The Metaphor of School - Part I

01/03/17, 9:19 PM

The Metaphor of School I –


So, this summer’s different kind of work has caused me to think about school and schooling in different ways.


Lots of different ways.


When I watch the skills of my contractor being expressed in mathematical ways – ways in which most people don’t use math – or are incapable of using math – and then also discover that the learned this from his experience on the job as opposed to a classroom – I have to ask some pretty fundamental questions about school.


It seems as if we have lost the central metaphor for what it means to “go to school.” We can elaborate and then further refine that expression by adding “in the 21’st century.” What does it mean to go to school in the 21’st century? What’s changed? What’s remained the same? What does it mean to be educated? And what kind of leadership is required in the 21’st century to be sure that students are educated?

I’ll never pretend to have all the answers to these questions, but after a lifetime of experience in education, I can posit of few ideas and elaborate on some concerns.


That “metaphor” of school seems to be essential to a rich and full discussion. In and by itself, the idea of school is too distant for many people – it is too esoteric and removed, and the best metaphor will naturally contain the justifications for school.


We used to think of “school as factory.” In the late 20’th century, we wanted everyone to go to school to learn a skill to have a job and become a productive citizen and taxpayer. We thought of school as a factory turning out youngsters prepared for the “world of work,” often in manufacturing. Those days when students left high school and went to work in the mill are now long gone. The mills and the manufacturing are gone. We could debate the benefits and liabilities of losing manufacturing forever, but it’s a reality.


And with that new reality of 21’st century life, we also lost the central metaphor of why we send students to school. The idea of “school as factory” is just no longer relevant. When that metaphor falls apart, as it has, then ideas about school begin to fall apart as well. School calendars, school schedules, the idea of a set curriculum – all designed to produce the perfect worker – decay and no longer have the same relevance they once had.


What do we know? We know that schools are more than factories producing “widgets.”


Let’s hold that thought for a bit.

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