Over the Thanksgiving break, I hung out with quite a few teenagers in an unofficial capacity. And I was very careful to ask all of them a few questions:
- What would a school look like if you designed it?
- What would you learn there?
- How would the school be organized?
The answers I got were intriguing. First of all, every teenager assumed I meant “build a school” instead of “design a school.” All of them started with a description of the building: Modern. And remarkably, every single building they described looked remarkably like a Modern, industrial school does now: hallways, classrooms, lots of glass and metal, stairwells, lockers, and so on.
When I dug a little deeper, though, and they understood that I was asking about “what would you do at a school that you, yourself, designed?” they immediately went off on a different tangent. Now they were no longer concerned about architecture.
No, now they were concerned about how they would be controlled. One girl said that she wanted a school where the bad kids would be forced to go to detention, and ‘made to behave.’ Keep in mind, she goes to one of the best public schools in the country; the bad kids are not exactly shooting each other in the surrounding neighborhoods. A boy with a strong interest in film-making said that he wanted to be forced to learn ‘whatever the curriculum said I should learn’. And another girl thought it would be best if ‘I were made to learn whatever’s important in school.’
And as far as organization… well. They thought there should be a principal, and some administrators, and every classroom would need a teacher… And there should be regular placement tests, to figure out where a student should be placed or allowed to learn…
In other words, the schools they ‘designed’ on their own thought process looked exactly like the schools we’ve been decrying and trying to reform for forty years. They had the same disciplinary models, the same physical structures, the same curriculum imposed from above. Two students, both with an interest in film and cameras, more or less scrubbed movie-making and art from their school’s official curriculum. Because, as one boy said, “that’s not what school is for. Is it?”
Yet he was hard-pressed to explain what school was for, other than learning stuff like reading, writing, and literature. All of these dozen or so kids were. Discipline, rote curriculum, new and modern buildings, similar organization to today…. that was my takeaway from the exercise. They were, all of them, literally unable to imagine another possibility than the system we have now.
So I see articles and screeds and rants about how to fix education, and I have to wonder: what do all these reformers and champions of education and politicians using the sorry state of American education have in mind?
Because the evidence is, the American educational system is so broken that no one currently enmeshed in it can imagine a reality other than the one we’ve got. Which of course means that when something new DOES come along, the current establishment is going to get blindsided with all the force of the Black Death’s arrival in Genoa in AD 1347.
So go on, I dare you: ask the kids for yourselves. Let me know what you find out. The questions are at the top of the page.