Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end, it would not have reached its goal. A parable.
This is the third in a series of posts about what I’m calling Intelligent Accountability. Peter Blenkinsop pointed out that a problem with holding teachers to account for their professional judgments is that we may not all be playing the same melody.
I’ve written before about the battleground that is the purpose of education. The problem with trusting schools and teachers to do what’s right is that we don’t really agree on what education is for, and we don’t agree on its purpose, how can we go about improving it? Other industries or areas of public service are more straightforward: aviation is about transporting people, as safely and efficiently as possible from one destination to another. Medicine exists to improve and prolong the life of patients. Now, I acknowledge that these purposes may be simplistically naive, but they are uncontroversial when compared to the many and various purposes of education.
Is education about economics? Citizenship? Social justice? Cultural transmission? Personal fulfillment? Empowerment? Are we trying to teach dispositions, skills or knowledge? What’s more important: exam results or character? Do we care more about making children happy or clever? Can we just do a bit of everything without detracting from one or another? These are not easy questions to answer, and it’s difficult to get people to agree. For my money, Eric Kalenze gets to the heart of it in his book, Education is Upside Down.
After analysing how we’ve gone wrong and suggesting ways we could hold the competing aims of education in creative tension, he concludes with these words:
Education transforms people: from stagnant to spirited, from apathetic to sympathetic, from reactionary to rational. Though transformation comes in many shapes and sizes, the fact remains: designers and providers of education transform people as a matter of course.
Because of this, public schools have an awesome responsibility. They must provide education that transforms students properly. In other words, they must move students toward acquiring the knowledge and virtues they need to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school.
This is our mission: to prepare young citizens for meaningful participation in mainstream institutions.
Does that sound uncontroversial? I think we can probably agree that whatever our philosophy of education if we’re doing it ‘right’ then it’s transformative. Doing it ‘properly’ is about transforming students so that they can, “find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school.” Surely, whatever else you believe, this must be the purpose of education? Is this something against which we could hold schools and teachers accountable?
- OK, you’ve covered the curriculum, but are your students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- Does this year’s cohort of Year 11 students have the exam results they require to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- Right – the exam results look great, but have your students developed and practiced the personal characteristics they need to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- You appear to be working hard to mark your books, but are your students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- Great! You’ve graded all your teachers and put them through an appraisal system, so can you students now find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- Well done on making sure schools meet your inspection standards, but are their students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
- Oh, and how do you know?
These sorts of questions aren’t easy to answer, but they might help concentrate our minds. I’ve helped students to pass an English language GCSE who I have known are still functionally illiterate. And I’ve taught children who haven’t managed to get a magic C grade who are, nevertheless, well-prepared to meet the challenges of adult life and content with the, admittedly narrow, options available to them. But I’m most proud of teaching children who are both ready to make a positive difference to the world and have the examination results to make the widest range of possible choices about what they want to do. This seems a worthy aim and one on which I don’t mind being held to account.