Essays on Education: 1. The experience of school


Not only does the schooling environment directly affect the adults its students become, it also affects the organisations and social systems that those adults create. It’s time we thought about that.

Children learn what they live. – John Taylor Gatto

Critics of modern schooling like John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich have recognised that the fundamental curriculum that schools teach is school itself. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since moving to South Africa, where school reform has become a nationwide calling.

The initiatives that feel most promising to me are the ones that are digging under the layers a bit – looking at ways of transforming the experience of schooling, not only the observable structures and pedagogy that are generally associated with academic achievement. We intuitively know, and 20 years of education research has confirmed, that the best way to learn something is to experience it. Since most subjects are still taught using passive “chalk-and-talk” teaching methods, it’s reasonable to conclude that, in the long haul, students learn more in school about organisational life – since they learn that experientially – than about the actual subject matters they’re being taught.

It’s easy to forget that although schools are explicitly designed to teach us things like reading, Math and Science, they are also implicitly teaching us powerful lessons about how to collectively organise ourselves as human beings. They inherently teach us to organise ourselves hierarchically rather than democratically, to compete rather than collaborate, to listen to authority over intuition, and to be subjects rather than active citizens. They teach us experientially that inter-generational contact has little value, that we’re not expected to make a meaningful contribution to our community, and that we are receivers rather than creators of knowledge.

School is often our first contact with formal organisational life, which means we absorb these lessons before we even know how to make sense of them. Given how much of what happens in our world today is driven by organisations, it seems that the lessons we absorb through schooling have a massive ripple effect. They influence how we run our government, our civil society, our social movements, our arts and culture, our economy, and (in full circle) our education system.

We desperately need examples of healthy, life-giving ways of organising and governing ourselves. What better organisation to be that example than school, which touches all of our lives so deeply?

What if schools strived to become living expressions of the kinds of organisations and communities we would like to see permeate society?


Essays on education

Three thinkers and educators share their ideas on teaching, learning, dreaming and textbooks.

  1. → Tana Paddock: The experience of school
  2. → Dr Nosakhere Griffin-EL: The gospel of dreaming
  3. → Mark Horner: Knowledge should be free



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