School’s Aren’t Just About Learning

The past few weeks have initiated a great deal of conversation about learning, schools and education. If we were to dive in, those three things are somewhat separate and unique. Learning is generally agreed upon as the seminal idea. While its definition seems to vary, the consensus would be that it is the mandate of schools to provide opportunities to learn. And I would argue, school’s definition of learning is fairly narrow and measured and valued by a very narrow set of skills, ideas and disciplines. Of course, learning is happening with our without a building with varying degrees of success to be sure.

After interviewing over a dozen people and having numerous other conversations, reading posts online, I’m wondering if we’re forgetting what the real advantage, indeed the unfair advantage of school really is and I don’t think it’s purely about learning.

As school systems begin to rethink how things will look in both the near future and beyond, they are certainly considering more opportunities for students to continue to learn from home. For a segment of parents, they are finding value in reducing travel, spending more time with their children and giving them autonomy over their time. Obviously these are many of the same reasons people have chosen to home school their children for years.

When we reflect and examine those children who are finding success at the moment, even if we set aside the privilege around access, well-being and support they have, we might be tempted to consider the efficiency and focus they are experiencing. I can attest that for many of the students I taught online for years, they spoke about these two elements is a primary benefit for online learning. And while they certainly have their value, I’m not convinced this is what schools ought to be thinking about. Learning is obviously one of the promises of schools but I don’t believe it’s job one.

I interviewed Pernille Ripp and shared a story that I think capsulized what school ought to be and noticed that the learning is secondary.

School is about community, connection and just being. Yes, it’s about learning but if you ask kids what they miss, they aren’t going to say learning. Learning can and will happen with or without schools. We didn’t have schools 200 years ago and people still were learning. What schools do best is create community, they create space for people to just be. We want to provide spaces where all children and adults feel like they have equal and equitable opportunities to learn but more so equal chances to be seen and heard and to belong. In a world that is being reminded of the evils of racism, schools may just be the one place to address that issue head-on. The fact that public education promises a place for everyone, means by default we bring together a diverse group of humans with varying cultures, races and beliefs. This is a good thing and something that can’t easily be offered in other settings. As educators, we can double down on this and begin to examine our own biases and that of our students. We don’t have to apologize for exposing children to the challenge and opportunity to learn from and with people who aren’t like themselves. That’s a gift and one we likely haven’t always appreciated and handled with care. Diversity isn’t a goal since it already is.

As schools transition back to our face to face settings, I encourage to think about what schools offer that can’t be easily or properly replicated online. Along with just being together, being together creating beautiful and interesting things should be at the fore of the experience. Creating art, working with others on interesting and meaningful projects, participating in music and sports and drama should take precedence over many of the things we have traditionally ranked as important. Maybe watch Sir Ken’s video as a reminder. In addition, take the time to read this from Gary Stager. Here’s a snippet:

You know who I rarely, if ever, see featured in the articles, books, podcasts, pronouncements, panel discussions or prognostications of the futurists “helping” schools prepare for the “new normal?” Music, art, or drama teachers. Why must the future be so colorless and dystopian?

The simple truth is that band was the only thing we did not have at home that justified my kids going to school. Schools tend to undervalue the things to which they actually add value.

This post is to remind me and others that while we will always work to provide better opportunities to learn, we have a greater obligation to provide great opportunities to be and to be together. I’m way less worried about our abilities to create learning opportunities but more concerned that we create and value great communities.