I appreciate the question because too often, we take it as a given that there is this “learning incubation zone” where young people go until they’re 18. When considering “no school,” it inspires a lot of questions.
Director of Strategy and Partnerships, Real World Scholars
On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To showcase the diversity of education stakeholders you are likely to find in your own community, we have conducted three robust conversations with community and organization leaders, young learners and parents, and educators. Each conversation revolves around the question: What if school did not exist? What would you create?
Our first conversation was with Michael Crawford (Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Real World Scholars), Ravi Hutheesing (Founder of Ravi Unites Schools), and Marc Porter Magee (CEO and Founder of 50CAN).
Q: In one or two sentences, what do you think the purpose of education is or should be?
Marc: I believe there are two purposes. Ultimately, I think education is meant to help someone become the person they were meant to be. Education should expose people to all sorts of experiences and help them take agency over their lives. I think that’s the deeper purpose of it. I also think education is an important tool to cultivate productive, active, and participatory adults.
Michael: I make a slight distinction between schooling and education. I see education, just like Dewey, as life itself. To me that means the pursuit of self-actualization and a contribution to the broader collective. I see school as a more formalized institution to advance that—providing a space for people to lean into and become the person they want to be.
Ravi: I look at education not as an institution, but as a mechanism to create a culture of lifelong learning. That’s what I think education hopes to achieve and ought to achieve. The classroom, in whatever construct that takes, has to do three things: nurture talent, inspire curiosity, and provoke critical thinking. I believe if education achieves those three things, we create that culture of lifelong learning.
I often say that education is what remains after we forget everything we’ve been taught. It’s really about creating a harmony between the ideas that we have in our minds and the values we hold in our hearts.
Q: If you were to create an education system from scratch, where the formalized structure known as “school” did not exist, what would you create? And, what questions would you anticipate from your community?
Ravi: I would preface my comments with my belief that school—and the structure of school—does need to exist. The structure within school needs to change, but the structure of school and how it contributes to our society is important. Unless we change the entire way society functions, I think the opportunity to go to a centralized place to interact with thoughts, concepts, values, and perhaps most important, fellow students, is an important part of society as a whole.
Thinking about having no place to go all day long looks more like a homeschooling environment, which has its own structure. But, that makes me think about what we’d be missing in terms of the social environment we’ve created as a society.
Regarding the general idea of changing education today, if I go speak at a school, I often hear from teachers, “Well, can you talk to the principal about this?” Then I go to a principal’s conference, and they say, “Can you speak to the superintendents about this?” Then I go to a superintendent’s conference, and they say “Can we get you to talk to the commissioner of education?”
What I’m pointing to is that the biggest pushback I receive is, “My superior doesn’t agree with this.” But, what I’ve learned is that that is not true. There is just a barrier to communication and no one knows they all want to row in the same direction.
For some reason, school is a really sticky part of how we think about this, despite all the opportunities that exist in our communities for real education to take place.
Marc Porter Magee
CEO and Founder, 50CAN
Marc: A big pushback I get is a lack of trust in students and a lack of trust in parents. I hear, “Students need to be in this structured environment or they aren’t going to learn.” Or, “Can parents really make these choices for their kids?”
One dimension of this is how much do we want education to be a one-stop shop as a social environment, playground, and academic institution? Right now, it’s all in one. Or, how much do we want to piece things together? There are trade-offs to each.
I think the challenge we’ve had when it’s one-stop shopping is that it’s hard to give kids that personalized journey they need to become their true selves. On the other hand, it puts a huge burden on families if we’re asking them to piece it together, even if we’re providing them with all sorts of options and resources.
Michael: I appreciate the question because too often, we take it as a given that there is this “learning incubation zone” where young people go until they’re 18. The role for young people is to be in this learning phase of their life. On the one hand, I think there is value to that, but I also think when considering “no school,” it inspires a lot of questions.
Some that I already hear in my day-to-day work are things like: How will they learn? If there’s not a teacher teaching reading in a particular way, how will they learn how to read? I like to reference current examples of models where it’s less structured and kids are still learning and thriving. Or, I even point to the era before we had a formalized system and yet pockets of society had high literacy rates. We can also look at how newborns learn to walk without receiving oddly specific instruction on how to do so.
The question I’m most interested in is what role do we hope young people play in society? At this point, until they’re 18, we see them as students, children, consumers of media and products. If we run with the idea of “no school,” I think we need to reconsider or reinterpret what their role could be.
Q: What roles do you think young learners should be invited to play within their communities that they don’t currently play today?
Michael: Yong Zhao has this great analogy about how the American education system is like a sausage-making machine. Looking globally, all of these other countries are better at making sausage than we are. But, as a byproduct of this sausage-making machine, we create bacon. And, as it turns out, bacon is a more valuable way of being. Bacon represents the “bugs” (e.g. entrepreneurs, self-made millionaires, etc.) in the system who are able to create their own learning opportunities regardless of how the system is trying to shape them.
When I think about roles young people could play, I’d say we see them already. They can be authors. They can be entrepreneurs. They can be civic leaders (e.g. Parkland). There are exemplars of kids playing these roles, but if we look at the mainstream, many young people don’t have these opportunities available to them or they aren’t being encouraged to lean into some of those roles. Instead, they are students until they get to an age and are able to do these other things. I wonder how we can shift that mindset.
Marc: I think it’s interesting how much we think of education as school. There was a time we thought of healthcare as hospitals. Over time, we’ve seen it evolve—we now know it starts with how we monitor our health, our nutrition, and how we take care of ourselves. Now you go to CVS, and there are systems for taking your blood pressure.
I think there’s a similar progression in education as we see it doesn’t just have to happen within the walls of school. There are all sorts of ways we’ve tried to shift the way education works to take advantage of what is beyond those walls already, but it still feels very incomplete. For some reason, school is a really sticky part of how we think about this, despite all the opportunities that exist in our communities for real education to take place.
Education is not a schoolhouse, it’s a culture.
Founder, Ravi Unites Schools
Ravi: I think that point gets to the heart of what I believe: Education is not a schoolhouse, it’s a culture. To bring that shift in how we see education to life, I think we need to see students in the role of contributing to their own education and expressing what they are interested in. I think it provides more value if students have a voice and accountability in their learning.
Michael: What I hear Ravi describing is why the existing structure presents so many challenges to thinking newly about education. It sees school as the place you go for learning, and there are prescriptions like curriculum, standards, and subject-matter experts. To what extent does that structure stunt the self-direction we might hope to cultivate?
The attractiveness of the overall “no school” question gets to the core of getting all of this for our young people without having to filter it through the existing system.
Ravi: One of the conversations we have in education is: How do we educate for an unpredictable future? I’m trying to change that conversation by saying that’s putting the cart before the horse because we create the future based on how we educate. I think this opens up the opportunity to consider education not as a way to prepare kids for society but as a means of empowering them to lead us into the future and make changes along the way.
Q: What resources do you see that are not being utilized and, yet, would be easy to access?
Michael: With the way school is currently, as a young person, I remain ignorant to other people in my community I could learn from. School is where I learn, the soccer field is where I play, and the blinders are on. With the richness of our communities (locally and virtually), I think there’s a lot we could learn from one another.
Ravi: That’s a great point Michael and, to me, that’s all about creating a culture of learning. When I was in Minnesota a few months ago, I got into an Uber and asked the Uber driver where he was from. He said he was from Laos and that it was too dangerous for him to go back.
Over the next 30 minutes, I got an incredible history lesson on the US involvement in the Vietnam War. I learned more about the Vietnam War in that 30 minutes than I ever learned in 12 years of school. That’s not to fault school; it is just about seeing opportunities to learn in new, unexpected places—that culture of learning. If you’re a curious person, you develop opportunities to learn from your community on your own, but it’s something we need to cultivate in students within their education.
From the technology standpoint, we have a problem of equity and access in the United States. What’s crazy about that is in India, rich or poor, everyone has an Android. Having said this, this is a problem we can tackle and solve. In fact, access to technology is something I think we should tackle on a corporate level.
If we start with what the young person is interested in and what fuels them, I think they will be able to find whatever it is they are looking for. They have the “why” or the reasons they are pursuing learning.
Director of Strategy and Partnerships, Real World Scholars
Marc: I agree, this access conversation speaks directly to a question of equity. I think a lot of the resistance to thinking outside the box of traditional education is a result of the natural pull in America to greater and greater levels of inequality. I think there’s been a feeling that if you can force everyone into the same education, that’s sort of a rough justice or forced equity. There’s a fear that if you go the personalization route, it will be gamed by wealthy parents to perpetuate inequality.
Ravi: Personalized learning can be gamed. For example, when a student pursues a specific career pathway, they may end up developing technical skills with a half-life of four years. Yet, for the privileged student, they have the cultural capital that allows them to pivot if need be. The underprivileged student, on the other hand, is less likely to have that same opportunity and might end up stuck with a set of skills that are no longer relevant.
Michael: This makes me think about who decides the “why” and the “path”?
Q: Let’s explore that question. In this reimagining mode of thinking, who would become the holder of that “why”?
Michael: You have the top-down version where the paths are chosen before the student ever has a say and then you have the version that starts with the student and helping them understand what they are interested in, so they can self-direct.
This gets back to creating systems for an unpredictable world. If we start with what the young person is interested in and what fuels them, I think they will be able to find whatever it is they are looking for. They have the “why” or the reasons they are pursuing learning. Currently, young people don’t feel like they have to care about their “why” until they get launched out the end. Until we start with the learner, it’s going to be tough.
Ravi: It’s funny because we’re essentially asking middle schoolers to pick their college major and start going down that path. If it’s true that the first person to live to 150 is already alive today, life is getting longer. In a sense, we need to elongate the self-discovery process before we can ask what they want to do for the next 100 years.
Michael: The presumption that whatever decision you make today won’t change tomorrow is crazy. When we look at the numbers and see how many career changes we can expect by the time we turn 35, the concept of “a path” doesn’t make sense. I’m in my 30’s and have already had four or five very different roles.
If we want to have peace, we need to make peace profitable. That is a campaign I’d love to see education get on—teaching people how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset so they can figure out a way to make peace profitable.
Founder, Ravi Unites Schools
Marc: I think there’s a lot of inertia against the system once you get it up and running. You’re spending $500 billion a year, which easily makes self-interest a self-perpetuating part of the system. It’s a system that seems highly resistant to change because of that.
I would also add that I think people have been resistant to the idea that you should be able to get a job without a high school diploma. Many see education as the ticket to get out of poverty and if you remove those indicators (i.e. paper credentials), it becomes worrisome.
Ravi: Our culture has shifted. We have always been a customer-centric country, but our culture has shifted to where patients are telling doctors what they need and parents are telling teachers what they need for their children. It’s gotten to the point where parents will berate the teachers in front of the child and you have to ask how is that teacher ever going to have any level of authority in the classroom?
In many respects, I think the parents hold the “why.” I think that fundamentally changes how we need to address change moving forward. Obviously, teachers shouldn’t be pressured into giving students higher scores because of threats from parents.
Marc: I think that is one of the trends, we live in an age where there isn’t much trust in institutions. I don’t think you can put that genie back in the bottle. Education hasn’t adjusted to that or been strategic about it, so we haven’t found ways to take advantage of the good side of that shift. I think there’s an opportunity to reimagine what school could be if we look for that opportunity.
Q: What are the biggest challenges, either culturally or systemically, to realizing a truly transformed system of education?
Ravi: When we talk about the strength of a country, America seems to measure itself by the size of its defense budget. When I travel and work in other countries, many of them measure their strength by the health and wellness of their citizens. To me, that’s what a strong country invests in—the body and mind of its citizens. That’s part of what I hope education’s role is: to create that culture.
As we get into an age of globalization and AI, we can probably surmise that our GDP will rise as unemployment does the same, which has never happened before. Now we have to ask if education’s role needs to show us how to be an unemployed citizen and be peaceful. College and career ready may not be relevant if it no longer defines us and how we behave in a society.
The entrepreneur piece, like Michael mentioned, is so important. That mindset allows us to be problem solvers, community leaders, and great parents. This all ties in with peace because, in my opinion, the only reason we have war is because it’s profitable. If we want to have peace, we need to make peace profitable. That is a campaign I’d love to see education get on—teaching people how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset so they can figure out a way to make peace profitable. That’s a winning opportunity for education.
Michael: That’s a fascinating concept—making peace profitable. Before we talk about measurement, I think we need to ask ourselves why anything we are measuring is important. We don’t measure a lot of other human aspects of our lives (e.g. quality of friendships, love, etc.). We try to quantify everything and say, “By third grade—whatever that is—you need to have certain proficiencies in reading, math, etc.” I think we come up against this mindset of inertia where we simply say this is how we’ve always done it. We don’t have great alternatives to the existing status quo, and there are strong interests in maintaining the existing circumstances.
Even if there are better ways to serve young people, we are going up against a strong headwind. If we start with this inertia concept, including profitability and self-interest, we have a good starting point.
Marc: Education is the biggest budget of most towns, so I think it’s important to take a step back and ask why we’re doing it the way we are. When we lose track of the “why,” it becomes much harder to change the “what.”