Schools play a big part of our lives. Not only do they shape our development as children, but they continue to impact us when—as adults—we have children of our own. We choose our homes to be near good schools; we struggle to pay for good schools; and we struggle when our children are challenged by homework or bullies or academic failure.
But most of us accept the current state of schools as a “given” and accept these enormous impacts on our home lives. We shouldn’t.
Schools are pipelines to the future
Schools are institutions with a very difficult task: they have to prepare the next generation to live in the future. Yet most schools operate in the past. Many primary and secondary schools of today are little changed from their counterparts 50 years ago, so instead of preparing children for the future, they’re not even preparing them for the present.
As part of a large American research project about the future of schools, George Copa undertook a ground-up redesign of the high school. He asked teachers, parents and employers what they want of high school graduates, what educational processes were needed to produce such graduates, and finally, what kind of institution could support such processes. The resulting new educational designs were prototyped in practice; one was the Zoo School in Minnesota.
A rendering and photograph of students’ workstations, or cubicles.
The results were radical, and wonderful.
School size was limited to 400—the largest size where everyone could still know each other. When students first enrolled, they were assigned to a team of four: just like in the workplace, where we work in teams. Again, just like in the workplace, they had no choice of team-mates.
They work on real-world problems (drawn from an adjoining zoo—hence the name) to which no-one knows the answers, and are graded by presentations to juries of their peers. The school is built around a forum where students gather to debate and vote on issues affecting them. All this models the real world of workplace and politics.
But such schools are rare. Why?
Schools are inherently backwards looking
Schools are part of a wider educational system that is very difficult to change:
- School change requires political change
- Politicians respond to voters
- Voters’ knowledge of education comes from their own education…
- …which was decades ago, so they tend to be backwards looking
In addition, changing education is high risk for both parents (voters) and politicians. Imagine the backlash if a change goes wrong.
As a result, contemporary high schools in many countries are unchanged from the school of 100 years ago, with the exception of a computer lab and some new gadgetry.
Schools have a hidden curriculum
We all know the curriculum: science, mathematics, social studies, languages… but educators also teach a more subtle, hidden curriculum based on assumptions, which isn’t in the books. In a typical school, in many countries, this is what a child experiences:
- Go to a specific place every day
- Be on time
- Do what the boss tells you
- Work alone at your workstation
- Work on a standardized task to which someone else knows the answer
- Get graded according to how your work conforms to the known answer
- Don’t object or criticize
This is the life of a 19th-century factory worker. That’s no accident, because the modern school system was invented to educate the children of the industrial revolution’s immigrants and rural migrants to be a workforce for new factories.
However, the revolution has moved on. In the current economy, we need people who can innovate, work in teams, be self-directing, and solve problems that have never been solved before. But this hidden curriculum—precisely because it’s unexamined in the background—powerfully trains children to do the opposite.
Wrongs can be righted
Norway recently shifted all of its high schools’ start time from 8am to 10am. This has significant impacts for habits at home, commuting parents and employers, so why did they bother?
Neuroscientists realized some time ago that the teenage brain doesn’t wake up fully until 10am, so for decades the first two hours of every high school day has been wasted.
So all these years of schools’ institutional intertia have led to terrible waste, despite the experience of millions of parents dragging teenagers out of deep slumber to get to school; some must felt that something was wrong. But now that Norway has led the way, it’s started a conversation that is going around the globe.
So remember this:
Public schools did not exist forever: they did not come out of the forehead of a Greek or Roman god, they were contrived by ordinary men and women and for just this reason they can be rebuilt or reconceived, dismantled, or replaced not by another set of gods but by plain men and women. You and I leave school as it is, can change it slightly or turn it inside out and upside down. —Jonathan Kozol, On Being a Teacher