March 17, 2021

Ripping the Band-Aid Off

This post builds off an earlier post entitled “The Old and New Story of Education and Schooling.” ¬†Over the next few blog posts, I will develop my ideas further.

I am going to preface my thesis by saying that I am optimistic about the direction of learning and education. I believe we are heading in the right direction toward a more learner-centered model.

The pandemic crisis was/is a huge challenge for schools. Besides the managerial problems that arose, the pandemic brought to the surface two underlying purposes of schooling/education that may be uncomfortable for people to hear.

Purpose #1: Schooling is about Babysitting

Okay, I said it. We cannot ignore the fact that our economy is predicated on the assumption that both parents have to work. What to do with the kids while parents work? Send them to school. The societal reaction to schools being closed is not centered on student or staff safety. It is centered on getting kids in school so their parents can work. Again, no judgment on my part, this is just a fact.

I heard heart-wrenching stories over the course of the last year of parents and caregivers of children that lost their jobs because they did not have a viable childcare option. The warehousing of students in schools serves the purpose of allowing adults to go to work. An added benefit is that by warehousing students in schools, the students are taken out of the labor market and do not compete with the adults for jobs.

Purpose #2: Schooling is about High School Sports

Anyone who has been remotely involved in schools since the pandemic began, knows that the most controversy centered on whether or not not the sports seasons were going to happen. There are many good reasons why high school sports are so important.

  1.  High school sports bring a sense of cohesion to a community. The traditions surrounding high school sports (Homecoming, Friday night football games) help communities pass on their values to a younger generation.
  2. High school sports have replaced church services as a way to interact with your neighbors. In the past church services were the place where neighbors got together to socialize. As church attendance has declined, the social aspect of “getting together” is replaced by going to a high school sporting event.

Again, I am not placing a judgment on this purpose of school. Rather, the pandemic has made it very clear to me that society places an immense amount of importance on high school sports.

What does all of this mean?

I think there are significant ramifications for learner-centered leaders when you understand the 2 true purposes of schooling.

  1. Education leaders, policymakers, and researchers take ourselves much too seriously. Remember, there are two purposes of schooling and those purposes do not necessarily align with what you believe is important. Nonsense like “data teams” and “State exams” are seen for what they are…ridiculous adult-centered policy charades.
  2. In some ways not taking ourselves so seriously is liberating. It allows us to focus intensely on the experience of the learner in the school setting. Creating learning experiences for learners is done with more clarity when not overlayed with thoughts of standards, shaming caused by State-mandated exams, and other policy mumbo-jumbo created by adults who are taking themselves too seriously.
  3. Educating kids is not a “hard” science. We are not measuring atoms. Education/schooling is about people and kids working within the larger context of society. People are messy. Kids are messy. Learner-centered leaders embrace the untidiness of dealing with living, breathing, human beings.

This is not to say that I do not believe that the work that we do in education is serious…you’re damn right I think it is serious. I believe that our “seriousness” is misdirected because we are unwilling to see what society believes to be the true purpose of schooling.

I am incredibly hopeful that the story (and purpose) that society tells about schooling can change over time. I believe education leaders have a role in nudging that conversation along. Once that happens, the two purposes of schooling will change. However, to be effective in engaging in the story of school we all have to be clear about where we are right now in the true purpose of school.

  1. We have to be willing to admit that taking ourselves too seriously compared to the true purpose of school has created a disconnect in our relationships between school and education. I will discuss this idea more in next week’s blog.
  2. Education researchers have to be willing to let go of the falsehood that education research is an equivalent science to physics. I believe that education research is as important to study as physics or any other “hard science”, but the methodologies and context of conducting those studies are different. We are doing irreparable harm to our schools by overlaying the same rules physicists use to conduct research on Black Holes to how we research instruction in a Kindergarten classroom.


In order to change a system, organization, or structure, we must understand the purpose of the system, organization, or structure. In the case of schooling/education, the purpose has been honed by decades of cultural and societal demands to help socialize children into the larger community. This is not a bad thing. Creating a bridge between the purpose (as society sees it) and what professional educators recognize as the purpose is a good first step in creating lasting change in schools.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

  • Well said, Tom! It is an excellent time in the history of education to reexamine the purpose of school. There is no question that one purpose is custodial for 180 days a year. There is a very positive outcome of having children at school for both parents and educators, not to mention children. Win-Win-Win!

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