A new social contract and a new grammar of schooling

Noah W. Sobe - 26 April 2022

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Calling for a new social contract for education recognizes that there is an existing implicit and inherited older contract. One feature of that old contract, the 2021 UNESCO futures of education report explains, was a narrow conception of education as limited to certain ages and certain institutions.

A new social contract clearly must be built upon a more expansive understanding of education that welcomes and embraces learning available in all times and all spaces – and for learners of all ages. This means going boldly beyond the school. Nonetheless, even as we work to unlearn old ways of organizing schooling, schools remain. And for all the protections and guarantees they provide, schools need to remain, albeit transformed.

The concept that there is a “grammar of schooling” derives from the work of American historians of education David Tyack and Larry Cuban. It has been helpful to many over the past 25 years for describing enduring, commonplace features of schools such as age-graded classrooms, the standardization of instructional time, and the division of learning into school subjects. In fact, each of the dimensions of education examined in Part II of the Reimagining our futures together report has an older way of doing things that the Sahle-Work Commission recommends moving away from.

In pedagogy this is to depart from batch lessons delivered by teachers. In curricula it is to no longer bureaucratically organize learning through grids of school subjects. It is to move away from setting up teaching as a solitary practice that relies on the competence of a single individual to organize effective learning. It means moving beyond universal architectural, organizational, and procedural models that make schools similar regardless of context. And, it means thinking in terms of broader educational ecosystems that transcend narrow conceptions of who learns, when, and where.

The idea that characteristics like these form an underlying “grammar” to schooling has also been useful for explaining why schools seem to be difficult to change. Harvard professor Jal Mehta recently sketched the problem well – arguing that despite strong movements for equity and justice, despite advances in the sciences of learning, and despite widespread commitments to harness schools to better and different futures, we are often working within a structure that works against us.

We cannot change how we do school
without also changing why we do school

As others have too, UNESCO’s new report offers a new and different vision of what should transpire on each of the five dimensions mentioned above. But we cannot change how we do school without also changing why we do school.

Stanford sociologist and historian David Labaree has proposed that the grammar of schooling has two key features: it is organizationally efficient in one way or another, and it meets some larger social purpose. In other words, according to Labraree, schooling needs to be doable and worth doing.

But what was “worth doing” about the old grammar of schooling? In the US context this was quite simply: meritocracy. The grading, sorting, and comparison of individual merit that the traditional grammar of schooling enabled could only become the juggernaut that it is today because it fed (and was fed by) certain political and business ideologies of the last two centuries. Radically egalitarian in principle, and thus aligned with a certain kind of democratic spirit, meritocracy supported a technocratic rationality and provided a comprehensive vision for how society ought to be organized.

The logic of meritocracy provided the broader social purpose for schooling – in the United States most notably, but also in some twentieth-century socialisms. Of course, not all school systems have put such a high value on merit. Some may prioritize communal discipline or rights-based approaches to opening up opportunity. However, propelled by the legacies of colonial education systems and global actors with strong commitments to building human capital, such as the World Bank and the OECD, the ethos of developing individual talent has arguably become a feature of schooling for many across the globe.

Despite their ideals and organizational commitments to merit, few school systems actually do fairly assign opportunity. And the fact that education systems the world over fall so short from this aim rankles. It rankles precisely because, for many, success at assigning opportunity on the basis of merit would mean justice achieved.

As Michael Sandel, among others, has argued, meritocracy has become one of the tyrannies of our current times. It generates massive elite entitlement and problematically individualizes “failure”.

Moving to other social purposes that make schooling worth doing does not mean abandoning meritocracy’s two core elements of expertise and leadership – though they do need to be updated. Today we possess a much-enriched understanding of the breadth of humanity’s knowledge commons. We are aware that the organizations, communities, and societies most successful at ensuring their own and others’ flourishing are those that ensure that “expertise” is as widely distributed as possible. Likewise, we have a much broadened understanding of “leadership”. We rightly see agency, the ability to shape one’s world, as broadly distributed among many social actors.

What will make school worth doing in 2050? The answers – and they are likely to be multiple – need to come from shared, collective dialogue and action. Some of the latest research on education reform (Barton, 2021; Cohen & Mehta, 2017) reminds us that the how, what, when and where of schooling changes when those changes and stakeholders’ beliefs and values about what education should accomplish are made to converge.

According to the Sahle-Work Commission, we now face a set of existential challenges. Our human survival, our humanity, the living planet Earth – all are in great risk. Our interdependencies are a fact; but clearly we need to get much better at working together. The hopeful message of this report is that we can rise to the challenge, that building individual and collective capacities to transform the world together can become compelling reason for education to be “worth doing”. Mobilizing a new social contract for education around principles, ideals and affects that support participation in transformative change promises to help us fashion new grammars of schooling.


Noah W. Sobe is Senior Project Officer in the Future of Learning and Innovation team at UNESCO.  He is a former president of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and holds a faculty position as Professor of Cultural and Educational Studies at Loyola University Chicago.

Cite this article (APA format)
Sobe, N.W. (26 April 2022) A new social contract and a new grammar of schooling. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/sobe-new-grammar-of-schooling.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Sobe, Noah W. "A new social contract and a new grammar of schooling". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 26 April 2022, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/sobe-new-grammar-of-schooling.


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