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What Is School Really For?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:36am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:36am

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“Every citizen should enter the world with: A proud vision of self as a powerful life-long learner; A vibrant vision of a worthwhile life ahead; An optimistic vision of a society to be proud of and finally the skills and the ethic needed to follow these visions.” (Papert and Caperton, 1999)

This information-drenched age...what is school really for? I found myself considering this question after speaking with parents of a profoundly gifted student. The child had just turned five and was reveling in integers as part of casual breakfast conversation. He inhaled information almost by osmosis. Never mind the fact that by second grade he might be on his way to Pre-Algebra, what would happen once he began actively mining the internet? No teacher or school, for that matter, can compete with that level of content knowledge. What purpose, then did school fill for learners like him?

Idealists among us might say school is an important part of childhood memories with friendships solidified alongside academic skills. The more pragmatic, likely including parents of this year’s graduating seniors, might agree with those reasons, but conclude that really, it’s to meet some fairly straightforward criteria ending in acceptance to a “good” university. Hard to argue with either since both are true at least most of the time. Retracting the lens even further, however, we remember that university leads to emancipation, and “The Future” and in that future, economies continue to be built on the backs of workforce generations and well, school is the conveyor belt that simply prepares them.

What happens then, when for the first time in history, the skills generated by the belt are churned out more slowly than the skills demanded of the workforce in the future? In his aptly titled paper, How can we prepare students for a world we can’t imagine? Dylan Williams likens the situation to walking up a down escalator: with “the availability of low skill jobs...being destroyed [by automation and offshoring]...we made progress. But the speed of the down escalator has been increasing. If we cannot increase the rate at which our schools are improving, then, quite simply, we will go backwards.”

It’s not for lack of intelligence. On the contrary - we know from the “Flynn Effect” that we’re smarter* than we’ve ever been. Attributed to James Flynn and his research, individual intelligence has been on an ascending trend. In at least 30 countries, IQ scores increase each decade by approximately three points. It makes sense that these have been attributed to positive cumulative effects of formal schooling, better nutrition and a higher standard of living (less time hoeing and tilling the fields affords more time reading, discussing, creating or googling). Progress, globalisation and technology have strengthened our ability to conceptualise, extrapolate and hypothesise so that we are better equipped to navigate a more complex world, but the sum of these have resulted in an acceleration past a tipping point, the marker by which the world’s exponentially increasing complexities evolved faster than a key catalyst for our ability to process it, our learning systems - school.

In 1999, on the cusp of the new millenium, Seymour Papert and Gaston Caperton proposed a new way to retool exactly that by proposing a redefinition of the purpose of education. Papert, mathematician, pioneer of artificial intelligence and constructionism, had been previously tasked by Vice President Al Gore to consult on educational reform. The Caperton-Papert platform produced an essay shared at the 91st National Governor’s Association beginning with the idea that the future of education could not be oversimplified with what had come to be the usual reactionary solutions. Tangible ideals such as increasing test scores, improving teaching or ensuring technology in every classroom are noble goals, easy enough to initiate into policy, but Papert and Caperton did not think they were suitable catalysts for rejigging existing learning systems. They posited a paradigm shift; the fundamental mission of education should not primarily be about academic success and learning, but to nurture within each student, his or her own vision.

This “vision” vision of schooling exceeds even the aspiration that the purpose of schooling, particularly in this accelerated age, is not to pass on knowledge but to teach the learner how to learn. Sugata Mitra’s findings (in a nutshell, children + internet + helpful bystander = learning, mirroring basically most gatherings these days) show us that in general, children are proficient at learning. No matter the circumstances - a classroom or a dusty street corner, they find a way given resources because that is what they are built to be- expert novices. Paradoxically true of new skill formation, the more expertise one gains, the less work one puts in towards having to learn, the fewer the opportunities to practice “novice” qualities. Hence this Harvard Business Review article which correlates improved work performance for CEOs who devote a lot of time to their hobbies because it reminds them what it’s like not to be “the expert,” the positive effects experienced at the beginning stages of learning.

But how to leverage that “expert novice-ness” within existing schools to actuate this mission of helping students to develop their own vision for their future?

The standards by which schools are often assessed - student achievement, rigor of curriculum, pedagogical expertise - address really only a fraction of the Caperton-Papert ask, specifically “the skills and the ethic needed to follow these visions.” It is the “hidden curriculum,” the nuances within school culture which plays a much more formative role in establishing student concept of self as a life-long learner as well as agency in a “worth-while life ahead.” Just as our cultural identifiers have more to do with the foods we eat, the words we say, the politics we keep, and the traditions we celebrate rather than our country’s GDP or mortality rates, school ethos counts more in the long term than we care to credit. Each variable from the admissions demographic to classroom decor to resources allocated to language used during disciplinary action or celebration of achievement matters as much, sometimes even more, than content explicitly taught when constructing the early trajectory of one’s learner profile.

In developing our own visions for our future selves, we generally take cues from the way the greater community defines success. Considering that the success of a through-train school is more often than not punctuated by its elite university admissions at the secondary level, ensuring that acceptance into the “right” university propels students into, rather than derails them from, the ultimate goal of “developing a proud vision of self as a powerful life-long learner” is much easier stated than believed or enacted upon.

Malcolm Gladwell’s (2013) evaluation of what he calls “Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder” challenges that very notion. Excerpted from an essay in his book, David and Goliath, this speech carefully outlines a decrease in productivity (in terms of research publications) from the majority of students within an already highly selective admissions demographic in the ensuing years following an elite university education when compared to students attending a less selective alma mater. Known as the Big Fish, Little Pond syndrome, a phenomenon supported by this meta-analyses, we may acknowledge legitimacy begrudgingly, but it’s hard to ignore Gladwell’s point. Certainly there are many benefits to attending elite schools, networking and opportunity for starters. While Gladwell’s perspective makes sense for some and draws ire from others, it’s still a good reminder that it’s too easy for schools to be swept into elite university frenzy. Though we may have the best intentions, giving in to the pressure to narrowly define success can actually be detrimental to students in their perceived agency as lifelong learners.

So, what’s school exactly for? More than a place of academic learning, it’s a microcosm of opportunities to develop self-awareness and wonder, confidence, kindness and curiosity, an incubator for agency at which the awakening of intellect and a sense of purpose intersect.

*: ‘smart’ is defined by Flynn in terms of demonstrating increased abstract problem solving, including thinking more critically and creatively than our predecessors.

About J. Christine Greenberg, THS Prep and Primary Principal

J. Christine Greenberg is the Prep and Primary Principal of The Harbour School in Hong Kong. Before joining the THS faculty in 2009, Christine worked in schools as a teacher and educational consultant. She completed the rank of Master Teacher in accordance with the Comprehensive Application of Behavioral Analysis to Schooling® certification system and was awarded undergraduate degrees summa cum laude in English Literature and Elementary Education (K-8) from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, New York. She completed her graduate studies as a Doctor of Philosophy candidate in the field of Special Education where she was the recipient of the annual scholarship from the Department of Health and Behavior Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2014, she co-authored a paper on inclusive practices in education in Hong Kong, It Takes Two to Tango, published in the Global Education Review. Her research and professional interests include progressively inclusive education.