A New School For A New Generation of Learners
Rethinking a system designed by an agricultural society, implemented by an industrial society, and being used to educate a technological society.
Part II: What is the purpose of school?
In the last installment, I noted a curious fact. Each state determines for itself when its students must start and when they are legally allowed to stop attending school. The federal government has no say in that matter. And yet, in those 46 states that have adopted the Common Core standards, minus the eight that have since withdrawn from them (Academic Benchmarks: Common Core State Standards Adoption Map), the federal government dictates what those students should be learning. And after reviewing the math standards for algebra and geometry and comparing them to those for grades 6-8, I posed the question of whether we are teaching the most critical skills for college and career readiness before students reach high school. And if we are, then when they reach high school are students being asked to learn skills that, at least for many, have little or no bearing on their futures?
I recently conducted a very non-scientific opinion poll on social media. By no means were these responses from a representative or random sample. And yet, the variety of responses was fascinating. Most respondents were young parents, whose children had either already started on their journey through the K-12 school system, or were about to. Some were grandparents and spoke with three generations of perspective (theirs, their children's and now their grandchildren's.)
I posed a simple, yet apparently loaded question: what is the purpose of school? I tried to make it clear that I wasn't asking from a cynical or fatalistic perspective. I wasn't throwing my hands in the air existentially, claiming that life has no meaning and that all is futile. Instead, I really wanted to know whether, in light of whatever they deemed the purpose of school to be, the traditional model of school that generation after generation had experienced - students arrive at a building, gather in rooms in some sort of homogeneous manner, listen to a teacher teach, practice on that teaching, then test on that teaching - was the best, or even the only model that could possibly accomplish that purpose?
The responses, fifty in total, surprised me. I broke them into three broad categories:
- to develop soft skills - skills that are associated with personal growth and a vision of how those skills might be applied to one's future life;
- to develop hard skills - content knowledge which can (and is) easily tested;
- to develop social skills - learning how to relate, interact, and function with others in society.
I didn't expect the result to be this one-sided. To think that upon reflection on their own school experiences, and in concert with the professional life they had chosen upon its completion, so many would say that the main purpose of school is to build and develop skills that are rarely found in a course syllabus, tested even less often, and generally considered by-products of the 'real' work of schools - that is, the delivery, reception and retention of content.
As I sifted through the responses, a further delineation emerged. Among the responses that favored 'soft' skills, there were two main camps. The first focused on skills an individual would use to better interact with the adult world. Skills such as preparing for life situations, increasing personal productivity, learning to do the daily work of life, and even making a difference in the lives of others (which some might argue would also fall into the category of social skills.) Forty percent of the soft skills responses fell into this category. That means the other sixty percent fell into the second category.
This group included skills that were more internally focused, skills that would lead to betterment as a person, independent of the job or life situation one might find oneself in. Examples included igniting personal passions, learning how to fail without having heavy consequences for that failure, finding out what motivates you, and learning how to find the information you need to solve a problem.
I don't think most people would argue that these are unimportant skills. And yet, in general they seem to be byproducts of education, not its main focus. As an experienced educator with more than two decades spent in the classroom working with teenagers, I'm not sure what to make of this. On one hand, we have the Common Core Initiative telling us that the overwhelming majority of what high school math students need to learn is content-based.
On the other hand, the very students served by our school system, many of whom are now raising their own children and sending them into that same system, are telling me that what's really important in school are the non-content pieces - developing the personal skills and attributes that lead to being a productive citizen regardless of the depth of one's content knowledge.
After many years teaching high school mathematics in a traditional school building, I have stepped away from that setting, now for the second time. I currently teach for an online school, serving students across the United States, all of whom bring a unique story of how they came to enroll in an online course or fully attend an online school. I can't help but wonder if part of my story is this dichotomy illustrated above. How many students have I tried to force-feed algebra, perhaps in the same metaphorical way that ducks are force-fed in order to produce foie gras? And for how many of them did I take the time to understand that what they really wanted and needed was not more formulas and theorems, no matter how engaging I was in front of the room? Not more functions, more graphs, more proofs, or more complex equations.
Perhaps all they needed was someone to teach them the soft skills their predecessors identified as being the real purpose of school. And yes, along the way, surely they picked some of them up regardless. Undoubtedly, several learned how to fail and bounce back. But as I think back on some of the most challenging students, students who had no interest in learning how to factor quadratic polynomials, to prove two triangles congruent, or to find the sine of an angle, I now see many of them crying out for someone to teach them what they really needed - skills that would lead them to a better life than they thought they deserved.
But I couldn't. I had to teach every student the same material. The college-bound future engineer who sat next to the student whose only dream in life was to hold a high school diploma. The future biologist who passed papers to the student who was working two jobs after school, and could barely stay awake in my class. I taught them all the same content, and I assessed them in the same manner on that same material. Truly, the skills I taught in math class were compulsory, designed so that everyone could be evaluated fairly and equitably.
But is this equity? I submit that it is not. Further, I want to propose a radical new approach to education that allows students to learn the right skills at the right time, for the right reasons, and with the right group of peers. To me, that, more than common standards, common assessments, and common instructional strategies, represents true educational equity.