. Though STEM is on top right now, these topics will change as we progress through life, especially as capitalism highlights the new “more important” subjects.

It’s already proven to be a problem in a lot of ways. It completely denigrates the interests people have, sometimes prohibiting people from practicing skills they’d otherwise want to improve (arts and music, for example) because they’re discouraged from engaging with them. There are a lot of people who assume they’re “not good” at things because they aren’t accessible; there are a bunch of people who aren’t happy in their lives because they were pushed away from things they love in order to pursue fields that “have more job opportunities.” There are numbers of people who did study in tech-focused fields and are unemployed, underemployed, or suffering through unnecessary crunch to finish an entirely unnecessary product “on-time.”

It’s also created whole fields of people who cannot understand the social implications of their field (see: every single capitalist tech dork), which has led to a lot of genuinely harmful technology being developed or technology being used to really hurt people (including students).

And, really, it positions education as a “means to access wealth,” essentially saying that we should be educating people to be workers. It’s removed the idea of learning something for the sake of learning it, for the sake of enjoying the process.

This is also tied in the way we discuss education; we conflate education with school all the time, even though they’re not the same thing. Education is a process of acquiring knowledge and learning; schools are places where a specific (often capitalist, colonialist, and imperialist) education happens. We really need to decouple these ideas.

The fix here is pretty obvious: We need to stop assuming one subject is more important than another and realise that they’re all connected and none of them are “the best.” They’re all necessary, they’re all useful, and it’s impossible to separate them.

But it’s also one of the hardest to fix because the easiest way to do this is to get rid of capitalism.

Reclaim Homeschooling from the Right
A lot of liberals and leftists tend to look down at homeschooling as being for “religious fanatics” and those who “don’t want their child indoctrinated in liberal ideology,” and it’s largely because that’s the narrative that a lot of people use when discussing homeschooling. In fact, the hyper-religious, conspiracy-minded, anti-vaccination families are the first people many think of when they hear the word “homeschooling.”

Interestingly, I’ve heard the same comments about homeschooling from other teachers, even as they complain about how the state-sanctioned (or IB-sanctioned) curriculum is bafflingly absurd and how the content is mostly pointless. There’s a belief that a lot of kids who were homeschooled entirely lack social skills, as if they can only be taught within the building; it fails to focus on the parents doing the homeschooling and what kinds of environments they’re creating for their children.

But homeschooling really is a useful tool that should highlight how people feel about public and state schools. Regardless of political affiliation, the first thought that many homeschooling parents seem to start with is questioning the government and what they’re doing. No one who pulls their child(ren) out of schools thinks the government is doing a good job of preparing their children for life.

Before the past few decades, homeschooling wasn’t seen as a tool of the religious right (and liberals didn’t write op-ed after op-ed about why homeschooling “wasn’t progressive,” explaining why we shouldn’t do it). There were families who pulled their kids from public education and taught in communes. They thought that the schools were indoctrinating their kids into ‘the establishment’. Among a lot of leftists, this was the big concern because they didn’t like the sexism or racism that existed in schools. There was a growing movement of people who saw that school was unnecessarily punishing their children and wanted to give them a healthy environment to grow up in.

It’s probably time that we take back homeschooling and start creating our own educational experiments, trying to counter what little we’re being offered collectively instead of handling it all individually.

But we should study past educational experiments to learn more about how they functioned and what went wrong: a lot of them suffered from opportunists, political infiltrators, and manufactured political scandals even though they were successful in their own right. Many of the former ‘anarchist’ experiments that remained became the tools of the rich, giving their kids access to alternative education while subjugating the masses into public education that’s largely designed to create cogs for a system.

Throw Away the Technocracy
Ever since public schools started existing, there has always been a huge push to either incorporate a new technology into the school or find a way for it to “replace teachers” (who, as we’ve heard forever, “aren’t doing their jobs correctly”). This applies to mail-order schooling, the radio, records, TV and VHS (later DVD), and every interaction of a computer with a software package you can think of.

Without fail, there is always something that can “replace teachers” or “makes school better.” It’s a huge grift, and we should recognise them as such when they’re foisted on us. We should look at them with a lot of suspicion and be extremely cautious of them.

This should be especially true because so many of the people who develop these technologies also don’t allow their kids to use them, opting to send their kids to no- or low-tech private schools while shoving their programs, apps, and devices down the throats of the masses. (Some send their kids to no-tech Waldorf Schools, with numbers of articles being written about how they severely limit screen-time for their own kids.)

Instead of viewing them as the “saviours” they try to pretend they are (Bill and Melinda Gates’ negative impacts on public education should highlight that they’re willing to harm or ruin public schools), we need to view them as additional tools. Yes, sometimes their products are helpful; no, they are not replacements for anything.

Technology is useful, but it needs to undergo the same process as most of society: it needs to be more democratic, more open, and much less monopolistic. It needs to be made with people in mind, and everyone who works on technology needs to add a minimum of one question to the design process: What harm could come from this?

The infrastructure should be a public good, and all technology should be made considering the rights and safety of all people.

We need to get rid of incremental updates to manufacture obsolescence of products and the compulsory inability of people to repair what they’ve bought (phones, computers, and so on).

Realise That Quantitative Metrics in Schools Are Meaningless
Along with the technocracy, quantitative measures have been one of the most harmful things for education and learning. There is no real way to quantify “how much maths” someone knows or to numerically compare the amount of science a child in Sweden knows versus one in China. Grades are entirely subjective, but we view them as if they have more meaning than anything. Testing has promised to tell us how much students have learned and how to help them, but they’ve done nothing but create environments full of anxiety for everyone involved.

Almost every single metric that we use is meaningless and incoherent. Every time I’ve had to learn a new curriculum, I’ve had to learn a new grading system. In the US, the traditional system is A to F (no E); in the IB, it’s a scale of 1-8 for each criteria, but 1-7 overall. When I was in Italy, it was a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst; in Slovakia, it’s 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst.

If we were to take all of those and use percentages, it’s still confusing. In the US, grades below 60% are usually considered failing (unless you’re taking an ‘advanced’ course, like Honors or AP), though it’s possible that this can depend upon the school you’re in. In Italy and Slovakia, the failing percentage can depend upon both the teacher and the department; in the same school, you could have really different breakdowns of what constitutes a passing or failing grade.

And none of them really match up to each other. What’s considered “significant knowledge” by one teacher might be “mediocre knowledge” by another, and some departments grade harder while others allow more space for error.

It’s a huge mess.

The fix I would suggest here is to just get rid of qualitative metrics and comparison; we should be focusing on quantitative metrics, which are actually useful to a person. These are the questions most of my students spend time asking me and are the ones that they learn the most from. What mistakes did I make? How can I fix them? What options do I have for improving? Can you go over this topic with me again?

These are also questions where the students are more able to express their knowledge and justify their opinions. Students are able to explain the decisions they made and why they made them; they’re able to point to parts of their work and ask for ways to improve it.

It gives them space to reflect on what they learned. And reflection is a huge part of the learning process that we’ve thrown out (even when the curriculum calls for it — the IB claims reflection is necessary, but every action they take runs counter to that belief).

We also need to stop comparing ourselves to others, especially on the global scale. Chasing after the highest PISA score in the world is leaving our institutions intellectually bereft, as we focus more and more on so few things that even matter to any of us.

Perhaps we should reflect on why we do that.