We must recode school. After years of experience, reading, testing ideas, talking to kids, helping to found a new school ... I'm left with this inescapable conclusion. I've avoid it, for it is a large task, but it lingers. It invades my mind in the quiet moments. It overwhelms me in the moments of bureaucratic frustration. The more time I spend with schools the more obvious the notion. This characterization of the task simply won't go away for me, so I decided to embrace it and share it. This work, formatted into 5 books, is the result. I certainly will stop short of calling this my life's work as I hope this is a task we can complete before we part ways, but I am open to the alternative. So let it begin.
First, let me say a bit about what I mean by the word "code" and what I mean by the word "school." This is foundational to the thinking throughout this entire endeavor, so it is worth a moment to understand how I have come to frame these concepts and specifically how they interact, for it is in that interaction that lies our opportunity.
I've come to believe that when most people think of the word "school" they think of a place. Perhaps a particular one from their childhood. Maybe, if they are being particularly thoughtful, they think of the people in that place. But the concept of place, or even of people, is a small slice of a very large pie. School, at its core, is a technology. Learning is a human experience, schooling is the delivery technology for the experience. While many people consider the word "technology" to mean only things invented after they were born, a more thoughtful understanding of technology leads to insights into what school is and actually does. I understand that thinking of schooling as a technology feels very dehumanizing, but humans and technologies have interacted for ages. In fact, using technologies is a large part of what makes us distinguishably human. My own ideas on technology have been framed by a number of thinkers to numerous to count (Kevin Kelly and Ira Socol deserve mentions and sorry for leaving out others), so certainly I am not the first to think this way. For instance, Neil Postman begins his book "The End of Education" in this way:
In considering how to conduct the schooling of our young, adults have two problems to solve. One is an engineering problem; the other, a metaphysical one. The engineering problem, as all such problems are, is essentially technical. It is the problem of the means by which the young will become learned. It addresses the issues of where and when things will be done, and, of course, how learning is supposed to occur. The problem is not a simple one, and any selfrespecting book on schooling must offer some solutions to it. - Neil Postman, The End of Education, Part 1.
So, school is a technology and as a technology it behaves in certain ways and is subject to engineering or, in our case, coding. So, let's investigate that word a bit more.
When I speak of the word code, I speak of it the way Lawrence Lessig does, to which I will return briefly. I like the digital hint in the word, but no more so than I like the legal hint in the word. Both hints help us to understand the deeper meaning. The term goes back at least to the Roman emperor Justinian who in the 6th Century first ordered the consolidation and codification of Roman law into an official record, which was called the Codex. Justinian saw a broken system in his empire and wanted to give it an upgrade for his "modern" times (we are all modern in our own time, of course). To illustrate the power of such code, this Codex solidified Christianity as the legally dominant religion of the Roman empire (making illegal other religions present at the time), a fact that still massively influences the world today.
So, while a "code" is clearly a set of written laws, it also goes beyond that, but the power that comes to mind when thinking of a legal code is the type of power that is at play, only more so, in the broader concept of code. Let's dive deeper.
In the great lectures of Larry Lessig he would often begin a speech by helping the audience to understand the concept of code, so if you want to listen in the first 11 minutes of this video it would be worth your time in understanding this concept further.
As Larry articulates more fully in the book Code is Law (free edition here), all governments (or for that matter religious institutions, etc.) seek to regulate the behavior of humans utilizing codes. Justinian's desire to regulate the empire ... is the same desire evident today only with sprinkles of democracy (at least one hopes). The tools available to do such regulation take four forms: laws, markets, architectures, and norms. The interplay between these four regulatory forces constitute the broader concept. Thus, a school is a compilation of laws, markets, architectures, and norms and when combined can be thought of as a technology for regulation. Simply, school is the code that regulates the behavior of learning. When implemented, it functions as a technology governed by that code in the exact same way that a software program is governed by its underlying code. As with other things that institutions seek to regulate (like religious behaviors) the code implemented through the regulatory technology, as powerful as it is, can only regulate to a limited degree. Thus, learning is and always will be a much broader and mostly unregulated concept.
As an aside, I agree with Freire's and other's notion of schooling as oppressing. It is necessarily so. Actually, I'm personally inclined to simply embrace the most critical of thinkers on the concept of schooling. For instance, Michael Foucault, when speaking of schooling in the book Discipline and Punish, makes the explicit link to schooling as a disciplinary technology designed to control the individual. I agree from a structural standpoint. Schooling is a technology (not the only available one, but intentionally chosen because of its effectiveness) developed by those in power to regulate learning. Foucault's notion of schooling as a technology akin to prisons also resonates. From a technological standpoint when looking at the underlying code of those institutions, there is much similarity.