The Myths of Schooling

Schools are designed for learning

Sit in any classroom in America and you will see little evidence of what most school mission statements term: “engaged learning.” What you do see is a lot of teacher talk, a lot of listening, a lot of worksheets, and a lot of superficial learning. The organizational configuration of schooling —right down to the architecture of the buildings—is designed to document the transmission of large amounts of information to large amounts of children in a cost-effective way. The accomplishment of the institutional goals of schooling leaves little time for children and adolescents to engage in kinds of instructional activities that develop the knowledge and skills stated in school mission statements and no time to develop individual interests, abilities, and talents.

Schools can make students learn and teachers to teach well

The theoretical engine that drives in situational schooling are crude interpretations of behaviorism: given the right incentives—rewards and punishments–children, adolescents, and teachers will conform to institutional goals and practices. The basic truth about learning and performance is all young people and teachers come from some place—they are agents—possessing diverse interest, abilities, and talents. Achieving the educational goals in school mission statements lies in who a student or teacher is, not what you can do to a student or teacher.

Schools can control learning outcomes

The real-world engine that drives institutional schooling is the belief that schools can deliver on whatever institutional outcomes are prescribed in governmental mandates or education outcomes listed in school mission statements. The entire accountability movement is founded on the belief that internal mechanisms of schooling can produce some quantifiable outcome—higher test scores. The countless number of social, cultural, political, emotional, intellectual, biological variables that swirl around classrooms each day make it impossible to connect particular pedagogies to particular quantifiable outcomes. At best, administrators and teacher can create instructional conditions stimulating the kinds of thinking, discourse, and dispositions stated in school mission statements.

Schools are simple organizations

 The entire configuration of institutional schooling is founded on the belief that schools are simple organizations composed of identifiable parts that can be described, classified, and fit into fixed organizational and instructional systems. When a school part breaks—low test scores— the part is replaced—new reading program—or redesigned—modified performance review template. Although the surface features of schooling appear to represent production line organizations—self-contained classrooms, grades, textbooks—the interaction between the diverse composition of schooling—students and teachers—and the open-ended goals of schooling—social, emotional, and intellectual—embody the qualities of complex organizations characterized by unpredictability, ambiguity, and novelty. Efforts at imposing some form of institutional order over complex organizations may result in an organizational fix, but, more often than not, will result in fixes that temporary, superficial, and will probably make the situation worse.

School mission statements value the life of the mind

All school mission statements are composed of vocabularies promoting three schooling values: 1) our school is child centered (“where children feel joy, satisfaction, and purpose”); 2) our school offers a path to cultivation (“we value the life of the mind and intellectual challenge”); 3) our school prepares young people for occupational success (“well prepared for college and career pathways”). The first two goals have been brief appearances in schools over the years. The third goal — preparation for a job or post-secondary schooling—has been the dominate goal of schooling for decades. While public relations pamphlets, school administrators, and parents extol the virtues of the life of the mind, what school communities want their school is to deliver credentialing pathways leading to good paying jobs.


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