Rethinking the Story of Schools

“We need a new narrative about education’s purpose that is authentic, based on evidence of our predicament and in tune with our deepest values. Everything starts with the story we tell about ourselves.” – Valerie Hannon,  Amelia Peterson.

It would have been almost impossible to conceive of the scenario just over a year ago. 1.6 billion young people have had their education disrupted by a global pandemic that infected almost 125 million people and resulted in the death of millions. Surely we are wiser as a result? Many have reacted to this health emergency and its impact upon education with a concern about “learning loss”. There has undoubtedly been “schooling loss” as a result of Covid 19, but learning is much more than a commodity that can be measured in such crude terms. Surely there’s more to the story?

In Thrive: The Purpose of Schools in a Changing World (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Valerie Hannon and Amelia Peterson contend that the assumptions we make about the purpose of a contemporary education are under-examined and out of date. “Today, education has to be about learning to thrive in a transforming world.” In order for learners to thrive, they believe, schools need to consider four interdependent domains: (1) global – our place in the planet; (2) societal – place, communities, economies; (3) interpersonal – our relationships; (4) intrapersonal – the self.

The authors cite Neil Postman who, in 1996, articulated the need for a compelling narrative that would serve as the inspiration for the future evolution of education that: “has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

Such a shift towards shared narratives can be achieved only if we are prepared to take a fresh look at the purpose of schools at this time in history. If COVID-19 has not alerted us to the uncertain nature of our very existence, then we may be beyond redemption. Persistent issues of deep societal inequality and the growing implications of climate change, hyper-connectivity, mental health challenges, machine learning, and job automation require new thinking that our current systems were simply not designed for. What is the story that we want to tell? What does it mean for our children to thrive? How might our schools contribute to a thriving society and planet? In order for meaningful change to become real, we must start with the story.

In a visionary UNESCO report written by Jacques Delors over a quarter of a century ago, the crucial relationship between economics and education considered learning in four key components:

  • Learning to know – a broad general knowledge with the opportunity to work in depth on a small number of subjects.
  • Learning to do – to acquire not only occupational skills but also the competence to deal with many situations and to work in teams.
  • Learning to be – to develop one’s personality and to be able to act with growing autonomy, judgement and personal responsibility.
  • Learning to live together – by developing an understanding of other people and an appreciation of interdependence.

For the most part, the focus today remains heavily on the first part of this equation. For Hannon and Peterson, the need to change the narrative is as simple as recognising that the current state of the world – both the threats and opportunities it presents – demand such reconsideration. “It is morally indefensible to continue with a process of mass schooling that … promotes a value system (competition, growth, efficiency, homogeneity) that steers us towards the darker of the potential paths ahead. Acknowledgement of the possibilities emerging is the first step to equipping young people with the ability to shape the future.”

What prevents us from addressing this question? In part, it is because the only things that scale when it comes to change in schools are products: “electronic whiteboards, tablets, student information systems and behaviour apps”. We are, in addition, restricted by a traditional interpretation of what success means. “The sense of restriction that comes from the emphasis on results is due to a misunderstanding of what good results look like. There is a great tendency in education to mistake anything that is traditional or long standing with what is prestigious and therefore successful.… Driving young people to focus on nothing other than a rigged game is setting them up for a fall.”

The understandable fear, of course, is that change implies removing traditional certainties. The authors reasonably suggest that it is not a question of abandoning systemic measures of achievement and success, but the necessity of supplementing them with meaning and purpose.

“This does not mean that examinations should not be a major focus – of course young people need preparation for whatever major hurdles their system offers – but they must have something else besides. Long-term mental health, a sense of purpose or vocation, the capability to contribute: these are surely the things parents really want for their children. But these more long-term desires can so easily be misdirected if social norms prioritise something else. It is so much easier to trade in the social currency of grades, hobbies and recognised achievements, than it is to talk about a child’s more unique hopes or contributions to the world.”

It is significant that persistent calls for a rethink of how we frame the story of education and live that story tend to focus on this renewed commitment to the individual learner in quite consistent ways. Harvard professor, David Perkins implores us to focus our attention, not on the achievement gap, but on the relevance gap, suggesting all learning must be ‘lifeworthy’ … “that is, likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live”. “Life-worthiness” needs to be much more than a utilitarian set of skills. The dispositions and sustaining passion, for instance, that one can derive from an education in the arts, in a love of reading, in making something with your hands, are truly lifeworthy. Most recently, Michael Fullan published a comprehensive academic study in which he concludes that we need to shift from our current “bloodless paradigm” to a “human paradigm” that balances wellbeing with learning and equality with systems. It’s time to end what David Gleason has termed the “educational arms race”.

Our understanding and definition of the purpose of education will undergo inevitable change in order to reflect the transformational times we live in. No single approach will be good enough to meet the needs of our learners and no single approach should dictate those needs. Our conception of success will need to be better understood and defined beyond school in the light of a clearer recognition of humanity’s predicament. There are no losers in this equation, no feared compromise of academic rigor. What could be more rigorous than insisting that learning has a purpose that goes beyond college admissions? Success is no longer about individual competition or linear thinking about qualifications. It is about what is vital for our planet, our communities, our relationships, and ourselves to thrive. These are inextricably connected ideas and a renewed narrative about how our schools are dedicated to this inspiring conception of success can and will guide the future of education and society. 

Hannon, Valerie & Peterson, Amelia. Thrive: The Purpose of Schools in a Changing World (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Delors, Jacques. Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century, 1996.
Fullan, Michael. The Right Drivers For Whole System Success. CSE, Leading Education Series, February, 2021.
Perkins, David. Future Wise: Educating Our Children For a Changing World. Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Gleason, David L. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash