Real school will surely come

I tell myself that over and over. I’ve known real school. Real school exists in pockets, eddies, updrafts, sudden currents, all over the place. I’ve met several extraordinary people at the Lilly International Conference on College Teaching who are doing extraordinary things in the service of real school. Doing these things with next to no funding, with crippling teaching loads, with essential and inspiring support removed in the middle of new projects. The determination and fierce joy of these teachers takes my breath away. I hope my presentation this morning made some contribution to that spirit.

I’ve seen the continuing obstacles as well, including a weird, persistent impulse to name *recall* (as measured on tests) as not only a necessary component of education (I agree here), but as a sufficient definition of learning (I couldn’t disagree more). I’ve heard about curricular reform that ends up as little more than yet another list of requirements. Old stories that retain the power to depress. I also heard a wonderful teacher talk about a program to help students write academic papers, and then say he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to write that way. It was intended as a throwaway, a quip, a laughline, but I wish there had been time to entertain that thought with the seriousness it deserves.

And I’ve heard students say how they’d like more of their education to be like independent study, with faculty as guides and rich information habitats crafted within great library resources. Those desires came out as a result of the best question I’ve heard all week, a question a faculty member asked that student panel: if you could throw away all of what you now know as school and start from scratch, how would you like your education to be?

I wish I’d found the woman who asked that question. I’d sure like to shake her hand. She too is a member of the secret society for real school. Her question goes a lot farther with me than questions about “critical thinking,” a phrase that’s by now so threadbare as to be more hole than stocking. I tweeted my frustration over that phrase early on in this conference, and Mike Wesch tweeted back: “How about creative thinking instead of critical thinking?” I retweeted “Amen. +1.”

And then I listen to a PowerPoint-laden lecture that concludes with a call for banning technology from the classroom. By “technology,” I think the presenters meant information and communication technologies, aside from the instructor’s PowerPoint, presumably (I’m just about fed up with the sloppy shorthand of “technology”). We need to ban “technology” from the classroom, you see, so students will concentrate their attention on what the teacher is saying and do better on the test.

I hope they confiscate the books, too, and all the other distracting technologies: pens, pencils, paper. What could be more important than what a teacher is saying?


We’ve got to learn to ask better and braver questions about school. I’ve met people here who are doing just that. When will those questions take hold? Or if Seymour Papert’s right and school reform is impossible, where can the secret society for real school build a house where work is play for mortal stakes? Not a pillminder, not a feedlot. A real school.

I have to believe it’s possible.

5 thoughts on “Real school will surely come

  1. I really love the idea of tossing aside everything you know about school and starting from scratch. And so much of it starts with “doing” first – and learning from your mistakes. Learning in the midst of practice. It’s hard to do — I keep thinking I’ll start a semester teaching screenwriting students in this way, but I keep going back to more ‘accepted’ (and, admittedly, easier) ways of teaching.

    The complete technology-in-the-classroom aversion doesn’t make sense to me. If it helps, use it. I’m pretty much middle of the road on this issue. I find it gets in my way if I try to do TOO much with technology, only because I find myself focusing way too much attention on making sure the technology is functioning properly… and those who are *against* tech in the classroom, I think, are usually just not up to speed on the tech in the first place and don’t want to divert their own attention away from the material. It takes a lot of mental energy to use technology in the classroom if you’re not comfortable with it… (I say that as someone who is completely comfortable with some technology and uncomfortable with other things)…

  2. I humbly request entrance into *the secret society for real school* – my qualifications reach back 40+ years to my first year of teaching when my tiny little K-4 elementary school was lucky enough to be mentored by Madelene Hunter when she was still the inspiring principal of the non-graded/ungraded primary school on the UCLA campus. From that time on, I have had a few years here and there of what I felt was real school and then the teacher’s unions and later the accountability movement muzzled those small valleys and a few mountain tops of creativity and engagement – Wm. Glaser’s ideas came close at times. So, I applaud your comments today and still keep hoping to find a place to do real school things. At times I feel that some of the online and virtual world education ventures hold the promise of real school. Sometimes in those environments I see teachers becoming guides and students defining what they need and want to know differently. And, finally, I agree, the stakes are mortal ones.

  3. You make me feel so young! You should read my ThM thesis sometime
    to see what I learned About Christian Ed and spiritual growth.

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