School is Not a Place

“The world is my classroom, each day is a new lesson and every person I meet is my teacher. ”— Craig Harper

Once a month I gather with a wonderful group of people who are passionate about children, education, and especially gifted education. This group recently turned into what we call The Gifted Education Initiative. Time will tell what will develop, but at this point we gather monthly to deepen our individual and collective wells of knowledge about a shared topic of interest.

We agreed to bring in a different guest each month who adds to our knowledge and who is willing to join in a rich and rewarding conversation for all. In this modern world of educational trends and innovations, there is still something powerful about a simple gathering of people who have a shared passion, deepening our knowledge, and exploring how to achieve a shared goal. It is the magic behind Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, the rich history of study circles, and this monthly group in which I have the honor of participating.

In the last session, one of our newest members made a comment that stuck with me. Dr. Wanda Routier, a colleague and scholar in the area of special education, reminded us of a simple but important fact. “School is not a place.” Since she said it, the idea has come to mind often. While I’m sure that she could go into depth about what she means by such a statement, here it where it has taken me.

When I hear about the legacies of educational leaders, it is interesting to notice the accomplishments about which they are the proudest. It is not uncommon for them to list one or more major building projects amid their accomplishments. There is just something about erecting a physical building that conjures a measure of pride. It is a visible, concrete, tangible accomplishment, easy to recognize. Yet, a building, regardless if its grandeur, design, or designation is not a school.

Have you ever been in an abandoned building? They usually have a rich history and, with a little imagination, you can picture the building in its better days…fresh paint, furnishings, perhaps bustling with people. Yet, without the people and the touch of people, it loses life. It is just an abandoned building. While design and architecture can enhance and support great learning communities in valuable ways, school is not a building.

School is also not a place. People refer to going to school, and by that they are likely referring to a physical space…a given location, and an organization. Yet, especially in this connected age, school is wherever learning takes place. Sometimes people distinguish between schooling and education, identifying schooling as more formal and directed education that usually takes place at a designated location. Education, on the other hand, is a broader word that represents formal and informal learning…in and out of traditional contexts. As W.E.B DuBois wrote, “Education is that whole system of human training within and without the schoolhouse walls, which molds and develops men [people].” Yet, there is also something to be said for reconsidering how we use and think of the word “school.”

Maybe you think of a community of learning when you hear the word school. Even with that, school is not a place. In this connected age, we are capable of building connections, even community, across time, place and contexts. Blended and online learning is nearing three decades old today. Both have helped us to recognize this vision of school without walls, learning that extends across physical spaces.

People have talked about the world as our classroom, but this is more true than it has ever been before, and this has important implications for how we think about and organization formal education. It certainly impacts our lives of ongoing and informal education as well.

More importantly, people often think of school and an organization of professionals or designated “experts” who largely determine the when, what and how of the educational experience. School, in this sense, is that place where professionals direct and determine how others learn. Again, I contend that this is too limiting for our age. School, in the best sense of the word, is planned and focused learning. Yet, the planning and focus can (and I contend should) be increasingly the work of the learner, just as health and well-being are not the charge of the professionals, but something that must ultimately be owned and applied by each individual. From this angle, school is a mindset.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.