Why we need to overcome school to reach future

I read an article today with the following headline: „We must teach kids AI now! The why, the what and the how“ I discovered this article via the wonderful weekly newsletter Dalith & Andy | SwissCognitive. The explanations about the impact of AI are excellent, professional and very well understandable for me. The author is writing about the urge for us as individuals and as societies to understand what artificial intelligence is, what it is able to do, what the opportunities and risks are. And as always, when a solution is sought, school is immediately resorted to. Why this will not work but even increase the problem is the subject of my post.

The author of the mentioned article describes the speed and exponentiality of change in society, technology and economy. These real changes and developments are not only taking place outside of school, but strictly speaking without it. The change we are in is complex, while school is a haven for complexity reduction. Change is ambiguous and characterized by enormous interactions, while school (among other things) simulates unambiguity and celebrates causality with its system of subjects and grading. Those who fail at school do not fail because of its complexity, but because of its complication. Those who can cope with it have seen through the latter.

If technological or other change were dependent on schools, we would be sitting somewhere in nowhere today. This should give us pause for thought: Why do we need the concept and system of school anymore – except to gather children in one place so parents can go about their business? If they still have a job …

Why do we hold so stubbornly to the belief that school will one day really help young people find their way into these new worlds, which to date are developing not because of the power of school, but beyond its grasp? We are wrong if we believe that competencies and skills required today actually come on their way through school.

What school is made for

School is not made or invented for change or to enable it. Neither in itself nor in society and economy. School was invented to stabilize and homogenize, not to strengthen diversity. The task is to reproduce cultural beliefs, not to provoke new ones. School is not made to support change or to empower for change. Therefore, it is unsuitable as a system and as a concept to support people to develop the skills to shape the change we are in.

School will always only be able to reproduce the old concepts, never to bring forth new ones. Perhaps that is why more and more people are trying, almost frantically, to implement innovative concepts in schools. But this will neither change school nor its purpose. It has been doing and proving that ever since it existed. Innovation and innovative people are not and have never been a consequence of school and school education. They have existed and continue to exist today despite school.

Even the promise of prosperity and social advancement through school is a lie – which, by the way, is not a child of the current pandemic, but much older. The pandemic is merely accelerating this drama, in part because schools are unable to organize education under conditions of digitality. That’s why even more children and young people are stuck now than ever before. This once again exposes the fairy tale of equalizing social inequality through school – along with the narrative of the permeability of the education system, which has long been empirically disproven.

We need a completely different, a whole new learning system that has nothing to do with the concept of school and teaching as we know it today – and we need it as soon as possible. But this is likely to be all the more difficult if even experts on the future cling to the conviction that this can only be achieved with the help of schools and teaching.

This is the Gordian knot of our present. In my view, it’s the biggest problem we suffer from today: That the belief in the social and economic redeeming function of schools is unbroken.

We have to get rid of this belief now.

Why we have to overcome schooling

How school teaches thinking (by Elon Musk. Source)

Overcoming the concept of school and giving a decent burial to the hope that any veritable solution for the education of the future will come from the school system, or that it will be the place of such education. These are the next steps. School does not have any connection to solving our current and future challenges. It simply does not interface. It gets in the way of those solutions, and at the same time, it fills our kids‘ backpacks with tons of baggage that unnecessarily complicates their path to their future.

Neither education nor school policies and administrations are willing or able to take this on board and look at alternatives that already exist: to support and explore those to the best of their ability. Instead the traditional framework remains sacrosanct. Teacher education and training, that is, the academic-pedagogical environment of schools, is also despondent, bureaucratized, and lacks vision.

But the social mission is clear: to launch a fundamentally new system of learning and competence development that makes obsolete and replaces the outdated structures and concepts and ideas of school, teaching and education.

The difference between the old culture, from which school originated, and the new one, in which we have long since arrived, can only be understood by doing and experiencing. Only this makes it possible to understand and admit that this radical cultural change actually exists, which is still pending in the education system because they haven’t heard the bang there yet. Therefore, they are just adding new tools to the old workshop. It’s like acknowledging or denying climate change, where electric motors are now being installed in a mobility concept that actually has to be overcome: Crisis management is the disease of which it thinks it is the therapy, as Martin Burckhardt writes.

The new culture cannot be grasped, mastered and co-created with the routines of the old. She has long had her own.

It’s not the child that’s sick, but the school it’s in

School no longer guarantees societal continuity (whatever that may be), it undermines it. We assume that all the problems that school has and creates are under control. We are still convinced that we can manage this with enough money and as much reform as it needs. With other parents and better teachers and more iPads. But that’s the fundamental mistake. Why?

by Christoph Schmitt

photos: from the video „Ninnoc“ by Niki Padidar

In 1971, activist Rosa von Praunheim produced a movie for public television in Germany entitled: „It’s not the homosexual who is perverted, but the situation in which he lives“. This title reflects a fundamental characteristic of culture: normality is a matter of context in which it’s claimed; everything about culture can be interpreted differently.

The societal normative has therefore not fallen from the sky. It’s a cultural concept, and it’s the same with school as a concept that was once invented. For reasons. Today it is one of the few that we still have left from the last 150 years. Highly charged and sacrosanct as once were the great Christian churches, which have long since lost their function as moral whisperers of capitalism. Most other systems (e.g. politics or health) may not be outdated, but they are thoroughly economized.

Now all hope relies on the traditional concept of schooling. It appears as the last refuge for the reproduction of culture – as the last cultural canvas. A kind of lifeboat for the people. This adds the nimbus of school as an institution that should not actually be open to discussion. To nag at it: of course. Reforming it: you’re welcome. Digitize it: if necessary. But schooling itself is not up for discussion.

School is over

There is some evidence that this situation yet has occurred, that schooling as a system has come to an end. Similar to other cultural carrier systems, which were invented to guarantee societal solidity over centuries, and then disappeared with more or less noise. We are at a point in history where the school system has lost its role of stabilisation and has become dysfunctional. Every day social media deliver reflections on this diagnosis. Explicitly or between the lines. Among others Andreas Schleicher – as always related to the big picture, Bernie Bleske regarding the schooling of young peopleand Jack Ma with a lot of drama:

School no longer guarantees societal continuity (whatever that may be), it undermines it. We assume that all the problems that school has and creates are under control. We are still convinced that we can manage this with enough money and as much reform as it needs. With other parents and better teachers and more iPads. But that’s the fundamental mistake. Why?

For instance, the use of supportive professions in education is constantly increasing. There is speech therapy, psychomotor therapy, integrative education, integrated special education, small(er) classes, remedial teachers, social workers and some more. The corresponding degree courses and jobs are becoming more and more important. At first glance, this is all about supporting children to handle their problems, which is also reflected in such statements (source):

Apart from the fact that it’s quite controversial to speak of „repair“ referring to people, the main point here is probably an illusion of „smoothness“, following the example of industrial production processes. Andreas Schleicher also states in the interview mentioned above that the industrial working model still has a great influence on school culture. In fact these mindset raise the issues together with the children who „cause problems“. This has been verified – among others – by Remo Largo’s long-term studies in Switzerland. Also, more and more children and their parents have been experiencing for years in a completely non-scientific way that school tends to make sick rather than smart.

We have reached a point where only those children and teens remain „inconspicuous“, who have a solid social and materially pillowed home environment, because, unlike Ritalin & Co, private lessons are not paid by health insurance.

Surgery on the consequences

We don’t look at the powerful correlations. We operate around the consequences. The procedure is hermetic in a perfidious way: the school system gives the impression that it is „doing something for the children“ and expects gratitude for this. The fact that school itself builds the main cause of a problem that it then generously addresses as a solution: this trick is still ignored. For reasons.

However, school does not only produce problems which it then pretends to solve. Rather, it teaches countless children and teens a self-image as problematic, retarded people who are difficult or impossible to integrate – not least through the senseless grading system (here a statement by Remo Largo).

Standardization – and nothing else is a grading system in which everyone is evaluated equally – often destroys creativity.

(Haeme Ulrich)

It remains completely out of sight that humans never „are“. We „behave“ in one way or another. The situation we put young people in to learn always has a fundamental part to play in how children and young people behave.

It is not the child who is sick, but the school in which he or she stucks. Curative pedagogy, school social work, Ritalin and private coaching are survival strategies of the school system. It is about saving our idea of normality. Even problems such as bullying, which is fixed reflexively to „the children“, „the media“ and „the parents“, thrive above all in traditional school contexts. Anyone who wants to understand bullying should not only look at the children who practice it, but also at the school where it happens. The fact that bullying does not occur in innovative and alternative schools has nothing to do with the fact that there are „special children“ who the school picks out like candy. It has to do with the fact that the issue has no chance at such schools, because children and young people, who also come from every conceivable personal background there, experience a different culture of learning and community, and because they learn to deal with power & authority quite differently there.

Not to mention the fact that even the children and teenagers who manage to stay inconspicuous (aka „successfully“) are not being prepared at school for what the future requires in terms of attitudes, abilities and skills. The reasoning given here by the school system is again and again: „We can hardly do our job because we have to deal more and more with troublesome children“. The fact that a child is simply overburdened when stretched in a framework that systematically ignores and suppresses the individuality of learning and personality does not attract attention. Rather, it is precisely then that we hear: children must first learn to adapt and to subordinate themselves.

The opposite is true: we need completely different learning environments for children and teens. We need a coalition of all the forces in our societies that can take this into their own hands. Those who rethink the subjects of education and learning together and in a radically new way. Not just isolated parents and parent groups who take their children out of school because it is no longer viable (as is increasingly happening in several regions of Switzerland). This can only be a beginning. An important and valuable beginning, because it alarms. But there is much more at stake. It is about developing, building and implementing completely different spaces and ways of learning for children and young people.

Addressing or waiting for traditional institutions is pointless as long as they are neither willing nor able to engage in innovative initiatives and learn from them. The safaris and pilgrimages towards such initiatives end up like the many trips of politicians and entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley: people return to their own education world frightened and fascinated by the insight „that it can’t work like that in our country“ – for reasons.

The questions we have to ask now are: What are the reasons for continuing education as before, supported by all these excuses and reflexes, because we still think that the existing school system is the best of all possible, that we are screwing around and reforming a bit here and there, absorbing some digital tools and a school software that manages credentials and the lack of teachers?

And what speaks for the fact that the traditional school has come to an end: in terms of concept, method and our idea of mankind – because this system generates most of the problems it faces by itself, by doing more of the same all the time in a situation where a radical new beginning is the only solution.

New learning grows in niches

Based on my observations, consultations and research, I assume that those initiatives will increase most who are not innovative within the existing school system, but in the open space: initiated by people who have understood what is needed; who scrape together money and attention in order to develop their valuable concepts and make them accessible to a wider public. For me, the following is a wonderful example on my own doorstep: The „Grundacherschule“ in Sarnen. Click on the picture to watch the video.

At the moment this is still associated with high risks – especially in the German-speaking world, where states are harassing citizens by a rigorous obligation to attend school or, as in Switzerland, are only funding the traditional systems – be it with money or with validity. There is still a lot of resistance to overcome in case of state monopolism on education, but it has neither been able nor is it able to prevent wonderful initiatives from developing and spreading in niches – and by that I don’t mean those private schools on Swiss soil that charge 50,000 Swiss francs a year for getting young people through the matriculation exams, which in the end are dancing to the rhythm of the traditional system again.

I mean those initiatives that fight for financial survival themselves, precisely because they work with a completely different approach than the state schools. At this point I would like to mention three of them again, in which I see a future of learning: The now over 50-year-old concept of the Sudbury Valley School in all its radicality, the School Circles in the Netherlands and – for me particularly impressive, because it was created and established in a rather conservative cultural environment: Learnlife in Barcelona, which is now part of a global network of learning communities.

The new ways of learning that we so urgently need will not unfold in the old school system – similar to many of the changes we are currently experiencing in the context of digitisation, all of which are taking place elsewhere in the world but in traditional silos. Old Europe has become powerless. It still operates according to the scheme of „draft horses, followers, dependants“. The ancient & repetitive is celebrated: „Fancy new clothes for the Emperor and his tribe“.

Patriarchal traditionalism, with its symbols and artefacts, its hierarchies and networks, is still permeating everything so that the radically New cannot establish itself: sustainable forms of economic activity and coexistence, ecological new beginnings on a broad scale, overcoming nationalist narratives, inventing new narratives about life worth living, an inkling of what our future could look like, instead of the ritualistic unhooking of all those proposals that are not yet approved. For reasons. Fears of avoidance instead of hopes for the future everywhere. And in between, the primal scream of all pedagogy: „panem et circenses“ (bread and games) in a new outfit.

The first step in breaking this vicious circle is to interrupt the delivery of „human sustenance“ to this system. Either we take this risk and reinvent education and learning now, or we will be buggered.

(You read the English translation of a blog post I published in March 2019 – supported by deepl.com)