In her essay for NAIS Independent School Magazine, “Solutionaries Education for a Better World”, Zoe Weil provokes us to honestly and thoughtfully answer the question “What is schooling for?” It is a question that many of us are asking, and I want to launch off of several of her key points as real action items that we can embrace in the very short term to make fundamental change in how our schools are designed to adapt to the mission of the future.
Zoe correctly states that many, if not most, educators believe that there is a special purpose of education that goes far beyond content mastery. I put these goals under the heading of the Essential Qualities of a graduate. Many schools articulate these qualities and there is vastly more similarity than difference in the lists. We want students that are enlightened, engaged, literate, critical, ethical, and conversational in the critical issues of today and the future. As a group of schools we do not need to agree on the entire list. But we do need to discuss and see if we agree on two things. First, that the list is broadly correct, that we value ability, character, and a sense of purpose more than we value retention of information. And second, that we currently allocate vastly more resources to the later than we do to the former. In other words, our resources are fundamentally misaligned with our understanding of highest purpose.
Zoe goes on to link our current priorities to the overwhelming desire on the part of parents to see their students get in to a top college. Those feelings are understandable but are often in conflict with what we purport to be those essential qualities for a happy or successful life. If we truly believe that our definition of essentials are correct, then we have a duty to do everything we can to educate our students and parents on the pathways to achieve those essentials. There is enormous evidence that lifetime happiness and success is not, in fact, linked to graduation from an elite group of colleges. Logic and mission demand that we spend more time and energy getting this message across to our stakeholders in ways that allow us to refocus on the essential qualities of educated youth.
Zoe offers two practical examples of how we can re-align our focus. First she describes an activity with Middle and High School student that helps them understand the impact of choices that they make. Her use of systems thinking is right along the lines of what I have done with students in my various Falconer classes. In fact, the quote from one of her students “We should have been learning this since kindergarten” is exactly what my students told me at the end of our course one year. The other example she offers involves teaching the experience of discourse instead of debate, learning from each other as opposed to trying to win an argument. Our students will certainly fly closer to the essential qualities we have identified if they practice collaborative shared learning with the goals of advancing knowledge and understanding, rather than the particular skill of debate, focused on beating an opponent.
We know how to get there; so many schools offer bright lights of programs and teaching styles that are quickly changing the fundamental relationships of the learning experience. We need to aggressively re-tool our professional development programs to laser-focus attention and resources on the essential outcomes that we say define the core of our value proposition.