A radical change to public education


A place where children are “educated.”

Public education, despite its name, is not about educating the public.  Its purpose is to babysit children during the day while their parents are at work and to create a new generation of workers – people who find it normal to sit at a desk all day doing whatever their boss tells them to do in order to create wealth for someone else, and then never questioning the validity of this system.

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”  -Charles Bukowski

There is not much difference between the classroom and the workplace.  In both places, there is one person in charge and a group of subordinates who have to take orders.  In both cases there is a plan of action for what has to be accomplished which is decided upon by people who may not be present at the school or work site.  The subordinates, as well as the teacher or boss, have to arrive at a specific time each day.  The teacher or boss has to enforce that these tasks are completed as decided upon by the (sometimes unknown) decision maker.  They have specific times scheduled for breaks, and cannot take a break at any other time.  They have a half an hour to eat a bag lunch. Using the washroom when it is not break time is often forbidden.  This is a rigid hierarchical structure where someone is in charge, and this someone is always a privileged person with wealth, and this someone gets to dictate what other people will do during the day based on his own needs.  It’s not about the needs of the people involved.  School is not about the needs of children.  School is about the needs of the dominant culture.  The dominant culture is controlled by the people in charge, who are rich and privileged, and who are very few in controlling a great many.

Children do not need to sit in rows all day taking orders.  They do not need to complete a prescribed set of tasks just because they’re in a period of life labelled as “grade three”.  They do not need to learn how to walk down the hallway in a straight line without talking.  These are things the bosses need. The bosses need a set of compliant workers to do their work for them and thus create wealth for them.  The only way a whole generation of human beings will submit to authority and do work for someone else is if they spend the first 18 years of their lives in captivity learning that they must submit and obey, and that there is nothing else in life besides submitting and obeying.

I was a public school teacher.  I lasted less than two years.  The job broke my heart.  The people who thrive at teaching are usually white and heterosexual and usually women.  I meet two of those criteria, but I have not bought into the dominant culture, nor the dominance and submission paradigm.

I love the idea of public education.  I love the idea of free education for the public.  It’s probably my favourite out of all ideas.  I resigned from a permanent position in the public babysitting and indoctrination system, and went to work in an office instead.  I’m less miserable there.

I like to dream about what “public education” would look like, if we had such a system.  This would be a system that actually educates the public.  We are capable of creating such a system immediately, but we aren’t going to, because it would not serve the ruling class.

My public education system would be a library, where, in addition to signing out books, you could sign out teachers.  If you wanted to learn, say, woodworking, you would search the library catalogue for a teacher who could teach woodworking.  You would then set up an appointment for a lesson at a time that worked for both of you.

My public education would have school buildings, but they would be a bit different from those we have now.  Some of the usual facilities would be the same: there would be a gymnasium with sports equipment, a science classroom with basic equipment for experiments, an art classroom with art materials, a music classroom with musical instruments, and so on.  There would be group study rooms.  Instead of 25 to 30 children sitting in rows in the same room all day, there would be smaller rooms where groups could get together to study the same things.  There would be no expectation that study should happen in a group unless by chance several people wanted to “borrow” the same teacher for the same lesson at the same time.  The teacher would then book a study room for the impromptu class.

There would be no expectation that people needed to be sorted by age.  The only time people would need to be sorted by age would be in group sports where it is impractical to have people of very different sizes playing a sport together.

People would choose whatever they wanted to learn.  There would be no prescribed curriculum and no prescribed time period for completing tasks.

Teachers could be anyone in the community who could perform a skill.  People would apply to become teachers and a committee would decide if they are eligible.  For example, a criminal background check would be required and the person would have to prove they are capable of teaching the skill they are volunteering to teach. Once approved, they would be entered into the system as an available teacher for a specific skill and learners could search and find them.  There wouldn’t be anything called “grade 4 math” or “grade 10 English.”  There would be specific skills you could search for.  Want to learn how to multiply?  Just search “multiply” in the system and a list of teachers approved to teach that skill would appear with their availability for lessons.  You would book an available time, and sometimes several people would have the same appointment time.  A study room would thus be booked for the purpose of learning multiplication.  Want to learn how to do long division?  Same thing.  Want to play floor hockey?  Just search the system for available times when floor hockey is offered and sign up.  Want to learn how to sew a handbag?  Search the system for someone who teaches sewing and book a time in the art room when there is a sewing station available.  Want to learn how to play the guitar?  Search the system for a music teacher and book a time when there is a guitar available to borrow and a practise room open.  Teachers would get paid by the hour by the government.  We already pay teachers a salary with government money.  This system would be different but the cost would probably not change by much, if at all.  New teachers would get paid around $18 an hour.  Experienced teachers would get paid more like $25 an hour.  People with complex or rare skills, like senior level science and math, expert level musicians, computer engineers, and the like, would get paid more.  Teachers would set their own schedules.  A teacher could work in the private sector and also in public education by scheduling their availability.  Someone could work full-time in the private sector and teach one or two hours a week.  Someone could teach full-time, without having any other job, especially if they were teaching a skill in high demand, such as reading, because students would be booking them often.  People would want to be teachers, because all of their students would be enthusiastic about learning their skill, and would appreciate being taught.  Any skill you can think of could be taught as long as someone was available who is capable of teaching it.  How to sew a button, how to fix a leaky sink, how to build a house, how to write a haiku, why not?  Just search for it in the system.  Maybe no one in your municipality could teach it, but maybe someone in the next municipality can.

There would still be grading, but learners would only be graded if they wished to be graded.  If a learner wanted to prove they had learned a certain skill, they would take a test, and their skill level would be assessed by an expert in that skill and an official stamp added to their transcript.  Someone’s transcript might include: “Ability to count to one million, cook spaghetti al dente, and put up drywall.”  Who knows, anything.

Every person would have an electronic file.  In their file would be a list of all the skills they had been tested on and passed.  If a student successfully demonstrated ability to perform 13,206 skills, their electronic file would be extensive.  In a person’s electronic file would be their attendance record as well.  Everyone would have a swipe card and would have to swipe in and out of each room.  A record is then made of what rooms the learner entered.  Parents would have access to the password to see their children’s files until their children turn 16.  If parents told their children they had to learn some math skills, but their child spent the whole day in the gym, their parents would be able to tell.  If someone stole something, say, sound equipment from the auditorium, security personnel would look up who swiped into the auditorium that day and those people would be questioned.

There would still be pre-requisites to get into university or college, and to get into the workplace.  Workplaces would name specific skills candidates are required to have in order to get specific jobs.  People who wanted to apply for a new job would have to make sure they have learned all the required skills.  The candidate would have a copy of their transcript printed and sent to the workplace to prove that they can do business math, write well in English, and program a computer.  They were never forced to learn these skills just because they were sitting in a room called “grade 10.” They willingly learned these things because they needed to know them.  They may never have learned how to do a cart-wheel, speak a foreign language, or draw a two-point perspective drawing,  but that doesn’t matter.

If someone wanted to do a demanding job requiring a lot of education, they would still have to go to university or college.  In higher education there would be a set curriculum for each career.  There would still be a school of medicine and a school of business and a school of science, et cetera, like we have now.  Candidates for university would have to prove they can perform quite a lot of skills, which would be decided upon by the college, in order to get in.

Theoretically, if a person’s only ambition was to do manual labour, they would not be required to go to school at all, but chances are, everyone would want to.  Chances are there wouldn’t be anybody whose attendance was zero because humans are naturally curious and want to do things, and everyone would find something they wanted to learn about.  A small child might decide they didn’t want to learn to read, but then upon deciding they wanted to build robots, would realize that they do want to read, in order to help them learn to build a robot, and then would voluntarily sign up for reading lessons.

There would be very little separation of children and adults.  People could sign up for a lesson at a public school at any age, at any time.  There would be day care for children too young to sign up for lessons and attend on their own.  A parent who did not have a full-time job might attend school with their child all day and participate in the same lessons.  Parents who both work full-time might have to leave their child in day care for a while until the child is responsible enough to study on their own.

There would rarely be any discipline problems, because in this system, there is no dominance and no submission, there is no forcing anyone to do anything.  A learner who did not want to stay in a class would simply leave and go somewhere else.  There would be one or two security guards in each school building full-time so that if someone got angry and started a fight or was stealing equipment they could intervene.  If someone brought drugs or weapons to school they would be confiscated and if someone was inexcusably rude they would be asked to leave.  They would not be given a “punishment,” they would just not be allowed in that room anymore until the lesson is over and would have to go somewhere else.  Parents would be able to see any discipline issues in their child’s electronic file.  If a child had been asked to leave a classroom it would be noted.  Parents could receive email alerts if their child is ever asked to leave, and if they are able, can go to the school immediately to talk to their child or the security guards about what happened.  Unless the crime was spectacular, like a physical assault, the learner would be allowed into another lesson right away, they would only be kicked out of the lesson in which they had just been rude.  They would then have to book a time to take that lesson again, knowing that they will not be able to complete it if they are rude again. They only real “rules” would be treat others with respect and be there to learn, not to disrupt.  People would be there to learn, because if their goal wasn’t to learn, they would have never signed up for the lesson in the first place.

This system of education would be public education.  It would be a way for anyone to learn whatever they wanted to learn for free.  Real learning would take place.  People would love learning.  This style of education will not happen without a fundamental change in our society.

In this system of public education, people would not learn to submit to authority.  People would learn that they are whole, worthy human beings who are capable of accomplishing what they want to accomplish. No one leaving this education system would be willing to go to a workplace at someone else’s scheduled time every day to create wealth for someone else, because this does not make any sense.  People would look for meaningful work in their lives.  People’s lives would have meaning.

The capitalist system would collapse.

True public education would improve our lives immensely, and it would end society as we know it.

14 thoughts on “A radical change to public education

  1. Whilst I do not necessarily agree with everything that you say I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I recently wrote an essay on a similar theme (on knowledge for democracy and paideia and will upload it onto my blog now. Thanks. :)


    Your criticisms of what education is, as opposed to what it ought to be, are what mine would be if I could articulate the things that made me go “rrrrrr”.

    I like lots of things about your ideal education program, but I do not think I would necessarily have learned all the things I am glad to I know now if I were solely in charge of directing my education. First of all, I’m autistic. There are things I am much worse at than non-autistic people, useful things. I was able to get better at some of them because of public-school special education. Now, there’s an argument to be made that I only needed those skills (biggest example: task switching) because of the unnatural, deeply regimented classroom environment. That’s true — you don’t need to switch over from X to Y on a dime when a teacher is not telling you it’s time to Y now, so put X away — but I think the root of my problem with task switching was a problem with mental flexibility, which I think *is* objectively good and useful. So I do think this special education helped me, and I would’ve been incapable of knowing I needed it, so would never have opted into it myself.

    There’s other things, too, that I ended up liking a lot and being good at that didn’t draw me in immediately — math, for one. Always been good at it, never particularly liked it until calculus. But under today’s educational system you have to take math every year, and I was always placed more or less commensurate with my ability. (I may have been a year behind where I could ideally have been, because the super-advanced math in my district met before school in sixth grade. I needed my sleep too much, and knew it at that age, so I didn’t enroll even though I was eligible. And you could ONLY enter that program in sixth grade).

    Probably what I would’ve chosen for myself was a whole lot of art, creative writing, reading, outdoor stuff and hands-on stuff. I would never have unlocked my love of, and talent for, math and the less outdoorsy sciences.

    But maybe including a mentor figure in your plan would help address this.

  3. Hiya, I’m here via Twisty’s suggestion.I think… it may have been in the comments recently. I must tell you, although I love this idea, it’s mostly for a population of average intelligence and general compliance. It doesn’t address people with behavioral problems; in needs full integration with social services to help children and adults “conform” to societal standards; learning difficulties would need to be supported by specialists trained in advanced educational techniques. My ADHD, combative and non-reading son would be forced to be in reading class (and he would be forced, by his parents) but would be so disruptive to the classroom process that we would have to hire one-on-one tutoring outside the “school” system. I would see it developing into a two-fold system; the wonderful open school where everyone is motivated to learn and teach, and the “you’re going to learn whether you like it or not” school where everyone is unhappy.

    (Also, and just a small point, I think everyone who wants to teach should undergo some form of teacher training. The dynamics of a class of disparate students are hard to manage without specific strategies to allow for inclusiveness.)

  4. Awesome post! The high school that I attended was very, very tolerant of my own inability/unwillingness to do the work I was supposed to do, and they allowed me to essentially engage my own autodidactic course of study holed up in the library. I remain grateful for that freedom to this day, and agree that all children and adolescents should have it.

  5. Hmmm…I really like these ideas. I would address “stacey” very briefly: The point here is that children would not be “forced” to learn anything they didn’t want to learn, or to take lessons at all. The ADHD child or adult would not have to take reading or math because they could take ceramics or anything else that TRULY interested them. This would cut down the behavior issues by quite a bit, I would think. Furthermore, I don’t think in such a system as described above, that a parent would even have the right to “force” a child to take classes he/she didn’t wish to take and wasn’t interested in. That would defeat the entire purpose/spirit of the concept. The motivation for taking reading and math would be because it was needed in order to advance in whatever subject or field in which the individual were interested. If there were students with developmental issues then there would also be instructors who specialized in working with such individuals and could be “checked-out” by those students for the assistance they needed. I think this might actually WORK! Thank you!

  6. Oh my god, I almost cried. My life would be radically different if this were the education system when I was a kid. Almost all of my behavioral problems as a child could be linked back to my frustration with school. I remember being so miserable all the time. In fact, I think my depression as an adult stemmed from my constant failures in public ed. If this were the school system, I might not be struggling to keep a customer service job because I’m afraid of failing in college; I might be working in something I love and have mastered.

  7. With a head full of ideas in such stark contrast to the actual school you had to work in, no wonder you bailed out. I have kind of similar ideas, but I was in the college world, so the conflict was only bad, not lethal.

    It’s interesting that actual teachers, like you and me and lots of others, generally talk about the ideal being a tutoring model focused on individuals. Meanwhile people who never teach know, they know, that the answer is funneling in the same basics into all people in the same way and testing them every other day with multiple choice exams to “measure” “progress.”

    Your system would dovetail with my system (Re-imagining Democracy, Education) beautifully!

  8. Excellent re-envisioning! And a tiny inkling of this concept is already becoming available…though of course lacking the necessary record-keeping & certification/testing infrastructure. I refer to things like the free, online Khan Academy with its free online instructional video lectures, as well as other similar sites. Now we just need it in the person-to -person version, as you described.

  9. Wow, a really good article from someone who is passionate about the topic and has put a lot of thought into it. The more I look the more I see that there are lots of really good people who have given up on the current system. I wonder if there is a way for us all to get together and actually start this new education system. We’re trying. We’ve actually started a private school largely because of the failings of the public system but it’s hard. Where we are, the system tries to protect itself by destroying any competing ideas. I’d like to hire “Blamer Bushfire” to work in our private school (system). I really do like most of the ideas presented here but I have a few comments and/or questions about it. Some of my comments are as follows.
    1. While I can see the similarities in the school system to the work system, you’re assuming that one was designed to feed the other. I’m not sure it’s as conspiratorial as you make it out to be (which is really funny to hear me say because even my own kids call me “the original conspiracy theorist guy”). I agree that schools really do a sort of brainwashing. Knowing that schools do more than simply teach subjects, we openly use the phrase “produce productive members of society” when we describe what a school’s real task is to be. But, our modern public system of education was designed during the industrial revolution. It’s easy to see that the model they would have chosen was one similar to what everyone was already familiar with; namely, the industrialized “factory system” with starting whistles (school bells), production lines and batch processing. Notice above, that schools are to PRODUCE “productive members of society.” That assumes that students are in fact not people as much as they are products.

    As far as a babysitting service so that both parents could work… well… the “ ‘merican dream” of the 1950’s was a single family income where the mother stayed home to cook and clean and raise the kids and father went off to earn a living. Our school system was designed well before that time period and I think one of the major reasons this model was chosen was simply its economy; 1 teacher to 35 pupils. And if some students fell through the cracks, well… like any factory production line, rejects are simply weeded out and thrown away at the quality control stage. Wastage is simply a line in the “cost of production” ledger sheet and easy to justify as long as you don’t look at the fact that it’s really people’s lives you’re throwing away. It’s actually for these people that our private school exists… but we like to think there is tremendous riches in the castoffs of others not unlike finding a winning lottery ticket in the pocket of a second hand jacket you just bought at the local Sally Ann store. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Friedrich Nietzsche, Galileo, and many others either did not or would not have fit today’s school system. They would have been the ones it would have thrown away.

    2. In this “new system,” why is there a separation between the secondary system and the university? It seems to me that an educational system should be all inclusive and as stated, get rid of the label of “grade 3” or “grade 10.” It’s a great idea, let’s just carry it further and get rid of the label of University too.” Remember, you said that jobs would require a list of skills. Does it really matter where those skills where learned?

    Personally, I graduated high-school in 1975 and shortly after started university in the college of education. After completing only half of the program I chose a different path and got a totally different degree and it was almost 20 years later that I decided to go back and finish my education degree. During registration, I needed to pick a course to major in. Since I currently made my living teaching computers, I tried to list that as a skill. The administration would not accept that because when they viewed my own high school transcripts I had never taken a computer science class. They failed to see that back in 1975 there were no computer science classes because there were no computers. The system was loath to give credit for any knowledge I had that they couldn’t take credit for giving me. This leads to the next issue.

    3. Your system assumes that a teacher is always required. Sugata Mitra http://www.wimp.com/cloudschool/ says that education is really a self-organizing system and that in many cases, teachers are NOT required. Personally, I think that a good teacher will be someone who brings the learning components together, then gets out of the way and LETS the learning happen organically… not makes it happen according to some prescribed curriculum. (This is probably a minor difference in our philosophy and can be dealt with at the micro level)

    4. You state that grading should be done ONLY if the student wanted it. Robert Pirsig in his book “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance” makes a very strong case for getting rid of grading all together. His system has a lot of similarities to yours. And really, grading is a fairly recent concept. Millennia ago boys learned what they needed to learn (hunting, flint knapping etc.) by following their fathers around. They basically had an “apprenticeship” model that worked well for tens of thousands of years and there was never any formal grading. I’m not totally convinced that we need any grading whatsoever now. This is not to be confused with some kind evaluation mechanism. Students still require feedback so they will know how they might still improve.

    5. Your system doesn’t appear to make allowances for lessons that are more than a single day long. (Maybe it does in practice but just couldn’t be described totally in one blog posting) There are many kinds of multiplication for example. Multiplying; single digits; multiple digits, fractions, decimals, negative numbers, exponents, combinations of the above etc. Learning is a cumulative activity where some activities are built on prior knowledge. It’s the “standing on the shoulders of giants” thingy all over again. Reading is another good example… it takes way longer than a simple class and is composed of many more skills; knowing the difference between vowels and consonants for one thing, syllabification for another and don’t forget vocabulary. Maybe we should also add in there how to use a dictionary because lots of times as you’re reading, you’ll come across a word you don’t know and will need to look up. Those new words can then be added to your vocabulary but not before you’ve learned research skills and techniques. This leads to another issue (and one of my personal pet peeves.)

    6. I think that our current system has broken down our learning into smaller and smaller chunks, and there has been nothing there to reintegrate our learning into a big-picture thinking again. We’ve divided school into individual classes (eg math – language – science) then broken the individual classes into smaller and smaller subjects (eg. science becomes biology – chemistry – physics) but there is nothing that puts the small pieces together again. To me this is like separating a Swiss watch or grandfather clock into its various components (winding mechanism – chiming mechanism – pendulum mechanism etc.) then further breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces until you have nothing but a collection of screws and springs which you can now study. BUT… the clock doesn’t actually work until all the pieces are reassembled again. You can learn everything there is to learn about the clock except how it is used to keep time. It’s “purpose” has been lost and it will never be found again until it’s all reintegrated. I personally don’t think that our current education system is good at reintegrating. And while “Blamer Bushfire” does mention “purpose” it’s not clear from the description of her new system how that reintegration would take place. I think it HAS to be there for people to find purpose and I agree with her that that should be the real reason we go to school… to find “our” purpose and not buy into what society (or some unknown person with power and wealth) says our purpose “should” be.

    • True… but the internet doesn’t give a “Certificate of Participation” (which, with the new “no fail” policy, is what a high-school diploma is quickly becoming. And as much as I think it shouldn’t be… that certificate is still seen as “The Coin of the Realm.” Maybe we need to change that idea in employer’s minds first.

  10. This is similar to the free school concept, like sudbury in Mass. And Windsor house in B C. Also, my town has Village Free School and Village Home Educational Resource Center, which are similar. Except for Windsor House, which is public, the others are private, though. i am also a former teacher and my kids are homeschooled and also attend Village Home. I truly believe that homeschoolers are going to start the revolution you describe. Many, many of us are not right-wing Creationist crackpots, but pRents who want to give our kids a free, democratic ecucation.

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