What is School? Look again

As educators, we all want to engage our students in learning. We also know that this can be challenging, and some of us wonder what we can do about it.

Sometimes I think we need an artist to show us what school is really like. Why do I say that? An artist often presents the familiar in a new way, allowing us to see something for the first time, as it were.



This is not a pipe – Magritte

When I think about traditional education, the type of education our children are still receiving, it seems to be artificial, contrived, divorced from life. Perhaps this is the reason young people are bored and disengaged at school, why their potential is not always realised. Am I being too negative?

Have a look at a short presentation with segments from the book  The underground history of American education by John Taylor Gatto where he talks about  education creating empty children without independent thought or individual identity. This would obviously apply to education outside of America. He suggests that we have lost the value found in earlier educational practices where people worked in the context of family work or apprenticeship.

Gatto lists the recipe for creating ’empty children’, for example, you should remove children from the business of work, grade according to age, keep them under surveillance all the time with no private space or time, fill time with collective experiences, grade children and make sure they know their rank, forbid useful knowledge, eg. how to repair a car , build a house, etc.

We could never go back to the time where practical education around family businesses prepared all young people for the world of work, but are we actually thinking about how our teaching is preparing students for the world, or even living and functioning in the world, or are we not thinking about that at all?

I would really appreciate some feedback and opinions here. Please comment.

8 thoughts on “What is School? Look again”

  1. This is a really great post Tania. I love the paragraph with the recipe for ’empty children’; (if you don’t mind I’d love to use it on my blog)!

    I agree with your idea of getting an artists perspective on education- we do need a different view…being part of the system can cloud our ability to ‘see’ the whole picture.

    But I am not discouraged. In my experience I keep coming across so many educators who are trying to make a difference, who see the challenges and are willing to speak up and start doing something about it. Only yesterday I read an article Will Richardson posted on twitter “Learning: Peering Backward and Looking Forward in the Digital Era” http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/ijlm.2009.0005

    It was a great article, & only one of many that pinpoint some of the issues…but also identify a way forward. Constantly I am reading about how educators around the world are making connections, using networks to work together & addressing the iissues collaboratively…. in much the same way that we are connecting here. The networks that have brought you and I together in this post are much more powerful than I think we often realise. Change will take place at the ground level, through groundswell instigated by individuals who are connected by a common drive to ‘do something about it’ and who educate eachother through constant discussion and enriching links/PD.

    I am optimistic about the future of education….we’ve got some incredible educators that we can tap into now…more than ever before to help us drive the revolution!

  2. Thanks for the encouraging and thoughtful feedback, Frances. I’m also positive about our way forward in education, Frances, looking at individual educators, as well as the powerful networks forming all over the world.

    Yes, of course you can reblog the ’empty children’ link.

    Thankyou also for your links to the article posted by Will.

    Looking forward to seeing you soon and having some deep conversation.

  3. I wish that I too could have a positive outlook on the future of our education. But I greatly worry about it and what it’s doing to my children today. I thought it funny that I found your post right after I just did my own post on education and what I see happening. Granted mine is lengthy and more of a rant. But it’s something I’ve become passionate and desperate about. I do however love to see how there are educators concerned as well and that does give me some hope. I found your post interesting and I happen to agree with a lot of it. The “empty children” comment definitely hit home with me as well.

    Perhaps, if you find some free time, perhaps you could see my blog and let me know if you think I’m way off base.

    I am happy to find your post and you. Thank you for caring and giving me some hope for our children’s future! I’m going to need it. Keep going!

  4. There are teachers who care and who think about how and why they teach. What do you worry about with regard to your children’s education? I also think that learning takes place all the time, outside school, within the family, outside of the family, etc.
    what is the url of your blog?
    thanks for your comment!

  5. Oops, got so wrapped up, not to mention tired, hehe, that I forgot to leave my link.


    There are many things I worry about and it would actually be a book if I put it all down. But I have had so many problems with the schools and my kids. I don’t have problem children. They don’t get in trouble other then a few minor things here and there. But to wrap it all up in just one result, I can tell you that because of all the things my oldest has been told by teachers, principals and counselors since his first day of school at the age of five, he has had a self-esteem problem. What they call “stupid” is actually “too smart”. He’s bored and ready to move on to the next subject. He likes to learn constantly and learns quickly. Once he learns something, he’s ready to learn something else. He’s a junior now and can you believe they still call him stupid. My youngest, now 3..well..if you read my blog it will explain. Perhaps you will have some ideas that will help me. I sure need them!!


  6. What a great, thoughtful post Tania. We are so steeped in tradition and ‘this is the way school is done’ that it is hard to generate change. Given what students can do in their leisure time now which actually does resemble the real world the gap between what is happening in school and what is happening in the world is increasing therefore what we are doing in schools in becoming less and less relevant to the real world.

  7. You’re right, Lisa, about relevance. Students don’t feel what they’re learning is relevant, they won’t connect to it. I actually think that teachers might feel this too but don’t want to think about it because they feel they don’t have a choice; it’s set in stone. But it isn’t. It can be done, but it has to be done collaboratively, and it’s hard work. Hard work that’s worth it.

  8. I’m not a teacher, but I am a writer. School nearly destroyed me, and I am haunted by the number of blogs I have found with great, creative writing – blogs by teenagers – that contain phrases such as “school is killing the creativity in me”. One excellent writer – better than I was at her age – wrote that her English teacher had destroyed her love for writing. It was one of her last posts.

    What is the systematic numbing of the most intelligent, creative minds going to do to society? What has it done already? Is this how we got into the mess we have now? Robert A. Heinlein complained about the poor education of the 1950s (and he was too good a futurist to easily discount). Yet I also recall reading some questions from the SAT test in 1964 – questions most college graduates wouldn’t be able to answer today.

    You are at least concerned, so I don’t mean to imply that you are in any way to blame, but the system is broken. Utterly and completely broken. It is hard for anyone in a profession to face that kind of truth (I know; for a time I was also a professional genealogist, and had to face many bitter truths about what you probably think of as a harmless pursuit). Hard or not, until we as a society face that truth, we will continue to destroy minds.

    Since you seem to care about these issues, I hope you can find some answer – but I know that the good, effective teachers that I had were all defeated by the system. One of the very best teachers came in one day and told us that, at the School Committee meeting the night before, he had finally had enough and he stood up and told them just what was wrong with the school system. He ended with “and before you can fire me, I quit.” I ran into him a year after I graduated, when he was working as a guard at a maximum security prison. He admitted to me he found that job easier – then hastened to clarify it wasn’t the students he’d hated working with, it was the administration.

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