When I ask parents what they most want for their kids at school, almost all of them come up with the same answer, “I just want them to be happy.” When I probe as to what they mean by this, they usually offer some combination of the following:
to feel safe and secure
to have fun
to make good friends
to feel that they are being listened to and have something worthwhile to contribute
to have the opportunity to discover and demonstrate their own strengths
to feel justifiably confident in their knowledge and abilities in at least some areas
to be passionately interested in something
to be loved and recognized for who they are
Interestingly enough, when I ask teachers and educational leaders what they most want for their students, they end up saying more or less the same thing:
to feel good about attending school and be confident that they will be supported academically, socially and emotionally
to be alive; to be able to have fun and be silly
to be willing to embrace challenges and enjoy them
to feel that they have value -- something to contribute
to have their curiosity piqued
to realize the incredible power they have to shape not only their own future, but also to have a significant impact in the world
to feel a sense of worth in the world (vs feeling helpless or even disengaged)
to be compassionate toward all beings
It seems to me that one of our own teachers summed it up perfectly when he said:
“Happiness. That's what I want for my students. While of course that is couched in many other things, at the end of the day it all boils down to happiness.”
This teacher is right to observe that happiness is couched “in many other things”. There are at least two overlapping versions of happiness that are being expressed here by parents and educators alike. One is the happiness of safety, security, and self-confidence; the other is the happiness of human fulfilment.
The first is self-explanatory, while the second was best captured by Aristotle. He said that happiness is an end in itself and is expressed by the extent to which one has lived up to their full potential as a human being. This is not the happiness of instant gratification. It is instead the deeper happiness that includes health, friendship, love and the fulfilment of discovering and developing our abilities, interests and passions in the context of a larger narrative about a life well-lived.
If this -- at the end of the day -- is what parents and educators most want for their kids, how do we engineer schools with this particular end in mind?
This is a far more difficult task than it may seem, for it is not simply matter of having anti-bullying protocols in place, or of giving students “21st century learning skills”, or even of progressively enhancing “student achievement”. It goes much deeper than this.
To enable schools to direct their purposes and resources to the happiness that emerges out of individual confidence and human fulfilment requires that we we actually change the conversation about what we think schools are for. It requires that parents and educators alike re-examine and better articulate what matters most in the lives of their children and students, and then use that understanding to systematically re-engineer what we do in schools. And it requires that we do this in a way that that encourages students to understand and deploy their unique interests and abilities in the context of a larger human narrative.
In the blog segments that follow, I will lay out the rudiments of this conversation in the hope that parents and educators alike will help fill in the blanks.
I am optimistic about the potential for schools to do remarkable things with students, for there are pockets of individual schools all over the continent that are already doing this. I started my own independent school in 1995 because I wanted to create something truly transformative for middle school students. With the hard work and dedication of a outstanding staff, I think we managed to accomplish this. That said, I am nonetheless very cognizant of the fact that, while I had the luxury -- and responsibility -- of building an independent school from the ground up, the real challenge is to find a way to help transform public education as a whole.
I think the key here is to first recommit ourselves to a deeper and richer view of what education can be -- i.e. to ask why before how -- and then use that clarity of purpose to more thoughtfully navigate the various candidates of educational innovation before us, some of which have enormous potential. Along the way, we also need to invite teachers to become educators -- and parents to become allies -- in this shared project of building a more compelling model of education.
This is what this blog is about. I look forward to enriching the conversation by way of your comments and contributions.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.