Formal Education and School Aren’t the Same (Anymore)

On the future of education. 

The rhetoric of “education is changing” has been white noise since I started in the field. (This year marks 40 years since I started my undergraduate studies. I started in the same year A Nation at Risk was published.) My career has also coincided with the arrival of desktop computers, the Internet, Wikipedia, online learning, one-computer classrooms, Smartboards, tablets, netbooks, ono-to-one initiatives, Chromebooks, Google Classroom, flipped classrooms, MOOC’s and every other innovation over those decades as well. Most recently, of course, we are hearing about AI… but this post isn’t about any of those. Actually, it is about all of those. 

Schooling as we conceptualize it is the latest incarnation of those institutions that were recently invented to prepare young people to participate in life. (Apologies to fans of John Dewey, who observed, with a good deal of accuracy, the “education is life itself.”) Schooling is marked by several unique characteristics: 

  1. It is done in isolation—Schools are institutions in which students are taken out of the real world. 
  1. Teachers are unlikely to be practicing professionals—Teachers tend to be specialized professionals who do not participate in the field they teach. (Plenty of exceptions exist, for sure, but the unusual nature of those individuals seems to support my generalization.) 
  1. Teachers and students form short-term relationships—Students enroll in courses that last a single academic year (or shorter). 
  1. The curriculum is designed to be abstract—Educators assume that students will be able to transfer their lessons to other problems and fields; the validity of this assumption is not supported by empirical observation. 
  1. Schooling is regulated and structured to meet goals other than educational goals—The recent increase in individuals and groups affecting school decisions for blatantly political purposes is an extreme example of this, but the timing of the school year is a vestigial reminder that social needs are as important as students’ needs. 

My recent experience has been with adult populations, including those nearing the end of their high school educations. It has become clear to me that schooling, as we have traditionally conceptualized it, is less and less useful to that population. I am also convinced (based on some of my experiences with younger students earlier in my career) that traditional schooling is going to be less important to those students as well. 

My claim that schooling is less relevant to learners than it may have been previously does not mean I believe formal learning is no longer relevant. I predict formal education that rejects the five characteristics of schooling I describe above is the real future of education:  

  1. Integrate school into the real world—For much of human history, formal teaching occurred in the real-world problems of learning to hunt and gather and socialize. When we include work-based learning, internships, community service learning, and similar activities into formal education, the lessons take on increased relevance to the students. In part, this arises from the value students see in their studies and the value those in the real-world see students contributing. 
  1. Professionals as educators—A common complaint from folks who receive students is how unprepared they are; this includes soft skills as well as traditional academic skills. While I am skeptical of those who make those complaints, I do see a role for those who seek skilled workers in creating those workers. Until professional organizations or large employers collaborate with education professionals to facilitate curriculum development and instructional practices, then they are unlikely to change the graduates. 
    One aspect of community college education that I find so valuable is the fact that many faculty are folks who have full time jobs in the field and who are teaching as a way to contribute to the field. I also find those faculty tend to be the individuals who are most likely to engage with the support available to improve their teaching. Educators have much to learn from collaborating with professionals from outside of education. 
  1. Rediscovering mentors—Mentors are those folks with whom we interact over long periods of time. Sometimes we don’t realize who our mentors are until much later in life. When they are our mentors, they are people who help us make sense of situations, often without giving us the answers. “Making sense” is type of learning that cannot be easily measured and that cannot be instructed, but it is a skill that tends to come from mentors not teachers (interestingly, some of my teachers became my mentors and I served as a mentor for multiple people who were students). Especially when we think of young adults in classrooms, a long-term relationship with a mentor may be more central to formal education than relationships with teachers. 
  1. Questioning transfer—One rationale for teaching a curriculum based in abstract principles is that students will be able to transfer those skills to other areas. (In a nutshell, learning to strategize in chess will help you strategize in chess, but it won’t help you strategize in business.) We see this as well in the number of people who are unable to be critical in any field other than their own. (Even those I understand this phenomenon, I decided to find a new physician after mine was denying climate change and promoting trickle-down economics in conversations.) 
    Real problems, those that are identified as relevant and important by the students, are more likely to lead to lasting learning than principles that are learned in isolation. 
  1. Deregulation—The “free market” is largely a myth. If there is any field that may benefit from an unregulated marketplace, however, it is in learning. Notice my selection of words, learning may benefit from deregulation. For this to be true, however, schools must be taken out of the equation. As we have seen with for-profit higher education, there is a serious temptation to exploit certain populations. In today’s information environment, however, there are many skills that can be learned for free. The young person learning the craft of writing by participating in fan fiction communities (for example) or learning to code by watching videos is engaged in deregulated formal education. 

I suggested in the introduction to this post that I was blogging about all of the failed educational innovations I have experienced over my career. I seemed to go off on a serious tangent. If we look at the list of innovations, however, we see that most of them are still around. We may have forgotten about them because new “next big things” grab our attention and because the reality never matched the rhetoric. Those innovations did, however, introduce that capacity and the possibility of formal learning outside of schools. While we could always read a book or join a club to participate in formal education outside of school, in the digital world: 

  • “reading a book” has been replaced with “read, hear, and see books or video or other media” 
  • those creators bring a far more diverse perspectives than we can find in local schools 
  • the clubs we can join are far more numerous, diverse, and large than any local options 

Formal education is about becoming curious about something then joining a community with peers and mentors who share that curiosity. School had a monopoly on that for decades, but they no longer do.