Reopening school starts with reexamining why it exists in the first place

Devin Vodicka

It was already past time for us to revisit the purpose of school. Now we are compelled to do so. In fact, the first step in reopening school this fall, in whatever form we can muster, is to take a step back and reconsider why we have school in the first place. 

For the past 40 years, the primary purpose of our schools has been to maximize academic achievement. In Schooling America, historian Patricia Graham documented how this purpose – achievement – began to prevail as global competition heightened, and other nations caught up and in some cases passed the US in terms of academic outcomes. 

We could engage in healthy debate about the extent to which this achievement era has succeeded, but we would be missing the point. As technological change accelerates, knowing enough to achieve on a test is less and less relevant to what any individual needs to thrive, or what any country or economy needs to compete globally. The achievement era has had its time.

The new purpose of schooling needs to be fostering agency, collaboration, and real-world problem solving. For short, let’s call it the Agency Era. This is a convenient nickname because Graham, to demonstrate that Achievement has not always been the primary purpose of our schools, identifies three previous eras that also started with A: Assimilation (1900-1920, Adjustment (1920-1954), and Access (1954-1983). So Agency fits. 

In the Agency era, the purpose of school is to ensure students can think critically and creatively, collaborate effectively with others, apply skills and knowledge to solving real problems, and find meaningful ways to contribute to the world. While these are often referred to as “soft skills” they are better framed as essential, foundational skills in this new era. In an age of automation, these skills are the least likely to be replaced by machines.  In the context of rapid change, they are already the ones giving individuals and organizations the edge. 

So here we are, facing what might be the messiest back-to-school season ever. It may feel like a very inconvenient time to take a step back and ask why we are doing this in the first place. But that is exactly what we are encouraging school administrators, educators and parents to do. If we do, we might not only avoid disaster, we might actually start to see a new and inspiring set of possibilities emerge. To illustrate this point, here are a few ways fall’s back-to-school mess might look different in the Agency era. 

First, the prospect of time spent both on and off campus would look like an opportunity instead of a challenge. We would focus on figuring out how to help students use that time to build relationships in their communities and beyond, dig into and share their interests, and find meaningful ways to impact the challenges we are collectively confronting, from racism to healthcare to environmental crisis. 

Second, the role of technology, and the role of the educator, would become clearer. Some learning is linear, and conducive to learning through technologies like cognitive tutors and adaptive tools that are already on the market and continue to get better and better. We should leverage these broadly and aggressively. 

Other learning is messy and complex. There is more than one way to solve a problem. No right or wrong answers, interdisciplinary elements. This kind of learning is much more similar to the kind of learning the modern workplace demands. But it is much more difficult to measure outcomes, or teach through software solutions. 

In the Agency era, students are empowered to leverage technology for linear learning, allowing educators to spend more time facilitating complex learning. This can be done in a way that much more closely resembles the modern workplace – a mix of individual check-ins, group connections, and occasional full group sessions for sharing, inspiring, and aligning. 

These are just a few examples of the way that revisiting the purpose of school itself could immediately shift our thinking about what is a challenge, what is an opportunity, and what we should do with this mess we’ve been forced to figure out. 

This is not to say it will be easy. Nor am I making the argument that knowledge acquisition doesn’t matter. Recent events have only highlighted the need for a common set of basic understandings about science, health, and history. But the way to develop these most effectively, for the broadest number of people, is to teach them in a way that shows their relevance, and develops students’ interests in the world. So as we try to figure out back-to-school in this challenging time, let’s make time to pause and ask ourselves why it matters in the first place, and what we are trying to achieve. In the context of accelerating change, we must transcend the achievement era assumptions about education and embrace complex learning that empowers our students to have agency, to collaborate effectively, and to solve real-world problems.  

Here is an example of the new kind of Impact Framework that communicates the purpose of schooling in the Agency era. Imagine how differently we would organize back-to-school this fall if this was our shared vision for student success. 

Please share additional ideas using #LCLeadership

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Special thanks to Sam Franklin for his thought partnership on this post.

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