Break the “Grammar of School.”


To create a Vision for Innovation, start by breaking the “grammar of school.”

Words by Beth R. Holland

In their 1995 book, Tinkering Towards Utopia, authors David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe the overwhelming impact of the “grammar of school.” No other institution on this planet remains so concretely defined and permanently affixed in our minds. Travel anywhere in the world and ask any person to describe school. You will get roughly the same response:

  • A teacher at the front of the room
  • Students in desks (most likely in rows)
  • A chalkboard/whiteboard/smartboard mounted at the “front” of the room
  • Books
  • Paper, notebooks, binders, folders, etc.
  • Pencils, pens, markers, crayon

Maybe, you will hear comments about computers, or tablets, or some other form of technology; but for the most part, this mental model permeates our vision of school. Even more critical than the components of the classroom, consider the connotations of what we just described. According to our intrinsic grammar of school, teachers represent the sole source of information; students develop routine expertise as they seek out a single right answer; and learning occurs specifically within this physical and temporal context.

The strength and ubiquity of this mental model poses an enormous challenge to anyone hoping to bring innovation into an educational environment. According to renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura, learning occurs through observation. As we observe behaviors, we build mental schema on which to construct new ideas. In the past, observing the grammar of school through stories, television, and movies helped students to become enculturated into the desired organizational culture. However, the world outside of school no longer resembles the time in which this grammar was originally constructed. Now, instead of embracing this common vision, we need to consider how to upend it.

A few years ago, Google partnered with Disney to change the vision and perception of computer scientists. Consider the potential if Hollywood, the literary community, and even advertising agencies could start presenting a new vision for education to change the perception of school. And yet, a great paradox exists – the creative individuals within those institutions would have to contend with their own visions and mental models. Think about how this worked out for the Jetsons. The creators imagined a world in outer space with flying cars and talking toasters, but schools with rows, desks, and chalk!

The real danger of this outdated paradigm lies in how new students continue to view school through an old lens. Ultimately, they internalize the message that learning only occurs through passive consumption of distributed information, during set times, and in designated locations. Admittedly, this new vision represents a potentially disorienting and alarming shift in thinking. It no longer values the “game of school” that many of us learned to master. One that valued the ability to recall the right answer and regurgitate information on demand. With technology, students have gained the capacity to learn from anyone, at anytime, and from anywhere in the world, as well as demonstrate that learning through text, audio, video, or even virtual reality experience. These new advances call the systems and structures of our traditional notion of school into question.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, most of what students learn today will be completely irrelevant by the time they enter the workforce. In his article, The Rise of the Useless Class, he not only describes the rapidly disappearing labor market but also the peril of the grammar of school.

Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.

We are at a critical point in time where we need to envision a new grammar of school. Over the past few years, conversations on this topic have revolved around notions such as flexible learning spaces, mobile devices, and blended or online learning. Admittedly, I have been part of the conversation — writing and speaking about topics that range from creating a learning commons or makerspace to the impact of 1:1 computing programs. However, these things have done very little to change the grammar of school. In his discussion of social cognitive theory, Bandura describes the interrelation of environment, behavior, and beliefs. Flexible furniture, mobile devices, and even technologies like augmented reality have impacted the environment but not the latter two.

Our new vision needs to turn teachers from purveyors of information to orchestrators of deep learning experiences. As Tony Wagner describes in his book Raising Innovators, it needs to shift students from seeing themselves as problem solvers to acknowledging their role as problem seekers. We need to co-construct an overall belief that school should support knowledge construction and question asking, and value adaptive as well as routine expertise. Hopefully, industry and entertainment alike can help us to develop a new grammar of school. One that embraces lifelong learning and asserts that “knowing the answer” is just the beginning.

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