This week’s blog post is based on Chapter Ten of Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott’s book entitled 10 Things Schools Get Wrong: And How We Can Get Them Right. The chapter formed the basis of this week’s Teaching and Learning Reading Group, hosted here at Eton.
Horvath and Bott begin this chapter with an analogy. They claim that architecture has been historically driven by the motto form first and this has meant that aesthetic considerations are often prioritised over practical utility. The architect Louis Sullivan, however, argued that buildings should be designed with the premise of form follows function. Practical utility should be of primary concern and should drive all aesthetic decisions.
They use this architectural analogy as a parallel to how we think about teaching. Rather than concerning ourselves with questions such as How should we be organising the day? or Which feedback strategies are the most effective? we should first ask: what is the function of a school? They argue that only after the function of school is made clear and explicit will we be able to make meaningful decisions concerning form.
Horvath and Bott claim that the function of a school is best identified by the narrative it serves. These narratives do not merely enlighten, but they supply the meaning which sustains and guides schools forward. To be considered a viable narrative, it must meet the following key criteria.
A narrative organises the past, present and future into a coherent and consistent framework. By acknowledging how things came about, it gives clarity on how things can evolve.
A narrative makes clear the role of individual human beings in the prior and continuing evolution of the world.
A narrative arranges broader public affairs in a way which supports communal ideals and establishes basic tenets of civilised behaviour.
Although narratives may have differed in the past, Horvath and Bott argue that a new contemporary narrative dominates modern schooling in the West: the genesis of the modern consumer. They argue that this narrative has two primary maxims:
– You are what you do for a living.
– Worth is measured in the goods you possess.
To the world at large, secondary schooling is thought to prepare students for the workforce and this allows them to contribute to the national economy by purchasing goods and services.
This economic consumer narrative satisfies the three key criteria in the following ways:
Continuity: It organises society into a series of complex interactions based on goods produced and traded amongst various groups.
Personal identity: It causes students to identify themselves as economic units tasked with achieving success based on salary. Therefore, self-worth is defined according to human capital and the skills, competencies and knowledge one acquires through life should make one better suited for high-earning employment.
Social organisation: It drives the social structure in accordance to wealth classes.
However, most teachers would not cite this as the main function of a school. In fact, most teachers, Horvath and Bott claim, would probably cite something along the lines of creating happy, healthy and holistic life-long learners who are receptive to diverse viewpoints, capable of questioning standards and willing to adapt their opinion, as the main function of a school.
Fortunately, there are some discrepancies beginning to emerge with the economic consumer narrative. First, when making a living becomes synonymous with personal identity, many seek to pursue a new narrative which provides them with deeper meaning. Second, this narrative does not acknowledge subjects such as music, exercise and the dramatic arts as necessary to advance academic achievements needed for the main job market. Third, the narrative has questions of credibility as there is not a significant positive correlation between a country’s academic outcomes and economy, except in some low-income countries. As such, Horvath and Bott propose three counter-narratives which have the potential to challenge one based on economic consumers.
The Planetary Steward Counter-narrative
Climate change is forcing us to re-evaluate human endeavour and is increasingly dominating public discourse. The maxims of the planetary stewardship narrative are as follows:
– The earth is not eternal and, like all things, will someday die.
– Human action serves to either accelerate or delay this process.
– Enduring survival mandates a relationship of mutual beneficence and growth between humanity and our home.
The Giant Climbers Counter-narrative
This narrative acknowledges that knowledge and thought can only ever evolve through conscious deference to the theories of the past. The maxims of this narrative include:
– No idea is everlasting: knowledge is transitory and will always evolve.
– Each generation is tasked with pushing beyond the ideas of the past, which requires a deep and nuanced understanding of those ideas and their genesis.
– The new ideas we establish today will dictate the starting point for the next generation.
The Toolmakers Counter-narrative
Tools can help shape our perceptions, psychologies and societies. Therefore, tools themselves form the basis of this narrative. The maxims of this narrative include:
– Humanity makes tools. Thereupon, tools make humanity.
– Human evolution can be understood through the tools created and utilised.
– The future of humanity will be written by the tools we invent and collectively chose to employ.
Although Horvath and Bott propose these as possible counter-narratives, they argue that we are still largely beholden to the narrative of economic consumers. And yet, they encourage teachers to think deeply next time a student asks: Why do I need to learn this?.
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