School is a social construct, learning is not.

Embed from Getty Images

Let’s clarify the common understanding of a social construct.

“A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.” (Oxford Living Dictionary 2017 Oxford University Press)

School is a social construct. Learning is not. Learning is inherent. We are born with the ability to learn. It happens naturally, all the time.

School, in its current state, is basically designed as a one-size, fits-all construct. It functions in a regular pattern from school to school. Each school is a proverbial round hole, particularly traditional public schools. They frequently have similar rules, common curriculum and standards, similar language and comparable day to day practices. This is the familiar construct we have created.

Young people are the pegs that we force into the round holes of school.  Compulsory school attendance law leaves little doubt that coercion is involved. We typically send our little ones off to someone we don’t personally know who then “teaches” them for 6 to 7 hours a day, for 12 or more years. This is called in loco parentis. It is a Latin term meaning “in [the] place of a parent” or “instead of a parent.”  It refers to the legal responsibility of some person or organization to perform some of the functions or responsibilities of a parent. [1] If all goes well,  and we fit them into the round hole, it is seen as smooth sailing until graduation day. Sometimes.

As a society we are convinced that schools are essential to preserve our democracy. School is where we learn our history and the histories of the world. It is where we understand the value of reading, writing and mathematics. School is also where young people learn and develop the school’s understanding of empathy, social justice, and equality. Many believe that without schools, kids would not learn. More precisely put, school is social engineering for future generations.

How do our schools prepare students for their future?

John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year explains it this way, “I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience.” (This is an excerpt of a speech by John Taylor Gatto accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990.)

There is a groundswell of healthy skepticism of the inherent value of many schools in their present form, including colleges and universities. A massive number of young people are electing alternative avenues to educate themselves. Many seek out mentors, coaches, apprenticeships, or a combination of some online coursework and real life experiences. States and cities that are forward thinking in welcoming and supporting charter schools, equip more parents with the ability to choose which school matches their child’s needs regardless of their zip code.  Additionally, an increasing number of families are discovering the freedom and opportunity afforded them through homeschooling and self-directed learning.

While school choice is often seen as politically, racially, or religiously motivated, it simply allows the freedom to choose what, how, where and when one learns. It is often met with consternation and push-back from those who believe there is only one right and acceptable way in which to become educated, and that is public schools. Choosing anything else is simply heresy.  However, the wind is shifting, particularly with the millennials.

In a September 15, 2017 article for Intellectual Takeout, Kerry McDonald presents a solid snapshot of the rise in support of school choice options. “According to a new GenForward report conducted by University of Chicago researchers, most millennials support school choice efforts. The GenForward report echoes similar findings from a report last fall by EdChoice, showing widespread millennial support for school choice. [2]  Kerry’s Article

Schools, in their present form, cannot come close to providing the kind of authentic learning that is needed in this rapidly changing world. No matter how hard schools try, they simply cannot provide true personalized learning.  This is mainly due to their flawed design, one-size-fits-all, round hole structure, along with an ignorant refusal to fully understand the unique differences in learners.

Although some teachers try very hard to personalize learning for students, particularly those with disabilities, they are often handcuffed. They must follow the school construct theory that says, batch children by age, follow the exact grade level curriculum, constantly assess and grade, prepare for high stakes tests, and complete all the requisite paper work, on time and with accuracy.

I am dismayed at the claims saying that if students had more grit, perseverance, empathy, or a growth mindset they might do better in school. Teachers and school systems believe these myths because they are looking for strategies that will better engage their students in the act of learning and paying attention. One can see why these theories might be considered. Children in our schools would need these traits in order to navigate a highly restrictive and outdated mode of schooling that forces them to sit for 6-7 hours a day, unmotivated, disengaged, and often tired. Let’s not underestimate the amount of grit it takes just to attend school every day, teachers included!

As author, Paul Collins writes in his book titled, Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism, “The problem with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is not so much the amount of time and effort and frustration of forcing the fit, but that you end up damaging the peg.” [3]

This holds true for many young people who find themselves at the mercy of a system determined to make them fit. All children deserve to learn in whatever way is best for them, instead of us forcefully molding them into the “right” shaped peg.


  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute, September 16,  2017.
  2. McDonald, K. Black and Latino Millennials Overwhelmingly Support School Choice, Academic Survey Finds. Intellectual Takeout, September 15, 2017.
  3. Collins, P.  Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004, page 225.)

2 thoughts on “School is a social construct, learning is not.

  1. Hey Evonne, as a requirement for my HSC Society and Culture course of study in 2022/23, I must complete a Personal Interest Project. I have decided to do mine on the underlying flaws of the education system and was wondering if you were interested in being interviewed over email. Thank you so much 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s