should be

Why Before How

Why Before How.jpg

The fundamental challenge with schooling today is that we are so obsessed with the mechanics and implementation of our educational programs -- whatever these happen to be -- that we have lost sight of the essential purpose of schools.

We are fond of saying that the central focus of education must be on “teaching and learning”, but we seldom ask, “teaching and learning what and for what purpose?”. We fall so quickly and easily into the lockstep that schooling is a matter of having students meet a set number of requirements so they can “graduate” and then move on to a job or university as determined by their level of “achievement”. In doing so, we willfully ignore the true power and potential of education.

It is time for educators and parents alike to ask “Why before how” when it comes to the purposes and practices of school.

We compel students to attend 12 years of school (in one form or another), and we devote a massive amount of public funds to educational expenditures. Presumably we think there are good reasons for this. What are those reasons?

  • Have we created schools to be giant accreditation mechanisms that essentially determine who gets the best jobs?

  • Are schools meant to be glorified child care centres that keep kids occupied (and sometimes amused) until they reach the age of maturity?

  • Do we have schools because we want students to acquire “21st century learning skills” where they “learn how to learn” so they can go out in the world and be successful in any context (and help us to “compete in the global economy” for good measure)?  

  • Is the purpose of schools to enable students to acquire the kinds of baseline literacy knowledge and skills that will enable them to continue their own learning, whatever that may happen to be?

  • Have we created schools to intentionally expose students to new (and sometimes uncomfortable) ideas in order to broaden their horizons?

  • Are schools meant to be places where students have the opportunity to discover and develop their unique interests and abilities?

  • Do we expect schools to be places where students are meant to acquire particular virtues like grit, respect for truth, personal responsibility, honesty, diligence, respect for persons, compassion, open-mindedness, tolerance?

With our identified core purposes in mind, we might then ask the following sorts of questions:

  • Why exactly do we teach the same things to vastly different students? Or, if we are going to teach all students the same things, what are those things, and why do we think it important that everyone learn them?

  • Why exactly do we have same age students studying together?

  • Why exactly do we fixate on one perfect class size?

  • Why exactly do we schedule virtually all student learning into time-defined blocks?

Don’t get me wrong; I think there are good answers to the question of why we have schools in the first place and good answers to why we do some things in a particular way. The point is that we need to make those answers -- those purposes -- clear, and we need to recognize that some answers are more powerful than others.

Once we do that -- once we gain our clarity of purpose -- then the way is open to kick open the doors and transform our schools to deliver on our most important aspirations. But first we need to ask, “Why before how”.

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 just recently finished a book on the future of K-12 education, which will be coming out in late July/early August.