Do We Still Need Schools and Teachers? (A Thought on Holes in the Wall)

I am often amazed at how well students do when we leave them alone. I see this when I read my son's notebook and watch him find patterns in numbers, add dialogue to comics, write his own stories or draw a colorful vase of flowers.

And yet . . . my son didn't learn this in a social vacuum. He watched me paint, sketch, write and solve problems. He immersed himself in learning environments. He had two parents who were interested in what he was doing, who guided him in questioning and who listend to his voice. From the moment he could walk, learning was relational.

Even then, there were things he couldn't self-teach. There were things he missed at home that he learned in school through a very guided process of small group direct instruction. Phonology, phonemic awareness and the structure of reading required support that he couldn't simply learn on his own.

He is one boy in one home and yet his experience as a learner has proven to me that the solution (even for one child) requires nuance. It isn't as simple as saying "leave the kid alone and he'll learn just fine." Nor is it as simple as saying, "every kid will need school the way that my son did."

Hole in the Wall
I have not read enough about Sugata Mitra to give an adequate critique of his theories. However, I am seeing his hole in the wall experiment used to justify the death of the public school system and the replacement of teachers with computer programs.

Sounds great. That is, if you're a cyborg. But we're not. We are human. We are social. We are flesh and blood and not a set of firing neurons or a network of interconnected data.

We need teachers. Real teachers. We need guides, mentors, people who can help students relationally. Yes, students can find information in Google. However, we need experts who know content and can help students learn to think well in a world of information overload.

And we need spaces. Real spaces. Physical spaces with walls (yes, they matter) or better yet half-walls and gates, because that's how community works. The limitations can actually promote creativity. We need trusted spaces and safe places.

The Solution
People are quick to point out that the institution of school is broken. And they're right. Sometimes. But so are many families. People point out that schools are an old social institution that came about during the industrial era. True. And yet, so is the nuclear family. Frankly, I'm a fan of families and I would rather raise my kids than send them off to a hole in a wall to try and learn how to function on their own.

I am not opposed to kiosks or programs or holes in the wall that help kids learn. However, I don't see why the promotion of that idea has to mean the destruction of a public institution. Why can't they co-exist? Why can't different models work for different people? Why can't we create interdependent systems that borrow ideas from one another?


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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