For most teachers, the beginning of a school year is an opportunity to look ahead with fresh eyes, thinking of our students and how best we can nurture and grow them as learners. In our schools, kura, and early years settings, there’ll be lots of activity around preparing the themes, topics, and resources required to inspire creative minds, not to mention the physical arrangement of the learning environments, scheduling of time, and allocation of tasks that will enable all of this to happen.
In the midst of this, many of us will be participating in some form of teacher-only time, where we take the opportunity to look at some of the ‘wider’ issues facing our work. For some, that may mean a fresh look at areas in the curriculum where learners need additional support, for others it may involve the introduction of some new, school-wide initiatives, while for others it may involve an opportunity to stretch ‘out of your comfort zone’ for a moment, and reflect a little on the bigger questions such as, ‘What is the purpose of education?’
The latter can be a challenging, and often uncomfortable, experience. How often do we hear “We live in exponential times!” to explain the constant pressure to change, and as an expression of the challenges ahead? But what does this really mean? And what are the implications for us as educators?
Wherever we look nowadays there seems to be another conference with keynote speakers professing to give a glimpse of the future — featuring examples of science fiction-type technological advances that are now becoming a reality. Whether it’s the prospect of flying cars, robots taking our jobs, or virtual reality providing places to hide from the real world, some find themselves endlessly fascinated with these ‘miracles’ of modern technology. For many, however, it can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and ‘powerless’ when these things challenge and even threaten the very basis of our established norms and practices.
The simple truth is that we are facing times of unprecedented change, with lots of it happening as a consequence of technology, and all of it impacting significantly on the ways we live, work, communicate, and spend our leisure time. Much of this change is ‘unpredictable’, being the unintended consequence of some sort of intervention – all of which adds to the dilemma of how we respond, both individually and collectively.
The concept of schooling has always been premised on preparing young people for life in the adult world — as contributors to the “economic engine” that underpins modern society. Our current education system, which emerged in the middle of the 19th century and was designed to serve the needs of the Industrial Revolution, is facing significant stress. There is an increasing perception that our education system is failing to meet the needs of modern society, leading to a plethora of ‘school reform’ movements across the world.
Today, education has to be about learning to thrive in a transforming world.
The statement above should be printed across the doorway of all of our staffrooms and on the cover of all of our planning documents as we look ahead to 2018.
We need to be asking ourselves what we can do to enable each and every child, whatever their starting point, to flourish and lead fulfilling lives and to become responsible and active members of society. We also need to be open to exploring together what is the role of education in creating a fairer society.
To work towards this, here are three things that may be helpful to frame some of your thinking and planning as you prepare for your learners as they return for the new school year:
1. Focus on building capabilities
We must do more to shift from a system that has been predominantly focused on ‘front-loading’ learners with the knowledge and skills required to function productively in future society, to one that recognises change as the constant and prepares learners, of all ages, with the strategies and capabilities to cope with and feel empowered within this world of change.
Our school curriculum and the pedagogical approaches we use must inspire and motivate our young learners to develop the kinds of capabilities that are key to leading successful lives. This includes things such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.
As you prepare for the coming year, ponder these questions…
- How are the key competencies in the national curriculum really addressed in what happens on a day-to-day basis in your classroom and across your school?
- To what extent do your students and parents/whānau regard the development of key competencies as a priority?
- What is the evidence you look for and gather to ensure these are being developed?
2. Learning as a disposition
It is now widely acknowledged that learning occurs across diverse contexts and throughout our lifetimes – not only at school! We know that learners accumulate knowledge, skills, and competencies in formal and non-formal settings, and understand that, without regular maintenance, some knowledge and/or skills may depreciate with time.
As a consequence, we need to ensure the focus of our education system is on learning (i.e., ‘how’ we learn), and less on the content (i.e., ‘what’ we learn). We need to foster the development of a learning disposition that will ensure the learner is able to engage with and learn about new ideas, new skills, and new thinking as required throughout their life.
The concept of life-long learning is well established in our rhetoric and many of our policy settings, but it often exists as a vague intention rather than being a strategically and explicitly planned part of how we think and provide this within our ‘organised’ learning systems. Thinking of how you might give a greater focus to this in your context in 2018, you might ask:
- How might you build a ‘language of learning’ among your students, staff, and community, where these capabilities are prioritised and reinforced through the learning endeavour?
- How do you recognise and acknowledge learning that occurs beyond the school boundary – in clubs and after-school groups, across all domains – cultural, sporting, academic etc.?
- How are you and your colleagues demonstrating a learning disposition in your personal and professional life, and what is the evidence of this learning on your approach to the work you do?
3. Learning involves everyone
The percentage of children who struggle to engage with education for a range of reasons, often connected with poverty, is well documented. The task of addressing the broad range of learners’ needs in our modern society cannot be addressed by schools alone. There is a clear recognition that unless the difficult questions about how to improve outcomes for learners and their families are tackled, the aspiration to build a more equal society cannot be achieved.
Education is critical to social and economic development and has a profound impact on the wellbeing of all in society. The old saying; ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ has special significance nowadays, particularly as the fabric of ‘the village’ is not as well woven as it may once have been. We need to be exploring new ways of enabling the village to work together again — dispelling the siloed mentality that so often separates the very services and supports that need to be working together to create a learning society. Some questions you may ask as you reflect on your start to 2018 could include:
- What opportunities do you create for multi-generational learning to occur in your context – i.e., adults in the classroom, evening classes, project-based mentors etc.?
- What use do you make of community resources and contexts for learning? What about access to community expertise? Is this reciprocated in any way?
- How are you embracing the richness of diverse cultural backgrounds represented in your ‘village’ — how are different groups learning from each other in this way?
- How might you initiate or cultivate a learning focus in areas of your community other than school – e.g., within local libraries, local clubs, and service organisations, health centres etc.?
Let’s make 2018 a year when we focus more intentionally and explicitly on the development of key competencies/capabilities.
If this sort of thinking inspires or motivates you, and you’re keen to connect with like-minded people to explore and design a future-focused approach to education that is about learning to thrive in a transforming world, then join me at THRIVE in Gisborne or Dunedin on 6-8 March, 2018.