The Power of Purpose

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

“He rangi tā matawhāiti, he rangi tā matawhānui”
A person with narrow vision has limited ideas and views.
Someone with wider vision is more embracing of new things and the world before them.

Whakatauki from Connected Ako: Digital and Data for Learning. page 3

Last night I had the privilege of attending the official ‘release’ of the Ministry of Education’s new strategy: Connected Ako: Digital and Data for Learning – a strategy for education agencies for the next ten years.

There were just a handful of mid-level MoE people in the room, along with the team who developed it, making it a relatively low key affair which surprised me, given the extensive amount of work and consultation that has gone into its development, and the potentially far reaching impact this will have if it followed through successfully.

It also surprised me because just this week the Prime Minister made specific reference to this strategy in his speech at Peking University where he said…

In New Zealand, we are not just focusing on the technologies themselves, but also how they are designed and implemented and who gets a say. The way this technology is created and used will have far-reaching social, financial, environmental, and cultural impacts. We want all people to be able to thrive – live, learn, work, and enjoy – in digital environments.

This aligns with our vision that New Zealand’s education system equips children and young people with the skills and knowledge to participate, create and thrive on whatever pathway they choose to take.

Just last week New Zealand launched a significant ten-year strategy:  Connected Ako: Digital and Data for Learning. This will guide our work to create a future where learners and educators can thrive in the digital world and transform learning, teaching, assessment and research. 

PM Chris Hipkins, Speech to Peking University

We want all people to thrive – live, learn, work, and enjoy – in digital environments” – That’s a powerful message. It creates a strong sense of purpose for what we do as educators on a daily basis. And, as the PM noted, we now have a significant ten-year strategy to guide us.

So, I wondered, why such a low-key event to recognise the significance of the Digital and Data strategy? Why wasn’t it on the news last evening? Where was it in our newspapers this morning?

The aspiration of the strategy itself certainly seems aspirational – and achievable – in the ten-year time frame. It’s three key vision statements capture the intent of what is then addressed in the rest of the strategy where specific directions and actions are outlined:

Learners and educators can thrive – live, learn and work – in the digital world

People are digital and data capable, contributing to personal, community and New Zealand’s growth

Learning, teaching, assessment and research make best use of data and digital

Connected Ako: Digital and Data for Learning. page 6

Who wouldn’t want to see that achieved for the sake of our tamariki in the future?

So why so tentative about it’s release? Surely this is the sort of document we need to be celebrating and drawing people’s attention to? After more than two years of development and extensive consultation across the sector and sector agencies it would appear to be underpinned by the agreement of those involved, and so should be worthy of this recognition? Surely the whole reason for a strategy of any kind is to capture the hearts and minds of people by creating a vision for what is being pursued and providing a clear sense of direction for doing that? What use is it if only a handful of people know about it?

If it was important enough for the PM to announce it in Peking, why wasn’t it on our local news? Could it be that we’re so obsessed with the click-bait headlines that focus on what’s wrong and concerning that there isn’t room or time for news that inspires purpose or hope?

Or could it be that we’re all so fatigued by continual broken promises and failed strategies that we’ve become too cynical to care? Numbed by the experience of the ‘watered-down’ implementation of strategies in the past we simply assume that any strategy is likely to ‘over-promise and under-deliver?’

Or maybe we’re simply in a state of ‘overwhelm’ as identified in the recent survey conducted by FutureMakers looking at the drivers and roadblocks in education?

Or simply said – have we lost sight of the purpose of education?

It might appear that the constant barrage of change and disruption we face in society and in our education system has caused us to retrench even further into defending the status quo of schools and schooling, and losing sight of its purpose in a modern, ever-changing world?

The late Sir Ken Robinson campaigned vigorously about his view of the four key purposes of education – personal, cultural, social, and economic – and the competencies our young people will require to thrive in the future. He says…

I believe that education should expand our consciousness, capabilities, sensitivities, and cultural understanding. It should enlarge our worldview. As we all live in two worlds—the world within you that exists only because you do, and the world around you—the core purpose of education is to enable students to understand both worlds. In today’s climate, there is also a new and urgent challenge: to provide forms of education that engage young people with the global-economic issues of environmental well-being.

Sir Ken Robinson

And although not explicit in this quote, the role of digital in all of this is a key part of being able to navigate that ‘second world’ he refers to. Robinson’s view is echoed by many other thought leaders in education, and is reflected in the vision statements of so many schools and systems around the world.

While that may be the case, the emerging trend to ‘get back to basics’ that prevails in a number of jurisdictions, with an almost exclusive emphasis on the fundamentals of reading, writing and numeracy as the purpose of schooling, is, perhaps, evidence of our ‘retrenchment’ mentality, and quest for simplistic answers to complex problems. In such a climate, it’s easy to simply ‘pass over’ the loftier goals of our strategy documents, be they digital, curriculum, assessment etc., and settle for something far more immediate and tangible.

The need for us to revisit the critical question around the purpose of education was reinforced for me this morning when I read a report from the Foundation for Education Development (FED) in the UK titled the National Education Consultation Report 2023 Building forward together: Towards a long-term plan for education. The report provides a summary of the feedback from the National Education Consultation, the largest ever qualitative consultation on education in England. In his introduction to the report, Carl Ward, chairperson of FED says;

…this year’s findings point once more to a widespread consensus of the need for evolution in our education system, most specifically, that there is an urgent need for our system to be built on a more stable and consistent foundation, around a long-term plan.

Carl Ward, chairperson FED

The introduction to this report reads…

Our consultations have found that while there is much to be proud of in our education system, there are also real and intractable issues that need to be addressed. Decades of short-term policy-making have resulted in the lack of a clear and consistent vision for education, accompanied by structural barriers that make it difficult to implement effective reforms. Notably, this highly centralised current approach overlooks specific local requirements. There is a lack of real expertise informing policy-making; the knowledge and views of those with lived experience of the education system are not properly reflected in the process. Meanwhile, the system has to deal with unprecedented pressures as a result of widespread social and economic challenges and the requirements to deliver more than just an education which prepares young people for the rapidly changing world.

National Education Consultation Report 2023, page 7 (emphasis mine)

This could easily describe our current NZ situation, and echoes the very sentiments shared by the NZ Prime Minister in China, and the rationale for the recent Digital and Data Strategy. In other words, we are all aspiring to the same thing it seems!

Among the recommendations in this report is the appointment of a Chief Education Officer, who would be an expert in the field, akin to the Chief Medical Officer or Chief Scientific Officer, whose role would be to ensure that advice to ministers includes the best possible evidence and insights from across the country and beyond as well as overseeing the delivery of the long-term plan in consultation with policymakers, safeguarding it from short-term political shifts. Given the propensity for short-termism in our own education system, perhaps this is something we could consider here in NZ?

So returing to the basic premise of this post – having an agreed purpose for our education system, understood and agreed on by all stakeholders, is vital for creating a more secure, resilient, and future-focused education system. It provides clarity, alignment, adaptability, relevance, accountability, social cohesion, and equity, leading to better educational outcomes for individuals and society as a whole.

But as I’ve argued in this post, it’s not simply a matter of there being a purpose stated, it needs to be ‘owned’ by the community (educators, students, parents etc.) and therefore needs to be well articulated and constantly referenced. The lack of agreement or understanding of the purpose of education can lead to confusion and disagreements among educators, students, parents, and policymakers. It can result in the implementation of conflicting educational policies and practices, which may not align with the needs and goals of students. When there is no agreement or understanding of the purpose of education we see the following…

  1. Lack of direction – educational institutions lacking a clear direction or focus, resulting in a fragmented curriculum that fails to provide students with the necessary skills and knowledge for their future endeavors.
  2. Inconsistency – conflicting ideas about the purpose of education, leading to inconsistent policies and practices. This can create confusion and inequities in the educational system, as students from different backgrounds may receive unequal opportunities.
  3. Mismatched outcomes – between educational outcomes and the needs of society. If the purpose of education is not aligned with the demands of society or the development of well-rounded individuals, students may struggle to find relevance in their education and face difficulties in their future careers.
  4. Narrow focus on standardised testing – In the absence of a broader understanding of the purpose of education, there is often an overemphasis on standardised testing and measurable outcomes. This narrow focus can lead to a “teaching to the test” approach, where critical thinking, creativity, and other important skills are neglected.
  5. Missed opportunities for holistic development – we should be fostering an holistic development of individuals, including their social, emotional, and ethical growth. Without a shared understanding of this broader purpose, there may be a lack of emphasis on character development, emotional intelligence, and other essential aspects of education.
  6. Lack of engagement and motivation – students may perceive education as irrelevant or disconnected from their interests and aspirations, resulting in disengagement, lower academic performance, and increased dropout rates.
  7. Limited innovation and adaptability – this can hinder the incorporation of new teaching methods, technologies, and educational approaches that could enhance the learning experience and better prepare students for the future.

My argument is simple enough – there’s power in having purpose. So best we be bold in making it known!

One thought on “The Power of Purpose

Leave a Reply