What are the characteristics of schooling that make schools schools?

In my research, one of my respondents made the comment:

“On the other hand [in contrast to good education], schooling means: classrooms, no learning and knowledge; when things are learned it has nothing to do with information, it is not interesting and not cool.”

From her perspective there were certain characteristics of schooling that make schools schools.  She held those characteristics up as being anti-educational.

The first of the characteristics is that schooling is done in a classroom.  The great Athenian educator, Socrates, avoided classrooms.  He chose to conduct his lessons in the midst of life being lived.  Cole, in her book, A History of Education: Socrates to Montessori, wrote that:

“… Socrates taught, but not in a school. It was in the marketplace, in the gymnasiums, and in the streets that Socrates carried on his life work of teaching young and old Athenians to know themselves, to know what was good, and to know what conditions influenced the development of virtue. He did not withdraw from life in order to study it under carefully controlled laboratory conditions but rather went joyfully out to meet it where it was whirling along at its busiest” (Cole, 1966, p. 10).

This is of course where Jesus did most of his teaching as well.

When my respondent said that in schools there was no knowledge and that when things were learned they had nothing to do with information, I interpreted that to mean that there was a disconnect between the information being communicated through the classroom lessons, and her everyday experience of life.  How much of school work is relevant to how many of the students?  Sure, a very small minority of the students will go on to higher education, and will spend the rest of their lives contemplating the esoteric and the ethereal, disconnected from the challenges and frustrations of living in a fallen world that requires practical wisdom to survive.  And much of school and schooling prepares those few for such a life.  But what about the rest?  Are they being equipped with entrepreneurial skills so that they are not dependent upon finding a job? Don’t have to depend upon government support?  Can they be productive and get paid for their initiative and industry?  Are they being taught how to be useful through mastery of practical, hands-on skills?  Are they interacting with a range of people, outside their peer group, and being challenged to develop communication skills in a range of circumstances, through a range of registers?

During the beginnings of the Global Financial Crisis nearly 53% of new university graduates in the United States of America were either unemployed or underemployed, and they had upayable study debts of between US$30,000 and US$300,000 at the end of their schooling experience; no employable skills, and no entrepreneurial skills (Weissmann, 2012).  At the very same time, young unschooled teenagers were earning between US$200,00 and US$1.5M annually from internet-based businesses [completely without schooling, but because of relevent unschooling, very entrepreneurial and productive – during a world-wide depression] (Investopedia, 2012).

I would suggest that in the majority of schools, the answer to all the questions above is, “No!”  Children are corralled into age-segregated classrooms, they are given mountains of busy work, required to memorize information for tests, but not shown how the information applies to developing healthy relationships, how to solve complex ethical challenges, or how to be productive and useful in life.

When my respondent said that school and school work was “not interesting and not cool”, she was indicating that the information being communicated is standardized.  Each of the attendees in a school classroom is uniquely created by God.  Their learning styles, passions, interests, and call of God upon their lives are unique.  But how can one teacher cater to the uniqueness of all the students in the classroom.  It is not possible.  I tried for 26 years, and was a complete and utter failure.  And it was not because I am a poor teacher.  I am a good teacher, and I have many one-on-one successes to demonstrate that I am a good teacher.  However, the classroom with one teacher taking care of nearly 30 children (and many more in non-western classrooms) is not an environment that can facilitate individuality.  Montesorri classrooms come close, but not as close as the unschooling environment.

Of course, there are many more characteristics of schooling that can be discussed.  However, these were the characteristics that came to mind from the response of one of my respondents.

Cole, L. (1966). A History of Education: Socrates to Montessori. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Investopedia. (2012). 10 Successful Young Entrepreneurs.   Retrieved 31/05/2014 12:30 AM, 2014, from

Weissmann, J. (2012). 53% of Recent College Grads are Jobless or Underemployed — How?   , from


6 thoughts on “What are the characteristics of schooling that make schools schools?

  1. Belinda Letchford says:

    Random thought – did Socrates students, and Jesus’ disciples walk away from their everyday activities in order to sit and learn from their teachers? As you know I’m not trying to debunk anything you are saying… I agree with what you are saying… just sharing the thought that came to my mind as you talked about Socrates. Any thoughts on this?


  2. Good question. Let me give it some thought, and I will get back to you on that one. As Jesus and Socrates went about their teaching in the context of life being lived, did their disciples get drawn aside from their daily duties to sit at the feet of their master, or did that happen after the duties were completed? Or, did Jesus and Socrates pitch in and give a hand? Is discipleship a distraction, or is it empowering?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Upon further reading, it would seem that Socrates did not teach disciples, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching his disciples. Socrates went about challenging the adults in the market place (through a series of leading questions), whilst they were at their businesses. It was clear that he distracted these adults from their business activities for the period of time that he engaged them in answering his questions. Idle youths followed Socrates around and were captivated by Socrates ability to make those who thought themselves to be wise, look like fools, and those who thought themselves fools, come to realize that they knew a lot more than they gave themselves credit for. Many of these youths later went on and established schools of philosophy (some emphasizing one perspective that they learned from Socrates, and others emphasizing different perspectives that they learned from Socrates). Socrates refused to be acknowledged as a teacher, lived a life of poverty, and was reported to have said that “paid educational service was a species of prostitution” (Socrates – Encyclopaedia Britannica). [I am tempted to make a comment at this point, but will restrain myself, other than to say that Christ and James called a statist-dependence, “adultery” (Mark 8:38; James 4:4). Any contemporary applications here?]

    So, at one level, Socrates was a negative influence in his community, creating discord — doubt in the minds of some who previously had felt confident about their ideas, estrangement between parents and their teenage youth, and a general cynicism about those things that had been held as community values for a long time.

    At another level, though, Socrates helps us to understand that learning does not have to take place within four walls; it can be in the marketplace, in the library, in a museum, an art gallery, in the home of a friend, just about anywhere, where people are going about their business of living life. We need to adapt Socrates to our own situation, be more purposeful in the learning outcomes that we intend from the Socratic process, and keep within our sphere of influence (not take on the whole city).

    Jesus, too, went about his business in the many places of his city (at weddings, in the streets, at places of worship, in the market places, in the fields, amongst the men mending their nets). Jesus asked questions, as Socrates did, but he also told stories, preached sermons, drew in the sand, pointed out metaphors in creation (featuring: fig trees, mountains, eagles, yeast in bread, and so much more). He was pitching his lessons at older people, but those who followed him were youths (and some of them were distracted from their vocation).

    Children in a family need to be moved from dependent learners to independent learners, and they need to be taught how to learn from all of life, not just from books. Books are important (I love books, and I have a lot of books, and so should every Christian family have a lot of books), but learning is not to have merely the writing of many books as its sole outcome. The accumulation of many books, without the living of a rich, productive, friend-filled life, is a “vanity of vanities” – “Of the writing of books there is no end”.

    OK, now to your question. Did Jesus and Socrates distract their disciples from their everyday tasks so that they could learn. Yes they did, both of them. Socrates caused a distraction by entertaining the youths who followed him around. Jesus was not entertaining, His questions and distracting instruction were to blast people out of their mindset to re-consider the commandments of God, in the light of Jesus’ perspective of the spirit of those commandments. Jesus was calling men back to Himself, which was the end of the Law of God – that we might learn what it really means to be Christ-like. And also learn how powerless we really are to attain to that goal – we desperately need a Saviour to live His Christ-likeness in and through us.

    Socrates was calling men to a consideration of the good life, and in some respects it was an approximation of Christ-likeness, but anything short of Christ Himself is less than God’s requirement, and Socrates cannot be studied in order to help us “be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect”.

    Is this of some help?

    Chisholm, H. [Editor] (1910) The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, in twenty-nine volumes. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Belinda Letchford says:

    I found this very interesting, and appreciate the time and effort you took to read up and comment back. I don’t think we can use either one as a subscribed model but rather draw principles from their examples. One aspect that came to my mind, especially in light of Jesus’ disciples, was that for his disciples it was a season (mind you they probably didn’t know that) for a purpose. I am discipling my kids – for a season, for a purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That is a very helpful comment. I will give some thought to it, and see if it can be developed even further: discipleship includes purposeful seasons of being drawn aside. It is not the totality of everything education, but it is an important component, amongst many other components.

    Belinda, thank you for engaging in the conversation. I find your insights very refreshing, and your example encouraging.

    God bless!

    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