School Is Not School

School isn’t school.

It is the birthplace of the citizen ideal.

It’s where we learn to live a life of selfless service on behalf of the community; it’s where we find the path to virtue, subordinating innate self-interest as individuals to the interests of the community, the good of the whole. And where, on graduation day, the highest possible title in a free society is conferred upon us: citizen.

To become a citizen, one must learn how to live and participate in a community — the most attractive ideal for any society, in religious or secular terms. It is one of the pillars of civilization. We cannot hope to endure without it.

School, then, is the place where we’re inspired to forget ourselves and become aware of the hopes and needs of somebody else—our neighbors, other citizens.

It’s where we begin active, deliberate and rational participation in a citizen community; and learn how to use the instrument of citizenship to manage, if not eradicate, our inner selfishness, our petty private passions, our personal interests. It’s where we feed and nurture the better part of our natures by channeling the collective efforts toward a higher, nobler purpose: the common weal.

But, somewhere along the way, school became school…

…a diurnal detention camp where children are framed up as human capital, livestock actually, not human beings. School, where bitter, resentful educators — who are almost always underpaid and, as a result, incented only to underperform — shy away from teaching any form of critical thinking; and indoctrinate students through rote memorization with the most basic, backward-looking knowledge, reconstituted as trivia and delivered through canned lesson plans. It’s a place where an education is still measured by a test score; and future success is defined only by the placement of the decimal point on a paystub.

Far from developing necessary skills and natural talents, this kind of school prepares students only for one possible future: college — school by another name. A pricey, pointless weigh station where students, future members of the work force, are scouted and sized-up with the wrong metrics; and where successful students, model students, acquire the knack, often times accidentally, to package and sell their skills in the form of labor to the highest bidder in a free market economy, which helps to maximize consumption among the lower and middle classes, while increasing the capital of the upper class, shielding the present establishment from ruin, protecting the economic wealth of the one percenters, and perpetuating the cycle of school.

Somewhere along the way, we detected a problem. Former students, now adults, became gainfully employed, living and working the way their parents lived and worked. They worked hard to make it big by doing something, anything in the world but not anything for the world. By and large, these former students were ambitious to be sure, but also unhappy and depressed and unfulfilled.

Communities fell apart.

“Enlightened” self-interest led to self-destruction.

We began to think that maybe the problem wasn’t school itself; maybe it was the school building. Naturally, we thought the answer was a sustainable school, an environmentally friendly school, a Green school, retooled and refitted for LEED certification, tricked out with ergonomic chairs and desks made from recycled materials. A different, healthier skin for a fetid, festering form.

But school remained school…

…It’s still “all about the kids” who are still learning old lessons the old way. It’s still school, that prepares young, choice-conscious consumers for a Market, not citizens for a Society; it shows students the old path to an old idea of prosperity, only now under energy saving bulbs in a cost-efficient, climate-controlled building.

The problem persists. It won’t go away until school stops being school.

It won’t stop until we start designing for school as a community-wide resource; it won’t stop until we start creating school as a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest.

It’s a platform that enables children to self-actualize not only as individuals but also as citizens; who learn and live and thrive by thinking and doing, not just for themselves, but for the entire community, for all citizens.

The logic that we must solve for, then, is neither fiscal nor physical, but moral:

No schools without citizens. No citizens without schools.

6/29/2012 – This manifesto was part of an experiment conducted by Insight Labs. To learn about the results of the experiment, click here.

85 thoughts on “School Is Not School

  1. I agree that there needs to be school reform, but not this way. Though the words in this article are very articulate, this sounds like a world too close to the world depicted in Ayn Rands book Ego. How long would it take in a world where schools are teaching students to be a better citizen for the good of the community to decide that the community no longer needs artists or musicians or writers but instead needs street sweepers and garbage men? How long would it take the community to override what makes a free world worth contributing to? How long before freedom takes a backseat to utilitarian conformity? True, schools need to move out of industrial thinking, but freedom of thought needs to be at the heart ot the reform, not conformity.

    • Agreed, Thomas. I’m from the former Soviet Union, and this was essentially the thesis statement of our schools. And that didn’t go so well… What troubles me about this idea is that it suggests that the self vs the good of the community are two separate things. In my experience, the two go hand in hand. Maybe that’s the shift we need to make in our schools?

      • Indeed it is a well written article, and it does make sense that we do need to take care of the community, but at what expense. As Tania basically said, it’s been tried and it failed. Are we so arrogant as to attempt an idea that others tried, and failed at, thinking we will make it work? I agree the schools need drastic re-designing, but it’s not about community, it’s about energizing the students. It’s about finding where the student excells and pushing them along in that arena, while maintaining standards in their weak spots. Without a strong educated base our society will crumble as indoctrination takes over as the main subject and education falls to the wayside.

    • Agreed. We need more of an individualist focus, not collectivist.

      Only problem is that its hard to know how to equip kids to do what they want to do, when they don’t know what it is that they want to do. That’s why we teach every student calculus, physics, and history even though 99% won’t need to know those subjects. SOMEONE will need to learn high school bio when she becomes a doctor. We just don’t know which student that will be. So the 99% must “suffer” learning something of no real world value to them.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Akira Kurosawa, a famous Japanese director in his autobiography wrote about development of kids and the gross injustice in the expectations of society for every kid of the same age to grow/grasp/reproduce in the same time frame. Why can’t kids of same group develop in different levels and acquire different skills? We are in the process of setting up an academy that values life skills and community development without awards / certs / exams etc. Love to connect with you on that. Drop me a note if you can.

  3. Ultimately, let’s be honest, schools are vehicles not just for education but indoctrination. The Progressives loved it for this reason some time back and the home schoolers like it for the same reason today. I think there’s terrible danger in saying we can use schools (esp. public schools) for shaping what we believe to be the ideal citizen. The ideal of citizenship is not a content free one for any of us. Our idea of what constitutes the “selfless” citizen interested in the common weal no doubt includes many specific ideologies, methods of engagement, and even public policies.

    I don’t have a problem with this for private schools, but I do for public schools. It’s staggeringly dangerous to attempt to instill some “public interest” criterion in the educational content of children by the state since as a society we don’t have anything remotely like consensus on what the public interest consists of.

    I think public schools should take a fairly minimalist stance towards this, in which citizenship is the basics of our government and civic society and how to engage in a diverse society, while the main focus is on basic skills and knowledge. It’s tough to be a citizen if you can’t read, write, and do math first. Even many college level students have difficulty with these basics. It’s like the fundamentals of basketball. If you can’t dribble, pass, shoot, play defense, block out, set a pick, etc. you’ll never be equipped to be part of a team game. Before we can get self-actualized, we need our basic needs met first.

    For private schools, I think more diversity is better.

    • I think this is a very nice reply. I think so many people are besotted with the idea of pre-college education as a vehicle for political engineering, and understanding that political acculturation occurs anyway, a greater focus on teaching what can be taught in an objective and rigorous fashion would be far more helpful to society. We need students who are ready to either learn the skills that a occupation needs, or that are prepared to train to become the next generation of scholars, teachers and researchers.

      The fundmanentals are so often cast aside, and become shorted because of all the political mucking of policy makers and educators. Teach them to read carefully and critically, think clearly and critically, and to write clearly and critically. We mostly just want them to have a foundation to do and be something, without which they will not amount to much, as we end up re-teaching them things they already should have learned.

  4. At last you’ve asked the question. School has forever been something to survive, something to succeed in-spite-of. I’m remembering novels and histories about the 19th century, that explosive time that produced us as we became, and always, always, the time in school was a test of enduring. We’ve spent generations ignoring the misery we send our children to, a hated day-prison we debate what color to paint.

  5. I absolutely love this piece of writing in the genre in which it was created, the manifesto. Kafka said a novel must be “An ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” A good manifesto breaks the frozen sea of thinking around us, and I believe this document accomplishes this in regards to the paradigm of economic development that currently dominates thinking about education.

    The question to me is whether the document is sufficient as the basis for a better theory of education. There I am unsure because of the complexity and seriousness of the question. For me personally, I think the starting point of education should be a spirit of love for the most vulnerable people in our society, children. I believe that in a good school every child would feel loved and cared for as an individual and as an end in himself or herself, not just as a means to the institution’s end. My greatest concern with the citizen ideal expressed above, then, would be the one expressed by several commenters – would a school designed to further the citizen ideal by being a community’s “social engine” fail to serve individual children who do not fit that particular purpose? If love and respect for each individual child is not included as a design principle, is there a chance we will lose some of them in the cracks?

    I think it’s a risk, but that the risk in the type of school described above is significantly less than the sad facts of the system we have now. An education system that is purely designed to increase the nation’s future human capital can succeed while completely neglecting huge numbers of children who do not demonstrate the proper “potential.” As one of my favorite education reformers likes to say, our system hasn’t failed – it’s doing nearly as well as it could for the purpose for which it was designed. To me, it seems that a school that is designed to accomplish significant good in the community around it is far less likely to neglect vulnerable children than one designed to add a lump of human capital to the future economy. Furthermore, I think that helping children learn to live in communities and serve their fellows gives them a much more meaningful structure in which to pursue new skills and knowledge than what we’ve got now. Even by the standards of the status quo, it would be better.

    So is the above idea perfect, finished, ready to be shipped to schools across the nation tomorrow? No, of course not. But to me it seems like such a better basis for building a just school system that I must disagree with Aaron’s comment above. I would gladly support an effort to uproot our existing public school system and begin to replace it with something like what is described here tomorrow. I’m excited by the urgency of the writing, the originality of the idea, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

    • The urgency of a re-think seems clear to me, but reform of this scale runs into structural problems that introduce hazards. I think there are two potential pitfalls.

      One is that we are asking for an imbedded institution to change more or less unilaterally. The discussion above suggests that these moving parts in the community are tied to other moving parts—things like employment, the broader economy, and the necessary aggregation of resources for education. To move one part and not the other would be extremely difficult, and might only benefit those communities with the greatest resources to begin with: precisely the people for whom the current system is more or less OK, since they’re getting the capital accumulation or high-standard employment outcome at the end.

      The second hazard is that a changed school in an unchanged economy might hurt some students’ future prospects. If it sounds like I’m buying into some of the conventional wisdom, that’s because I am. Just because time spent in education for the purpose of qualifications alone is unfulfilling and fails to produce sufficient civic value doesn’t mean there aren’t people who need the qualifications to access even unjust and inequitable employment.

      I love the point about schools as part of the community, and this is a good discussion, but I have to admit I’d be very cautious about implementing these ideas.

  6. This is dead-on. Discourse about our schools has been reduced to various threads of the same WRONG conversation: How can schools help individual students self-actualize? How can schools adapt to serve all the various learning styles and myriad interests of our youth? Short answer: they can’t and they shouldn’t. Schools are community institutions and we need to be asking a whole lot more questions about whether and how they’re serving the community at-large.

  7. I disagree with the premise. Maybe school should be about citizenship, but the idea that it ever has been in any meaningful way is inaccurate. Private schooling has always been about self-development and skill development for the benefit of the individual. Public schooling has been that–but with the added overlay of the powerful creating laborer widgets to do their bidding and stay in line.

    I’d be interested in reading the case for school as a place to improve the community and create better citizens, but you don’t make that case here. You just reference some prior, nonexistent historical utopia. If schools existed on your model, I don’t see how people could ever pursue their own (somewhat selfish) creative dreams, nor how we will ever convince people to accept less-than-spiritually-fulfilling occupations. Your vision of school prepares students for a world that doesn’t exist–a world where everyone is good, no one is selfish, and there aren’t massive corporations and institutions trying to take advantage of every citizen. All but the brightest tudents who graduate from this school would fail in a market economy.

    And you’re way too hard on existing schools and especially colleges. Visit the 95th percentile K-12 schools and universities in America and be inspired by them, and take the best of what they have to offer and scale it, and search for solutions to what isn’t working. Don’t criticize “school” as some homogenous, behemoth structure that is failing our children.

  8. School is where you memorize your multiplication tables. Church is where you learn to be selfless. Home is where you are given the freedom to be yourself. Mix all those together and you have a chance at becoming a worthy citizen.

  9. Maybe we ask too much of “school” and not enough of ourselves to create a learning society. Learning should be continuous — formal, informal– throughout our lives.

  10. I hesitate to agree wholeheartedly with this commentator, but I do agree that radical improvements are necessary. I see the left-behind students of the public and private school systems on a regular basis and I agree they are not served by the current methodology.

    However, I believe the model proposed is a dangerous ideal to hold up. Not all children learn the same way at the same pace, and not all of them want the same things for their futures. Individualism cannot be the ONLY value we hold up to help students “self-actualize” as some commenters put it, but neither can we expect to churn out drones whose only purpose is to make the community stronger at the expense of pursuing their own dreams and goals.

    Communities are made up on individuals and we must allow those individuals to develop along their own paths, guided by commonly held values and ideals which will help them contribute meaningfully to a society that values the uniquely individual contribution that each person can make. WIthout individualism there can be no improvements; without dissent there can be no learning.

    Do we need a new way to approach education? YES. Is this it? Well…I’m not sure. But it’s a start.

  11. What this brings to mind for me is Pedagogy of Freedom. Unfortunately, I have to agree that the way this is written smacks of Ayn Rand or some sort of exchange of utopian societies – neither very appealing. Good education has been denied to many – since the start of educational systems – no doubt. School is a developmental place. I disagree with Jason that there are distinct places where you learn to be a citizen, are free to be yourself, and learn about the community. I think that our environments – all of our environments, especially at that age – shape who we are and who we become. Hence, they shape what and how we will contribute to society.
    They question I have – is how do we reform education such that it becomes active versus passive. It promotes children both finding themselves, and beginning to sculpt their place in society – as they learn about that society and the other “citizens” within. How does school become about Praxis, rather than about pushing knowledge at people, and teaching to the test. We need to find a way to imbue public schools with the things I’ve found exist in private or “privatized” education – teaching for comprehension, for participation, in smaller groups, where children are engaged.
    And largely, “school” is a behemoth structure that fails kids. Especially in urban environments like Chicago where more and more money is cut from schools everyday, and progressive teachers have to use tools like Donor’s Choose to get funding to create unique, positive, engaging learning experiences for their kids.
    I commend this team for starting the conversation though – I just think there is way more to it – and I am not sure this is exactly where I’d begin or the tone I would use to open the dialog.

  12. I am intrigued by your article, but curious as to where you believe the church and family stand in relation to the school in developing children into citizens? To me, the far greater tragedy facing our children is the lack of family focus on helping our children develop a sound worldview that helps them grow and embrace their role as citizens and children of God. I view my role as a parent to shepherd my children in discovering and nurturing their God-given gifts and modeling a way of living and believing that will inspire and guide them into their roles as citizens, friends, leaders, etc. I do not expect schools to play that role, but I will do everything in my power to be co-collaborators with them in the process of helping my children develop critical skills and grow into their unique gifts and callings. I have hope that there are still many teachers out there who see each child as a precious gift with a unique future and impact to make. I applaud you for raising the issue and hope it starts a productive dialogue about not just the role of the school, but the role we all play in developing and influencing our children.

  13. An interesting thought experiment to be sure. I think the barrier to the novel ideas presented is simply that school has developed in line with societal requirements. Schools do exactly what they need to do: they provide a series of academic hoops to jump through that allow colleges, employers, and society at large a way to measure someone’s worth. Is it the best way to teach children? Certainly not. But until our society begins to value the individual who possesses novel ideas and critical thinking skills, coupled with an inherent sense of civic responsibility, teaching children these ideals will not prepare them to succeed in life. The challenge is teaching the concepts, but finding a way to measure the abilities of children to excel at these intangibles: otherwise we have a society with no disparity in regards to performance or ability. For good or bad, that is something schools do fairly well, stratifying the degree of talent and ability in children so that those who excel can be ultimately provided with opportunities commensurate with their abilities. Without performance measures, we have everyone making the argument of “He/she is really really smart but just doesn’t test well,” which we all know really means he/she didn’t actually know the answers.

  14. Absolutely, school should inspire us and make us aware of others – but forgetting ourselves in the process doesn’t make someone a good citizen. Schools can just as easily veer from too great a focus on individual performance to too great a focus on the greater good (with the definition of “greater good” being highly affected by politics). And I think everyone can agree that school can already have a high pressure on students to conform, especially from fellow students.

    The hardest thing, which a truly self-actualized person attains, is handling that gray area between the individual and the community in a way that leads to the betterment of both. I think this is the heart of ethics, something that’s rarely part of a school’s teaching plan.

    Good teachers teach ethics implicitly, encouraging students to challenge others in a constructive way. That’s not something that tests measure, so it seems like it’s not happening. It’s true that it’s not happening enough, and teachers aren’t rewarded for it – other than with rare recognition from the students themselves. Lack of that support can cause great teachers to become disillusioned and bitter, and leads other teachers to miss an opportunity to truly make a difference in their students’ lives.

    Sometimes you need to step away from the community in order to see its character, and its dysfunctions. Only then can you come back into it to effect positive change. We need school to help students become part of something larger, but not subsumed by it. Schools need to focus on instilling confidence AND increasing awareness of others, in addition to building knowledge.

  15. Though I would love to live in a world where science and exploration was top of mind for everyone, I fear and believe that the only way for anyone to rise above, is to have a baseline to start from. Our truth at this this point in time seems to be that there will always be people who are content as they are, content having others do for them, and a small percent who strive for more.

    A philosopher would not have the time to philosophize if it weren’t for the farmer growing food for him, trucker delivering it to the store, and the grocery to distribute it. Society would die if everyone was trained to be “above” those vastly important jobs that make up civilization.

    This is not to say that I think our school system is correct in the way it is run. To me it seems fairly obvious that people are a product of their environment, and I would much rather have our kids surrounded by knowledge, and critical thinking so they at least have the choice to strive for more should they want to.

  16. This essay is promulgated on flawed logic. First and foremost are we talking about education, schooling, or schools? Education is a multi-dimensional life-long process independent of the place or model one tries to use to buttonhole the theory or system under which the education occurs. As I read this essay, I am hearing “public school, standardized school, economically undernourished school, unsupported by family, church or society school”. The institution of schooling in which the mission is to gather, educate, cull or select, and discard based on some standard of measure is a defective model in an of itself. Masking it in political or social change and trying to solve the problem as part of the overall challenges facing society is to further underestimate the importance of education for education’s sake. It is not our right to be educated, it is a necessity of evolution, learn or perish. I dare say that if we were in the agricultural age, classroom education would not be a priority, but a deep understanding of the workings of nature would be. The fact that such knowledge appeared to some in society to not be enough is why we understand the importance of right and proper schooling.

    I will agree with one key point in the essay, we are a species who live in a society, selfishness is not in one’s best interest and learning to work among the others in our society is a learned skill that does get further development in the classroom environment. For better or worse, being tossed into a room full of forty or more six year old kids did have an educational impact on me!
    When I look at the public school system of today vs. the one that I experienced as a child, it is not the building that has changed, nor is it the capability of the students, but it is the value system of the society that supports the schools that has changed. Mediocrity is the goal, it is the new good. The definition of success has been standardized and there is no room for creative expression (thus the loss of the arts and music). Physical health is not linked to mental health or thought capacity, so exercise is devalued. Nutrition is not seen as important at home, so no one worries about it in the classroom.

    School is the mirror of our constantly degrading society. It is the evidence of our need to work the symptoms instead of the problem. It is the scab on the deep cut in our culture that we pick at hoping for change, while never providing disciplined behavior to allow healing to occur.
    I still think back to those inspired, yet underpaid, teachers who harmed me or shaped me as their role in my education played itself out. Am I the better for attending this “school” or that “school”? I don’t know, because the system did not teach me, it allowed me a place to learn. I learned how to learn, and have spent the rest of my life learning. I wonder what kids with A.D.D. do in school today, with their senses dulled by drugs, and their bodies poisoned by lame nutritional substitutes for real food. I wonder where their creative energy goes when acting up is always called acting out, and you end up being treated like you have special needs, but no one treats you special?

    School is a personal experience. Public, socially controlled schooling with the mission of herding, and culling, will as the article says, always fail us. But that is because our value system has deviated so far from what is important. Creating vital, learning beings, who ask better questions and seek better answers…..that is not normal behavior, and it is certainly not done in a systematic way. If so, this discussion would be on every page of every web site.

    Finally, I actually have fond memories of kindergarten class in a room, much like the one in this back drop. The blackboard, just out of reach of a six year old, thus the step stool. A place that showed little consideration for the student, yet the entire room is there for the sake of that student. That being said, look at the artistry of the desks, the craftsmanship of that wrought iron….that is what is missing in school, the sense of pride this nation took in everything we did. We need that back, then schools will take care of themselves.

  17. I’m involved with the nascent efforts of the Park City School District’s CAPS program (Center for Advanced Professional Studies). This is a program that implements more real-world teaching constructs– project based, team based, merit based, and rooted in the personal authority of the student to make decisions, and live-or-die (succeed-or-fail) by them. Notwithstanding the specific nature of the learning framework and curriculum, I’ve been exposed to the top-down, patronizing, command-and-control nature of the school system as it exists today. It is at once debilitating to administrators, educators *and* especially students, and antithetical to the natural way humans learn… particularly homo telanimus (“networked man” or “conscious web of man”).

    I believe the pyramid of education needs to be inverted. Even the archetype of “pyramid” is wrong. Social media is a better one– user-centric design. Priority 1: the student (not the curriculum). Accommodate multiple learning styles. Adopt more experiential (vs theoretical) teaching practices.
    Priority 2: local, local, local. Empower local communities make choices about curriculum.
    Priority 3: Connect those myriad local communities (teachers, schools, administrators, school boards) through modern social media constructs focused on enabling best practices and high-efficacy curriculum to spread from community to community. This transparency will mitigate the efforts of ignorant naysayers by showcasing open-source case studies.
    Priority 4: Gamify the student experience; and then the community experience at the parent, teacher, administrator, school and school district levels.

    This is a problem similar to that which has become endemic to our country and culture– We need to unlock innovation and entrepreneurship at the individual and local levels, not perpetuate hegemonic legacies.

    Students, parents, teachers and administrators will stop sleep-walking and instead take responsibility and personal authority when it is offered to them.

    • Agree with Jim in the ‘inverted pyramid approach. Social media…user-centric design.

      I have been reading and exploring EnvKids through the Lifelong Learning Program (in facilitating change with the International School Board here in my community of Missoula). Environmental sustainability training for children through on-line simulation, exploration and collaboration. I think it’s a brilliant approach to learning as a community member. Starting with “my home, my town, my planet”, — LOCAL approach– covers environmental issues in a learner-centred manner that starts from concepts close to home and expands to wider subjects.
      Obviously, all children learn in their own way..human learning does not take place on a single level, but is a stratified process.

  18. I completed undergraduate and graduate schools in the mid 90′s. Perhaps, like many in my generation, I lingered too long in grad school, avoiding economic realities. But those experiences—especially my undergraduate experiences—taught me how to think. What thinking meant. How to think critically and analytically about what I was doing, my role in society, an argument, the notion of value, how to think about the good, the aesthetics of an artwork. My School might have been institutional, but there’s plenty of other routes.

    It greatly saddens me when I hear about the incredible cost of education for students today that burdens them with years of debt, the deadening of education outcomes, the loss of vivaciousness in curriculums, the disengagement of students. “School is not school”: indeed! Not only in the creation of a citizenship, but in the creation of a thinking, caring community.

    I’ve recognized, too, that the opportunity of “School” never goes away. Anyone can find the inspiration, then use the tools of action and the Internet, to spark themselves forwards. It happens in classes, in kitchens, at work, in cafés, where people find passion.

  19. The 19th century industrial age educational system paradigm simply does not translate. We’ve just incrementally improved the wagon wheel when what we need is something else entirely. We’re using antiquated tools to shape the modern person and it’s already proving out to be a huge liability. At it’s core it’s proven that the public school model we all know is by no means the best way to prepare children for the modern world. It even goes down to the subjects we’re teaching and the way we test. We’re producing generations of people who know how to cram for tests on things that are irrelevant in the real world.

    Instead, we need to look to KIPP and Montessori schools and the like to see why it is that their students have higher rates of graduation and are more successful. I’ll venture that part of it is that kids are not shuttled through the system like packaged meat. We dont pay public school teachers enough to care and with all of the union power, it becomes more of a push and pull power struggle for a lifelong meager paycheck than a lifelong passion to prepare a society for the future.

    In the midst of all of this, while we’re teaching things that don’t matter in a style that doesn’t work (much doesn’t matter and the efficacy is proven to be sub optimal) to children that don’t see the context and therefore don’t care. The curriculum has to change. The comment that we have no idea what the common good is, is a massive cop-out that feeds the complacent system. We need to be teaching more humanities alongside with finance and business, project management, leadership. At a young age too. Football? Trig? really?

    When we see the relevance, understand the context, know what this leads to, we’re far more likely to be engaged. When you have the ability to pay well, hire and fire as needed (all are interconnected) you can manage a high-performing staff of teachers who are incented to be great and we can measure them on things that really do matter. We have to remove more of the competition and frame education as a journey we take together, not a competition for numbers and ranking. That adversarial baseline only serves to make kids less likely to lend a hand, work as a group, care about the welfare of others.

    I like the better citizen concept but I prefer the idea of competing with yourself. It’s similar to the mindset of a golfer, we’re out there competing against ourselves and we revel in the success of others. That only serves to create a cohesive environment of mutual respect which drives down drop-outs, pregnancy, violence, bullying, disenfranchisement. Probably blood pressure too!

    The future is a lot more about relevance and our ability to solve our own problems. When we teach the old without context and pit kids against each other, is it any surprise that there’s cyber bullying, suicide, drop outs? We have to prepare for a global economy a generation from now we cant even imagine. You think a Victorian era system can prepare us for collective success? I don’t.

  20. So far I agree with most of the comments, except the god comment, which I will leave alone, it is impolite dinner conversation. A friend said this week we need to give children the key to learning and set them free rather than trying to decide what the purpose of school is, let’s let children decide. Let’s turn schools upside down. We then went into a discussion about university and bureaucratic structures etc.. If we accept that there are some basic things children should know, is there a way for us to create a sort of loose structure that allows children to be captains of their own learning journey. My argument is for loose control, with student ‘coaches’ that focus on relational styles of learning…

  21. The system is broken. School needs a clear vision for success and a transformation to achieve it. The fact is we have a lot of children to educate. The norm has catered to mediocrity in an effort to get everyone a minimum baseline education to become productive citizens. Productive citizens pay taxes and to the government, this is a good thing. It keeps people in line. It keeps people focused on the wrong things.

    This model also puts a cap on our ability to reach the God given potential of society.

    The truth is, everyone has certain aptitude for skills. Everyone also has certain passions that get them excited about life. ‘School’ should help them reach their potential in their interest areas so when they pursue their passion, they can reach their potential. We need a solution that takes the governor off of human potential.

    This will produce happier people who are pursuing careers and lives in areas where they are excited to contribute. These people working together along common passions will find it easier to tackle the biggest challenges and opportunities facing society when they are in their prime years to contribute.

    If we do this right, we can create a society that creates abundance for many vs. the ‘lack’ centric mindset that holds people back today. The model of lack (if you win, someone else must lose), pits people against each other, instead of rallying people for each other.

  22. School begins at home.
    School begins in family.
    School begins in the example of a good parent citizen.
    School begins in the reinforcement of values and empathy from infancy.

    School IS school. School is there to educate-yes with critical thinking and the latest educational techniques, but school is not only there to teach students how to be a good citizen.

    It is all well and good to stand on the outside and say schools ought to teach values, civility, citizenship. Anyone on the inside can tell you a teachers greatest struggle is that they do this all day everyday. As a teacher (Underpaid? Yes. Bitter and resentful? Only of generalizations), I can tell you that the critical thinking learning, and the implementation of new teaching techniques is stymied by the very fact that teachers DO put so much energy into teaching students these very principles they should have found at home.

    By the time a student makes their way to us they are already imprinted with all the information they need to know in how to behave and operate in the world. They are what their parents show them. They are what MTV shows them. They live in a society where celebrity is celebrated for the sake of celebrity, where education is sneered at, where values are old fashioned, where empathy is weak.

    In a world where students and teachers are beaten, stabbed, and shot on school property, where students are bullied into suicide, where teachers are lucky to wrangle a student into a classroom, let alone with completed homework, because they could not find a babysitter for the baby, they had to hitchhike to school, or mom told them they had to say home and sell drugs-you cannot tell me that it is the main responsiblity of schools to grow a citizen.

    Do not blame schools for the downfall of society. Blame society for the downfall of our schools.

  23. I love the spirit of this piece, though I don’t agree with every point made therein. Resuscitating a moral rather than market imperative for school is a worthy cause — as is rediscovering and reaffirming the value of paths stemming from school that do not necessarily lead to college.

    Is the current model of school a poor representative of current modes of personal and professional life? Yes. Is the current model of school designed to atomize students and set them against each other for academic and personal success? Mmm hmmm. Are citizenship, democracy, and social concern often left by the wayside in favor of standardized test prep? Totes. Are there people in schools today, actively working against these issues and trying to reframe their work to emphasize critical questioning, active democracy, and the possibility of a different future than the present? There ARE, though they are Davids against the Goliath of The System.

    The question for me is not the kind of citizen our schools should be aiming to produce, but rather the foundation they should be laying to understanding the meaning citizenship in a democracy. (And by the way, under skillful teaching, laser-focused on these concerns, the “basics” of education — the reading, writing, reasoning — are seamlessly addressed, because they are the critical tools to achieving and articulating deep reflection.) Onward!

  24. Bravo on recognizing and naming that school as we know it is broken. I completely agree. Reforming this system is a complete waste of time and resources. It will take transformation, as I believe this suggests, to get to a system where real learning takes place. We should refrain from using the word “school” as we work on this new system of learning. School brings to mind most of the things that we don’t want this to be. As Albert Einstein said; “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

    And I agree that education is about making us all better citizens of the world. However, I want to see the design principles that will be used to create a new way of learning. Citizenry for me is not specific enough. We know a lot more now about how people learn and how the brain develops in children as they walk the path to adulthood and development of useful and productive minds. And we need to know much more. I believe that we should use what we know now, and incorporate and adapt as we learn more, to create a new learning system. I find myself repeating the words of my mentor, Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall. Today’s school approaches students from deficiency and memory. The new system should be built on abundance and meaning.

    Our new system of learning must emulate systems found in nature. These living systems learn and adapt based on what is going on around them. Yet, they are deeply rooted and cannot flourish without these roots, which for me are the design principles of the system. These principles must incorporate what we know from how the brian works and learns. They also include flexibility, diversity, and a multigenerational and global approach to learning (citizenry?). As I continue to add to this list I think about the need for learners to collaboratively tackle real world problems which brings to mind the ideas of creativity, critical questioning, engagement in the process, and igniting the passion that is within us to work for the common good.

    We need to work together on developing the design principles that the new system will be built on. This piece is a great place to start, lets not let it stop!

  25. My immediate response to this piece was that in many ways it describes the difference and inequities between a public and private school education and the inequities found in communities with and without resources. I attended Chicago Public Schools from kindergarten through high school. My grammar school instilled a sense of citizenship in me and others – a sense of being part of a larger community. But, my high school was very much what was described in this piece. Now, we are fortunate enough to send our son to a private school, where these ideals and goals of being a global citizens outlined are stated and celebrated as core beliefs of the school and the student body. There are numerous programs working within CPS (some magnet and charter schools) that have been successful in their work to create community and self actualized citizens, but their impact is sadly minimal comparatively. Another key factor, I believe, is what is available and accessible to students based on the resources they have and those provided to them.

  26. This is true, and everyone already knows it. But why do we seem too paralyzed to even address it? It hurts just thinking about it, especially because my own K-12 and undergraduate experiences were so awful, so cynical and lifeless. And more especially because my own children are going through the same thing, only their experiences are even worse than mine.

    Something needs to change. Radically. Where I differ, though, is in the author’s overarching labeling of college, “A pricey, pointless weigh station.” While this is MOSTLY true–perhaps even 90% true, maybe even 99% true–it is not entirely true. It was only in the context of college that I was exposed to Gramsci and Althusser, who so eloquently argued that “education” was just one cog in the state’s machinery of oppression and repression. Reading those scholars was an epiphany for me, challenging me as a professor to urge my students to a) understand what’s going on, and b) break out of that machinery.

  27. Awesome! Reminds me of a lecture given by former dean of Yale Law School, Tony Kronman, about how major research universities were becoming little more than technical schools. He actually wrote a book about it. To be completely honest, I think my traditional liberal arts education has held me back in the professional world. School became “a diurnal detention camp where children are framed up as human capital, livestock actually, not human beings.” I TOTALLY AGREE! And, employers don’t want to take a risk on those who aren’t willing to fall in line without asking questions. They want someone with a set of skills, not an individual thinker who can quickly acquire skills but is intelligent and studied enough to see the larger picture. Great starting point. I’d encourage further exploration on the topic with some real critical thought, exploration of the facts with citations and so forth.

  28. I’m glad that people are putting in so much thought into the question of how we educate our youth to the extent of whether the conventional notion of school itself should be jettisoned, or at least retooled in favor of more current trends in education, knowledge sources, etc. But to me, the elephant in the room is where is the input from the children? Everyone posts what THEY think we should do with OUR kids. But who’s asking the kids? Shouldn’t we start there? I’ve already been through school (through grad school) but how I would’ve revamped a system that affected me years ago may not be pertinent today. From K-8, high-school through grad school, any revamping of our education system should start with today’s kids to get a sense of what they’re interested in, what they care about, how they like to learn, what their fears are as they mature and contend with real world issues. Proposing any revised education system designed in the absence of the input from the people who are actually to be “educated” would be, dare I say, downright ignorant.

  29. Hear, hear.
    Citizenry beings in the home, and must continue to be shaped and supported by a vibrant and accepting community. Is this ‘school’? Not presently.
    Communities must rise up; we need to create ‘school’ to reflect and encourage the citizenry learned in our first social group: family.

  30. Well said, but a as others have pointed out the views expressed here are a bit extreme and the posting over generalizes. Also you seem to indicate that school is the only and most appropriate place to learn civic values. Shouldn’t this also be taught by parents, spiritual communities, and civil society organizations – and who is to say the greater responsibility shouldn’t lie with them? While a agree with the main premise that the need for shcool reform and the better integration of civics in education is needed I think perhaps some of the more pressing problems are that schools don’t teach to the individual, they increasingly are under invested in, and are in many cases irrelevant to certain underserved populations (poor and minority communities) more than to other populations. In addition there are some really great model schools out there which you seem to ignore. And you forget that many liberal arts colleges and universities do a wonderful job of teaching civic responsibility. I find that Ken Robinson’s ( more balanced views to be a bit more helpful than the assertions made here.

    • Agreed! Sir Robinson has been instrumental in some of the transformations I’ve made as an educator, along with many others…Yong Zhao, Sugata Mitra, Daniel Pink, William Schubert, Bill Ayers, Atul Gawande, Malcolm Gladwell, Alfie Kohn, Ken Bain, etc. I certainly don’t agree with every thought by every one of these authors/speakers. But they share such inspirational ideas that can be used to nurture the creation of self-sufficient communities of thinkers, doers, movers and shakers! Thanks for sharing!

  31. Such an interesting and important discourse. I appreciate the premise and the suggested notion that our education system is merely encouraging us to do anything in the world, not anything for the world. Great awareness.

    I was so fortunate to participate in a graduate program designed to ensure we avoided exactly that which so many others have fallen trap to (Georgetown University Exec Master’s in Leadership). Our entire program felt as though we were in a circle of trust. A place to push, challenge, and learn from each other.

    Following a comment in this thread I caution whether religion should be the primary or only place where we learn to be selfless and charitable. Schools are a powerful and important place to learn such values. Related, if the notion is that our schools should be “community driven,” (and I realize you are suggesting it as a broader/societal community), I am concerned the more religious areas would capitalize on that by assuming schools need only teach only about G-d — not expand the human mind as I believe is the intent of this article.

    I am excited to see this conversation continue and will definitely go back to school again when I can find more programs that promote and nurture our desire to work on behalf the world, not merely in it.

  32. I agree that the current model is lacking and misguided, but I disagree with the author’s apparent distaste for market economies. The free market works because our innate propensity to consume has been shaped by schools, politics, and businesses. However, our equally innate propensity to rely on and cooperate within our communities has been undercut–perhaps made incongruous–by this indoctrination. The current state of affairs was caused by a learned model of selfish, ignorant valuations of our human and natural resources.

    But school should not be a place that indoctrinates differently; school should not be a place that indoctrinates /at all/. The author of this essay thinks that forcing children to serve their communities will solve our problems. In fact, that model may perpetuate them. I agree with the premise that “teaching for the test” and “everybody must go to college” are fallacious practices–U.S. higher education has become little more than a racket for hedge funds, a factory for big business, and a thief of liberty by the compulsory acquisition of large debts–but changing this paradigm to the author’s vision is wrong.

    A school is successful if its enemies are ignorance and apathy. It must foster awareness of and appreciation for our breadth (wealth) of human identities and talents as well as our natural resources. It must encourage critical thinking and creative thinking after it has shed light on our human condition pushed students under those rays. Some students may learn when they do now: to consume or exploit. But other students may join the author’s movement.

    In any case, it must be the well-informed, rigorously-evaluating individual that makes these valuations of her own volition.

  33. A well-intentioned attempt at instigating a serious discussion, but unfortunately misses the mark on many levels. I do not have time to address them all; I admit/share up front, I am a teacher and must get back to my high schoolers in the next 10 minutes.

    The numerous assumptions made to describe “school” are faulty and undeserved. “[A] diurnal detention camp where children are framed up as human capital…” Under which lens and using what data is this and other statements made and/or concluded to be true? I am particularly alarmed at the callous disregard for the enthusiasm, passion and love that exists in our schools, as if those aren’t equally accurate descriptors.

    Reforming schools in order to make them ideal, present-day learning communities is more complicated than eradicating hunger, or racism, or poverty. And using schools as a linear tool for creating “citizens” is ill-conceived. School cannot possibly be the only place where citizenry is taught and learned. Being a “good citizen” (which has as many definitions as there are communities) might be the welcomed consequence to a positive formal education, but cannot be the only goal. And the assumption is made that because a child does not turn out to be a good citizen, s/he must not have been taught how to be a good citizen in school…Not true.

    This article was, in all honesty, personally insulting as I have given almost a quarter of a century of my life to the teenagers of my community, and I have given countless hours of my time and expertise to hundreds of educators across the country. The implication, perhaps unintended, is that teachers are responsible for society’s ills, and that these ills once again fall square on our shoulders. And I find it somewhat comical at this point in my career that the people who decide what school should be and how it should run typically have little to no experience actually teaching children. (No one who has any position to make policy-level change has EVER asked for my input or for the input of any one of the hundreds of educators I know.) And even if educators actually helped to author the above “manifesto,” I would respectfully disagree and/or ask to see the details behind this information, as so much is missing.

    This is a simplistic, albeit well-meaning and well-written Hail Mary. Sweeping, national education reform is not appropriate or doable. And the complexities of education reform require much deeper investigations and a wooly-mammoth-level paradigm shift on the part of society.

  34. I have read the website and a number of the posts in response. Much of what was being said and promoted was nice sounding but way to vague on specifics and to overreaching given the inertia that is present in the current school system. Only a handful of places like some charter schools have the real opportunity to break new ground – and it usually goes unrecognized. I did a stint on a local school board – built a new high school, implemented block scheduling (before many people knew what it was), increased graduation requirements well beyond state minimums, and pushed teaching algebra back into the middle school (grades 7-8). Try as I did to promote “physics first” the very science teachers who should have understood the logic of that program (and with algebra in the middle school it should have been very doable) prevented it from even being tried. That was just a small change that met huge resistance – now try a complete paradigm shift – not easily done within the current system. That then raises the real issue, how can the system change so that the good fixes that could be done rise to the top and are visible and promoted. I think that requires that we look again at what works in our society – competition – and that means vouchers to allow parents to take their students to the schools that they want to. Even with vouchers in place it will likely take about 2 generations to implement the needed paradigm shift.

    As part of that shift a major rethinking of STEM needs to take place. Right now we have elementary teachers who for the most part are transferring their own fear of anything beyond basic arithmetic to their students. How about we implement the cost neutral change of having elementary level algebra teaching specialists instead of PE teachers? Certainly any elementary teacher can teach PE. No classroom teacher has a change in teacher contact time with students – and that helps reduce resistance. And we start teaching the “language” of algebra at the elementary level where it is best learned (just like any language). I was raised during the era of “new math” – luckily I was a book learner – and sucked it up. But because the elementary teachers at the time were so poorly prepared to teach “new math” it failed miserably with most students. Once we actually teach algebra concepts very early we will move to teaching calculus concepts in middle school and advanced math and science in high school can become the norm, instead of the exception. That would be true STEM reform, but none of that or any other good idea anyone wants to promote will happen within the current system – we need competition to demonstrate the changes that will work and weed out those that won’t. I don’t see any way for that to happen except for vouchers.

  35. The school system is a failed experiment. It has not realized its potential as a means to self betterment. Students are forced to sit…to sit… through a day when they should be experimenting, running from one challenge to another, motivated by their interests and their talents. The only purpose for a school is to help a child compensate for his limitations and help him soar to his limitless possibilities. Instead it is, as was said above, an endurance, punitive, boring, cruel and unusual punishment. My own memories are horrific. Instead of students learning and modeling themselves against adults, they learn “social behavior” which is a euphemism for cruelty and unacceptable behavior. I am a fan of home schooling, not because of its use for indoctrination, any program can be used for that, but because of its respect for the individual child.

  36. Loved the read! It represents a new and poignant frame to the education debate.

    I doubt the author intimates this, but I ask, does a system that fosters innate self-interest doom the prospect of a thriving community? In other words, is innate self-interest evil? Is it inherently selfish, therefor not in the best interest of community health? I say no.

    To use an illustrative example, think of when the cabin pressure dramatically changes on an airplane. The oxygen masks drop and the instructions are to first secure the maks around your own face. Then assist your children or anyone else in need of succor. The net there is: Take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. Taking it a step further, ensure your own mental, physical, and capital health before you can truly make a difference in the community around you.

    If the current school curriculum approach merely produces consumers programmed to live a formulaic life for the benefit of a capitalist society, then we can all agree things need to change. But why don’t we toss television, our political system, our economic foundation and even this blog in the trash as well?

    At some point, the onus is on the individual, their parents and their sphere to instill the proper perspective – to program our children to play the game, but know how to win for the greater good.

    My personal goal is to pursue self-interested success – so I have the freedom and ability to truly impact the community at large.

  37. I disagree with several statements in the “manifesto.” Let me take one of them: the statement that school prepares students for “only one possible future: college.” Really? All schools, everywhere, are preparing all students for college, and then college too is a big fat failure that only just feeds a late capitalist labor market? (What do we mean by “prepare,” incidentally?) I don’t actually have the time too provide a nuanced critique of each part of this statement, but I will say this as someone who has taught college students at all levels, and as someone who has observed what skills, attitudes, and preconceptions the students we get from the public and private school systems who actually *do* go to college bring with them:

    I want critical thinkers. Not “selfless citizens.”
    I want ethics. Not morality.

    The “citizen ideal” sounds like it involves indoctrination into a political ideology–whose? We all know there are plenty of ideologies being instilled in kids today, and they do NOT come out of our school systems (for the most part) with the ability to effectively analyze discourse, understand the histories and logic of what they are being taught, or put together an argument. THAT is what my colleagues and I at the university level tried to teach, and I think if anyone is becoming a more critical thinker via institutionalized education it’s in the humanities. Not all the time, not everywhere, and the humanities are underfunded and under fire, but let’s not pretend that we live in an utterly commercialized dystopia any more than we should pretend there is or can be some kind of utopia of “ideal citizens,” either.

    Many of my “well-educated” first-year college students (the ones with the best “hard skills”) were also the ones whose critical thinking muscles were weakest; the were the ones who thought they knew EXACTLY what kind of citizen they should be. They spoke in generalities. They were truly shaken (often amazed, and excited) when they started to learn to think critically, understand perspectives different from their own.

    I said I want ethics, rather than morality. I hear the language of “morality” in this article–morality is about duties, codes, obligations. I don’t dismiss all moral codes, but when it comes to education, I say we teach and demonstrate ethics because ethics is aligned with critical thinking. Ethics is about recognizing the other; recognizing other perspectives; understanding that yours is not the only right way; knowing what you are doing (as well as you can) when you say or do this or that. There are plenty of categorical imperatives imposed on people today — and guess what, even some of the ones people pretend are universal, utterly ahistorical and acultural, applying to everyone all the time, need to be *situated.” Ethics is not moral relativism. But an ethical engagement requires more thought than just living by a moral code; it recognizes that doing “good” can also cause unintended harm; it means thinking critically about when and why we take this action and not that one.

    It sounds like this “manifesto” is aimed at wresting the school system away from serving business (yes; this is a concern) and having it serve … a vaguely defined politics / governmentality? Well. If a someone well grounded in critical thinking, with the skills to analyze and articulate their own ideas, with an ethical awareness, is not an “ideal citizen,” then I don’t know what is … These critical thinkers just might not all come up with the same idea of what the common good might be. But that’s okay, right, because we still are talking about citizens in a democracy, with truly productive dissensus?

  38. While I think most people would agree that we need school reform, and that we need more community based citizenry, I do not know how you would ever get agreement on what it means to be be “doing for the entire community.” Remember a few years ago when Hillary Clinton wrote “It Takes a Village” which discussed how we collectively all have a stake in raising good citizens. Several people went crazy, and without even reading the book they condemned the notion that the “village” should be involved in raising a child. Rather, they contended that raising a child was solely the “family’s” responsibility. While I do not disagree with the goal’s as expressed herein, I fail to see how the community would ever be able to collectively agree on just what children should be taught to make them better citizens and more community-minded. In fact, I would guess that the moment the suggestion was even made, a whole bunch of people would be condemning the idea as “socialism” before they bothered to learn the first thing about it.

  39. My children attend the public schools, and based upon my (their) experience so far, I think the school they attend and its teachers are doing a fine job of teaching them about being good citizens. The school has the kids collect canned goods for the poor; they’ve learned about how to recycle and how important the environment is; and what I’ve come to realize is that they have a community at the school in which they are involved and within which they are learning to interact and contribute. My son, for example, in 2nd grade, is on the student council already. The council engages in activities which benefit the school and sometimes the community in which we all live. So, at least based upon my kids’ experience, I must say that I think some of what is written above is already in place at some, but certainly not all, schools. But I also think that having the entire community revolve around the school, or vice versa, is not the answer. I think the issues which need to be addressed have to do with the electronic age wherein we do not need to leave our homes to communicate. We can email, text, post to Facebook, or tweet something, all without every speaking to another person and without observing their non-verbal reaction. This, in my opinion, is a significant part of the problem–we need to find a way to get people to put down their cell phones, stop texting or emailing, even for a few minutes a day, and make an effort to engage in the community the old fashioned way…by speaking to someone, introducing yourself, and having a conversation. So,I really don’t agree with the premise above–I think it’s misguided.

  40. Hear, hear. We have to stop treating students as empty vessels in need of filling, and schools as standardized testing centers. Yes, students must learn to read, to write, and to communicate. But beyond the basics, what we learn today will be irrelevant tomorrow. We need students who know how to think, and who know where to get new knowledge; who possess the creativity needed to address new challenges in novel ways; and the collaborative ability to work across silos and geographic borders that no longer exist.

    Citizenship is about more than the ability to vote, and it’s completely distinct from ideology. It’s about having the knowledge, wisdom, and sense of agency to recognize a problem and do something about it. It’s about recognizing that in a deeply interconnected world, there is no “my interest” and “your interest” (see Exhibit A: financial crisis, and 90% of headline news). It has everything to do with empathy, and the various skills it entails–the ability to resolve conflict, to work in teams, to align interests, and problem-solve. Ours is a world in which it’s no longer possible to interact only with those who look like you, act like you, and think the same things as you do, which means that being a global citizen is no longer a choice. This kind of skillset isn’t just a nice-to-have, and it’s not just for the good of our planet and the people living on it: it’s because the jobs of the future demand it.

    This isn’t lofty rhetoric. I talk with principals and teachers every single day, who are making the school of the future the school of today. We know what good education looks like. And we have the proof that it can work in every imaginable environment: public, charter, private, among rich kids and poor kids, in urban schools and rural. It’s time we demanded that kind of education for every student, and not just the offspring of the well-heeled. We know how to do it. So let’s.

  41. A dynamic and meaningfully integrated civics education weaved continually throughout elementary, middle and high school that complements the important focus on STEM education would go a very long way.

    The Campaign For the Civic Mission of Schools is a good starting point. However, the kind of civics to which I am referring need to go beyond government/democracy and take an expansive view of the role each student has and will continue to have as a citizen of not only their community, but the world. Service learning should be an integral part of this approach.

  42. We keep coming back to the individual’s relationship with the social. We want our kids to have their own personalities, not to be mere cogs and yet to contribute to this “social engine” as community participants. Then come the questions — in what community? for what end, according to whose agenda? and how not to veer into either “individualism” nor “socialism” (saints preserve us!) without impeding on strong selfhood and strong communal values?

    If I knew the answers to those questions, I’d be like, the Grand Vizier of Education (can we make that a real position?), so in place of that I’ll give examples from Ukraine, where I teach English to kids in a small village. Here, one’s daily life depends on the community to a very large degree: People help each other in their kitchen gardens, look after children, or help when someone gets sick. At the same time, these communal values don’t translate into civic participation. Many Ukrainians are exhausted of a system which, with democracy, promised much, then delivered little in the way of actual services. Our roads are terrible, feral dogs are everywhere, to say nothing of health care or school funding.

    Some of this inaction has to do with the Soviet legacy, which you can still see in many canned, uncreative lessons. Many pupils are used to rote memorization and haven’t been pushed to develop critical thinking. Their writing skills are lackluster — like many of our kids in the U.S., unfortunately — and they struggle to form complex arguments.

    The life-blood to democracy, be it in Ukraine or the U.S. or anywhere, is writing, particularly rhetoric. I don’t mean the 5-paragraph essay, the pat “and then I realized” conclusion slapped onto the end. I’d like to see pupils introduced to writing as a way of thinking on the page, arriving at an opinion through argument and doubt and nuance. Through writing, you begin to understand what you really think, like the Greeks who philosophized as they walked.

    Of course, writing skills are just one facet of education. But a person who can craft an argument is a person with whom another can engage, converse, battle out an idea. This isn’t just about individual development or “self-actualization.” Communication is communal.

  43. My experience with the public school system is exactly the description of a “diurnal detention camp”. Most of the time and energy was driven by poor direction, inadequate social experiences and limiting scope of material and logic. The 13 years spent does little or nothing to prepare you for college, work, adult relationships or becoming a functioning member of society. Basically it doesn’t prepare you for life.

    When I finally entered college I found a different experience with my critical mind beginning to explore more of me and the world around me through Socratic methods. The problem is we are now saddled with higher education costs that limit the number of young adults that can take advantage of it. If it wasn’t for companies that paid for education (more in the past), I probably would not have finished my undergraduate, nor be able to pursue my masters today.

    So how do we create the partnership with companies today in order to make the K-12 experience a better start to their future?

  44. “It’s where we begin active, deliberate and rational participation in a citizen community” – couldn’t agree more. And while the visionary component of this makes a lot of sense, the emotionally specific language of containment places too much emphasis on the institution and not enough on the reality missed by most reformers: when we talk culture, we talk community. Yes, many school and district leaders can pave the way towards a transformative system like we are envisioning here. But most change happens in the rink – change advocates who refuse to sit down at PTA meetings, students who choose suspensions in favor of speaking their true voice, teachers with big hearts and equally big mouths, etc, etc.

    I don’t agree or disagree – I believe that there is something very strong to be said for the struggle, the journey, the commitment to reach that visionary destination even when it is obscured by mortar fire.

    “To become a citizen, one must learn how to live and participate in a community — the most attractive ideal for any society, in religious or secular terms. It is one of the pillars of civilization. We cannot hope to endure without it.”

    School gave me this. It gave me this by establishing a safe place from which I could rebel and scream and stand up for what I believed in.

    “It’s where we begin active, deliberate and rational participation in a citizen community; and learn how to use the instrument of citizenship to manage, if not eradicate, our inner selfishness, our petty private passions, our personal interests. It’s where we feed and nurture the better part of our natures by channeling the collective efforts toward a higher, nobler purpose: the common weal. (th?)”

    School gave me this by being exactly the opposite. I wasn’t sheltered from anything, really. School was so oppressive in every way that I quickly established my own sense of “higher, nobler purpose”.

    At the same time, many kids enter a prison-style system. So I can only speak for myself, agreeing and disagreeing at once. At this time in history, it is the conversation that seems to matter most.

  45. Other than agreeing with the need or education reform, especially in urban areas where resources are definitely lacking, I disagree with this piece. The U.S. already lags behind much of the civilized world in the areas school is supposed to be teaching, such as math and reading. School is not the place to be teaching morals or servitude to the State, in fact it sounds creepy.

    I have absolutely no problem with the school promoting after-school or extra-curricular opportunities to engage in public service, in fact I believe colleges look for that sort of thing nowadays. But the improvment in schools needs to be in how to make the education more stimulating and exciting so that the students want to work at their studies. Improvement will not come from replacing that with citizenship indoctrination. History has shown enough that when a local school board tries to inject its own morals into the curriculum, bad things happen. Kids should learn the structure and procedures of our government, and about voting (they should know that is a valuable right and responsibility). Otherwise, there are plenty of opportunities and outlets outside of school to teach children about doing-unto-others and being a good citizen.

    I’ll teach my kids how to be good persons and citizens; the school needs to teach them fractions and where to find China on a map.

  46. As a current parent and an ex teacher…when teachers have to teach a certain curriculum and their performance is measured by fill in the bubble tests, they teach only the facts, not thinking skills…when teachers are no longer permitted to discipline students and parents do not support teacher discipline, then there is no motive to exert control of your classroom (except perhaps your own sanity)…teachers are told no seat work, no rote practice, which takes away their ability to give the advanced students an extra push and the slower students extra help, they must teach to the middle. Remember when we were in school and their were reading groups? One group worked with the teacher, the other two groups did “free reading”, the next group worked with the teacher while the first group completed work book activities (then “free reading” until Reading time was over), finally the third group worked with the teacher, then did the work book activities and whenever you finished your assigned task, you sat quietly in your desk and read your book? That doesn’t happen any longer. Everyone is in the same group. There is no desk work. Same with math…no “practice sheets” allowed…you remember, those sheets we did after the group lesson, where the teacher could then go around the room and see who “got it” and who needed extra help? Nope, can’t do that either. Everyone knew who was in the high groups and who was in the low groups. Then someone said that made the kids in the low groups feel bad…I’m thrilled the “feel good give rewards for no reason” period is coming to an end, kids knew that was crap all along. I taught SpEd, so I could get away with more, but then we had all the integration BS…we put the kids in SpEd because the couldn’t make it in the regular classroom, remember? Oh, OK, let’s just stick them back in there with some modifications and I’m SURE they’ll be just fine. My kids go to private school for a reason.

  47. Indeed, one does sense that education in America has become a means to end. School has become a platform for zealous self-fulfillment with the ‘small’ goal of finding a career that is both personally fulfilling (whatever that means) and pays well.

    This has created a culture that values apathy, consumerism and personal happiness over community. Some may dismiss the notion of community. But the fact is human beings are naturally inclined toward community and we need each other to be fully human.

    As a Christian and a pastor this predicament saddens me. I believe in a creator and I believe that human beings are created in his image and thus we are hard-wired for each other. My experience as a pastor confirms that people long for community and connection with other human beings. We crave community and the lack of it is destroying us.

    Perhaps we need to dream school again. Perhaps we need to dream that school become the place where one learns to be fully human by understanding the concept of self in the context of community. And this means much more than finding and training for the right career.

  48. there are many emergent solutions to educating children… and adults. , the problem is in diffusion of solutions… and although i like the rubric of citizenship (morphed from the meeting’s core idea of service to the community around a school)… my lever for change is local autonomous purchasing.

  49. nb — the diffusion of constructive change (adoption of new, constructive ideas) is always slow… and in these days of blisteringly fast technologic progress, the pliocene-anchored pace of teacher unions and entrenched political forces standing against innovation are particularly onerous. the history of public education in america is not good. see, eg., the six lesson schoolteacher by john taylor gatto.

  50. Am I supposed to be excited about a vague reform movement that is promising to return to a nostalgic past where we were taught to “manage, if not eradicate, our inner selfishness, our petty private passions, our personal interests.”? Sounds like the very holding pen the author is decrying.

    What is this piece meant to do, besides cast aspersions on green technology?

  51. While I apreciate as much as the next reader, and maybe more, a bombastic prose style, any essay that starts out by telling us what schools are, is fatally flawed from the get go.
    Schools are in fact and should be as varied and different as the students that attend them. If you meet actual students today, many if not most, present much better than you would expect from a school system that is described here in such starkly negative terms.
    While some may feel alienated and unserved, spend some time with many teenagers and you will discover that most of them have ambitious dreams and plans for achieving them.
    As for the teachers, to use such a broad brush in questionsing there motivations, efforts and effectiveness is simply to draw conclusions that are not substaniated by facts.
    Before you burn down one barn, you ought make sure you have a new one built. The later is hard work the former is easy.

  52. These are just some quick, unedited thoughts. Apologies if they are disorganized or rough around the edges.

    Claiming that educators view children as human capital and livestock is a staggering error. I’ve taught in numerous elementary schools, and each adult I worked with truly cared about students as people. In fact, every classroom I’ve observed had ways to attempt to instill citizenship and basic good into each student. Educators are at times bitter and resentful, especially with irrelevant and inaccurate testing and the sheer volume of work forced onto their plates, but I have never seen a teacher take this out on the students choose to underperform. Again, in my experience we do our very best to give each student the best possible education, in spite of what I have discussed above.

    The lessons my colleagues and I teach are hands on and engaging. We do not follow a canned curriculum, though at times we will tweak such lesson plans to incorporate more problem solving, discussion, and engagement. Rote is rarely, if ever, used,

    Further, I believe it is naive to leave out any discussion of content while discussing schools. Problem solving, critical thinking, citizenship, and communication are all vital. However, students will not be able to succeed without other foundational skills in areas such as math and science.

    While I can’t speak of upper grades, in elementary school college is not even discussed. Instead, we are trying to teach students the skills they will need to succeed no matter what path they take in life. To read, to write, to reason, to discuss, to question, to learn.

    The author also ignores the other realities that currently face (and will continue to face) education. Disengaged parents, poverty, malnourishment, abuse, drugs, alcohol, etc. There is no way a child will learn to be an ideal citizen without the school playing some role in compensating for these. We can have massive, groundbreaking reform. Without these issues also being addressed, it will be time and money wasted.

    I realize my experiences are not common among all educators, and I completely agree that massive reform is needed. I also agree that starting from scratch would be wonderful for reform. This may sound self-serving, but we need smaller class sizes to each child can receive an individualized education that allows them to grow at their own pace. We need better ways to accelerate students or intervene when they need assistance. Students need access to up to date technology. However, such reform will be incredibly expensive to create and implement. While I know it’s worth it, I also know it will not happen. As such, we need to do our best to improve our teachers and administrators within the current system, making large changes as we can.

    Waxing poetic about the citizen ideal and discussing a complete revamping of education is wonderful to incite discussion. However, it won’t do anything to fix the problems that we do face. For that, educators need freedom, administrators need the ability to prompt change, and the congress needs to stay the hell out.

  53. Great dialogue. Almost too many to read. I’ll leave three tangential articles that I think relate:

    Seth Godin- “Stop Stealing Dreams”

    WSJ- “Educating the Next Steve Jobs.”

    RSA- “Empathic Civilization”

    If I get around to writing more in depth on these thoughts, I’ll come back and post!

  54. “It won’t stop until we start designing for school as a community-wide resource; it won’t stop until we start creating school as a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest.

    It’s a platform that enables children to self-actualize not only as individuals but also as citizens; who learn and live and thrive by thinking and doing, not just for themselves, but for the entire community, for all citizens.

    The logic that we must solve for, then, is neither fiscal nor physical, but moral:

    No schools without citizens. No citizens without schools.”


    The final call to action of this piece moved me in particular. With a blend of urban planning, ed policy, and learning design–– I have always thought that the creation of a school could be a catalyst for a community. A physical manifestation of partnerships, philosophies. A place not to prepare for obedient citizenry, but catalytic citizenry. Indeed, the art of teaching needs to liberated, respected, and celebrated. And the art of educational and community leadership needs to be imaginative, holistic, and inclusive.

    How do we do this? I sure would like to know. I know it is one part design, one part systemic change, one part starting small, one part dreaming big. It will start when we start identifying and lifting up cases of these holistic, conscious learning communities. When we stop deluding ourselves that test scores can illustrate competency, creativity, and potential. When we see and recognize the many forms that learning takes on in and out of the school and capitalize on the natural curiosity of our children. When we create rich and realistic projects, and bolster those with deep understanding of fundamentals. When we let children fail and tinker their way to success.

    It will happen. But only if we want it to.

  55. This is Very similar to what I’m working towards with my PhD and collaborations in Uganda. Keep up the good work.

  56. It would be wonderful if, at every stage of a child’s life, he were given opportunities to serve his community, learning new skills on the way.
    We are also failing in our civics education. People graduate high school with no clear idea of how our government works or how they can fulfill heir roles as citizens. Too many people think that they fulfill their obligations to their nation and community by voting once every 4 years. Children need to be given more hands-on experience with local government. They need to know that they can spot a problem and do something about it besides griping.
    Creativity should be nurtured, and the arts should be incorporated into other academic areas, without the teachers having to pay for materials out of their own pockets.
    Experience in nature is fundamental to developing spatial skills and to developing an appreciation of ecosystem and weather functions, food sources, and the human’s place in nature.

  57. Kids should be playing computer games that teach them how to read and add. They would progress at their own rate. Teachers could easily see who is struggling and work with them. The games would have the kids forming groups with others on the same level, to accomplish specific tasks to advance in their game. The games would have a help section where the kids can find tips on how to advance. Certain subjects can still be taught in the old traditional way like music and PE. Make the games interesting enough and you won’t be able to get the kids off of them. Put a whole new twist to the idea that you have to go home and put in a couple hours of study playing computer games.

  58. everything here is smart, even if i don’t think everything here is right.

    i want schools that will help make my children ~ and yours and theirs ~ better, happier people.

    I wonder if we’re letting the wordsmithing get in the way of the schoolsmithing (like how i did that?). what’s next…

    …because as someone once said to me “a vision without action is nothing more than a hallucination.”

  59. The problem with education has little to do with the content, which appears to be the thrust of the proposal. The “when am I going to use this lesson” is most telling. I use the lessons of my education every minute of every day — it’s implicit in how I think.

    Now, back to this idea. The problems you should be trying to solve:
    1) Funding – the US spends more per prisoner than per student. Thus, incarceration is more values by society than education. Start there.

    2) Political agendas – Whether gay history or creationism, personal agendas are getting in the way of math, science, etc.

    3) Corporate interests – From school lunches to textbooks to the pension plans, corporate interests are coming to define education. And what are corporations interested in? Cashflow and short-term profits. Thus, the problem with your citizens is that the people shaping them have short-term shapes in mind.

    Obviously there are more areas concerned, this is just a starting point. Further, I will take issue with two assumptions made here.

    1) education is already about citizenship. To base education on employment is a fallacy for its employment and economic inequity that really needs change.

    2) closely related, you are proposing an asymmetric system of self sacrifice, teaching people to give up their own self interest when that is all that is separating the lower classes from total subservience to the capital class. If you are going to teach children subservience of their own needs, then all corporations must be NGOs, else you will end up with a third world income distribution.

    Overall, this is one of the poorest evaluations of a problem seen in sometime. I hope you take the comments above on board.

  60. My kids LOVE school. They love their teachers, the experience of being at school, and the community the school fosters. I truly believe that their teachers, the curriculum, the values they learn at school, all of it, is helping to make them better people. I’m incredibly fortunate and I know it. I appreciate that I’m financially able to live in a suburb with great public schools. I am also very aware of the inequities in the system. It’s the inequity that I’d like to see addressed. All children should have the same wonderful experiences at school that my kids have. How? Stop paying for the public school system with property tax receipts and create the funding that allows for every kid, whether suburban or urban, to get the same start in life.

  61. These ideas are not new and have been taught for the last 100 yeas in most of the Montessori schools around the U.S.

  62. In my 7 years in education, I feel the biggest lesson I’ve learned is regarding the importance of community. To me, a community cannot advance if it is not part of the plan. Education is the answer to many of our problems, but we need the support of the people if we are actually going to make change.

    I work with the community of Watts, a community filled with charter schools trying to prove the success of their model. Everyone has ideas, but they don’t work as well in practice. Watts has seen a lot, but why haven’t these programs produced sustainable change? I was in the classroom for 5 years and knew very little about the community I served. I have come to realize I was doing a disservice to my children(students) because I was only offer one form of education. A form of education that did not meet their greatest needs. The inner city needs more than math and english to move forward.

    I was born in raised in East LA during the ’80 and ’90. I understand street life. “Street life” is a mandatory course for children in inner cities. We’ll never get the chance to enter a classroom, if we don’t learn to survive first. It doesn’t mean we all are in gangs or are involved in criminal activity, but most of us know where to walk, what to wear and how to react in life threatening situations. But it’s bigger than this too. Just cause I thought I knew “street life”, it didn’t mean I knew Watts life. As I tried to get everyone on one path, I alienated those that I failed to get to know and understand.

    I honestly think this is an extremely difficult time to be a kid. They know the economy is bad (because every adult around reminds them, adding stress), they can see other youth around the world suffer (via internet), they know us adults don’t have a clue of how to fix our mess (because we are always arguing) and there’s a good chance things can get worse. I think about how challenging it is for me, as an adult with many resources, to dream of a better future, and can’t imagine what it must be like for children who are still unable to think abstractly. What kind of dreams CAN they have?

    Now as I’ve learned to work within the community, I am able to see all the resources available to children in the community that NEVER made it to my campus. I now see that by considering the community separate from the school, I was creating more challenges for my kids to navigate through without giving them the appropriate support. There wasn’t a support network, just individuals pushing the kid different ways, making it harder for them in the long run. We need to unite for our children. The gap between schools and the community needs to close so we can all focus closing the opportunity gap within education. It takes a village to raise a child, not just a school.

    In Watts, the community works together with LAPD to prevented many possible crimes, but schools are not part of the current team. Schools are not involved in many of the community networks. It’s sad. Instead of working as a response to violence, created by many social factors, the schools can work with the community to help solve these social issues.

  63. Schools should really be incubating spaces for questions, creativity, freedom, enlightenment, and community building to enable self-empowered leaders to grow.
    We should establish a better relationship between individual contribution and community building. Students should be in educational spaces for the sake of fostering the creative spirit, the trial and error thirst that leads to more learning. I think the problem lies in the amount of pressure that is bent on the students constantly. On the other extreme you get students that for lack of resources are not getting the quality education they deserve. We have forgotten that education is a RIGHT, it is an undeniably human RIGHT. I think that making learning more accessible and more real is certainly a step in a more progressive direction. I also believe that people that have posted to this bring valuable insight. The conversation has emerged, our thoughts/ideas are in a conversation that needs to happen more often. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of it.
    In solidarity,

  64. I think part of this idea is genius and part of it is, well, idiotic. You can’t take the human ego out of the human. I recently read this article, the Fall of Communism in Massachusetts ( Trying to train kids to act for the greater good bypasses their nature and ultimately backfires. On the other hand, I totally agree that what we teach and how we teach it is broken. Letting kids loose on real world problems makes a lot of sense. They get practical experience and learn along the way, and the community is improved by their efforts.

    • You’re bang on…

      Marxist theories seem plausible…until one factors in greed, pride, laziness, ignorance and other perceived human defects, which thwart all earthly progress; and bar us, all of us, from every possible route to Neverland–Utopia by another name. Maybe that’s why Capitalism works, or has worked, so well: It emphasizes the worst, not the best, in ‘humanity:’ cutthroat competitiveness, false consciousness, cultural hegemony…or, if you prefer, the belief that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ …especially if we only keep score down here by counting greenbacks.

      And let’s admit it: Being better than who and what we are–as individuals and as a community–is hard. Really hard. Being–and doing–less is much easier. To borrow the words of G.K. Chesterton: “the [Utopian] ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

  65. Well, I think it’s a step in sort of the right direction. Community involvement and thinking outside ones self is always good. I think what would be better is applied learning. According to developmental psychiatrists, learning requires movement. Sitting for 6 hours a day is not conducive to learning. Getting up and doing group projects, having discussions on current issues among students, the community and the world as a whole, applying what they are learning to the topics. That’s the way to learn. The school my children attend is very hands on. The students lead projects. There are learning gardens where the children, k-8th grade, apply what they learn in class to not only gardening, but how issues such as hunger, climate change, even political issues could be solved with the planting of the theoretical “seed.” The seed is planted and the ideas grow. Anyway, I don’t think this exact model presented is the way, but it’s nice to see some thinking outside the box.

  66. “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”

    The yardsticks by which we measure education today are outdated. Subject proficiencies, standardized test scores and graduation rates no longer accurately define what it means to be “educated.” Nor are these current metrics sufficient predictors or gauges for an individual’s or a society’s capability, happiness, or success.

    By redefining the metrics of “education” we bring entirely new discourse and means to judge outcomes, and, therefore effectiveness of all educational programs and interventions. We can incorporate the outcomes of education (community economic growth, jobs, poverty reduction) into the very means by which we measure its effectiveness.

    Move over Scantron, here comes something meatier!

  67. while the positions established in the manifesto are too sweeping to describe every situation in schooling today, they are appropriately directional. the only way we’ll get these things moving forward is for government and social institutions to find more and more ways to collaborate and experiment.

    as i’m getting ready for a trip down to new orleans to attend the ux4good conference in a couple weeks, i’m intrigued by the exploration going on down there… as described in fastcompany recently…

  68. While I agree with SOME of this, I think that neglecting the individual needs of each person does not only do a disservice to community building, it destroys community building.

    There ARE schools that create democratic citizens while embracing the individuality of each citizen: Democratic Free Schools like the Brooklyn Free School, Sudbury Valley Free School, and the Albany Free School.

    If it weren’t for high stakes testing and the phenomenal destruction of real ideals of learning, these schools could be public schools.

  69. My position on school has changed since I’ve placed my daughter squarely in the middle of one. Initially I was hell bent on sending her to public school so she could experience diversity of kids from across the spectrum. After seeing the state of lowest-common denominator teaching required by oversized classes, tracked schooling, and teachers who are being forced to act as parents in many cases, I came to rethink her educational experience.

    She now is in a school for the highly gifted – not because I wanted her to be around a bunch of other smarty pants kids, but because they were able to focus each child’s unique challenges and strengths. They are able to do what all our schools need to do – namely, understand the inherent capabilities and limitations imposed by biology and environment to develop a learning plan that can enable them to maximize what it is they are here to do.

  70. There is no question that we are in need of major educational reform. There are a lot of ideas that sound good on paper but I really think that it all boils down to who the students have been going home to every night since they were born. If parents in our country do not respect teachers or value education, then even the best idea will fail. The first step in reforming education needs to be changing our society’s perception of teachers.

    The second thing we need is to place more emphasis on early childhood education before we spend another dime on college readiness. It seems so obvious that the potential of a child’s education is based on the foundation that is built in the early years of life. Again a calling to parents to to spend time with their children, read with them, teach them how to play and interact with others.

    The final issue is that of the awareness of parents. Most people that I talk to about schools look at me like I have bugs crawling from my ears at the very mention of reforming public education. Typically I am asked, “whats’s wrong with public education?”

    Without a renewed respect for teachers, awareness of the issues, and a bottom up approach to building a strong educational foundation, the most innovative ideas for reforming education will falter.

  71. The spirit in your words invigorate me: I hear a call to action, “Reject our human-capital farms! Abandon the one percenters and instead serve ourselves!”

    But what led to the transformation of these mythical citizen schools into worker-in-a-box schools? Surely, this transfiguration did not occur because we at-some-point-in-time forgot the purpose of school! Perhaps school has always been a tool, used by schoolmasters to indoctrinate and control. Then a “citizen school,” is – in fact, an oxymoron.

    Rather than ask that the system be reformed (in new dystopian fashion), we should do the difficult work of identifying what learning experiences really lead to caring and capable citizens. And the next step is providing those experiences – irrespective of whether it takes place at a school.

    Be more conscious of what duties you ascribe to schooling. Education is necessary, but school is not. Don’t fall prey to status-quo thinking that gives undue advantage to the powers that be.

  72. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, and commented on the “School Is Not School” manifesto.

    As this is part of a larger project, the comments section is now closed. But your thoughts — pro, con, and everywhere in between — will help us in an ongoing experiment to re-think education reform.

    To see what happens next, follow Insight Labs on Facebook or Twitter to see what happens next.