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What exactly are we doing? 5 Big questions on education.

October 19, 2021

Why do we go to school, college or university? No, really, we are asking. What comes to mind? The idea of "education" is something we might just assume everyone is on the same page about at a fundamental level, but are we really clear on this? 

If we start with elementary school, we might come up with things like the fact that we need to learn functional skills like literacy and numeracy, to learn to socialise with peers and basic life skills like time management.

At High School, we are preparing for the world of work, and refining what it is we want to do next, whether it's going into the workforce or studying some more. Many answers about the need for Further and Higher Education will likely focus on "getting ahead" or giving graduates that edge or specialist knowledge they need to land a job.

Already, you might be coming up with many more ideas about the purpose of education, but is the system designed to support the things you are thinking about? Is your institution even clear about it, and communicating this to its stakeholders? Do we talk about these big ideas often enough in education institutions? 

We're not offering up answers here, just questions. In the next staff meeting, working group, strategy planner, training day etc., before digging into all the nuts and bolts of how your institution operates, why not make some space to air the five big questions? You may be surprised at where the discussion leads.

1. What is the purpose of education?

We're starting with the toughest one. Whether you are in marketing, administration, teaching or whatever other element of education, how often have you asked yourself this question? What is it we are actually trying to do? 

In discussing this with colleagues, we guarantee that the breadth of answers might surprise you. We probably all agree around broad principles of functionalism; that is to say, that education should prepare learners for the things they need to be able to do as functioning, participatory members of society.

The trouble is, that it all depends on who is calling the shots. After the politicians, business leaders and policymakers decide what society needs, we sculpt education to ensure that learners can fulfil those functions. Functionalism prepared learners to participate in society in a way that we think is acceptable.

Learners get sorted into levels and classes, institutions and grades, stratified according to how well we think they can perform those functions.

Functionalism is often used as a way of creating "social cohesion"; teaching children to respect rules, toe the line, respect their country and its institutions. This can cross into homogenizing identities, and creating spaces where people feel like they need to act, speak or even look a certain way to "belong".

But let's step back from the complexity of that argument and make it simple. What is it we are trying to do here? Are we trying to help learners become the best versions of themselves, or the prime iteration of whom we think they should be? Are we trying to get them ready for the workforce, and if so, how? Are we teaching learners to obey and follow, or are we supporting them to question and grow?

2. What is our responsibility in education?

At K-12 level, this will be an interesting one! Culturally, there is likely to be a lot of variation too, as we separate the role of educator and parent in some areas and combine it in others. Where do the lines end, and where do they blur?

We need to make sure learning environments are safe and can be accessed by all, but beyond that, what is our duty of care? Do we take on too much in education, as we assume responsibility for moral and social education, health and wellbeing, or is this something we can only create the right conditions for learning, and the rest really is the responsibility of the individual?

Where do our responsibilities begin, and where do they end? 

3. What exactly are we preparing learners for?

Ask pretty much any teacher or educator to describe their role, and the idea of preparing learners for the future will likely figure in there somewhere. The question is, what is the future to you? What do you think it will actually be like, and what is this based on? 

Are we in danger of preparing learners for a world we can't actually grasp? To what extent is our idea of the future based on our own past and present? Or are we instead trying to focus on helping them acquire the skills they might need to meet whatever happens to be around the next corner?

In this question, you might find that there are feelings of real uncertainty about the future among your colleagues, and so how do you actually support learners to flourish and be confident in a world that makes you feel that way? 

4. What skills will our learners need for the future?

Again, we encourage you to really reflect on this. The skills that have been useful to you in your own life may or may not have been developed in formal education, but we should really think about what they are and whether we actually help others develop them.

In an uncertain future, what do learners need? What about new technologies- they know how to use them (better than most of us Boomers, X's and Y'S) but are they resilient in filtering information, avoiding being manipulated and all the rest of it? What about climate change? Are we supporting learners to feel empowered to make change, or are we being poor examples ourselves? Are we actually in the ring with them?

And adaptability? The skills that support this, from critical thinking to creativity- are we all ready ourselves to support learners to develop them? Have we developed them, or do we need to do some exploring and growing of our own?

5. What does an ideal learning environment look like to you? 

This will be a good one! It comes last for a reason. Only by having answered the first four can we really turn to this. You might focus on the campus or school, facilities and groups, governance and opportunities, or you might go broader yet.

Does this environment have four walls, or can learning happen anywhere? What role does "place" actually play in a great learning experience, and what might be better learned in the forest or the factory than at a desk or laptop?

And who is in there? What and who from the community can come into your learning environment, and how does this enrich the experience? How do learners feel about being there, and why might they be engaged?

What things do we need, and what are nice-to-have's? When and how can they access it, and how "controlled" is this?

Keeping the discussion rolling

Though we tried not to suggest answers, the framing of our questions are likely giving away the fact that we want to broaden out this discussion and be a part of it. Education is changing and we are changing. Change is pretty much the only thing that is constant in life, and so we have chosen to embrace it. We hope this discussion prompts, whether you reflect on them yourself and/or discuss them with colleagues, have opened up some new ideas, and given you a window into how other around you think.

We think the discussion should keep rolling. NEO Academy is an education marketing consultancy, but one which understands that by supporting institutions that align with our own values, we can help the good ones grow. We take that responsibility seriously.

Each week we will be here with our #NEOchats videos and podcasts, our articles and our ideas around the approach, marketing, values, purpose, innovations, ideas and future of education. We hope you will continue to join us, and we would love to hear your views or ideas, so do reach out and get in touch.

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