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.”