If you ask the average person on the street to describe a school you will get a description of a classroom with a teacher who tells students to do certain kinds of activities.
Nearly everyone thinks of school as a building in which there are classrooms full of people participating in instructional activities:
- adult people who are paid to be in the role of teachers,
- other people in the role of students, usually children who are legally required to assume that role, and
- a particular selection of activities focused on the understanding and manipulation of symbols that are by general cultural agreement, and specifically by the decree of some distant authorities, accepted as educational.
School as Democracy
But does the concept lose it's meaning if you remove the symbol manipulation activities (according to some the self-evident nuts and bolts of schooling), the adult/child correlation between teacher and student roles, and the room organized and furnished to serve instructional activities?
What if everyone is entitled to either, neither or both of the roles of teacher and student regardless of age and according to their own discretion?
What if no one is forced to do symbol manipulation activities?
Is it still a school if the rooms can be used and furnished for any reason that the community of both adults and children chooses (where children, if they all cared to vote, would hold the majority of deciding votes on matters of day-to-day management)?
I have not chosen these particular alterations out of contrarian philosophical fantasy, but based on the actual organization of an existing model.
Democratic schools have chosen to organize their hidden curriculum around participation in governance, rather than participation in instruction.
The American exemplar of this model is called Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts.
It has been around since 1968 and has been successfully replicated around the country and the world.
From the school-is-a-classroom perspective it is very difficult to understand the educational value of democratic schooling as it is practiced by Sudbury Valley School, Summerhill School in England (established 1921), and many others like them.
Community Life as School
Another example of how the myth excludes a proven educational model is the unschooling sub-culture of the home schooling movement.
Home schooling itself is sometimes considered a questionable enterprise from the perspective of the central prototype of the classroom, but the unschooling movement, as it's name suggests, takes the contrast with the classroom notion to the extreme.
Unschooling parents reject the authoritarian baggage of coercing children to do specific symbolic tasks.
Unschooling parents are supportive of the child's choices for living a fulfilling life, including helping them learn, but they don't force it.
Broadening the Concept
I don't accept that the concept of school is dependent on the elements of the mainstream image of a classroom with teachers and students doing symbol manipulation activities.
It does not require a compromise of the concept to accept democratic schooling and unschooling as forms of schooling (despite unschoolers predictable objections to the contrary).
When looking at the concept it is not enough to merely examine the shallow surface appearances, it is necessary to investigate the deeper reasons why people succeed in all the different kinds of educational settings.
What did the successful classroom graduates, the successful democratic school graduates, and the successful unschool 'graduates' all share as a common element?
I suggest that the common element was not in their personal educative journies, but in the fact that each of them had a group of people who conspired to ensure they would become educated.
Obviously those conspiracies took very differant forms, but the result was the same; a successful, educated young person.
All successful students have an organization (where I count the unschooling family and it's cultural supports as an organization) that aligns the student's world of personal experience with the larger social and cultural institutions in which the student is embedded.
In my way of thinking all schools are immersion experiences, they immerse their students in some combination of power structure and exchange processes that result in patterns of consciousness.
What is indispensable is the intention of an organization to facilitate education, that is to say, they aim at enabling patterns of consciousness that result in a person who can perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively according to self-selected goals and aspirations.
Successful students in all these contexts learn how to deal with power structures, manipulate exchange processes and navigate the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in those power structures and exchange processes.
That comes about because of the immersion of the student in the reality of their environment.
Extreme examples of the classroom style rely on constructed problems that are entirely divorced from the real world of the children who are learning the lesson.
And the less connection to the reality of the students lives, the less successful those schools are.
The classroom also tends to impose abstract goals on students in the form of "achievements" such as grades, test scores, and other abstract rewards.
By contrast, in democratic schooling and unschooling the primary problems children solve are real, not constructed.
Even if there is someone constructing problems in symbol manipulation lessons, the children in democratic and unschooling environments would only have chosen to subject themselves to those conditions in order to solve a real problem in their life or achieve a personal goal.
The children's goals in democratic and unschooling environments are entirely their own (or at least not imposed by the organization of the learning situation).
The fact is that children from democratic schools and in unschooling families all learn the symbol manipulation skills, too.
That is because in human reality today those skills are necessary for success.
It is only people with cognitive deficits or the victims of systemic exclusion that would be unable to realize the necessity of those skills and acquire the skills they need to succeed.
So how can school be thought of in a way that is closer to the truth?
Is there an image that would be better than the classroom?
Actually, no, there isn't a better image, but there is a better way of understanding what the classroom image is actually showing us, what it actually means.
What is important to see in the image of the classroom is not the teacher, the student, and the tools of symbol manipulation, but a learning agent focusing their attention on a learning catalyst in a context that is entirely designed to facilitate the learning agents relationship with that learning catalyst.
The learning agent is typically the student, but we need to keep in mind that everyone is a learning agent.
The adult managing the classroom is as much a learning agent as the children, therefore the organization must provide support for the learning needs of the adult, too, not just the children.
The learning catalyst is assumed to be the adult playing the role of 'teacher' but everything in the classroom could become a learning catalyst according to how each agent chooses to focus their attention.
When the power structures in which children are embedded distract the learner from focusing on whatever learning catalyst they have chosen for themselves, then the power structure is failing to do it's proper job.
When the exchange processes interfere with the development of communication and coordination in the service of cooperative skills that enable the exchanges to flow freely, then it is failing.
When the structures and processes are failing then the patterns of consciousness will be persistently negative or chaotic, and then the organization is failing that student.
The alignment of the context to support the agent's learning process is crucial to the success of a school.
The organization that has the intention of facilitating education has to understand
- education is more than just symbol manipulation,
- who or what fills the role of a learning catalyst is decided by how the learning agent chooses to focus their attention, not by who the organization hires to be a teacher, and
- how the alignment of the context that they create will have profound effects on the learning agents ability to focus and whether they learn to manage their own focus or learn how to manipulate how their focus is being managed by others.
When the organization understands these three things then they will be able to focus on creating a context that will make the power structure invisible, the exchange processes effortless, and the patterns of consciousness stable and positive.
There is a moral element to this way of seeing the typical classroom image.
The moral story has to do with the application of power and the manipulation of the exchange processes to achieve particular kinds of patterns of consciousness.
It is how power structures and exchange processes are arranged that makes the difference in outcomes for students.
There is an important moral choice to be made, is the curriculum going to travel the moral path towards fulfillment or discrimination?
In my private teaching practice I did the opposite of a classroom.
In the typical classroom you bring together a bunch of kids who are the same age into one room, you bring in a bunch of resources and tell the kids what to do with them.
I brought together as age diverse a group of children as possible, took them out into the community to discover resources and asked the children what they wanted to do with them.
Our decision making process was by consensus, so until every single person agreed we did not have a decision.
The decision making process was set out in the contract every student had with me and it also gave me additional responsibility for safety and respect which I was empowered to enforce without consensus.
Our daily activities were determined by consensus within a group dynamic that held high expectations for mutual trust and cooperation.
Most importantly, in my private teaching practice I chose the moral path of fulfillment.
I chose to make fulfillment the highest priority in my relationships with my students.
Everything we did was about solving problems, pursuing goals and having fun, in that order.
I did not construct problems, I relied on reality to provide an abundance of problems.
The problems we faced were things like boredom, a limited budget, hunger, thirst, how to use public transportation and making decisions that everyone would be able to live with.
The goals we pursued were all self-imposed, or occasionally, accepted as a part of a student's obligations to their family.
The variety of goals included learning to read, learning how to have pizza delivered for lunch, and how to get where we wanted to go using public transportation.
If we didn't have problems to solve or goals to pursue then we did our best to have fun, within the bounds of our contract to be respectful, responsible and resourceful with each other.
We did not always succeed at solving problems, achieving our goals, nor even in having fun.
But we always succeeded in developing ever greater skills at dealing with the power structures we shared, manipulating the exchange processes, and navigating the patterns of consciousness that resulted from being embedded in those power structures and exchange processes. Everyone came away better educated than before, including me.
But, from the perspective of the mainstream school-is-a-classroom perspective my private teaching practice was not school.
I conspired with parents, our culture and the state (I used the term "private teacher" in compliance with state law) to align the context of the children in my care in order to ensure they would be better able to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations.
What made it school was the organization of many different elements within our society, not my job title, not the symbols we manipulated, not the children's deference to adult leadership.
Essentially, it was our conspiracy to educate that made it school.
Resources for Alternatives
One of the best resources on the web for thinking about alternatives is AERO (the Alternative Education Resource Organization).
It helps to understand what form industrial thinking takes these days so that you can avoid it, if necessary. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act is a good example of applying strict industrial concepts to education and I reviewed the Beyond NCLB report with that in mind.