The Plague-Ground – A different question about going back to school.

Sanjay Gupta will not be sending his kids back to school; Jared Kushner will.

In America, this decision spills over from the deeply personal to the openly political. In Canada, our choice is disconnected from how we voted in the last election. Thank Heavens.

Still, virtually every family of Canada’s 5.5 million elementary and secondary school students is gnawing over how and when to send their kids back to school — as are Canada’s 15,500 schools over how and when to take them and teach them without turning their classroom into a COVID petri dish.

These are all urgent questions because they’re life-and-death ones.

But I have a different question that comes from our common belief that the pandemic will change everything.

Remember back in the spring when we all said that?

The. Pandemic. Will. Change. Everything.

Work will change forever. We’ll hug the earth and not destroy it. We’ll all become home-bakers and caring neighbours. Life will be slower, smaller, more intentional and better.

We also believe that the pandemic, in forcing us to a screeching halt, frees us to ask questions we either didn’t have time for or didn’t dare ask, about our relationship to almost everything – and everyone.

So now, exactly three weeks before Labour Day and the start of the school year, is the perfect time to ask: “Why do kids need to go to school at all?”

“Is school the best way to get an education?”

Heather MacTaggart asked this question with more than her own kids, now grown up and gone, at stake.

For 20 years, she’s headed Classroom Connections which creates supplementary learning materials for schools across Canada. Since 2013, she’s spent most of her time working and living in Maskwacis, Alberta where she worked with the Samson Cree Nation on Change It Up to provide skills to young people who have dropped out and lost hope amidst horrific social conditions.

Today, she’s leading the UnSchooling School movement. It grew out of her frustration with traditional school models – not just with severely disadvantaged Indigenous kids, but with severely advantaged Toronto kids – and with the shift in thinking that the pandemic has given parents and their kids about how best to learn, live and succeed.

For some kids, school works just fine.

For others, home-schooling works too.

For many others, school is not a fit at all.

We all know kids who hated school, and because not doing well at school is still viewed as something between a character flaw and a mental illness, they did badly at it.

For the vast majority of parents with kids like these, the problem is always the kid. Sometimes, it’s the particular school, so the bounce begins from this school to that one, hoping that one of them will ‘take’ and their child will blossom.

But maybe the problem isn’t a particular student or a specific school.

Maybe the problem is the very structure of the education system itself.

A structure that was originally designed to emulate factories.

As Heather MacTaggart has said: “Humans have thrived because we learn, not because we teach.”

If you go to the Unschooling School website the first words you see are: “Create an alternative to school within your school.”

To be clear, this is not about never going to school or never using one again. It’s about repurposing school to suit the people who use it.

This is a radical shift in who has the power, and could be an unacceptable one for many parents and teachers.

But it speaks to the tectonic shift in thinking that the pandemic has blessed us with.

“Unschooling School is about stepping outside the dominant narrative around education and into a new one. It’s a narrative where schools become places filled with resources, facilities, materials and experts to be used by kids to help them in the process of educating themselves. It’s all there. We just need to change how we use it.”

Who knows. The idea of Unschooling School may come and go like so many others when the dream runs up against reality.

Then again, this may be a Margaret Mead moment.

It was she who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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16 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – A different question about going back to school.”

  1. Intriguing. Logically, if not politically popular, “unschooling” should take account of the value of on the job apprentiships and workplace work perse. Inspiring and technically demanding bosses are important informal educators.

  2. Penelope Fridman

    Thanks for the interesting article. Please look into the work of an Israeli friend – Opher Brayer. An autodidact (the educational system failed him as a young boy), he has been creating and implementing new educational systems around the world.

  3. Graham W S Scott

    Very interesting. It is important that we continually revisit our systems and improve our creativity. We do have to be careful. By and large Canadians are better educated than most other advanced countries and while we need to be much more creative with the underdeveloped and the exceedingly bright I would be concerned about too much change. Like defunding police it is a complex challenge

  4. Excellent article, Bob. Thanks. This sounds a bit like Ivan Illich. In his book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, Illich described schools as places “where consumerism and obedience to authority were paramount and genuine learning was replaced by a process of advancement through institutional hierarchies accompanied by the accumulation of largely meaningless credentials.” Lots of words there. Instead of compulsory mass schooling, Illich advocated for a model of learning in which skills and knowledge were acquired through a network of “informal and voluntary relationships.” An idea whose time has come.

  5. Margaret Swaine

    My high school in Beaconsfield Quebec was ahead of its time it seems. It experimented with a number of systems for students who were rapid learners and had high marks. I was allowed to select some subjects to self learn and was bussed (along with a few others) to a college to take a science course at the university level. This was a great solution to the high level of boredom that I and others experienced in regular classes – to the point that some of us could be quite disruptive. (Shooting spitballs through straws, flying paper airplanes, putting a dead mouse in the science teacher’s purse, etc. All punishable by detention after school: which didn’t fix the problem)

  6. Music to my ears. You being the consummate word guy would appreciate the fact that the word education is derived from the Latin root educere which means to “draw out.” I’ve always thought the original meaning of the word education describes the exact opposite of contemporary educational models. To a large extent traditional classroom learning seeks to cram information in rather than drawing out innate curiosity and the best qualities in every individual. The world is changing and education must change too. We need to move beyond a focus on numeracy and literacy towards a form of education that embraces learning to live on a planet under pressure, socially, environmentally and economically. Education, real education, is at the heart of our urgent need to adapt to change and transform the world within which we live.

    1. Ian – I couldn’t agree more….my fear is that ‘the system’ doesn’t trust kids or their parents to do this.
      All part of our broader conversation later this week, yes?

    2. I think dead mice have a bigger role to play in our education system, Margaret.
      Seriously, thanks for checking in, and yes, Beaconsfield was a beacon of free-form

      1. Cheers Bob. I don’t know if Beaconsfield is still doing free form education but at least in my days it was trying to make learning better for students. That said I still don’t like a classroom or a lecture. Unless it’s a back and forth conversation, I’m a really bad listener.

      2. Thanks Les! I couldn’t agree more. This from Wayne Jennings’ amazingly thoughtful and extraordinarily well-referenced book “School Transformation” – “An example of a complex learning experience might be an internship. The student confronts a variety of people, procedures, events, and activities that initially seems overwhelming but, with repeated exposure, becomes untangled in the mind to develop understanding. Exploiting this remarkable feature of the brain gives us insights for designing learning opportunities.” p.141

    3. Bernie — I sure do hope the time has come for this idea. I just fear that the entrenched interests of school boards and teachers will defeat parents and their kids.
      But maybe, hopefully not….

    4. Graham — Many thanks for checking in on this. I agree with you on the bell curve matter — the underdeveloped and exceedingly bright.
      But I do hope tings do loosen up at a faster rate than they are now…it’s amazing how the question of: “Will this get me a job?”
      Cheers. Bob

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