What is School for?

In Seth Godin’s 2012 TED talk, Stop Stealing Dreams, he asks the question, “what is school for?” and suggests that we can’t make real improvements in education until we have thought about, answered, and agreed upon this question.[1] He points out that the current brick-and-mortar classrooms are relics from the industrial revolution in which students are processed in age-categorized batches, and are tested on their ability to memorize mass information from textbooks. Our education system is so entrenched with ideas of productivity and processing that we can’t see a way out. What if we eliminated tests as a measure of learning and measured experience instead?  How would we allocate funding? What if we asked students to build something interesting instead of writing multiple choice exams? These are important and difficult questions that are being contemplated daily as the education world undergoes a new revolution.

It’s an interesting conversation.  I find it fascinating how much heat brick-and-mortar classrooms take for operating under the industrial revolution model described above, and how online learning is often pitched as the solution to the industrial model problem. However, if online learning fails to address the fundamental question of what schools are for, then they aren’t a solution at all. If they are simply online textbooks, can we even call them an alternative?

It’s important that we re-focus our goals for education and determine the role of schools and teachers. If schools are meant to prepare students for life, then shouldn’t students be taught to ask questions, be critical, work with others, and try to figure things out for themselves? This can be done well in both online and brick-and-mortar style classrooms because the teacher is there to coach students through their learning in both instances. Online learning is not a solution in and of itself, but it does facilitate the life skills that students need in the 21st century. If students can’t search, and sift through massive amounts of information, assess sources critically, and ask questions about the material, then we haven’t successfully prepared them for life after high school. If students can’t use technology to communicate their ideas in the digital age, their career prospects will be limited. Online education allows for greater flexibility and self-paced learning; it has every opportunity to lead the education revolution, but only if the courses are designed to address these questions in a meaningful way. We need to prepare students for the real world; that’s what school is for.

[1] Seth Godin (2012). Stop Stealing Dreams. [Accessed October 1, 2014].

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