What’s it all for?

The final reading assignment for my Inquiry & ICT course was an article titled New assessments and environments for knowledge building. Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. (Scardamalia, Kozma, & Quellmalz, 2010).  As I read through the first portion of the 59 page article, I found some clarity in the ideas and questions which have evolved throughout this course.  The authors’ position that the “working backward” and “emergence” approaches to pursuing practical goals should be integrated, resonated with my own experiences and beliefs that effective learning experiences require both direction and freedom to explore.  There were several other elements presented which seemed to align concepts explored in my research with my own personal philosophies of teaching and learning.

But as I continued to read through the article, my mind began to shift.  The rhetoric of data, models, assessment,  evidence, technologies, and 21st Century skill development started to meld into an impersonal view of classrooms as some sort of laboratory, where students were mere lab rats, tested and conditioned to find their way through a complex  maze.  If successful, they will emerge to find themselves able to meet the needs of global economies and organizations in the private sector.   It is possible that my shift in thinking is related to an over-worked brain, mental exhaustion from my first two weeks as a graduate student.  Whatever the reason, I found myself asking What is it all for? What is our real purpose as educators? What is the important work of schools? What is my role as a teacher?

A Google search of “What is the purpose of schools?” let me almost instantly to a website article in which the author proposed that “…the purpose of schools must be preparing children to compete in the global environment. As a nation, we are in direct contact and competition with countries around the globe in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years ago.” (Carter, 2012).  This comment made me shudder.  I did not become a teacher to prepare students for global competition.  That is not my purpose.

Next, I took the opportunity to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”.  His answer to the question “What is the purpose of schools?” is “…to create university professors..”, and he makes a convincing argument that in doing so, schools are “…mining the minds…” of children.  Robinson’s describes children who, “..if they don’t know, they’ll have a go,” unafraid or even unaware of the concept of being wrong.  It immediately brought to mind a recent student of mine who was so riddled with anxiety over being wrong, that he could not complete his PAT exam.  What led him to feel so inadequate, that his ideas were not good enough?  Is our school system, at least partially, at fault?

Sadly, this student is not alone. Statistics indicate a significant rise in the rates of anxiety and depression among youth.   Gray, (2010) suggests that the increase can be attributed to a shift from “…intrinsic goals… such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful of life.,” to more “extrinsic goals… those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments.” He points to lack of play, and coercive activities that deprive children of personal control as key factors which promote anxiety and depression. (Gray, 2010)  Where are these statistics in the research around 21st Century Skills?

So again, I ask, “What is it all for?” What is the purpose of schools?”

Stepping away from my teaching persona to speak as a parent, I reflect on my 12-year old son.  He wants to be a professional video-gamer.  I have told him that his chances of getting a job in that field are slim, so he’d better be prepared to choose another career.  Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk made me stop and rethink those words.  Who am I to know what his future holds?  Shouldn’t I support his goals and interests, whatever they may be?  As a mother, what I really want more than anything else, is for him to be happy.  No matter what the future holds, what jobs he gets, I want him to know how to find happiness.  Where does that fit on the list of 21st Century skills?

What is it all for, this systemic change of inquiry and ICT?  The real question is not ‘what’, but ‘who’.  It is for the students.

What is the purpose of schools?  There are many.  But perhaps the most important purpose can be found in the following quote:

“Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves. They do so joyfully, and in the process they develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional wellbeing.” (Gray, 2010)

During the past two weeks, I have expanded my knowledge on inquiry and ICT.  More importantly, I have learned to question the answers.  In September, when we embark on a new school year,  I hope we can all remember to question the answers, and remember who it is all for.

Carter, G.  (2012). What’s the Purpose of School in the 21st Century? Retrieved July 12, 2012 from http://www.good.is/post/what-s-the-purpose-of-school-in-the-21st-century

Gray, P. (2010, January 26). The Dramatic Rise of Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents:  Is it Connected to the Decline in Play and Rise in Schooling? (Web Log Post). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-dramatic-rise-anxiety-and-depression-in-children-and-adolescents-is-it

Robinson, K. (2007, January 6). Do Schools Kill Creativity? (Video File). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

Scardamalia, M., Bransford, J., Kozma, B., & Quellmalz, E. (2010). Draft white paper 4: New assessments and environments for knowledge building. Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. Retrieved from http://atc21s.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/4-Environments.pdf

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