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

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 It has persisted despite mounting evidence and widespread acknowledgement that it is obsolete and does not serve our children well.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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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...