I was working with the staff of a local secondary school yesterday, and in the context of our discussion we shared our thinking around the question of 'what is success?' in relation to the purpose of school and schooling, and the focus on assessment that currently dominates much of the thinking in our school system and drives most of our curriculum design and delivery.
We were specifically thinking about the issues raised in the NZCER publication, "Swimming out of our depth" where the authors suggest…
"We need to think differently about what schools are for, about what students should learn in them and about how we should measure the “success” of all this. (p.4)"
The definitions of 'success' and 'being successful' lie at the heart of the design of our schooling system, and drive the activity of everyone in it – from the policy makers through to the students in classrooms. From a current analysis of what we see happening in the NZ school system it wouldn't be difficult to conclude that what we regard as success is intimately tied to academic achievement, and the relentless pursuit of excellence and results measured in terms of standards at a national level and our comparative rankings at an international level.
Now as an educator I'm not going to argue that academic achievement shouldn't be a key focus for schools – but we do need to consider whether there's more to it than simply that? If we aspire to engage with and grow young people and see them develop as citizens into the future, ought we not be thinking about more than simply academic success as measured by (in the most part) summative examination scores?
While many may argue that the curriculum and educational discourse here in NZ has moved past this narrow thinking of success, the evidence I see when visiting schools and talking with students (particularly at this time of year when exams are the focus) would suggest that academic success is definitely the high priority for most.
One of the consequences of this for our learners is the stress it creates – particularly at exam time – but also through the year when the relentless pressure (external and internal) to achieve consumes so many – spurring them to pursue goals beyond what is reasonable or expected in many cases (consider the students who asprite to achieving excellence in 120 credits!)
An article in yesterday's Toronto Star highlights how this should be a concern for all educators – from policy makers to teachers, and parents as well. Titled "Student Stress Must Be Addressed" it begins..
“Schools are first and foremost social-emotional institutions,” says York University professor Stuart Shanker, adding that failure to address issues leads to “early dropouts and lots of disorder.”
Professor Shankar's research is part of a broader move, launched by People for Education, to have schools actually measure how well they foster social-emotional skills, citizenship, physical health, creativity and a positive school climate overall — beyond the 3 Rs.
Such concerns would resonnate with the group I worked with yesterday, where student welfare ranked towards the top of every group's list when we were considering the priorities for the design of new approaches to learning in the school.
Perhaps we need to reflect more seriously on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and consider how, in the frentic busy-ness of our lives in and out of school, we make time to embrace the significance of these measures of success for ourselves and our learners.