Stage not age: The time is now

Written by: Dr Patrick Alexander | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to explore what schooling would look like if we focused much more on learning and much less on structuring, says Dr Patrick Alexander

One of the most important questions posed by the current moment of drastic social change is: “What are we going to do about schooling when this is all over?”

Across the world, systems of mass education are creaking as teachers and pupils alike attempt the mammoth task of putting schooling online in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

This has led to innovative, creative and compassionate ways of thinking about what good teaching and learning looks like.

However, schooling from home also raises a raft of issues, not least whether schooling should continue more or less in its traditional form.

Should we still be teaching in year groups, according to a weekly schedule, wedged uncomfortably into Google Classrooms or Microsoft Teams? Should we gather together 30 pupils aged 11 and 12 for year 7 English via Zoom? Should we usher our teenagers ever onwards towards high-stakes exams given the troubled status of these tests as educational rites of passage to adulthood?

In short, should we attempt to transpose a 19th century model and structure of mass education into the rapacious uncertainty of the digitally converging 21st century present, as many schools are currently trying to do.

If anything, the current circumstances underscore what was already problematic about schooling before coronavirus: the structure of schooling, teaching conditions, underfunding, managerialism, high-stakes assessment, mental ill-health, drop-off traffic, nurturing neoliberal aspirations, the list goes on.

Now we have an opportunity to radically change what schooling looks like.

One area of schooling that deserves serious scrutiny is our obsession with organising learning – and therefore socialisation – according to age-based categories.

My new book – Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to act your age in contemporary Britain – argues that the current age-based system of organising learning in schools is in need of radical change. We are in a perfect moment for thinking about enacting this kind of change.

While society continues to change dramatically, schools are still organised much as in the 19th century. Age remains the last “grand narrative” of modern society: we still hold onto outdated ideas about how our lives will pan out, imagining a straight line from development in childhood and youth to stability in adulthood.

Most people’s experiences of growing up and growing old are more complicated than this, more so now than ever, and yet schools socialise us into a steady progression, year-by-year, into the future. This idea comes from the notion that young people should receive culture, morality and belief from their elders, and that older generations have unquestionable power and status over the young.

Young people’s perceptions of the future have been shaped by their experiences of life in the era of post-truth, ecological crisis and the current pandemic. They see their future as more complicated, unpredictable and uncertain now than ever.

From lesson to lesson and day to day, as well as in their imagining of what the future holds, young people must navigate a minefield of different expectations of how they should act their age.

The tension between our school system’s linear picture of growing up and the reality – a far more complicated blurring of lines between age categories – raises significant questions about mental health and wellbeing and suggests that more can be done to effectively prepare young people for their future.

There is a cruel optimism to a school system that promises future stability while the world becomes less and less stable. Instead, schools should be radically reorganised to better reflect the complex world in which young people live.

An important part of this reorganisation would be to move away from grouping according to age. Some schools in the “democratic education” tradition have been experimenting with this idea for decades.

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to explore what schooling would look like if we focused much more on learning and much less on structuring. What is to say that schooling in blended or online contexts should be bound by age or year group, or that adults other than teachers should not also be involved in learning and teaching?

What is to say that schooling should naturally and inevitably lead to higher education, or that there should be a neat divide between these phases? Why should schooling be separate from other contexts of learning like work and play?

Home-schooling offers many ways for children to learn in a home environment, while schooling from home imposes age-based constraints and structures that may alienate children from authentic moments of learning and exacerbate economic disadvantage.

Ultimately, if schools revert to an age-based structure of organisation, will pupils even play along? Individuals like Greta Thunberg and youth movements like those in Hong Kong suggest that if schools do not change, young people will continue to lead the change themselves.

  • Dr Patrick Alexander is a Reader in anthropology and education in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes University. His book Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to act your age in contemporary Britain is published by Palgrave MacMillan: www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137388308


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