The Reality of Custodial Care

Topics: Future of Learning

“Let’s face it, parents want schools to provide free babysitting,” a district superintendent said in one of my recent workshops on the future of learning. Although I hadn’t framed it that way, I’d been thinking about this dimension of the many services besides learning that the current public education system provides when considering the demands that creating more flexible combinations of learning experiences could make on parents and families.

One of the signals I like to cite in that regard is the amount of time that the New Hampshire Virtual Academy suggests parents devote to serving as “learning coaches” for their children. The average learner devotes four to six hours to schoolwork each day, and the academy estimates direct parental participation at 80 percent for the early grades and 50 percent for middle school. As much as I would want to devote that much time to supporting my daughter’s education if attending such a school proved to be right for her, it’s hard to imagine having the time to coach her effectively while working full-time. And I’m relatively well positioned to support her in finding and pursuing the right learning choices.

Then, at the Texas Association of School Administrators’ Mid-Winter Conference , a superintendent asked me whether I could imagine a future in which learning centers, some of which might be today’s public schools but some of which might be other kinds of organizations, existed mainly to provide custodial care. His idea was that “schools” might function learning centers that gave kids somewhere safe to go during the day while serving as portals into a wide array of learning experiences.

As I told him, yes, I can imagine such an arrangement, at least for some, if not for many, learners. For example, when developing the persona of a future learner named Devan Williams back in 2010, my colleagues and I positioned him as dropping into a community learning center some of the time but learning largely via a gaming platform. His question reflects a realistic assessment of the many functions that today’s schools serve.

As learning happens increasingly via platforms versus institutions (see Ohio State University professor David Staley’s intriguing article on the university as a platform as well as the De-Institutionalized Production disruption from KnowlegeWorks’ Forecast 3.0), we need to make sure that we’re solving for everything that we need learning environments to do. That’s not to say that babysitting, free or otherwise, must be part of the design. But we can’t solve only for learning without working through such practicalities.

We might also need to explore adjacent cultural shifts that could help make the expanded learning ecosystem truly workable for all kinds of parents and families. Yes, I’m talking changes in how we structure work (which are happening rapidly apart from disruptions to learning). Changes in how communities own and support learning. Changes in how we distribute food to learners who currently rely on school meals to get enough to eat.

The possibilities are vast. But I think that shifting our conception of school to one of learning centers (with the expectation that such centers would take many different forms) could be a good way of beginning to the transition to an expanded learning ecosystem while stewarding today’s education systems.