School’s Out: How a “No School” Society is One of Many Learner-Centered Possibilities

Voices from the Field   02 October 2018
By Nate McClennen, Teton Science Schools

 

If we accept the limiting nature of school and the expansive nature of learning, we can use that knowledge to explore what a better functioning learning ecosystem might look like.

Nate McClennen
Vice President for Education and Innovation

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 amplify the voices of these learner-centered leaders, we have invited each to author articles that express the context from which they approached the question: What if school did not exist?

The fifth and final article in this series comes from Teton Science School’s Vice President for Education and Innovation, Nate McClennen, who digs into the nitty gritty of how a society could be organized if school did not exist.


What if there was no “school”? What if the yellow school buses, the apples, the brick buildings with American flags out front, and every other hallmark of the American education system simply vanished? What would we create in its wake?

A crucial starting point to answer this thought experiment is defining “school” versus “learning.”

Schools are formal structures where groups of students come together to learn from a teacher. The buildings in which these students gather don’t have to fit the cliche of the red brick structure or even be a building at all, but the system would be similar from town to town—a teacher delivers a narrow and pre-selected range of knowledge that is received by a group of students who are likely all the same age. School is rigid in its structure and has a socially accepted entry- and exit-age.

Learning, on the other hand, begins at birth and ends at death. It begins through our senses as we quickly begin to understand the world around us. We are filled with unique, as well as universal, sights, sounds, and smells that inform our individual world-views. All humans learn, but not all humans have the privilege of being able to attend a school. And, not all schools are great places for all students to learn.

The next question to tackle: Is attending “school”—that universal public right American citizens have had since the 1800’s—actually working for all students?

If by “working” we mean providing children access to a formal education, certainly the answer is yes. Globally, more students are attending school now than 100 years ago. And, in the United States, access to a free and public education provides over 50 million young people a powerful tool to help support their growth and development each year.

 

These learning experiences would be developed by individuals, family, communities, organizations, and companies that help the learner demonstrate proficiency in any of the competencies.

Nate McClennen
Vice President for Education and Innovation

However, measuring the value of schools based on access ignores the challenges around equity. Not every student gets the same quality learning experience in school. Funding is not distributed based on need. Not every student has their specific learning needs met in the way that best meets their specific neural structures. Not every student feels the context of their learning is relevant, that they are safe and not judged, and that they are engaged to not only learn but also love learning. The result: equity gaps in performance based on race, socio-economic, and other factors; dropout rates that are disturbingly high; lack of preparation for the workforce; and many other challenges with which some, but not all, students struggle.

That “some,” albeit already too many to consider as minor exceptions to the rule, will grow to “most” if we continue on our traditional path. The world is changing faster than our schools. Automation, globalization, and technology—the pillars of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—are relevant in (almost) every aspect of our lives today. The exception? The majority of our schools. Privileged families are able to fill the gaps outside the classroom, but due to traditional school’s monastic structure, many more are left graduating with knowledge and skills that don’t match the needs of the modern world.

If we accept the limiting nature of school and the expansive nature of learning, we can use that knowledge to explore what a better functioning learning ecosystem might look like. We can begin to posit a world with no schools. This groundwork was key to what the School’s Out team established when we sought to open ourselves to the possibilities of what society would look like without school as the go-to for all educational attainment.

Exploring a World Without Schools

Let’s explore one possibility for this world without schools.

To start with, we need to think about what this education would be all about. In other words, based on the needs of the world, the workplace, and a community’s culture, a clear set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions would need to be established to answer the question, “What do young people need to know, do, and act like in order to find personal and professional success?”

A sub-set of competencies might be established at a national level to articulate the knowledge and skills that are critical to support a healthy, sustainable, and equitable democracy. This subset would establish pathways of knowledge to support competency in all forms—including mathematical, scientific, language, historical, social-emotional, collaborative, and creative—among others. Both knowledge and skill development would be surrounded by dispositions we see as valuable (e.g. honesty, compassion, and persistence) and that we believe will collectively influence the direction of the next generation. Local and regional needs would complete the full set of requisite competencies.

With this background established and no “school” to go to, young people themselves would associate learning experiences in their lives with this core set of competencies—building a portfolio that would “backpack” with them as they learned. Over time, this backpack would record the learning path of the student, showing strengths, challenges, accelerations, and gaps throughout the learning journey. These learning experiences would be developed by individuals, family, communities, organizations, and companies that help the learner demonstrate proficiency in any of the competencies.

 

An educator’s natural aptitude and talent to work with young people would be easily transferable in this new society.

Nate McClennen
Vice President for Education and Innovation

Agency, the ability to guide and choose one’s learning path, would be increasingly more evident as the student moved along the competency progression. To develop science literacy, for example, a younger student might explore their surrounding natural areas, building local knowledge of geology, ecology, and biology. As they progress, they would explore topics outside the immediate observable phenomena. Using microscopes and basic chemistry skills, they would submit artifacts to satisfy the desired competencies. Over time, and increased competency, students would run their own experiment under mentorship of adults and peers—contributing to the understanding of the world, rather than passively receiving information about the world. By the time they reached the final milestones as young learners, the students would be independently guiding their own learning along the competency-based pathways with their proficiency certified by community learning coaches. Many of the learning experiences would be connected directly to the needs of the local community. This place-based approach ensures that, from a young age, young people see the power and potential of local communities, which can transfer to future communities they will live in throughout their lives.

What of teachers? School’s Out co-author, Tom Rooney dives into where this “no schools” transition may lead professional educators, and we agree that an educator’s natural aptitude and talent to work with young people would be easily transferable in this new society. Most notably, as an educator myself, I see professional educators serving the role of Community Learning Coaches—no job loss, just jobs with different responsibilities.

These coaches would help connect young learners with learning opportunities that demonstrate proficiency along their competency pathway. Coaches would not simply include traditional teachers and other school staff. Coaches could be content experts, industry leaders, non-profit employees, athletic coaches, and dance instructors, among many others. How would these coaches get compensated? These coaches would be evaluated by those they are coaching, the progress they help a learner attain, and earn compensation based on a comprehensive talent portfolio designed by the coach. A system of Learning Credits would facilitate the exchange – perhaps in the form of crypto-currency. These Learning Credits could be exchanged for future learning for the coach or cash value (like a typical paycheck). This system simplifies the structure of the learner-coach relationship to what is most beneficial for both: the learner achieves progress and the coach maximizes the personalization for the learner based on a variety of agreed upon feedback.

 

The system must ensure that every student has appropriate connectivity to get the coaching they need to reach proficiency on the core competencies, as well as the support to determine the professional pathway to take next.

Nate McClennen
Vice President for Education and Innovation

Over time, as proficiency increases, learners would begin to accumulate “stackable micro-credentials” based on their field of interest. These micro-credentials would have universal connectivity so that a credential from one provider could stack with a credential from another provider. Examples of current micro-credentialing are found in computer science professions, the traditional trades, and other professional certification providers. This process would extend throughout the life of the individual and allow them to pivot based on the needs of a rapidly changing world.

With this model, a seamless cradle-to-grave learning experience emerges, one that is flexible, learner-centered, and based on the current needs of industry and community. While this world without schools better meets the needs of individuals, employers, and communities and would increase engagement and overall academic performance, equity and access still remain a challenge.

Those who live in more affluent communities might have more opportunities for challenging and engaging learning experiences and better access to more qualified coaches. To address this issue, learning coaches must be highly trained, incentivized heavily to work within the most marginalized communities of learners, and/or able to work remotely so as to reach young learners living in areas without access to their particular skill set.

The system must ensure that every student has appropriate connectivity to get the coaching they need to reach proficiency on the core competencies, as well as the support to determine the professional pathway to take next. One way to accomplish this would be to adjust how money moves through the system. For example funding could be allocated directly to student accounts and might only be spent on certified learning experiences to avoid the inevitable underground black market of pseudo-learning experiences. The currency of the Learning Credit would facilitate this exchange.

The other success of the traditional school model that needs to be replicated are learner experiences that bring people of different backgrounds together to understand and develop the critical skills of teamwork, collaboration, social cognition, and leadership. Virtual communities, as well as regional and national organizations, that facilitate collaborative experiences and educational travel may be involved in the support ecosystem.

Fully manifested, this model would exemplify the learner-centered paradigm articulated by Education Reimagined: open-walled, socially-embedded, competency-based, personalized, relevant, and contextualized, with high levels of learner agency.

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