The concept of a school too often contrasts significantly from the reality of school. When we speak of education, we indulge in beautiful ideologies of what could be. When we educate, we mire in constraints and limitations on what we can actually accomplish. This gap between aspiration and practicality represents our failings to upend self-imposed restrictions based upon structural hegemony. We teach our students to dream and pursue their unbridled potential, yet we tether them to antiquated, inequitable systems designed to produce a competent and compliant workforce. Rather than build on self-esteem from the moment students begin kindergarten, we actually chip away at this ideal, stifling potential by sorting, categorizing, and limiting. We narrow possibilities and extinguish hopes, perpetuating punitive and inequitable assessments and structures created in the nineteenth century. Schooling must evolve behind emboldened leaders and educators buoyed by a community that understands the stakes.
The COVID pandemic has exposed the disheartening priorities of a society more focused on commerce than schools. However, this unparalleled disruption also presented tremendous opportunity, exposing the possibilities for rapid and adaptive change in education. For example, we brought technology to children across communities on a scale that was previously unfathomable. With the spotlight on education and the empathy gained for teachers, we can re-center schooling and education. A school should be a hub that helps to sustain and elevate the local community. It should directly reflect community values and serve as a primary resource for cooperative development. We bandy about the term “community” freely, but now feel very acutely what it means and demands, as we’ve relied upon this concept to survive these unprecedented events.
The reckoning following George Floyd’s murder has laid bare the systems that have, by design, exacerbated marginalization and exposed another, racial pandemic. However, the resulting movements have also amplified voices of the unheard and gave pause for institutions to examine their complicity within these systems. While schools must cope with their historical role in creating intentionally exclusive spaces, the opportunity to embrace the moment and confront and dismantle these transgressions also exists. We must shoulder all the responsibilities we assume in educating children, and strive to create a truly equitable and just community in which every student genuinely feels the support and capacity to thrive.
Schools should empower - not just prepare - students to make change, leveraging experiential education to engage students directly with the community and provide them with real-world problem-solving experience. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” They illuminate systems and policies that perpetuate disproportionate suppression of marginalized groups. More than simply teaching about or idealizing these goals, we must work toward their tangible achievement. Centering the SDGs can help students to define their purpose as critical agents of change, providing them with “a platform to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.”
Ironically, the repercussions of the dual pandemics precipitate hope that revolution beckons. Growing refrains from marginalized groups to disrupt and dismantle may finally stir up the fortitude to actualize the change that must occur. What education are we struggling to provide while we can directly enable and engage our students to make real change, now? Schooling must evolve. We possess the tools, the motivation, and the moral imperative. We must redirect our course and provide learning for prosperity for all.
Phu Tranchi uses Unrulr to facilitate experiential learning at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, California.