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What is a school for? The paradox of scope

Purpose of school - what is a school for?
What is the point of school? Solve this and we might just solve the paradox of scope

There is a lot of talk about education reform, and with good reason. Teaching the Digital Generation (ed. Kelly, McCain & Jukes, 2009) opens with a brilliant distillation of why schools are the way they are: the acronym TTWWADI has stuck with me since I first read the book, and I often come back to it when questioning the structures and systems we have in place. That's The Way We've Always Done It is a perfect encapsulation for much of what goes on in schools, and goes a long way to explaining why the majority of schools are not meeting the learning needs of our current students. Great work is being done by more and more educators and schools to consciously recognise this TTWWADI bias, and to dismantle structures that cause inequity and inefficient learning. For example, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula has devised a diverse curriculum that ensures every child engages in high-frequency language learning, gardening, knitting and more in order "to develop a broad worldview that will contribute value to their future work and active participation in a global society... to learn to work for the love of work." The Western Academy of Beijing devised their Future of Learning programme around self-directed learning and student-led timetabling, recognising that "students need to be capable of being autonomous in their learning, because to be successful today and tomorrow we all need to be capable of continuously re-inventing ourselves." The near-global commitment to STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in relatively recent years has produced strategies and policies that have transformed learning spaces and curricula, and pulled up the status of vocational and 'hands-on' courses, driven by multiple governments' belief that, "we need a workforce with STEM qualifications if we are to sustain growth in our economy" (UK and Republic of Ireland-commissioned STEM review, 2007).

Such initiatives are wonderful examples of how schools, aware of how the needs of their students do not match the service provision rooted in the first industrial revolution, are working to update what it means to be a school. This understanding is not new: John Dewey's warning that, "If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow," rang as true a hundred years ago as it does today. The examples above, and many more like them, have one thing in common: to prepare children for the workplaces of tomorrow (if not today). A noble aim for sure - after all, what is a school for if not to prepare children for their future? There are a number of reports from governments and global organisations that recognise that the curricula and systems in schools are set up to prepare children for jobs and workplaces that are rapidly evaporating. There is a sense of urgency in the shouts from these reports, not matched by action it must be said, that the future workplace is so unimaginably different from the workplaces today's parents and grandparents encountered upon leaving school, that our children face an alarming skills gap when entering the workforce. The Future of Jobs surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) plot the skills required by employers, identifying skills trending upwards as well as in decline. This is done hand in hand with granular detailing of the state of each industry, jobs availability, and impacts on employment from automation, artificial intelligence, pandemics and the like. In 2018, creativity and active learning strategies were 5th and 4th respectively in terms of demand by employers. These skills rose to 3rd and 2nd in 2022, and are predicted to be 5th and 2nd in 2025. These, and the other skills making up the list of what society will need from school leavers in 2025 look a lot like what are often, and to me - irritatingly - called 'soft skills'.

The top 15 skills demanded from school leavers in 2025

Note the following skills declining in 2022, which have dropped off the demand list entirely for 2025:

  • Manual dexterity, endurance and precision

  • Memory, verbal, auditory and spatial abilities

  • Management of financial, material resources

  • Technology installation and maintenance

  • Reading, writing, math and active listening

  • Management of personnel

  • Quality control and safety awareness

  • Coordination and time management

  • Visual, auditory and speech abilities

  • Technology use, monitoring and control - has made a comeback in 2025.

Which list looks most like what you did at school? What your children do at school now?

A different arm of the WEF identify eight critical characteristics in learning content and experiences for defining high quality learning in schools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schools of the Future, 2020):

  1. Global citizenship skills

  2. Innovation and creativity skills

  3. Technology skills (including programming & digital responsibility)

  4. Interpersonal skills

  5. Personalised and self-paced learning

  6. Accessible and inclusive learning

  7. Problem-based and collaborative learning

  8. Lifelong and student-driven learning

So it's great to see the value of the big, transferable skills being pushed up in education. Whether it's these WEF Education 4.0 characteristics, the IB Approaches to Learning, Costa & Kallick's Habits of Mind, or another similar framework, it's clear that education is trying to move towards the former list and away from the latter, though with still a long way to go.

Does school exist to serve industry?

But a huge assumption is being made here, and it largely goes unquestioned: that the purpose of school is to prepare kids for their future in work. To serve the economy. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't - but the critical thing here is that we aren't having this discussion anywhere nearly enough. Does school exist to serve the economy? Or university admissions policies? To serve societal harmony? Or the individual? We cannot begin to know what students must learn in school without knowing this purpose. If we are in the embryonic stages of core educational reform - and I hope it is a healthy development of this embryo - then we must not sleepwalk into the trap of constructing a new school experience that serves a list of needs for a purpose that won't last: this is what we have now in a school system that teaches the students skills for a purpose of the past (an economic landscape that largely doesn't exist anymore).

So what is the scope of school? In some developed countries it has taken on the role of social worker, food bank, police officer, medical provider and more, on top of that of educator. All this only serves to muddy the waters of purpose even more.

"The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared."

Papert, cited in Wiliam, 2015 (ed. The Schools Network).

Herein lies the paradox of 21st Century education: the scope of schools is everything outside the scope of schools.

How on earth are we expecting school leaders, teachers and students to grapple with this paradox, not least under the immense expectations and workloads they are all under? Dylan Wiliam points out that the one competitive skill to master is the skill of being able to learn. This tallies with the WEF findings: active learning and learning strategies are the 2nd most demanded skill for school leavers today and projected to remain so in the future. Reason suggests that if children master the skills they need to learn - both about themselves and the world around them - then whatever the world throws at them in future will be covered. But this is difficult for parents, teachers and society at large to stomach when each has a different assumption about the purpose of school, and even if they align in their assumption that school exists to serve the labour market, no-one can agree on what that will look like in 10 years. And so the other pressures to serve the needs of other unidentified purposes will always grate alongside the learning of learning itself.

In many countries, the education systems are politicised, with leaders coming and going at such a rate that changes are rarely left to embed before the next minister arrives wanting their own stamp to be left behind. Schools are being left to lead reform by themselves, unaided by a party political system based on ego.

"The pandemic has clearly shown us that despite the total absence of systems planning or [government] leadership, schools and their communities have led from the front. It is they who have shown us what’s possible, it is they who have protected our children, it is they who have pivoted towards adopting and using new technologies and approaches to ensure education continuity."

Given the political nature of education systems, by the time we see the impact of a systemic initiative, such as the one required in this core reform, those who pushed for it are long gone. Responsibility for review and refinement is dropped, and accountability for failures is screamed into the emptiness. If we are to hold the discussion on the purpose of schools, and attempt to close the paradox of the scope of schools, we cannot keep waiting for someone else to step up. As each school defines its purpose, vision and mission, perhaps it's time to step back as a collective and ask "What is a school actually for?"

Kieran Burgess is an education consultant and coach, with leadership experience in international schools.

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