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The Industrial, Modernist Schooling Paradigm is the Disease; The Cure is to Evolve ‘Beyond School’

By David Marshak

All of the conventional critiques of conventional schooling proffered by political leaders in the US and Canada miss the central problem with school.

School as a social form embodies an industrial, modernist paradigm of culture. The conventional schools that we have today were created during the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century and were intentionally structured according to the following eight concepts:

  • Knowledge exists outside of the human mind. The purpose of schooling is to move that knowledge from outside of the mind into the mind’s long-term memory.
  • Everyone learns (or should learn) in the same way.
  • All children who are the same chronological age should have the same level of cognitive development. If they don’t, they are deficient.

Each of these concepts is a pre-scientific description of human nature, dating from the 19th century. Considerable research in cognitive psychology has demonstrated that children come to school with significant knowledge bases and that learning involves the interaction between what the child already knows and any new information. Equally significant research in cognitive and developmental psychology has demonstrated both that human beings learn in many different ways and that children develop any particular capacity at very different and personal rates.

  • The teacher has knowledge, which she/he must impart to the child. The child comes to school ignorant.
  • Learning takes place in the classroom, not in the world.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 8.08.22 AMBoth of these elements in the industrial school paradigm, which did have some significant validity early in the 20th century, are antiquated and no longer valid. In 1920 it was still true that children came to school with very little knowledge of the world other than what they had learned in daily life in the family. However, in today’s world of electronic media, children learn from many forms of media both at pre-school and school ages. Children also learn as much or more outside the classroom as they do inside.

  • There are smart kids and dumb kids, and kids who are smart are those who most quickly learn to manipulate the symbols of literacy and numeracy.

This is another pre-scientific bias. There are many kinds of human intelligence, and the conventional industrial school privileges one kind and ignores and stigmatizes others. Also, the speed of a child’s development of any particular form of intelligence in no way reflects that child’s capacity for intelligence and competence as an adult, or even as an adolescent.

  • Knowledge is organized into categories called subjects, and these subjects are the best vehicles for organizing knowledge of the world.

Our subject categories are historical artifacts both from medieval society and from 19th century academia. In the lives we live, almost all phenomena and almost all problems, challenges, and tasks involve interdependent systems and are, thus, interdisciplinary.

  • The authorities in society determine what children should learn in school. Children’s interests, questions, and curiosity are irrelevant to the schooling process.

This is another pre-scientific notion. Research in psychology has demonstrated both that motivation to learn is a central force in promoting effective learning and that interest and curiosity generate motivation better than any other engine, better than punishments or rewards.

This industrial, modernist school paradigm is neither some sort of malfunction nor an accidental outcome. It is functioning exactly as was intended by its creators.

Rather than tinker around the edges of the paradigm, as many ‘reformers’ suggest, or further intensify the paradigm’s command and control mechanisms, as the standards-and-testing and teacher-merit-pay advocates demand, we need to implement a new paradigm of education, a post-modern paradigm for a post-industrial era. First we need to evolve ‘beyond school.’

School is the problem. School is not capable of reform. What’s needed is a re-visioning of what our children and teens need to nurture their learning and becoming as persons. While I don’t know what term will come into common use as the replacement for school, I know that our new learning environments will be organized by the following principles:

1. Engagement of children and teens as designers and co-designers of their own learning so that interest and curiosity are supported and promoted in every learning endeavor and motivation to learn is enhanced and put to good use

2. Personalization of learning: children’s and teens’ differences are recognized and valued, and personal interests and talents are nurtured and supported, not homogenized

3. Children’s learning environments are no longer separated from adult life but, rather, children interact with adults at times during the day.

Adolescents’ lives are integrated with adult society in regular and profound ways, and adolescents are invited to contribute to adult society on a regular basis.

For both children and teens, learning environments become much more permeable in that families, friends, and neighbors are connected to children’s and teens’ lives on an everyday basis.

4. The insights from recent science that the mind and the body are profoundly interconnected and are actually one system are central to learning for children and teens, so the arts of all kinds, physical education, and experience outdoors in the natural world are all intimately woven into daily life in the learning environments.

5. Learning becomes a year-round activity, not a 9-month one.

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