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Tear down the walls: the community as our schools

school lockers
As a former member of the Minneapolis School Board and former executive director of AchieveMpls, I have seen firsthand how today’s high schools do not serve the needs of young people. For decades we have been trying unsuccessfully to transform a 19th century model of education to make it relevant for today’s youth. It is not working.

Anyone who spends even one hour in a modern American high school can easily see how many things are wrong. Young people are crammed into desks listening to a teacher lecture in the front of the room. There are 45-minute class periods, with little time to delve deeply into topics. Counselors and support staff are overworked. Graduation requirements focus on credits rather than competency. Wide swaths of bored students find their education irrelevant, despite a deep passion for social, racial, and environmental justice.

Demoralization, disconnection, and disengagement are rampant. It does not have to be so. But changing it will require a radical restructuring of schooling.


We must tear down the walls of our schools and send students out into the community to learn. Show rather than tell. Engage rather than describe. Invite participation in generating solutions rather than simply learning facts. Trust young people.

Pam Costain
Pam Costain
Provide educational experiences through internships, arts and media engagement, community service projects, career shadowing, and community-building efforts. Invite students to monitor government and participate in public life by helping to design solutions to problems in their own neighborhoods or on a global scale.

When it is not possible to leave the building, invite the community in to share their experiences and knowledge so that young people continuously see themselves in the adult world, and so that adults continuously see and value young people. Build cross-generational dialogue and support.

The world as classroom

The whole world can and should be the curriculum, since everyone is connected through smart phones, the internet, and social media. Our connected world allows students to easily and quickly personalize their learning, and to access the knowledge and wisdom of many people, cultures, and academic disciplines.

Teachers then become guides, mentors, and resources to help young people answer questions and imagine new ways of thinking and solving problems. As this is done, it will be important to help young people learn how to recognize biases and prejudice, how to appreciate multiple points of view, and how to think critically and compassionately.

As education becomes simultaneously more globalized and more personalized, the relationships students build with adults and peers will become ever more crucial to giving them a sense of identity and connection. Authentic relationships will enable young people to navigate a complex and rapidly changing world.


The education of the future must be more inclusive of all people’s contributions to culture, language, knowledge, human development, and progress. It must celebrate the richness of the human experience, instill hope for the future, and recognize the preciousness of all life on this earth.

Pam Costain is a lifelong social justice activist recently retired from 30 years of nonprofit leadership, including Resource Center of the Americas, Wellstone Action, and AchieveMpls.

This commentary was originally published by Minnesota Women’s Press. It is republished with permission.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/04/2019 - 08:32 am.

    “We must tear down the walls of our schools.” And that’s just for starters. But you’re on the right track Pam, when you suggest that “The whole world can and should be the curriculum, since everyone is connected through smart phones, the internet, and social media.”

    When the whole world has evolved to 21st century models, leaving behind the brick and mortar of yesteryear, why are school buildings still around? The vast majority of our problems in education today have to do with the problems and high costs associated with the transportation, feeding, and other physical accommodations of students.

    Debates are not about their curriculum, but about start times, bus driver shortages, lunch menus, discipline issues and school shootings.

    I hope that the system will be taken over by smarter and more logical thinkers in the next 20 years or so and educating the children will occur at home in the same online environment 99% of existing children are in when they come from school today.

    Having a physical plant with classrooms and desks and buses and lunchrooms and live instructors is only in place today to satisfy the antiquated and selfish desires of the adults who work in the system.

  2. Submitted by scott gibson on 10/04/2019 - 09:28 pm.

    Oh, that will certainly foster a sense of community. I guess as someone who has worked all my life in the ‘system’, I wonder what would have or will become of the three small towns that comprise my school district if/when the physical school disappears. It is the center of community life. It does not have an alternative.

    Our country is already suffering from too many who completely are doing their own thing without regard for a holistic ‘community’. Public schools are imperfect things, but where I grew up and where I work, they are essential for having as functional of a society as we have.

    As for being ‘in the same online environment 99% of childer are in when they come home’, I guess you haven’t been in a school lately. All of that online environment is being utilized every day, in every class, by every student. One-to-one chromebooks, ipads, smart phones. Everything is online. Teachers are working very hard to use all modern technological advances at their disposal to make education personal, pertinent, and engaging for all students.

  3. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/05/2019 - 06:24 am.

    Lots of good ideas here. Thanks for writing this, Pam.

  4. Submitted by James Baker on 10/05/2019 - 11:25 am.

    OR, if Pam’s idea might seem a little too loose for many students who lack a mature prefrontal cortex, home support for academic learning, self-discipline, regular access to adequately nutritious food, or other attributes that might diminish their ability to benefit from being highly independent “out in the community to learn”, Brockton High School’s more scholarly model could be another way to go:

    http://www.agi.harvard.edu/presentations/2010forums/BrocktonHighSchoolAGI4-14-10.pdf

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