What are we preparing students for?

Many people searching for a justification of education would agree with the notion that educating young people is in order to prepare them for life beyond school; our young people are learning skills and qualities that help them to function in society at large. Yet what it is exactly that we are preparing them for? How often do we ask ourselves this question? In trying to outline my own personal vision for an education that I believe in, I have stumbled across this issue, and wonder if it needs to be answered. One could of course argue that education is in fact not a preparation, not a means-to-an-end, but an end in itself, a continual process of reconstruction and transformation. John Dewey would certainly agree with this. However, at this point, I will focus on the idea of education as preparation.

I was recently inspired by an article in the Boston Review by Danielle Allen, Professor of Government and Education at Harvard University (Allen, 2016). Allen frames thinking about education in terms of two differing paradigms, namely a vocational and a participatory one. A vocational paradigm has the aim of equipping students with the skills that employers are looking for, whilst a participatory paradigm prepares students for citizenship or civic agency. Allen argues that too much policy-making in the US centres on the former rather than the latter, and that this reinforces an unequal economy rather than preparing for democratic engagement.

So what does this mean for my context in an international school? Does our system at school ultimately prepare students for the job market or does it encourage civic agency? Do the two paradigms have to be exclusive? Allen summarises civic agency as comprising of three core competencies that are carried out ethically and justly:

  • disinterested deliberation around a public problem
  • “frame-shifting” – prophetic work intended to shift a society’s values
  • “fair-fighting” – adopting a cause and pursuing it passionately

Do we allow our young people to develop these competencies? In terms of documentation and curricula, yes. As a school offering IB programmes, the IB Learner Profile should in fact underpin much of what we do; its attributes are intended to ‘help individuals and groups become responsible members of local, national and global communities’ (IBO, 2015). But what about in reality? What does this kind of education look like? Will our students develop into ethical, civically engaged beings as a result of their education?

Whatever angle one wishes to take, what is fundamentally important is the way we teach something and not what we teach. If we want to believe in what citizenship and democracy are about, namely a co-creation of a way of life, or a system in which we understand, respect and learn from each other, then we need to practise these values. A pedagogy for democracy is a pedagogy of democracy. This includes young people being involved in the process of what and how they learn, and being able to connect with other people on a personal level.

In her critique of Allen’s article, Deborah Meier (2016) not only agrees with the argument that there is a current loss of a focus on civic agency within the current educational paradigm, she goes on to say that it ‘barely recognizes’ what being a person is about, something fundamental to what functioning citizens need;

 I watch in horror as schools adopt a new fad erroneously called personalized learning, which involves no human contact, no mind connecting with another mind, no back-and-forth – no empathy, no curiosity, or questioning of authority…. there is nothing personal about it, just two machines hooking into each other, one of them a child’ 

This is certainly important food-for-thought. By encouraging more self-determination of learning, be it in front of a screen or not, are we detracting from the fundamental need to function successfully within a group? Does personalized learning in fact move us away from a more person-centred learning? Michael Fielding (2011) outlines how a ‘person-centred, democratic approach’ (Fielding, 2011, p. 11) to education concerns how one can live a better and more fulfilling life, and how one can create a better world by working alongside others.Rather than asking oneself ‘What kind of person do I want to become?‘, a more communal perspective poses the question ‘How can we develop an inclusive, creative society together?’ Perhaps, therefore, if we want to prepare our students for life beyond school, a starting point is that we should be asking ourselves if our education is based on the right questions.



Allen, D. (2016, May / June) What is Education For? Boston Review, 41 (3), pp. 8-13

International Baccalaureate Organisation (2015). Creativity, Activity and Service guide. Cardiff: International Baccalaureate Organisation

Fielding, M (2011) Student Voice and the Possibility of Radical Democratic Education: Re-Narrating Forgotten Histories, Developing Alternative Futures. In G. Czerniawski & W. Kidd (Eds.) The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic / Practitioner Divide (pp. 3-17). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.

Meier, D. (2016, May /June) Response to What is Education For? Boston Review, 41 (3), pp. 14


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