Filling the void

Thinking about the start of the school year and all of the teacher only days coming up next week, it's a good opportunity to think about the 'why' of what we do as educators – what makes us get out of bed in the morning to do the jobs we do. 

One of the books on my shelf that I refer back to at least once a year to help anchor me in this thinking is Neil Postman's "The End of Education". Postman's thinking has helped ground the work I do over many years, providing a balanced perspective on the role of technology in education. 

I've just finished watching the video clip above as I prepare for some of my work in the coming weeks, and am reminded again by Postman of the importance of thinking about the 'why' of what we do. This is pretty important at the moment, given the rhetoric appearing around the recent announcements here in NZ of incentives for teachers as a means of increasing the status of the profession. 

Early in the interview, Postman submits that we need to be addressing the metaphysical or philosophical purpose of school, arguing that if parents and kids don't believe in the purpose of school, then it becomes a place of detention, not attention. Postman believes that the debate over the future of schools focuses too much on "engineering" concerns — curricula, teaching methods, standardized testing, the role of technology, etc. — while very little attention is paid to the metaphysics of schooling. As the title of his book suggests, he feels that "without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better."

Postman isn't alone in this thinking (see also Michael Fullan, Peter Senge, and others) but I like his analysis and find it very helpful, particularly in the current climate where there is a strong emphasis on the economic utility of education – i.e. education for employment and contribution to the economy. Postman argues that this is a problematic stance because, he claims, there is no compelling evidence that the economic performance of a nation is directly linked to the quality of its education system. 

His alternative is to emphasise the sorts of things that he believes are required to develop 21st century citizens who are prepared to live, work and contribute to our future society. He argues that if it's true that things are changing so rapidly that we don't know what jobs will exist for our young people into the future, then it's futile promoting vocational training programmes in our schools – instead, we ought to be designing curriculum that cultivates the capacity for open-mindedness and the ability to accept and respond to change etc. 

In the interview Postman goes on to speak about the role of technology, the nature of curriculum and the impact of language – all themes I may save for future posts, but definitely worth watching the video clip for here. 

In the meantime, the challenge left for all of us as educators about the begin the new school year is "are we committed to a shared understanding of the purpose of school?" My challenge is, let's make time in our teacher only days for some discussion on this. 

Postman's final remarks are particuarly pertinent:

"What [teachers] are faced with is th emptiness of schooling – that there is no sense of serious and profound commitment to learning. I think that they could all discover that if there were ideas in the culture, profound ideas, that the children believed in and their parents believed in, then teachers would overnight seem great to us…

… teachers are no different to other people. If their spiritual life is empty it wouldn't surprise anyone that they are not effective in working with the young – what would they teach them?"

As we prepare for the new school year, we can become consumed with focusing on the structural aspects of our system (schools, clusters, standards, curriculum etc.) in the hope that we can improve it, or on the cultural aspects (relationships, equity, career pathways etc.) – but without a profound commitment to an understanding of purpose of schooling at both a personal and corporate level, we are likely to fall well short of the lofty goals and aspirations embodied in our national strategies and school mission statements. 

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