What’s the point of school?

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How do we prepare students for a future that is unknown? Professor Bill Lucas discusses four tenets of an ‘expansive education’ to help us meet this challenge, and introduces a network which is pioneering these approaches.

Why do we send children to school for 11 years or more? Or to put it another way, as my colleague Professor Guy Claxton has done in his excellent book with the question as its title: “What’s the point of school?”

There are many different answers to this question, but all of them, implicitly or explicitly, have an image of what the educated 16 or 19-year-old ought to be like at the end of the formal school process.

Some say schools are for introducing children to the heritage of the past and acquiring certain knowledge, understanding and an appreciation of the best of their culture.

For others, school is essentially a preparation for employment. Perhaps the most widespread view is that schools should somehow achieve an amalgam of these two goals.

But we don’t. We think that education is, above all, a preparation for the future. We have no idea what their world will be like in 30 years, except that it will be different.

Beyond the basic literacies of language, mathematics and digital technology, it is hard to say what specific skills or knowledge young people are going to need. We have to find goals for education that are at a deeper, more generic level.

So the core purpose of education has to be to give all young people the confidence and capacity to flourish in the uncertain world which they will inhabit. They will need, among other things, resilience, the ability to collaborate, the capacity to reflect and, perhaps above all, to willingness to adapt and change. 

We think the development of such capabilities or dispositions has to form the core curriculum of any system of education in the 21st century. It is what we are calling expansive education. There are four senses in which such education is expansive:

First, the goals of school are expanded beyond necessary success in examinations explicitly to include cultivation of the kinds of dispositions necessary for a lifetime of successful learning and living. Research shows unambiguously that those who develop a more advanced conception of themselves as learners also score better in tests.

Second, learners are themselves expandable or at least their intelligence is. Here we draw on the work of, for example, Professors Carol Dweck, Lauren Resnick and David Perkins, as well as on the experience of Building Learning Power. Especially by adopting what Prof Dweck terms a “growth mindset”, a strong sense of self-belief in their potential for learning, students can transform the way they perform.

Third, the scope of learning expands beyond the classroom into the school grounds and beyond the school gates into the real world, embracing authentic learning challenges in different contexts.

Fourth, teachers expand their role to include the idea that they are also learners. Specifically they use action research approaches to undertake their own enquiries into the impact of their teaching. 

This thinking has led us to create the Expansive Education Network (eedNET), a network of pioneering educational organisations and universities. The network is a repository of free resources for teachers interested in the first three meanings of expansive education just described. 

EedNET also supports teachers planning, undertaking and writing up their own action research (the fourth sense of expansive education) through a series of twilight sessions and becoming members of both a face-to-face and online professional learning community. Here are just some of the questions teachers have recently posed:

  • If I encourage my year 9 pupils to develop growth mindsets will their resilience improve?

  • If I stop answering my year 5 pupils’ questions will they become more resourceful? 

  • Does extended project work develop reflectiveness in year 8 design and technology students? 

  • If I encourage my year 8 pupils actively to monitor their levels of concentration will their absorption improve? 

  • If year 10 students identify and undertake one new risk a week, will it increase their ability to seek and embrace new experiences?

It is not difficult to hypothesise that students will develop more expansive learning dispositions as a result of the interventions which might accompany such questions. 

It is equally clear to see how the teachers are developing and that students are taking a more active role in teaching. But it is important to understand the high likelihood that attainment will also be improving. As Professor John Hattie puts it in Visible Learning – a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement: “The remarkable feature of all this evidence is that the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. Many of the most debated issues are the ones with the least effects.”

Being “expansive” is not a synonym for being progressive. It requires rigour, discipline and passion in equal measures. Neither is being expansive an alternative to “getting good results”. 

For me, the question is not whether we want to fashion a school system predicated on principles of expansive education, but how we want to achieve this so that we have outstanding teaching and learning and develop outstanding learners.

  • Prof Bill Lucas is director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester and the co-creator of eedNet. With Professors Guy Claxton and Dylan Wiliam he is actively engaged in helping to shape the SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling work. For details on the Expansive Education Network, visit www.expansiveeducation.net


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