Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Purpose of Education


I asked a friend of mine who lives in Canada how his six year old daughter Brooke was settling in to the new school year. She is a delightful little pixie of a child who finds joy in everything so I was shocked when he told me she is utterly miserable. She comes home crying every night, she is having trouble sleeping and eating and getting her to school every day has become a trauma for all involved. Apparently she is part of an experiment that the Principal is conducting. He has taken four students from each of his two Kindergarten classes, two boys and two girls, and placed them in the other class for first grade. All four of the kids are struggling because they don’t know the other kids in the class and are not being accepted and included by their peers. When dad went to explain this to the principal and ask for her to be placed back in her old class he was given short shrift, told nothing would change and given no rationale for the decision to boot!
The sad part about this is that it is such a recurring theme in education. New initiatives are often dreamt up and put into place by district administration, by principals, by teachers and all, I’m sure, with great intent. The tricky part however seems being able to figure out when an idea isn’t working. More often than not the success of a new educational initiative is measured numerically through assessment data. Brooke will be tested in the next few weeks in her Canadian classroom and I’m sure the data will show that she is not progressing, not learning and it’s not difficult to figure out why-she isn’t happy!  Children can only be open to learning when they feel safe and secure and happy in the learning environment. Do we need data to figure that out or to determine next steps, or could the issue be resolved through open and honest dialogue between the student, parent, teacher and principal?
Teaching Engage, a class specifically designed to help kids acquire key 21st century skills, I constantly see students struggling with listening and flexibility. Being able to listen attentively to others ideas, ask questions, offer ideas, and encourage others input, then carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, seek to synthesize, and compromise are apparently skills that many adults have problems with too. New initiatives are a necessary part of education as we constantly hone and improve the service we provide but all stakeholders need to start actively listening to each other and remembering the true purpose of education.
I was recently asked what the purpose of education is and I had a surprisingly hard time formulating a response. I eventually came up with this:
The purpose of education is to light a fire in students, to help them develop a love of learning and learn strategies to become lifelong learners. Education should serve to open students’ eyes to the world around them. They should learn to not merely observe, but to think about what they see and wonder about how they can make a positive impact. They should leave the education system with a clear sense of their own significance, their own potential to make a positive contribution as global citizens and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the tools that will enable them to successfully make that contribution: creative thinking, productivity, digital literacy, communication skills, integrity, responsibility, reliability, and accountability.
But I’m beginning to think it really is much simpler than that. The purpose of education is to help and children learn and grow and this isn’t going to happen if a child is unhappy, teachers can’t create safe and happy classrooms if they don’t feel heard and respected, principals can’t create innovative environments if they are not encouraged to take risks and school districts will not be able to attain the assessment success they seek unless administration carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, or seek to synthesize and compromise when needed.
Maybe we should look to successful corporate models for inspiration. Check out this Blog post by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, a dynamic and thriving group of diverse companies: Have fun, do good, success will come. Aside from the title, which I think would be a wonderful mantra for the world of education to adopt, the most striking thing about this post for me is how Branson is actively engaged in listening. His success speaks for itself and I’m sure it is in no small part because of his ability to listen, his ability to recognize failure and his ability to adapt and move forward. Maybe I’ll send Branson’s Blog post to Brooke’s principal in Canada. 

4 comments:

  1. Don't know where you teach, or what type of school, but assuming it is somewhat close to average, let me push a bit...

    When I read your post I read a definition of education that exists because of the current system. You definition exists because you are trying to un-do what has been done.

    Imagine if we didn't have a system that closed kids eyes, or belittled their significance. What if schools were built on the premise of keeping alive that incredible sense of wonder that kids are born with, and most kids start school with.

    Through the years I have started to believe that I can educate kids best by simply removing and showing them how to go around the roadblocks that school systems have put up so that they can have fun, do good, and be successful.

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  2. I am so fortunate to work in a building that does allow all of those, things which I think have helped me to develop this definition of the purpose of education. I worked in an "average" school for years before that and never really knew the potential we had as educators to impact our students lives in such positive ways.Now that I am aware of what kids can achieve with this kind of philosophy and approach I wish all schools could be like mine, with an innovative, risk taking principal who sets out to remove the roadblocks for us :) Sadly, my principal moved on at the start of the school year and I hope we are lucky to find ourselves a leader with similar vision and skills!

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  3. You are an inspiration! I am in awe of your wisdom and talents. I have watched you nurture the intellectual spark in children for so many years. You make it look easy, but I know the kind of hard work and dedication you put into it every day. Thank you for touching the lives of so many children and believing in them and what they can do.

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