The Future is Learning, But What About Schooling?

A key distinction.

January 5, 2015

I come to my fascination with learning and schooling, as most educators do, through deep life experience. I was a struggling learner in elementary school—a slow reader, a stutterer, a shy and diffident, rather dreamy, child who found school to be a scary and demeaning place.

As an adolescent, I grew into an identity as a “good” student largely by mastering the game of adult approval, pretending to a high level of effort, participating in sports and other school activities, accumulating the awards and recognition that accompany the fine art of making adults feel proud and powerful.

I graduated among the top ten students in my high school class of 250 or so students. I recall feeling largely cheated by my high school experience. By the time I graduated I had become a fairly accomplished reader, with the consequence that I had become acutely aware of how thin and superficial, how utterly flat and dull, my learning experience in high school was. 

I was excited to enter a small liberal arts college in the Northwest, but I was completely unprepared for the intensity of the learning experience I faced there. I fell into a group of “independents” in a college with a strong fraternity and sorority culture—about as bohemian an existence as one could manage in a tiny college town. I taught adult literacy in the local state penitentiary.

I had to learn how read and write basically from scratch; the work that had produced success in high school was hopelessly inadequate. I also had to learn to operate in a world in which words, ideas, and convictions mattered, in which being “liked” was much less important than being heard. I remember being dumbstruck that an adult could earn a living by studying a single author for a lifetime.

I was also a member of the generation of the New Frontier, the Great Society, and a child of the civil rights movement, a member of the SDS for a period, and, later, in graduate school, among the first group of white students to be invited to leave SNCC by Stokely Carmichael.

I was part of that brief moment in time when public service and political activism were considered to be high-status work, in the same league that management consulting and finance are for the current generation of college graduates. I was drawn to education, in part, by this sense of service. I could pursue essentially intellectual work while at the same time playing some role in public life and politics.

That was then. This is now. I am attenuating my relationship with Harvard University, where I have been a professor for the past 20-some years. I am engaged in a powerful late-career learning experience, attempting to learn how to “teach” (if that is the appropriate term) an on-line course—a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) offered through HarvardX.

The course is called Leaders of Learning, and it is addressed primarily to the rising generation of potential future leaders in the learning sector. The course also represents my deep fascination with the future of learning as a social activity, and my equal skepticism about the future of institutionalized schooling as a setting for learning.

I am, in short, moving away from my earlier conviction that schooling is learning enacted for public purposes through public institutions, and moving toward a broader vision for learning as a social activity upon which society depends for its future development. I am increasingly aware that the weight of politics and public policy upon the institutions of schooling is making schools less and less likely to be the privileged place where learning occurs in the future. 

The future of learning in society is virtually unlimited, at least for the foreseeable future. Learning is the conversion of information into knowledge; information, in the digital age has become a vast sea of ones and zeros; information becomes knowledge by passing through some medium that transforms the ones and zeros into a conceptually organized form.

In the past, we have thought of this transformation as a single authoritative portal, called schooling. The advent of digital culture means that this portal is now one among many possible places, virtual and physical, where information can become knowledge. The type of knowledge and skill required to negotiate this increasingly complex world is completely different from what schools have conventionally done, and schools are institutionally disadvantaged as players in this new world, in large part because of the well-intentioned efforts of school reformers.

While learning has largely escaped the boundaries of institutionalized schooling, educational reformers have for the past thirty years or so deliberately and systematically engaged in public policy choices that make schools less and less capable of responding to the movement of learning into society at large.

Standards and expectations have become more and more literal and highly prescriptive in an age where human beings will be exercising more and more choice over what and how they will learn.

Testing and assessment practices have become more and more conventional and narrow as the range of competencies  required to negotiate digital culture has become more complex and highly variegated.

Teacher preparation, hiring, induction, and evaluation practices have become more and more rigid and hierarchical in an age where the teaching function is migrating out into a more individualized and tailored set of learning environments.

We are continuing to invest massively in hard-boundary physical structures in an age where learning is moving into mobile, flexible, and networked relationships. In other words, it would be hard to imagine an institutional structure for learning that is less suited for the future than the heavily institutionalized, hierarchical world that education reformers have constructed.

In Leaders of Learning, the MOOC I am teaching through HarvardX, I am attempting to describe for young people who are called to learning and public service a future that is open, flexible, innovative and largely unconstrained by the conventions of institutionalized schooling.

Schools, as we currently know them, will continue to exist, if only because the byzantine collection of political interests that underlie them will keep them afloat regardless of their contribution to learning. The Postal Service continues to exist, as the function of moving information fluidly and efficiently in society has migrated out into other organizational forms.

To engage the next generation of young leaders in the important task of building society’s capacity to learn in the service of innovation and creativity, we will need to provide them with a broader array of opportunities to lead in settings where they can exercise meaningful judgment and control, without having to wait in line for a career path that may take decades to acknowledge their energy and creativity.

I now see in my own biography as a learner how I have come to this place. I was trained, as a student, to value schooling primarily as a vehicle for gaining adult approval and control. I learned that lesson well. I also learned it in an environment that prepared me not at all for a life of learning.

I see these patterns reproducing themselves in many of the hundreds of classrooms I have observed over the past fifteen years in my professional work. Students are schooled for adult approval and conformity to highly standardized, institutionalized expectations, created by people in positions of public authority who have no knowledge whatsoever of how learning works as an individual and social activity.

The definition of learning for society at large as been given over to political professionals, who are educational amateurs of the worst kind. The broader society, thankfully, is smarter than the institutionalized schooling sector.

Learning, as an individual and social activity, has never been so alive as the present, and it will continue to grow in scope and breadth indefinitely. The experiences I had as a learner in the world, challenged by serious intellectuals and by involvement in life-altering, personally wrenching experiences, are now available to a much broader swath of society.

Leadership of learning will follow the contours of learning in society; the survival of society requires that learning be unconstrained by the institutional interests and conventions of schooling.

Richard F. Elmore is Gregory Anrig Research Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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