School as Fiction

I’ve been expending a lot of bandwidth lately reading and thinking about the meta story of school, not just the history of the system and of pedagogy, but, more specifically, the motivations behind the story we’re currently living and how they effect the potential for deep and powerful learning that we all say we want for kids.  That means diving into some new (to me) edu-historians and thinkers and trying to connect what I’m learning to others who have been tweaking my thinking for a long time. Frankly, it’s a lot to make sense of, but I think it may be time to try. Feedback welcomed.

Let me start with Yuval Noah Harari, who has been stuck in my craw for the last few years after I read his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The other day, a lengthy, fascinating piece about Harari popped up in the New Yorker, and one idea in particular jumped out at me. The author of the article is talking here about Harari’s most famous book, Sapiens:

In the schema of “Sapiens,” money is a “fiction,” as are corporations and nations. Harari uses “fiction” where another might say “social construct.” Harari further proposes that fictions require believers, and exert power only as long as a “communal belief” in them persists.

If you recognize schools as “social constructs” which, of course, they are, that’s a provocative idea, no? Schools don’t exist in nature. We’ve constructed them to meet some type of societal need, primarily to collectively educate our young. We see them as a public good, aimed at perpetuating democracy (at least in the US) and creating a more just and livable world. (More on the purpose of schools later.)

The idea of schools as “fictions” is bracing at first. But if you flip the idea over a few times, less so. The narrative of schooling runs deep, but it is simply that: a narrative. A story. One that depends on our “communal belief” in it to wield the power it does. (And no one doubts the power of the school narrative, right?)

In-Between Stories

Importantly, Harari’s work highlights another idea that is relevant here, and that is that in this moment, almost everything is in-between stories. Think about media, business, politics and even the ways we meet and fall in love. Less and less seems to be abiding by old rules and norms. In 21 Lessons, he writes that we are particularly stressed because of this:

“We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one.”

I think it’s fair to say that many are losing faith in the traditional story of school, primarily because it doesn’t serve all kids equitably and it’s increasingly out of step with how the modern world operates. But while there are some indications as to what the new story might look like, (more child/learner centered, focused more on skills and dispositions than content, etc.,) we’re nowhere near any “communal belief” in it. It’s not clear enough, yet, that there is a new story to fully “embrace.”

Still, the new story that is emerging feels much more in tune with the natural, biological rhythms of learning, which, by the way, are not a “fiction.” This is the point that Carol Black has so eloquently made in her amazing essay A Thousand Rivers (which I’ve glossed many times.) If you want the punch in the gut quote from that, here it is:

“Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”

Our current fiction about schools attempts to take the very natural process of learning that is a part of all of us and make it happen in the very unnatural setting of the classroom where few of the conditions that all of us know are needed for learning to occur actually exist. It’s our greatest unpleasant truth that schools are not really built for learning. And if you read the rest of Black’s essay, you’ll get the gist of just how harmful that current fiction can be to the well-being of kids.

The Function of Schools

I think this whole idea of “fiction” resonates with me more deeply today due to my recent introduction to the work of David Labaree, a recently retired professor from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. I can’t remember how I found it, but a few months ago I came across his essay from the Journal of Curriculum Studies published in 2012 titled “School syndrome: Understanding the USA’s magical belief that schooling can somehow improve society, promote access, and preserve advantage.” Let’s just say that it’s been rocking my thinking about schools ever since.

In a nutshell, Labaree’s thesis is this: we may say that we want great schools because they are a public good, because (as I said above) they serve the purpose of preparing children to live in a democracy and to hopefully improve society. But what we truly value in schools in the private good they offer in terms of promoting privilege and the current meritocracy, and in the assumed role of providing access to “a better life.” Here are his words from the top of the essay:

The US is suffering from a school syndrome, which arises from Americans’ insistence on having things both ways through the magical medium of education. Society wants schools to express the highest ideals as a society and the greatest aspirations as individuals, but only as long as they remain ineffective in actually realizing them, since one does not really want to acknowledge the way these two aims are at odds with each other. Schools are asked to promote equality while preserving privilege, so perpetuating a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning. The focus is on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage. As a result the system continues to lure one to pursue the dream of fixing society by reforming schools, while continually frustrating one’s ability to meet these goals. Also, a simple cure cannot be found for this syndrome because no remedy will be accepted that would mean giving up one of the aims for education in favour of another. [Emhasis mine.]

Yes. That.

Seriously, the whole piece is important because it paints with an historical eye to explain school reform movements and why almost all of them have failed. It makes a compelling case that the true reform of the original system was the one that was driven by the consumers of education, not the creators and purveyors of it. While we say that schools and education are the most effective way to attain our highest aspirations and ideals as a society, schools are also the primary way that we accomplish our greatest individual ambitions and “stave off our worst fears.” And that last part, in fact, has become the primary motivation behind the story in schools that we’re currently living.

In short, we choose to build our narrative of schooling around the “private good” of schools and education in order to maintain access to social standing and individual opportunity, rather than as a “public good” which emphasizes citizenship and civic mindedness at its core. And that is a challenging, “unpleasant truth” as well.

The Consequences of our Fiction

That narrative has many deleterious effects, as I was reminded last week in Johannesburg when I reconnected with David Gleason, the author of At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools. A school psychologist, David is researching why it is that our students are now reporting record levels of stress, anxiety, and depression and what schools can do to alleviate it. Educators at “prestigious” schools that David has interviewed are very forthcoming about how their schools contribute to those issues. They freely cite things like putting too much emphasis on college, assigning too much homework, rewarding “achievement” over all else, and not honoring the normal mental and physical development of adolescents, among other things. (In other words, they’re acting in service of the “private good” over the “public good.”) But when he asks those same educators what would happen if they stopped doing those things that they know contribute to the problem, they respond by saying they would then be seen as lacking rigor and excellence, that they would lose their reputations as elite schools and their enrollments along with it, and more.

This “bind” that David discusses so powerfully in his book is the same “bind” that Labaree sees as well, this idea that we are trying to balance two things that are in opposition to one another, and that right now, we are deferring to the consumer’s need for credentialing over students’ well being or society’s noblest aspirations. It’s the same tension that Black feels between the natural needs of children and the unnatural needs of schooling.

Which all ties into a recent David Brooks column in the New York Times titled This Is How Scandinavia Got Great: The power of educating the whole person. Brooks argues that the reason Scandinavia got it right is because they dedicated themselves in the late 19th Century to educating the whole child, that it was more about lifelong learning. That it was more about connection to community and home. It wasn’t about status. Money quote:

“If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.”

When we choose (or allow ourselves) to be motivated by pragmatism and individualism over idealism and collectivism, we run the risk of ignoring what’s best for our kids and for our society and world.

What We’ve Lost

I’d argue we’ve lost a great deal because of the system as it’s currently constructed and the motives that drive it. And this idea that schools are meant to serve the individual over the collective is at the root of many of our ills. This is what we get when we focus on grades. On being right. On knowledge and not learning. On delivery instead of discovery. We get kids who see others as competitors, not collaborators or cooperators. We don’t want to work with them as much as work to overcome them.

The fiction of schools says we can teach kids things that they don’t internally care about. That we can measure long term learning with numbers and letters. That following the rules is the way to success, at least at the game we call school. The fiction also says that we know what you need to know. It says that you as a child should just acquiesce to our choices. That acceptance of this fiction is the path to an education and, ultimately, personal success.

And yet, we all know this just isn’t true. The vast majority of what we measure in schools, those things that count, literally, are most often quickly forgotten, never again used, and a barrier to the conditions that great learning requires. Our emphasis on “outcomes” and grades creates real emotional stress that is absent when we are learning the things that matter to us. I mean, what kind of emotional stress and anxiety do you feel when you are learning something that you find deeply and powerfully important and useful?

Our greatest challenge as educators is to write a new story of “school” that more effectively serves our students and our society given the moment in which we live and whatever future we can glean. Acknowledging that that too will be a “fiction” may actually make the work easier. But more than anything, understanding and acknowledging the motives of the current story will make that work more urgent, more relevant, and hopefully, more powerful.

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