Starting the school year provides a great opportunity to ‘start fresh’ with our thinking, individually and as a staff. It’s a time where we can take a moment to reflect on what’s really important and what the key drivers are for our work in schools. For most schools this thinking is revealed in their mission and vision statements – making explicit the aspiration they, and their community, have for the students in their care during the time they are with them.
A really good mission and vision statement will be grounded in the beliefs about teaching and learning that are owned by the staff and the community. These in turn will reveal a lot about what they believe to be the purpose of school what is expected of it by the community and society more generally.
I’m writing this as I reflect on three recent experiences;
- A camping holiday with my entire family during which we spent time sharing some of our dreams and thoughts about what’s happening in our lives and the hopes we have for the six grandchildren in particular.
- A day working with the staff of a large primary school in Auckland where we were exploring together the implications of taking seriously a ‘future focused’ perspective on all aspects of the school’s planning and activity – and how this is reflected in their statement of intent, vision and mission.
- The release earlier in the week of a new report from the OECD on Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, and the headline in local papers telling us that half of Kiwi 15-year-olds expect to work in one of just 10 occupations.
The questions about “what is school for?” and the “purpose of education” are the common thread in these experiences. Whether a parent making decisions about schools or after school activities, an educator making curriculum planning decisions for the year ahead, or a national or international policy body researching these things, we can’t avoid the reality that the most significant measure of success of our endeavours is the ‘product’ at the end of the line – in education’s case, the confident, connected, life-long learner who is able to thrive in a world where the future is uncertain and changing.
Considering how well school contributes to the preparation of our young people as future citizens, contributing to society through being a part of the workforce is therefore one of the key indicators of success – and the journey towards this goal starts well before they get to the senior secondary years when the careers guidance programmes kick in.
The foundations that prepare our young people for their future, including work, are established early in life – where doting parents and grandparents begin asking “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Once they make their way to school our children encounter ‘the curriculum’ with an initial emphasis on literacy and numeracy, gradually expanding to other domains of knowledge and the skills associated with them. The design of the curriculum is in turn influenced by our beliefs (as society, communities, educators etc) about what they need to be able to know and do that will prepare them for what they do in the future.
All good so far, except that when it comes to what actually happens in school there appears (in some cases at least) this connection isn’t made. According to a 2018 article in Stuff, while we may consider our school graduates to be educated, tech savvy and enthusiastic, only half of 16 to 23-year-olds feel their education has prepared them well for the future. In that article Massey University distinguished professor of sociology Paul Spoonley is reported as saying that there has been a “disconnect” between employers’ expectations and the secondary and tertiary curriculum for some time.
The more recent OECD findings reinforce this earlier report, with the list of ten occupations identified through their research looking very similar to the list I would have made when I was at school more than 40 years ago. None of the occupations identified in the World Economic Forum’s list of top ten skills you will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution for example.
Not wanting to detract in any way from the points being made in that article, or by Paul Spoonely, I’d suggest that the ‘disconnect’ should be considered more widely than simply being between what employers expect and the what is in the school curriculum – or perhaps more correctly, how it is taught.
Many schools have made explicit the aspiration they have for their learners in the form of a graduate profile. In almost every case these profiles describe a wide range of competencies and dispositions that a school aims to see developed in their young people during the time they are with them. These are based on the beliefs about what is important in terms of character, including the ability to adapt and cope with change, are not narrowly defined in terms of specific skills or knowledge outcomes.
Again, a really valuable exercise and one that I’d support strongly. Once developed, however, the graduate profile must remain a ‘living document’ within the school, not something that is filed away and not referenced until the students reach their final year and then used as a point of reference for what they have achieved.
As the new school year begins I encourage you to revisit your graduate profile (if you have one) and reflect on the extent to which the programmes, themes, activities and topics planned for this term or year will provide opportunities for the development of these characteristics in your learners. And if so, what measures will you take to be able to confidently say these things are being or have been achieved? Moreover, as the characteristics described in a good graduate profile are unlikely to simply be ‘achieved’, but are continually being developed, what strategies and measures do you have in your school, kura or centre to monitor and track this development over time?
Let’s make 2020 the year we shift our emphasis in schools to be truly ‘future focused’, and take steps to ensure that there is no longer any gap between what we say we aspire to see our students achieve and what they report as their experience when they leave school to participate as contributing members of society – including in the world of work.
NOTE: I initially wrote this post for use on the CORE Education blog