In North Carolina a child in twenty does not attend school: he is schooled at home. According to home schooling scholar Brian Ray, the number of home schooled children in the USA has increased from about 12,000 to slightly over two million over 25 years. Social acceptance of this practice has also increased significantly.
I don’t think this is coincidental. School serves three purposes: educate children; socialize them to live with others; and watch over them while parents are at work. These are very important roles, but is not clear to me that they are best carried out by the same institution. Especially this one.
Let’s start with education. School as we know it is designed to train the young to take their place in a 20th-century, Tayloristic-industrial economy that is no more. Sir Ken Robinson in the video above makes a very good point: it is organized like a factory, or an army base, with ringing bells, separate departments and sometimes even uniforms, and it educates children in batches and according to “manufacturing standards”. Educational methods derive from this organization and not, as one might expect, vice versa: for example our children have one or two hours long math lessons, because that is what a teacher needs to get anything done if she has to reach the classroom, hang her coat, sit down, sign the log etc. But the natural unit for learning math is the individual theorem, or the formula derivation. Surprise surprise, the wonderful math lessons in Khan Academy – recently funded by Google as a world changing project – are six to fifteen minutes long, with a few exception, and they take the time to explain things step by step. And you can replay them as many times as you want, until you get it. Worse: school teaches you that there is only one right answer to any problem, and it is at the back of the textbook. And don’t copy, because that’s cheating. Well, outside school working together on solving a problem is called collaboration, and it is at the basis of our economy, our science, and pretty much everything important.
It seems clear that school is just not very good in training children for a fruitful professional life. The Internet is a more credible candidate: why should I put up with a mediocre, underpaid, bored teacher when I have access to the Khan Academy and TED Talks? Each of us can be taught by the best teachers in the world. We can interact with a planet-wide classroom, in which it does not matter how old we are and each child can make progress at her natural pace, exploring many combinations between theory and practice. Some people say children need cohercion to learn, but this does not seem to be a valid argument. Education experts and cognitive psychologists agree that children are naturally curious: school often succeeds in stifling this instinct, and this alone should get us to wonder whether anything is seriously broken with it.
As for socializing children, school does an excellent job: it teaches them not to raise their voice, to arrive on time and so on. However, in this area too school encodes a model of a nineteenth century hierarchical society: its values are obedience, predictability, conformity. For some kids it works well, but others learn hypocrisy, cowardice, conformism and opportunism that, in adults, gives rise to the wonderful world of Dilbert. I am no expert, but I’ll bet you that a better tool for socialization is playing rugby. Rugby teaches you hard work, team playing, the idea everyone is different and contributes differently to a common goal, to be passionate about what you do, fair play. It teaches you competition, and that opponents are not enemies. It’s even good for your health.
Over and above education and socialization, school retains the very important role of a safe space for kids while parents go about their business. This form of care is a much needed service: probably it is the one that makes a world with no schools unimaginable for most parents (and therefore it makes it more difficult to redesign education). However, if that’s the core business, the future of school does not look bright. As wealthy parents realize that school is actually decreasing the chances of their offspring to succeed in life, they’ll abandon it in favour of all sorts of private sector services: as they do so, they will be more and more reluctant to pay taxes for a public service they are not using. This will push public school into the role of daycare facilities for low income kids, a mere patch on the education system, with dwindling funding and low priority. Not that I advocate such an outcome: being an optimist, I would suggest a radical redesign of education for a connected world. But what you and I think is unimportant: as John Brockman was saying at last week’s Science Festival in Genova, the really important things affecting our lives (the automobile civilization, globalization, global warming) have never been chosen by anyone. They are emergent, and all we can do is adapt as best as we can.
Hat tip: Andrew Missingham
UPDATE – Nice coincidence! The participants to the Future of Education session at Mozilla Drumbeat 2010 (ended Saturday) have put together this video, in which they bring more ammo to the argument. Don’t miss Massimo Banzi‘s assertive blurb. (Hat tip: Nadia El-Imam)