Re-imagining school: what would my wishes be?

If I had one wish, what would it be? This is a fabulous question to ask, be it to students , teachers or admin. In terms of re-imagining school, one wish however may not be enough.

A few staff have got together this lunchtime and we are challenged with the task of responding to Sonya Terborgs blog ‘ Imagine A School’. Writing under pressure like this is a challenge in itself, so I will try to summarise my responses as quickly and as efficiently as I can!

In preparation for this session, I read the manifesto that Sonya’s blog was based on, Seth Godin’s ‘Stop Stealing Dreams’ and pulled out the ideas that resonated with me the most.

So, if I wanted to re-imagine school right now, these are some of the things that I would wish for as a teacher – I would:

  • Make dreamers the norm rather than the dangerous ones among us
  • Ask myself: Is the curriculum I teach now going to make our society stronger?
  • Amplify the passion and destroy the fear
  • Champion the brave!
  • Tell students and colleagues the truth rather than hiding things in order to protect the hierarchy and power systems in place
  • Teach young people to care
  • Create a space for students where they want to learn to do things
  • Encourage restlessness!

So, despite having listed a few wishes above, perhaps they can in fact all be incorporated into one wish after all: I would hope that I, and those responsible for educating our young people, will be able to practise the values that we believe in.


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


“Change-maker guilt”: syndrome of our times?

If I am not travelling halfway across the world to a place much poorer than where I live, am I doing enough for humanity? Am I simply overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the task of saving the world? Can I ever really know if I am making change? These are questions that are pertinent to me as a high school teacher, as a service learning coordinator, and simply as a human being.

The starting point for any service learning endeavour should be this: there is an identified need. Yet with the whole world and its problems at my door, how do I know where to look to find this need?

Rather than jumping onto the ‘saviour’ bandwagon and charging, guns blazing, into a far-away land, with the ambition to change something, one should firstly take a good, long hard look at oneself and one’s context and be realistic about the goals that should be set. What qualities, values and interests do I have as a person that could be of use to someone else? How could I learn something useful from others around me?

I imagine that the younger generations in our schools must be even more overwhelmed with the ‘save-the -world’ demands that they are faced with on a daily basis. So are schools doing them an injustice by encouraging them to look elsewhere for problems to solve? Are we guilty of selling the idea of ‘change-making’ in a neat packet called ‘third world’?

Whatever context one finds oneself in, one does have the chance to make a change. It is a matter of finding one’s own voice and that voice being heard and valued by those perceived to be in power. Creative discussion, dialogue and building relationships is the key; this should certainly begin at home before one looks outward.



Are outcomes for the powerful?

Having spent a day working on a set of possible outcomes for service learning experiences, and having participated in a very engaging and webinar on the impacts of service learning on host communities,, I find myself asking the following questions: Are we as educators obsessed by the idea of outcomes? Can learning only happen if it can be measured against a set of outcomes? Does effective learning depend on who sets these outcomes and how? Are outcomes for the powerful?

In my field of interest, service learning, if one is looking to produce a framework for student learning experiences, then I would say that the most important thing to consider is how we arrive at this framework. A key question in my mind is: who produces these frameworks, with whom and for whom?

On the topic of service learning, the matter of mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships is of current concern (Mitchell, 2008; Ross, 2012; Sharpe & Dear, 2013); the focus is on the relationship between those ‘serving’ and those being ‘served’. Yet what of the relationships between the educators or facilitators who impose learning frameworks or outcomes, and the students or young people who are required to learn within them? Are the authors of outcomes the ones who hold the power?

In my own research, I am planning to work together with students as co-researchers in order to produce an effective framework for service learning experiences. I am interested in whether the process of undertaking research in an equal teacher-researcher/student relationship will allow for an increased student understanding of how service learning can be most effective. Perhaps the research process itself will allow for outcomes to be written, that in turn inform future service learning experiences for future student cohorts. This would indeed be an interesting shift in the power relationship; those outcomes would become alive and relevant! The challenge is of course how realistic such an approach will be within the constraints of school life, but one can only try!

Will curiosity really kill the cat?

I decided to begin this blog by considering why it is that I am still so interested in learning so much more. Why am I putting myself through a doctorate in education when I am a full-time teacher? Where did I get this desire to keep learning from? Is my love of learning why I ultimately became a teacher and not an actress or an opera singer, as I so often dreamed of becoming?

Perhaps one answer to these questions is that I feel that there is so much more to know about the world and the people in it. I am just simply curious about things. As I have got older, I feel that I have begun to question so many things, and I have become much more interested in other people, as opposed to that self-interest that seems to dominate when one is younger. I have also begun to question myself, my role as a teacher, and have started to feel the widening gap between me and my students. Why is it that I am resistant to the idea of a mobile phone, and being so available to anyone who wants to contact me? Why is it that I can’t just create an amazing presentation or film in a manner of minutes, as my students can? Why does my passion about injustice and inequality in the world seem to fall on deaf ears most of the time? And finally, why does the obsession with grades drive me to despair?

In my new and current role as a researcher practitioner, I see myself going through a very unique learning journey; one that will hopefully take me to places that would never had occurred to me before. I am excited as well as a little anxious, but most of all, I am oh-so-very curious.