Tuesday, April 24, 2012

That's Inappropriate! Schooling vs. Learning

I am currently reading John Goodlad's (1984) A Place Called School. I love books that examine the role of school in culture and especially those that take a critical view. If you read this blog you will notice that a running theme for a few years now has been "the purpose of school." One of the reasons this question of the purpose of school is so important, as Goodlad points out, is that its purpose is shifting due to changes in other educational institutions in our society.  Two hundred years ago the chief educational institutions were the church and the family.  Schools were marginal institutions. Since both institutions have eroded over the past 70 years the school has had to take up more and more of the educative roles that the family and the church once held. When Goodlad wrote this book he also mentioned media as an emerging influence on a child's education.  At that time he was speaking chiefly of television and movies. Today this issue is more important because of the growing educative role the computer and more specifically, the Internet, is playing in young people's lives.
Many other authors I have reviewed since the start of Twitter Book Club nearly two years ago (my gosh, has it really been that long?) have discussed the great variety of purposes schools serve. These author's lists of purposes always vary but one purpose always remains:  the custodial function. Goodlad begins A Place Called School with a question he ends with in his earlier book What Schools Are For. He asks, if society suddenly were to find itself without its schools, would it find it necessary to invent them? He believes so and cites the custodial function as one reason for this answer.  However, he believes that if we reinvented schools today the schools we need would look very different from the ones we currently have.

Now, I have long felt that the custodial function will eventually be school's primarily purpose and that the majority of our education will eventually be done by other things and institutions in our lives.  The power and attractiveness of self-organizing learning environments (SOLES), personal learning networks (PLNs), and other forms of self-driven education will one day outpace the ability of school curriculum and teacher-guided instruction. I now feel confident that that time has already come and past but in most of our schools it has done so without our knowing it.

Most schools continue to teach as if media and the internet didn't have such an impact on children's' learning. When they are integrated in the classroom they are usually used to serve the learning objectives set for students by someone else. The real power of these tools is in their ability enhance our own personal learning, not in their ability to personalize learning for others. And, despite every effort made by the system (which both Neil Postman and Seymour Papert do a good job of pointing out is a self-protecting system) to assimilate these tools to serve its own purposes the liberating power of these tools is winning out. We as educators have a choice to make: do we fight it or do we help it to grow?

There are many ways the school system protects itself from tools of educational liberation and each method is tied closely to a changing purpose.  For many years now one of the most important purposes schools served was curator and gatekeeper of knowledge and information. People went to school to acquire these things. This was a powerful force in our society when information was scarce.  The power to determine what people learned and consequently what made up the publicly shared culture belonged largely to the school. With the liberation of information and the infinitely greater opportunity to learn on our own and connect with people online who can help us this purpose is no longer serving us.  The irrelevancy of the school with regard to curriculum and determining what is important to learn can be seen in nearly any school but most prominently in schools with a strict common core curriculum.  In many of these schools the daily curriculum is so regimented that there is no room for adjustments to include important and relevant current events be they global or local.

This can also be seen in artificial walls schools put up between what is and is not "school appropriate." Consider what has happened with social media in the past six years.  Almost as soon as it emerged most schools considered it not to be "school appropriate." Now today social media tools are helping people to topple dictators, lead revolutions, and report information that would not otherwise come to light. It may not be "school appropriate" to talk about Facebook in school but it is foolhardy to say that we are presenting a relevant curriculum if we present one with its absence.

The blocking of social media websites and the banning of personal devices such as cell phones or iPods also is a self-protection mechanism. This self-protective mechanism tries to preserve the purpose our schools served to maintain a hierarchy. Social media tools and personal learning devices give agency to the learner. The old education system relied on the agency lying with those higher up the hierarchy; first with the teacher, then building administration, then government policymaker. If we reverse that hierarchy the purpose goes away.  But, students are learning on Facebook. Whenever polled a significant number of students report that they use social networking tools to help with their education. When we as an institution pretend such tools don't exist we are made to look foolish before our students in just the same way the church looked foolish during the enlightenment when it was too stubborn to accept science as anything but heresy.

The standardized test and data-driven decision making culture is another self-protective measure. It sets up a false argument that can be used in its defense. These high-stakes tests are given to highlight strengths and weaknesses.  If a school tests poorly in reading you better bet they will be devoting more resources to reading next year.  Likewise if their math scores are down.  But, to increase resources in one area means cutting in another. If indeed the chief educative force in a child's life is no longer the school this is a moot point but this data-driven culture still lives under the presumption that the schools our children attend are the primary entities responsible for their education. The result is that by diverting resources away from the things our kids want to learn about and mandating dry and dull curricular experiences students will look more toward other sources in their environment to occupy their minds and feed their education.

In the process of trying to defend its place in society our school systems have become more irrelevant and less educative. As a result, there is the world which is a great, expansive, and wondrous place and then there is the "school appropriate" world determined largely by what can and cannot be measured objectively or reduced to a RIT score. A "school appropriate" world where educators fool themselves into believing that learning can be directed and where tools and devices that help students learn for their own purposes are banned. A "school appropriate" world where computer and Internet technology capable of unleashing unlimited creative and constructive personal learning is instead sequestered into computer labs and put to use as a testing and test-prep center. A "school appropriate" world that eventually looks nothing like the real world but where attendance is compulsory.  A "school appropriate" world where students are compelled to be exposed to the harm it does.

In the meantime, students are learning. The are learning on their own and learning for their own purposes. They have been for quite some time. They were forced to when we made them digital orphans by erecting this artificial barrier between the "real" world and the "school appropriate" world. School might not value what they are learning but they are learning an incredible amount about things that cannot be measured by RIT.  They are learning things that cannot be seen in the data but are obvious if you ever talk to an actual child. The only people who need data are those who don't see the children.  The rest of us can see just fine. So, educators have a choice. In the presence of this false reality that has been erected learning has gone underground. Do we choose to acknowledge it or do we continue to discard it as "inappropriate for school." We are going to need schools at least as places that serve the custodial function. How are we going to choose to spend that time with the kids?