What do we want our schools to be?

PurposeDespite the fact we are on school holidays in Australia, my last post generated a very lively debate over the validity and usefulness of NAPLAN which got me thinking about the overall purpose of schooling in Australia.

A recent edition of New Yorker magazine ran an interesting opinion piece regarding French President François Hollande’s decision to ban homework. If you have a subscription you can read it here, but the crux of the article was that the battle over homework was not really about homework, but about ‘what people wants schools to do’.

The same could be said about our recent discussion over NAPLAN – it’s not about the test or even how it’s used – it’s about what it represents for schools.

President Hollande’s decision to ban homework and make the school day shorter echoes Finland’s approach. However, as the article demonstrates, Finland and the no. 2 country in the world, South Korea, are almost polar opposite in their approaches to schooling, yet on international measures are achieving similar success.

The author believes the success of these countries lies in a clear vision – a shared narrative – about what citizens in these countries want their schools to do i.e. the purpose of schooling.

In the educational debate in Australia, currently, there is diverse range of views about what our schools should be; what they should teach; and, of course, how we measure success. There is a lot of policy noise and yammering on all sides of the debate trying to introduce sometimes opposing strategies for improvement, without answering this very fundamental question.

So let’s throw the doors and windows open here and address the question. For Australia:

  • do we want our schools to be hothouses of study where achievement is grown on steroids?
  • do we want our schools to communities of comfort and nurture for kids?
  • do we want them to be geared around achieving a University entry score?
  • do we want to narrow the focus to ensure high achievement on a few simple benchmarks?
  • do we want them to pump our kids full of facts and figures?
  • do we want them to open kids up to questioning and reflection?

I also came across a great blog which in many ways raises the same questions and talks about the asumptions upon which we construct our schooling experiences. Are these assumptions still valid? Well worth a look


What do you want our schools to be?

8 thoughts on “What do we want our schools to be?

  1. Greg,

    Great, vital debate! Congratulations on driving it.

    The Finland / South Korea contrast intrigues me – as does their high rankings. Both small countries, which suffered the ghastliness of war, on their own soil, in the middle of the last century (that is within ‘living memory’); with massive, powerful neighbours (Russia and China) posing a continuing menace – it may be that the socio-political drivers impact the education policy-makers with a sense of the vital nature of ‘keeping up in all facets of learning and doing’ – an educated populace is better equipped to defend the nation? The means of educating; encouragement of personal ‘exploration’ (Finnish?) or cramming (Korean?) is secondary – the over-arching policy making primary?

    That’s not advocacy for demonising of Indonesia or any of our other near neighbours in Asia!


    1. I think that your comment is the very point to made the cultural contexts are very powerful. Australia by world standards remains very isolated, has long history of peace and prosperity. Our democratic processes largely “manage out” conflicts that lead to either civil or global conflict. This helps shape our aspirations for educating our future generations. This is why we are such good “borrowers” of other nations strategies since our seem harder to shape.

  2. Hi Greg, I think our schools could/should be places of well thought out design systems. Designed for learning and interactions, designed for fun, challenge and success, but most importantly designed by the learners within that system, the teachers and the students. “Schools designed by Schools” is not a new idea it is our work as leaders. It’s what makes leading schools fun, challenging and rewarding. It’s what allows us to be creative and innovative.

    Other things i think schools should be
    -used by everyone- parents, community, local councils, business, industry
    -accessible all year round 24/7
    -they serve communities
    -they are online 24/7

    Here is a video from learning without frontiers that cover some of these ideas i think is worth sharing-http://sperry20.edublogs.org/2012/04/05/design-for-learning/

    1. Thanks Simon I have argued for a long time that our schools need to be a vital and embedded part of the wider community they serve. Opening up the doors, challenging old conventions of what schools do and ensuring learning opportunities beyond the traditional school day for not just students but other groups in the community is a good step towards this vision.

  3. This is an incredibly important question . . . What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we trying to prepare students for tests? Or are we about teaching powerful lessons and being confident that the tests will take care of themselves?

    My next blog post is going to be about Daniel Pink’s idea of “Purpose” which is exactly what you’re talking about. Give it a week and I’d love to hear your feedback. I’ve already written about Pink’s Carrots and Sticks, If/Then Rewards, Autonomy, and Mastery.


  4. I agree. If we have a clear picture of what we want for our students, and what we see as the purpose of a schooling, then the other issues should fall into place.

    I think our governments made a nice start with the Melbourne Declaration. Here there are just two goals. Firstly, that Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence. And secondly, that all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. In the expansion of these concept a balanced and forward-looking picture emerges of the skills, values and attitudes that our Australian students should develop.

    If we took this as our starting point, then our schools would be places filled with creativity and challenge, balancing the development of personal and social skills with academic skills, and where inspiring each individual to reach their goals replaces an emphasis on grades and competition.

    So to move forward, what do we need? I think that system leaders and school leaders need to take the time to think through the question you’ve raised Greg, and to clearly articulate a vision for our schools, and to do this in ways that break free from our current overly politicised culture.

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