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Reimagine the “Grammar” of Schooling Part 2 of Tofu is not Cheese: Reimagine Education without Schools During Covid19

16 April 2020 15,061 5 Comments

Introduction from part 1: Tofu is not cheese so we should not expect it to smell or taste like cheese nor should we need to pretend it is or make it taste and smell like cheese. The message I was trying to convey is that we should accept the fact that schools are closed and we don’t need to pretend we can make online education the same as face-to-face schools. Instead, we should make the best out of the new situation. In my last blog post, I expanded the idea: Online education cannot replace all functions schools play in our society but it can do a lot more than being a lesser version of face-to-face schooling. 

Speak Education: Reimagine the “Grammar” of Schooling

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed stimulated much talk about reimagining education. But from what I have seen and heard, the imagination has not escaped from the spell of the “grammar” of schooling: “the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction” (Tyack & Tobin, 1994, p. 454). Over a quarter of a century ago, education historians David Tyack and William Tobin made the very insightful observation that schools have a set of grammatical rules and structures just like natural languages and:

Neither the grammar of schooling nor the grammar of speech needs to be consciously understood to operate smoothly. Indeed, much of the grammar of schooling has become so well established that it is typically taken for granted as just the way schools are. It is the departure from customary practice in schooling or speaking that attracts attention (p. 454).

The grammar of schooling, such as “standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects,” is so powerful that it has persisted despite many repeated challenges by very courageous, intelligent, and powerful innovators. It has persisted despite mounting evidence and widespread acknowledgement that it is obsolete and does not serve our children well. It persists even during the Covid-19 crisis when students are not attending the physical school.

Today, when children learning online at home, the mental image of school still rules our thinking.






Perhaps the basic “grammar” of schooling cannot be changed just like the basic grammar of English cannot be changed. In fact, if the grammar of English were changed, it would not be English anymore. Likewise, perhaps if the grammar of schooling were changed, it would not be school anymore. And that is very worrisome to people who want a “real school” and that worry of not having a real school is responsible for defeating attempts to reform schools because “so powerful is the hold of the cultural construction of what constitutes a “real school” (p. 478).

Instead of changing its grammar, let’s use a different language. Instead of speaking schooling, let’s speak education. What the public wants and the society needs is not schooling; it is education. The school happens to be the institutions we built at a certain point of time to deliver education. The design was inevitably constrained by the understanding of learning and the learner, teacher and teaching, and operating of organizations as well as the resources and technology available at that moment.

Covid-19 has forced us out of schools and given us the opportunity to adopt a different language, the language of education. While there may not be much time before we are back to school, it is at least a chance to start practicing the new language. We can begin with some of the most basic grammatical rules.

Timetables/class schedules

Schooling sometimes works against education. How it structures time is a good example: a year is divided into different segments, some of which (terms/semesters) are designated for learning while others (summer/winter vacations) are not; terms/semesters are divided into different chunks marked by exams (mid-term and end of term); days are divided into class periods.

There is ample evidence of “summer learning loss” (for people in the southern hemisphere, this may be “winter learning loss”). A Brookings Institution review of research shows: (1) on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels.

We also know that quite often deep, authentic, product/project/problem-based learning projects can last much longer than one semester, but the project must end when a semester ends because the teacher needs to give the students a grade and or the course is not continued the next semester. We also know that meaningful learning require much more than 35 or 45 minutes, but the learning must stop because students have to go to another class.

Timetables have also been one of the most challenging problems when trying to introduce new ideas. Even when school leaders and teachers recognize the importance of teaching something new, they often run into the problem of lacking openings in the timetable.

To speak the language of education, we should not be constrained by the existing rules about how to structure time in schools. We should rethink how time can be best used to support learning. Thus it is a great mistake to simply replicate school scheduling in online education when schools are closed.


Another example of schooling working against education is the practice of “splintering knowledge into subjects,” which goes hand in hand with splitting learning time into class periods. While there are some subjects that may be better taught as individual subjects for some students, but the habit of splintering everything into subjects and then translate into courses is detrimental to the development of the whole child. It forces the development of essential competences such as creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and global competence into isolated boxes as if these competences could be developed without deep knowledge and skills in certain domains or as if math or science could be divorced from these competences. Even social and emotional wellbeing has to be taught as a separate class as if social and emotional wellbeing could not be developed in other subjects.

There has been increasing recognition of the educational benefits of multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and competency-based learning as well as collaborative team teaching. This would be a great moment to practice casting away the grammar of schooling and starting trying some of these innovative ways of education.

Student Grouping

Grouping students by age is another feature of the “grammar of schooling” that runs contrary to education. We know that children’s abilities vary a great deal and are not neatly aligned with their chronological age, but they are often stuck in the grade level corresponding to their age. Some children may be above and others may be below what is taught. The result is that both groups are frustrated and disengaged. While the topic of ability grouping is controversial (partly because the term has many different meanings), but we cannot ignore the fact that grouping students according to their ages does lead to poor educational experiences for a large proportion of children.

Students must be put into groups in schools because a group of students must be taught or supervised by an adult. The image of a class without a teacher in front of a blackboard violates the “grammar” of schooling. There has been growing call for personalized learning (I prefer personalizable education). There is ample evidence of benefits of peer mentoring, social learning, and collaborative learning online and face-to-face.

Given that the students are now at home and online, can we not try different ways to create better learning communities?

Let’s Hope This Time Can Be Different

Tyack and Tobin’s essay in 1994 has a depressing and discouraging message for innovators. The history of education is not filled with success stories of innovations that challenge the “grammar” of schooling:

…they [innovators] have tried:

to create ungraded, not graded, schools,

to use time, space, and numbers of students as flexible resources and to diversify uniform periods, same-sized rooms, and standard class size

to merge specialized subjects into core courses in junior and high schools or, alternatively, to introduce departmental specialization into the elementary school

to group teachers in teams, rather than having them work as isolated individuals in self-contained classrooms.

Typically, these innovations have not lasted for long. (p. 455).

I hope this time can be different. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused so much damage and disruption in every aspect of human society that its impact will last a long time into the future. It will alter many industries forever. I hope it has given us the opportunity to abandon schooling for education.

Let’s not try to improve schooling. Instead, let’s try to reimagine education.


Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994). The “Grammar” of Schooling: Why Has it Been so Hard to Change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479.



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  • The EdTech Sceptics – Pocket Quintilian said:

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  • Phil Callil said:

    ?Yong, this simply will not happen. Right now, students and families need certainty, routine and structure because these things are in short supply around them. School leaders think operationally, especially right now. There is an opportunity – yes! But not right now. ?

    Right now, there is a huge learning curve for most teachers to get used to learning how to teach with video conferencing in a remote setting. This is really challenging for elementary students and teachers but especially so for all those teachers who have not had the opportunity or resisted the invitations to teach with digital tools.

    Many if not most school leaders who manage schools have no interest in moving this way. Their schools mirror their ideas of schooling and parents expect that. The other side of this coin is that if we don’t change up things because of a pandemic, when on earth do we innovate, be more creative and look for new and better ways to do things?

    The realization that your vision (which I share) was never going to happen in the short term was a terrible, sinking feeling. Surely this is the time to do this? But then I realized that there are more basic needs to consider right now. And this is where so many schools are currently.

    Having a familiar structure that gives certainty and routine to students and teachers is even more important. Too many schools and their families are under resourced. Too many teachers are on their own steep learning curve to just get going right now.

    For many fine schools who are well resourced and have suddenly thrown out their previous structure and timetable, it hasn’t worked. It’s been a mess. They’ve lost productivity and the ability to monitor student progress. For those who already had a PBL approach, it’s worked. Remember that familiar structure and certainty right now are important for the emotional well being of our students and staff.

    But ultimately, replication of the traditional structure of a school in a totally online environment is doomed to fail. It can’t be sustained because of the very Balkanization that has sustained it for the last 150 years. Student engagement will be lost. It’s not lost yet because online learning is so new. The “wow” factor will ne replaced by the “so what factor”. This is what school leaders must understand and start planning for – if schools can’t go back to having students on site and we need to continue with remote learning, then we must start gradually start to make the most opportunity to redesign the curriculum along the lines you have so eloquently articulated for the last 20 years. The key to this is having school leaders start now to plan for the next phase of online learning from home because, if they don’t, student motivation will be lost. It won’t be able to be sustained.

  • Michael Maser said:

    These are well thought-out ponderings and musings, Yong, that I share.

    Having been an educational innovator for 30 years, I have the scars from many past battles to move beyond conventional schooling and ‘operational imperatives’ that gird and stifle innovation. I thought computerization would lead to that ‘disruptive’ moment years ago, when the internet was fresher and just coming into everyones’ homes. Schools resisted and rejected digital learning then and the new ‘candy store’ that the ‘web opened up (YouTube, especially). Operationally, and in the past 20 years, mainstream schooling – despite the efforts of many – continued on its path of (largely) marginalizing digital learning through what it excels at – creating impediments for outliers and innovators. Yes, the ‘grammar’ of schooling – what I would also refer to as the ‘imprint’ of schooling – lives through protecting teaching and administrating jobs, entrenching learning standards and mandatory curricula, and, and, and.

    Until March, when the penny dropped, and the Genie left the bottle!
    With the shuttering of schools and with the rise of the ‘Zoom Boom’, I now live with the hope that this continues to manifest as the first significantly disruptive event to kick education around in a very long while, certainly, in my lifetime.

    What has happened that I am now attuning to, are the first voices emerging for students and families in their homes, where they are now learning. It’s been less than a month (in Canada and the US) that this new reality has developed but already I am hearing the predominance of comments by parents and kids that they are coming to really value this new experience. Parents are noticing their kids are happy, content, and learning all kinds of things. Bullying, school anxiety, emotional dysregulating are decreasing.
    This is going to shake things up, as parents decide their children’s well-being is well-suited for home-based learning.
    This isn’t surprising to me, I co-founded an online school in BC starting in 2002 (SelfDesign Learning Community) in which parents were included in the educational equation to help facilitate their child’s learning and learning plans (all personalized). Our model proved successful and enduring and, today, SelfDesign has close to 3,000 kids enrolled, FT.

    Absolutely, there are difficulties and challenges in this new reality for many people and families. First off, the neighbourhood (Cdn spelling!) school is an oasis for many kids and they deeply miss it. Some parents are enduring much hardship right now because schools and their employment is in ‘lockdown’. These are just some very real difficulties.

    But when schools start back up, there will also be educators and administrators who say, “wait a minute, there are some important, positive aspects about what just happened (going online, working from home) that we want to bring forward.”

    They’re going to need support from parents and kids to add to their voices and reasoning to help shape a brave new reality.

    I urge you to continue adding your voice to this message!

    – Michael Maser

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  • Catherine Saldutti said:

    Dr Zhao,

    Thank you for this and other posts challenging educators to actively reflect in this time of foment. This post reminds me of my courses in the early nineties with David Tyack, Michael Kirst, Larry Cuban, Elliott Eisner and others who warned of the static, stagnant and unrelenting power of the grammar of schooling…and warned those of us who wish to “reform” or “change” this non-system of cobbled-together policies and requirements that make school feel comfortable for society (and particularly the educators within schools) that we should prepare for certain defeat. For nearly 30 years I have prepared for that defeat, yet all the while building systems and structures that retain enough of the grammar to keep the language familiar, while ousting key barriers that limit learning and prevent equitable treatment of all students. This new architecture has fared beautifully in the face of the pandemic, so I will continue onward–always prepared for certain defeat but knowing there is no other choice but to keep knocking down doors, raising flags, and shining a light. Thanks for your inspiration!


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