What is the Point of School?

I have spoken with and heard from several teachers and parents in recent weeks who are navigating a brand new back-to-school atmosphere. We’ve never had a September like this! Many of our societal conventions have been exposed and challenged, including the notions that folks with desk jobs should work in offices or that young people have to go to school.  

Most of us think ‘learning’ and ‘education’ are basically the same things, and we accept that they take place within institutional settings. Is that really so? What if we broke down some of this language and interrogated our assumptions? I have written here before about children learning what they live, and the importance of modelling the behaviours we want to see our kids adopt. Critical thinking is one 
of the skills we want them to acquire, so let’s start with ourselves and examine the following ideas:

1. Young people need an education.
The first thing to do with this statement is dig into the term education. What does it mean for you? How do you think young people learn? At some point each child comes to understand that stoves might burn and older siblings might hit back. Did they need education to know this? You might notice that education appears to be preparation for adulthood. What are the criteria for successfully ‘completing’ childhood? This is a complex and personal inquiry; we may all have our individual responses and reasoning. 

2. Kids need to be in school.
The novel coronavirus situation has proven this one to be false. I’ve had recent conversations with parents and teachers concerned about avoiding transmission of COVID-19, and they are considering that ‘kids need to be in school’ might be a myth. Sometimes reading and arithmetic come as easily as potty training – they just require calm and steady adult guidance along with consistent repetition. Like everything else in life, school has its positives and its negatives. What if you made a pros and cons list? Unschooling is another alternative. If you don’t already know what that is, you could do a little research and show your kids that learning is a lifelong process of discovery. 

3. Children need to socialise with each other.
For a lot of young people, being around friends and peers is the single best thing about school. That was certainly true for both me and my son! However, socializing is generally discouraged and seen as a distraction in many classrooms. Is school the only place socializing can happen? Is school an effective environment to pick up healthy social practices? When you think about bullying and competitive peer groups, it’s apparent that not all social interactions at school are the helpful kind. 

4. We need to pass on knowledge and prepare younger generations to take over leadership of society.
This is another piece of accepted – but next level – wisdom. Helping young people understand history, the mistakes of the past, and the importance of carrying forward the life-giving parts of civilization and eliminating things like racism and exploitation are crucial. Is this a job for schools? 

5. Schools can be marvellous places where magic happens and life-long memories are made.
The shared experiences, the milestones reached, and the community celebrations – these are wonderful parts of school for so many. And usually we can recall at least one special adult who noticed us, supported our goals, or really showed us they cared. Teachers are heroes; that’s one thing I kept hearing when students stayed home this spring. It’s like parents got a new insight about what teachers do and how hard they work. 

For me school was quite literally the best of times and the worst of times. That’s probably the case for a lot of you grown-ups and teenagers. As we wrestle with big questions and apply critical thinking to the role schools play, I know this to be true: 

Parents need help!

Friends, neighbours, extended family, coaches, librarians – and yes, schools – are part of the village all moms and dads need to raise their family. Every parent has been a teacher since their first day on the job, but none of us can do it on our own. Pandemic parenting is a group activity.