The experience of school

    “Children learn what they live.”  – John Taylor Gatto

    Critics of modern schooling like John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich have recognized that the fundamental curriculum that schools teach us is school itself.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since moving to South Africa, where school reform has become a nation-wide calling.

    The initiatives that feel most promising to me are the ones that are digging under the layers a bit- looking at ways of transforming the experience of schooling, not only the observable structures and pedagogy that are generally associated with academic achievement.

    We intuitively know, and 20 years of education research has confirmed, that the best way to learn something is to experience it. Since most subjects are still taught using passive ‘chalk-and-talk’ teaching methods, it is reasonable to conclude that, in the long haul, students learn more in school about organizational life- since they learn that experientially- than about the actual subject matters they are being taught.

    It is easy to forget that although schools are explicitly designed to teach us things like reading, math, and science, they are also implicitly teaching us powerful lessons about how to collectively organize ourselves as human beings.

    They inherently teach us to organize ourselves hierarchically rather than democratically, to compete rather than collaborate, to listen to authority over intuition and calling, and to be subjects rather than active citizens. They teach us experientially that intergenerational contact has little value, that we are not expected to make a meaningful contribution to our community, and that we are receivers rather than creators of knowledge.

    School is often our first contact with formal organizational life, which means we absorb these lessons before we even know how to make sense of them. And the fact that we inhabit school almost every day of our young lives ensures that the patterns of relating, thinking and doing that it expresses becomes deeply embedded in how we navigate the world into adulthood.

    Given how much of what happens in our world today is driven by organizations, it seems that the organizational lessons we absorb through schooling have a massive ripple effect on society. They influence how we run our government, our civil society, our social movements, our arts and culture, our economy, and (in full circle) our education system.

    We desperately need examples of healthy, life-giving ways of organizing and governing ourselves. What better organization to be that example than school, which touches all of our lives so deeply.

    What if schools strived to become living expressions of the kinds of organizations and communities we would like to see permeate society? 

    May 12th, 2013 | Tana Paddock | 6 Comments

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6 Responses and Counting...

  • Erin 05.12.2013

    Agreed! Thank you for writing this.

    For me, the biggest frustration with the way our schools are structured is that they teach us to ‘learn for the exam’ rather than to take joy in learning for its own sake and to push the boundaries of our understanding – as you say, making us receivers rather than creators of knowledge. Our education system also kills any sense of interdisciplinary study, splitting our knowledge into disparate blocks as if there were absolutely no relationship between, for example, the sciences and the arts.

    I would love to see examples that people have of educational institutions that are re-imagining what learning can look like… I feel there is so much potential for positive change in this space!

  • What if? Well then we’d have a completely different society, and, as far as I can see, none of our mainstay institutions are (as yet) interested in that prospect : )

    In fact, too few of our organizations at large seem terribly interested in transformational practice, including social change groups like NGOs and unions, in my experience.

    The good news here is that this leaves the field wide open for practitioners to create and model alternatives that serious change agents won’t be able to ignore.

    The kinds of questions you raise viz. schooling has led us to unschool our daughter for the past six years…and now we’re super excited that this fall she’ll be starting at a self directed learning centre for teens in Ottawa called Compass.

    The hunger is there, the need is there. Thanks for this post and keep up the great work!

  • Thank you, David, for sharing your experiences and the link to Compass. I’m going to share it with my network back in Montreal, as well as with the folks at Bridge- a network in South Africa focused on innovation in education. Have you heard of Swaraj University?…It’s focusing on young adults, but with a similar mission:

  • Inspiring! Thanks for sharing that – something to ponder as our kid grows up… cheers, David

  • I find myself coming back to this again and again…

    I think a very good next step for you and for Zenith Cleaners as we work with schools is to shine the light on schools that are being the change we all seek in the world, where by immersive experience, collaboration is learned, true learning occurs and everyone including the janitor and the administrator is a teacher and a student.

    Shining the light on them encourages all of us involved in social change, shifts support to those courageous institutions who are creating a better future now and helps everyone to see that these ideals are not only possible, they are happening.

    I firmly believe we can move from social fiction to social reality as easily as we keep moving from science fiction to technological reality.

  • “I firmly believe we can move from social fiction to social reality as easily as we keep moving from science fiction to technological reality.” Love this!

    Completely agree with you Tolu about illuminating examples of schools that are doing this already. And to go one step further, we are keen to share the daily practices that have led them to where they are today.

    I’d suggest you get in touch with Megan Webster to connect you to the folks at St. Georges School in Montreal. We were hoping to dig into their experience more but moved continents before we got a chance. Warren wrote a post about our conversation with Megan:

    And here are some posts that you might not have read that dive into school experiences:

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