Let's Design A School, Part 2.1
School as Education - Structure
What are our goals when it comes to school-as-education? What are we actually trying to achieve?
It’s my understanding that the current school system is designed to produce factory workers - that is, to create a class of adults capable of working productively in a factory. In that context, many aspects of education that used to confuse me become obvious.
Much of modern schooling involves students being at specific places at specific times, doing repetitive tasks that they’re told to. They get a mandated break for lunch. They have to ask to go to the bathroom or the nurse’s office.
Their time is not their own - it belongs to the school, and the school determines how they spend it.
This makes sense in the context of a factory: a worker needs to be in a certain place for a certain duration, doing their job in the assembly line. If they need to leave their place, they have to check with others to make sure the work is still getting done.
The factory worker’s time is also not their own - it belongs to the factory, and the factory determines how they spend it.
Granted, the factory workers are being paid for their time and the students aren’t, but the comparison is apt.
So before we design a curriculum, we have to reimagine the structure of school itself, because our goal is not to create a class of factory workers. America has moved on. Factories have moved on.
We want to create a generation of adults that can think for themselves, that take initiative when they need to, that contribute to the economy, their community, and the world. We want adults that can handle hardship and uncertainty, that think for themselves, that can manage their own lives and relationships in healthy and growth-oriented ways.
And all of that starts, not with the curriculum, but with the structure of school itself.
The Existing Structure
In American public schools, a student’s day looks something like this:
They arrive at school at a set time, the same time as everyone else
They have a set schedule for each day; each school day lasts the same amount of time - about eight hours
They go to their first class of the day, sit at a desk, and “learn”; attendance is often taken
Repeat step 3 for each class until lunch
Go to the cafeteria at their designated time and eat lunch
Repeat steps 3-4 until their all their classes are done
Optionally stay for extracurricular activities (these could be in the morning before school as well)
Go home at the same time as everyone else
As mentioned above, the charitable way to interpret a schedule wherein one does not have control of one’s time, when one eats, or when one goes to the restroom is that it is the schedule of a factory worker.
The uncharitable interpretation is that it is the schedule of a prisoner.
Students are grouped by age and grade level, and matriculate together as a class. Being held back a grade and skipping a grade both occur, but are uncommon.
Within a grade, students are sorted by…
Well, to be honest, they’re sorted by a combination of: Scholastic Potential, Parental Involvement, and/or Administrative Incentives.
In High School students can be scheduled into standard, honors, or Advanced Placement classes. A student can be in various combinations of these in various subjects, but in my experience they have a large tendency to correlate with one another; students taking one AP course tend to take multiple AP courses, and so on.
Theoretically, this sort of sorting is done by some measure of scholastic potential.
Is the student getting good grades? Are they ready for more difficult material in the subject, along with more homework and higher standards? And so on.
Practically, I’ve heard plenty of stories of, shall we say, other factors being involved.
For one, if a parent wants their child in a higher level class, they can usually get their way, whether or not the child wants to be in that class or is capable of succeeding in it. Parents might want their children to be in higher level classes so they can get higher GPAs (Grade Point Average, usually out of 4, although honors and AP classes have inflated scores). A Higher GPA means better college prospects means better job prospects, and on and on it goes.
For two, the school administration might want more students in honors and AP classes, regardless of whether it’ll help said students or not. Much like executives whose bonuses depend on the stock value of their company going up in the short term, school administrators are rewarded for the number of students in AP classes in the short term, and so they follow their incentives and cram every student they can in there.
Schools in America are generally organized into classrooms, with each teacher holding dominion over their own classroom. Students travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day as they take their various classes.
There are additional facilities in the school - library, computer lab, gymnasium, cafeteria, and so on - but the bulk of a student’s time in school consists of sitting at a desk in a classroom with 20-30 of their peers being taught, and traversing the hallways in the few minutes between classes.
The New Structure
Before upending an existing structure, it bears asking: what is this for? What purpose does it serve?
As we think about how to redesign the structure of schooling, we have to take into account that things are usually the way they are for a reason, and ignoring that reason won’t help us redesign the system to be better.
The Existing Schedule’s Purpose
There are reasons that schools all start at the same time.
For one, it facilitates the bussing that students receive in public school (school buses are used to provide public transport to and from school, and they have to be scheduled and available to fulfill their role).
For two, in a school organized around multiple students attending a set series of classes with defined start and end times, all students need to be at school at the same time for those classes. It simplifies the teacher’s timetable tremendously.
It is also notably factory-like, in that everyone needs to be attending when the shift starts.
So we pose the question: is this structure worth keeping?
Or at least: I don’t think so.
The strict scheduling is, to me, more about the reality of learning consisting of “teacher lecturing to class of students” than anything else, and before the internet and online learning, there was likely no other way to scale learning from few teachers to many children.
In that model of learning, it’s important for all students to be present in the same place and time to receive the same lesson, so the strict scheduling makes sense. But given the reality of the internet bringing the marginal cost of video down to zero, this is no longer our only option.
The New Scheduling
In this day and age, the model of “teacher lectures to students who must be present” is outdated. Lectures can be recorded, and there is a wealth of free and cheaply available lectures on every subject at many levels already online. Having students present at precise times is unnecessary, and creates difficulties for parents with multiple children or teenagers who wake up late.
Instead, much like the modern workplace, core hours are a way to synchronize many people on different schedules while allowing everyone a maximum of flexibility.
In this model, we pick some hours, say 10am - 2pm, that we mandate all students be present for. The school itself will be open earlier (and stay open later) than that, but the general idea is that outside of those hours, students are free to arrive and depart as they need to.
In the previous post on school-as-social-services, it was also mentioned that the cafeteria would be open at all times, so there’ll be no specific lunchtime.
As for schoolbuses, I imagine they’d make their rounds starting early in the day, picking up students until 10am and dropping them off after 2pm (or whenever the core hours begin and end). This would also hopefully alleviate some of the traffic problems that the busses cause, as well as the traffic congestion often found at the schools themselves.
As for classes, I imagine that there would be specific instances of classes held at specific times in specific places, but they would be the minority. Instead, teachers in their classrooms would be available to help students at any level in their subject, and students would move freely throughout the day.
We’ll talk about this more when we get to the details of the curriculum.
Ages and Grade Levels
The Existing Grouping’s Purpose
The current policy in America of grouping students together by age is, as far as I am aware, not based on any proof that it’s actually a good idea to do so. People thought it seemed fine way back when, and we’ve just kept doing it ever since.
If I had to speculate, I’d say that grouping students by age is an easy system to administrate. A student’s birthday determines when they start school and what grade they’re in: simple and effective at scale.
Of course, what’s easy to administrate is by no means best for the students.
The New Grouping
Our goal is to create a primary school system in which students actually learn.
This means, among other things, that we have to measure whether or not our students are actually learning, which may be correlated with age but isn’t utterly tied to it.
For that matter, the concept of a grade level (1st grade, 2nd grade, and so on) is more useful to the administration than it is to the student. The student either learned the material or didn’t; what their grade level says is at best a weak signal to that effect.
So it makes sense to do away with grade levels entirely.
This may seem radical, but think about it - what does knowing that a student is in 10th grade really tell you about them, aside from their age? Does it tell you how mature they are, or whether they understand basic algebra? Does it tell you what level they read at?
In theory, it’s supposed to. In reality, it doesn’t.
The Existing Sorting’s Purpose
As I see it, the existing way we sort students - standard, honors, and AP for high school, with various “gifted and talented” programs throughout K-12 - is an attempt to square a particularly inconvenient circle.
On the one hand, students clearly have different levels of ability. Whatever the cause, be it IQ, home life, parental support, childhood nutrition, etc., some students are far more academically gifted and/or inclined than others.
On the other hand, officially ranking students from “genius” to “moron” is inegalitarian in a way that government programs aren’t really supposed to be. Doing so offends people, especially parents, on an emotional level. (What do you mean my child is a moron?! He’s just unmotivated/gifted in other ways/a bad test taker/very creative/…!)
While there exists a clear need for sorting, there also exists clear reasons why there must remain some amount of illegibility to the whole system. Humans don’t like being reduced to raw numbers. Students sorted into each group - and their parents - need to be able to tell themselves a story about why it’s okay to be in that group. That’s why we call the lowest group “standard” - it’s perfectly fine to be standard. If, instead of standard, honors, and advanced, we called the existing groups idiots, standard, and advanced, you could imagine the reaction of everyone placed into the “idiots” group, and especially the reaction of their parents.
There’s no escaping this tension as we look to redesign our sorting.
The New Sorting
While it might be ideal - and with advances in AI, feasible in the near future - to give each student a personalized AI tutor, we aren’t quite there yet, both technologically and as a society.
In the absence of a solution that works for everyone individually by adapting to everyone individually, the best we can do at scale is to sort students into groups and deal with the groups.
So how should students be sorted?
In Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat distributes students to their houses (communities) based on personality, or something like it. As Harry Potter fanfiction HPMOR puts it,
Clever kids in Ravenclaw, evil kids in Slytherin, wannabe heroes in Gryffindor, and everyone who does the actual work in Hufflepuff.
In case anyone read or watched Harry Potter and didn’t come to the conclusion: this is a very, very, very bad idea.
It makes for compelling fiction, sure, but differentiating children by personality at the age of 11 is an exercise in silliness at best. People grow, people change, people mature.
Besides, there’s probably some benefit to being around people with different personalities than you regularly, for the variety if nothing else.
By Test Score
Unfortunately, we can’t outsource our sorting to magical talking headgear. We have to use the tools we actually have.
This is controversial in plenty of circles, but the only logical way I see to sort students is by test score. There would be plenty of details to figure out, but we have reasonably good tests for IQ, G factor, etc. If there are problems with those tests, they can be addressed, but basically we want some kind of test of raw cognitive ability.
Now - importantly - we’re not going to deprive anyone of any opportunities based on what their score is. Any of our students can study anything they want. But our expectations should be different for those with vastly different scores.
Here’s how I imagine it working:
After basic literacy and numeracy are achieved for each student, they take “the” test, or a series of tests, and find out where in the normal distribution they are. Each standard deviation becomes a cohort; all students between the mean and one standard deviation above it are one cohort, all students between one and two standard deviations above the mean are another cohort, and so on.
Again - to be clear - any student can study whatever they want. Your cohort - the category you’re sorted into by the test - is not limiting in any way. It doesn’t remove opportunities. It just gives educators an idea of what their expectations of your baseline should be.
Classes can then be organized with certain expectations, and students can choose for themselves if they want a class designed for those with higher or lower cognitive scores than them, with the knowledge that the class will not slow down or speed up if a student is bored or struggling.
I’d welcome suggestions on this topic, as I think it’s particularly tricky.
The Existing Organization’s Purpose
Teachers are employees that may rely on various equipment - computers, posters, demonstrations, etc. - to do their jobs. It makes sense to give them permanent spaces to occupy where they can become familiar with the equipment available to them and customize their space the way they see fit.
Having students traveling together in large packs from classroom to classroom - or just the practice of having all students either be “in class” or “transitioning from one class to the next” likely makes sense from a liability standpoint. It’s easier for the school administration to make sure they know where all the students at all times (and especially during emergencies) if every students has, at every point in time, either a destination they should be at or one they should be heading to.
I still don’t like it, and think we can do better.
The New Organization
It makes sense that teachers should remain in their classrooms throughout the day - I don’t think that needs to change.
The students’ schedules, on the other hand, are much more likely to reflect a college student’s schedule in our redesign, so our school needs to be organized around enabling that flexibility.
There should be some kind of general-purpose area (think a quad or a student union) that students are free to occupy at any time. They’re also free to get food from the cafeteria or use the gym, computer lab, or other official school facility at any time. Each of these areas has consistent adult supervision, or at the very least supervision from older students who can contact an adult if they need to.
Students are generally free to move throughout the hallways from class to class, which (because classes won’t all be operating on a strict timetable) won’t result in the current dichotomy of the hallways being empty for the majority of the time interspersed with brief periods of being overcrowded.
Different levels of supervision are, of course, necessary at different ages, but broadly speaking once children are around 12-13 the default assumption should be that they’re okay without constant adult supervision, especially given they’re already on school grounds.
The existing structure of modern American public schools is suboptimal, especially if we want to encourage independence, self-reliance, initiative, leadership, and maturity among students. There are reasons that the structure is the way it is, and some of them remain valid in our new structure, but many of them do not.
In the next post we’ll discuss the curriculum in more detail - what should students be learning? What is the core knowledge necessary to graduate? How should students be graded? And so on.
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