Are Schools Irrelevant?

I am in Washington, DC, at NECC09 (National Educational Computing Conference) to learn all I can about integrating technology into my teaching so that I can model that and teach it to my colleagues come September. I have already learned about a dozen or so new-to-me applications to try out during something called a ‘technology smack-down’ in the morning session of a pre-convention meeting of education bloggers. Fantastic.

In the afternoon I listened in on a session called “Where School Reform Meets Madonna:
Can public schools fundamentally reinvent themselves?” hosted by Jon Becker, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In this informal session about three dozen very smart and capable people discussed how schools might change their focus, their methodologies and, this being a technology convention, their technologies to, among other things, redefine what it means to be educated, reestablish a clear purpose for public education and create a better world for students, teachers and everyone else.

At some point it occurred to me that schools are increasingly irrelevant. Now I wonder if teachers are, too.

Schools are irrelevant because knowledge is now low hanging fruit. Everyone can reach almost all of it, most of it for free. Students not only don’t need schools in order to learn, in many, if not most, cases schools actually interfere with learning.

Schools are not working because they try to control what students will learn while, at the same time, overcrowding curricula so much that we lose sight of what essential learning really is. We increasingly have to coerce students to follow our agendas instead of their own regarding their learning, and we label them as failures when they don’t respond to our manipulations.

It is not essential that students learn about Mesopotamia. There’s nothing wrong with learning about Mesopotamia if the student is interested, and that is why teachers are not irrelevant even as school, the way most of us understand the concept, increasingly is.

Here’s the difference in a nutshell: teachers can introduce students to Mesopotamia and facilitate learning about it without grades, coercion, labels or high-stakes tests, but the structure of schools and the general understandings of what school is won’t allow it.

I think today’s session asked the wrong question. It should have been, ‘Public schooling, who’s going to pull the plug?’

No one.

I’m not sure what the purpose of education is, but the purpose of school is self-preservation and we do it very, very well.

More on this subject later.

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17 Responses to Are Schools Irrelevant?

  1. paul bogush says:

    Grrrr….then you are implying I am irrelevant? ;)

    According to my kids evaluations I am relevant.

    • Deven Black says:

      No, I’m not saying that. Teachers are relevant as guides, as inspirations, as models and more. Schools need teachers, but teachers need schools.

      I know you’ve read Gatto (one of my middle school teachers, by the way), now read Ivan Ilich’s Deschooling Society.

      BTW, you’re not alone; my 15-year-old son accepts my relevance only as an ATM.

  2. Steve Brown says:

    As someone not in the field of education, I disagree that schools are irrelevant, although some of the methods used to teach are. Schools have hung on to many 19th Century customs for no apparent reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done. I think public schools, have for the most part, not been successful in instilling in students the skills needed to tap into that knowledge that is “low hanging fruit.”

  3. Schools are irrelevant. Teaching isn’t irrelevant, but both private and public schools are. The institutions aren’t nearly as important as they used to be.

    I’ll be at NECC around 3pm. Look forward to meeting you.

    My Twitter account is andrewbwatt

  4. Fascinating read. Thanks.
    I do think that schools and teachers are pretty much irrelevant across the board.
    We teach politically correct, state approved, mediocre curricula designed for the average. We don’t engage those below and those above the average, we just force them into the same little box. By ‘We’, I mean teachers and the establishment.
    I do not think that the average teacher has anything to boast of. We don’t like being challenged by our students. If we can’t teach them anything relevant or new, let alone interesting, we just try to limit what they CAN learn in order to protect our turf.
    I have no patience for teachers and schools that cater for the mediocre because I very strongly believe that every child is a bearer of unique qualities and abilities that we (teachers and parents) are just too lazy and/or ignorant to bring to the surface. We take the easy way out and rely on an archaic system, which was designed to subdue its ‘victims’, in order to maintain our illusion or relevance.
    Harsh? Yes. Honest? I hope so.
    I’ve been enabling schools and related (dependent) organisations for about 20 years in the Middle East and Central Eastern Europe, and have very little patience left for people trying to ‘reform education”. This in my experience means a cosmetic make-over, or (at best) a revision in the methods of achieving the same aim: create generations who won’t challenge our establishment, who are molded into the structure we have built for them.
    Well, I think the gap has grown big enough now. Students go home to learn what they are interested in, and go to school to rest after a rollercoaster of learning on Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, you name it, things most of their teachers just heard of, and dismiss as fun and games, or a waste of time.
    You might say that in our schools we have IWBs, and computers and and and…. it’s not about what you’ve got but how you use it, and I am yet to be impressed. There are of course exceptions and fantastic things going on, things like NECC09, and Twitter where honest professionals with honest intentions get together and talk about what is most important.
    But when the reason why a US governor introduces electronic materials is not because it’s the future but because it’s cheaper. Honestly…. we are very far from relevance.
    Whether the establishment should be maintained at any cost or it can be redeemed, is to be seen but the more we challenge it from a professional perspective, the more likely it is that it regains some of its relevance, or rather re-constitutes and re-defines itself along more noble, lasting, and worthy values.

  5. proactive says:

    Thought provoking, and very relevant. One aspect that has not been considered in the debate so far is the social functions performed by schools as distinct from academic functions. Schools provide the very first social environment for children to step into, away from the safety of family cocoon. The child, apart from learning the alphabet and counting, learns to interact with peers. Learns that he /she is not actually the centre of the universe, as their parents’ behaviour may have led them to believe. Learn to adjust, give and take, and all the social skills that see them through the rest of their lives.
    Substitute this with a computer at home, and while the child may learn as much or maybe more in terms of academics, but will lose out on all the other soft skills.
    As it is one of my biggest concern as a parent of two pre-teens today is their extreme reluctance to break themselves away from the computer / television and go out to play. Their play and games are by and large restricted to the cyber world today, and they have to be forced to get out of the house with dire threats. In such a situation, are we turning them into recluses?

  6. Ira Socol says:

    I’m going to go with “irrelevant” with a caveat. Learning, of course, is not irrelevant, nor is the notion of a “learning space” – a place where trial and error on the path of learning is welcomed, where interests are nurtured, where new ideas are carried in and displayed – an irrelevant one. Of course our American schools have really never been such places.

    The notion of a school as a building with age-based cells that are used a specific number of hours a specific number of days for one-way learning is so ridiculous that it was irrelevant at the start – a religious attempt to impose Calvinist behavior on society, not an attempt at education at all. The reason people have been pursuing classrooms essentially without walls, from Montessori to Summerhill to Postman, is that our school design has always worked against human learning. The reason it has been retained is that this formula has always been a way for society to filter out those who might threaten the American caste system. By creating buildings where one only succeeds via compliance, society assures that education is purely socially reproductive.

    In order for schools to become educationally relevant they will need to be reconceived literally from the ground up, as will our notions of teaching, our notions of what learning means, and the entire way we think about school.

    Just a note: Proactive (above) says, “one of my biggest concern as a parent of two pre-teens today is their extreme reluctance to break themselves away from the computer / television and go out to play. Their play and games are by and large restricted to the cyber world today, and they have to be forced to get out of the house with dire threats. In such a situation, are we turning them into recluses?” BUT-this is actually exactly the training school creates – focusing on one thing passively for long periods of time indoors. At least in video games kids get to truly impact the course of the action. And remember, before video games and computers, the “bookworm” – the kid who loved being in school, was derided for exactly the same behaviors as kids are now.

    • proactive says:

      Ira, my point is about collective vs individual activity. While all aspects about the archaic nature of school systems discussed above are true, we can not deny that they serve purposes other than academic. It is this opportunity they provide to children, to mingle with others of their own age, as also to experience authority, rules, structure – these can not be replaced by one on one online / cyber education.

      Therefore, a via media needs to be evolved, wherein the academic aspects are vitalised as suggested, but within some sort of a schooling structure where the societal aspects remain by and large unchanged.

      • Ira Socol says:

        I am not disagreeing, just noting that our schools have “always” made these purposes unimportant, and now, more than ever.

        Of course, even at their best schools since the adoption of age-based grades (“the Prussian system”), have worked against the natural rhythm of childhood learning. Because, no, students should not just “mingle with others of their own age”- they really ought to mingle with a variety of ages, as kids naturally did in the days before insane parental fears and exurbs, so that they are mentored by those above them and mentor those below them, so that they can move ahead as they are able and be helped as they need.

        Those patterns of socialization are actually much more common on-line than they are in most middle class communities today. In the past large, extended families and urban street play gave kids these opportunities as schools blocked them. Now the computer and games are the only opprtunities kids have.

  7. MissShuganah says:

    Dr. Watson was shocked to find out that Sherlock Holmes didn’t know the world was round. He had known it once, but it wasn’t relevant to his world.

    When I taught Freshman Comp, I was told that only English majors needed to study English. The student who told me this already had his job at Sears lined up. Other students only took the one semester of Technical Writing because their jobs didn’t require Freshman Comp.

    Why not teach to the individuals? Yes, I am talking college level, but why not also apply that to lower levels? Maybe then we’d have at least some more well rounded students. Maybe students would elect to take English classes if we removed the “have to” aspect, and it would be much more enjoyable to teach.

  8. Very thought provoking post and the comments. Then again, you can always count on Ira Socol to make you think. Have fun at NECC. I am too tired to comment more now, but I am thinking….

  9. Annette Couch says:

    I understand what you are trying to say. I don’t believe that schools are irrelevant. The system just needs to be remodeled. We are told what we are to teach, when we are to teach it and how much time we have to teach it in(which usually isn’t a lot in order to fit it all in!). With education being so structured there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the schedule to allow our students to break out of the box, be more creative and explore more of the topics they are truly interested in and want to know more about.

  10. [...] “Are Schools Irrelevant?” by Deven Black he poses this very question. This is something that I have been pondering over all summer. I have [...]

  11. hrmason says:

    I am late to this discussion, but still felt provoked to comment. While I agree in passion or interest based learning, I don’t like the idea that we shoulds let students’ interests govern curriculum. If I did that, grammar would no longer be taught anymore. After all, texting and email doesn’t alwyas require it and few kids (let alone teachers) are interested in it. However, grammar is still important. There are times where being able to write a grammtically correct sentence is important and knowing good grammar helps students write more advanced constructions. When using better sentences they sound smarter and are better able to project themselves positively to potential employers or investors. This can not be put off until 11th or 12th grade when writing a college application essay suddenly makes grammar “important” to them. I am relevant because I can make curruculum that to them seems irrelevant, relevant.

    The other thing about the irrelevancy of schools that bothers me is the idea that if we provide other avenues for students to gain an education, then students will be better off. They can better craft a meaningful path to knowledge on thier own than they can in a classroom governed by the state. However, these avenues already exist – homeschooling and online schooling are already active. Many students who take advanctage of these are not the special eduation student or the advanced student, both of which it is said cannot get an adequate education in schools (an issue I won’t discuss now). Instead, often these are the kids who just don’t like school and whose parents don’t like school. Many kids who are pulled out for homeschool, come back even farther behind than they left.

    I agree with you in some respects, but I don’t think it is schools irrelelvancy that is at issue. Schools are even more relevant today than ever.

  12. Deven Black says:

    I will repeat what is becoming my mantra: schools need teachers, teachers do not need schools.

    Let me reply to your comments in reverse order.

    I am not advocating the end of teaching, just a vast reformulation of our concept of school.

    Even with the years of mandatory schooling as we know it today, most children learn far more out of school than they do in it, Also, learning outside of school is far more essential for their survival and growth than what they retain in a classroom. School teaches facts, processes are learned elsewhere.

    Students learning outside of traditional schools still need guides, mentors and instructors. In fact, teachers, professional or not, become more important than ever.

    I know this well; I dropped out of high school twice and college once, but I never stopped learning. I am no autodidact, I had what has come to be known as a PLN (in this case a Personal Learning Network) long before that acronym entered the lexicon.

    Various adults, some of them professional teachers but most not, some who I knew for a long time and others just intersecting with me for very brief periods, were my guides, mentors and interlocutors, as were a group of similarly politically active teens just a couple of years older than I.

    Now I learn from my new PLN, the professional learning network I have developed among my colleagues locally and, via Twitter, around the world. I think of you as part of that group.

    There probably are many students who need the structure of school to facilitate their learning, but there are millions who would benefit from having far more teachers and access to far more topics than any school could provide.

    Now to your initial comment.

    If I understand correctly, you believe that usage grammar needs to be explicitly taught and that schools are required as places to do so. I disagree. Grammar is created individually, honed and burnished in the trial and error process of helping others to understand what one hopes they will.

    Knowing that something is called an intransitive verb and being able to identify it in the wild is not grammar, it is the making of a pedant.

    • hrmason says:

      As far as the details of grammer (ie. intrasitive verb, etc.), I agree and have been very vocal about this within my own district. But knowing how to craft a good sentence or paragraph is as much about stucture and grammar as it is about ideas. Schools are places where I can provide opportunities for students to learn and practice these skills,usually within their own writing, not for drilling them on the details. While you may have been exposed to these opportunites outside school in your experience, many students are not. I teach many whose only support network is within the school and outside school they are on their own.

      My point was that good teachers and good schools are bringing the outside world into the school. In your original post I thought I detected a tone of defeatism about schools, that they are too far gone. Maybe it’s only becuase I read your previous two posts immediately prior to reading this one. I am (or I try to be) one of those incurable optimists about schools, and trust me, many people try to cure me of it. Change never comes easy or swiftly, but I think it is coming. Thanks for the email. It is nice to know someone is actually reading what I write.

  13. hrmason
    “Schools are places where I can provide opportunities for students to learn and practice these skills,usually within their own writing…. I teach many whose only support network is within the school and outside school they are on their own.”

    This has been my experience too. Sad to say, many of the students I teach are on their own. School is their only support.

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