I just finished reading Will Richardson’s Why School? and Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back to School. Richardson’s is a short text that challenges us to think differently about what K-12 schools need to become in the information age. Stark’s book is a guide to learning without schools, and features interviews with more than 20 individuals who have succeeded in a vareity of fields, from journalism to the arts and technology, without formal education.
As I read, I vacillated between exuberance about what’s possible in education, and total dismay about the current state of affairs. I’ve been excited to read Don’t Go Back to School since supporting its Kickstarter campaign last year. What attracted me to Stark’s work is the interviews. While I see the validity in arguments against higher education, I still tend to view college as a good practical choice. Yes, you may not learn much but in these times of credentials inflation, college still seems like the best guarantee of a middle class life. Stark gives fantastic portraits of what’s possible. Everyone she interviews has a clear love of learning – a few even liked school – but traditional education didn’t work for most of them. The common thread was that school was overly prescriptive and rigid, and did not allow them to discover and pursue their passions. By going outside of the traditional system, they were able to build successful and unique careers.
Stark’s book is primarily focused on the value of higher education, and most people she interviewed completed high school. But most of them also turned away from higher ed because of their dismal experiences in K-12. So Why School?
I admire the people Stark interviews in Don’t Go Back to School. But I can’t help but feel that they will continue to be exception. What will it take to make independent learning paths accessible? Badges, portfolios, and the like will help. But I believe what we really need is a shift further downstream in education. To develop the types of people who can successfully do what Stark’s interviewees have done – pursue their passion, take their learning under their own hands – we need to take Richardson’s advice and seriously reconsider K-12 education.
As Richardson notes, “schools as places where children come together to learn will not be going away anytime soon.” Nor would most people want them to. But when I think about the forces shaping K-12 education today – common curriculum, standardized testing, rigid accountability – I can’t help but feel that real education reform will have to start from outside the system.