What are schools preparing learners for?

For more than a century the requirements of the workforce/economy have influenced what has been taught in schools.  In the industrial age, skills like efficiency and conformity were highly valued. What developed was a model of schooling that endeavoured to impart these skills through the curriculum. Even today, the requirements of a 21st century workforce seem to dominate educational debate and discussion.  A recent article in the Guardian on careers education stressed that in order for young people today to succeed in a ‘new work order’, we have to think in terms of skills. In fact, the word ‘skill’ was mentioned 22 times in the article. The words ‘knowledge and insight’ – zero.

How many keynotes have included the ‘Did you Know‘ video?  This is the one that states: “We are currently preparing students for jobs and technologies that don’t yet exist… in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” Yes, I admit to using the video in keynotes to reinforce the argument that has always existed. Schools are in the business of preparing young people to become successful contributors to societies (i.e economies). Even ‘entrepreneurial’ has become part of the vernacular of contemporary schooling.

Has our thinking really shifted when the schooling cart is still being pulled behind the economic horse?  The skills that have become highly valued in developed societies are those that have been deemed critical 21st century skills by governments with market economies. And these skills are championed by businesses that contribute to and benefit from participation in these economies.

The question that we need to continual ask ourselves is ‘are we designing schooling to extend individuals or economies?’ As the English philosopher AC Grayling said work is not the sum of our lives. Schooling must exist for the totality of life not just one part of it. The scope of our work in schools can never be limited to training and skills but on developing higher mental capacities such as reasoning, insight and creative imagination.

A contemporary schooling experience must be one in which young people are able to see their worth not only in terms of their economic value but in who they are as individuals and their role as citizens in a global community.



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