Is your School an X or Why School?

At 8:30am in the morning, I was helping to lead a school full of very passionate teachers concerned about the successful completion of thousands of lessons that were about to take place. We were about to ring the bell and start our timetable. Students were rushing to the tuck-shop for last minute breakfast, teachers were readying their rooms, and the Principal was mapping out in her head, how she was possibly going to fit in all the meetings, while keeping everyone happy.

It’s easy for schools to get lost in what we do and it can seem that, with so much going on, just getting through a day of what we do is enough for busy teachers and students to worry about. What we do is obvious to everyone. What school is meant to be seems fixed and unchangeable. What we do is pay people to divide known information up into chunks and schedule the handing out of it to students. What we do is process young people through lessons, days, semesters, and grade years. Schools fall into the trap of allowing WHAT they do to define them.

Is your school looking inward or outward?

My school is going through a significant curriculum / school-structure review and this has had us challenging what we do. This reminded me of an ‘old’ TED talk where Simon Sinek explains why successful people and organisations filter all decisions through the question WHY do we exist? (Purpose). Then look at HOW might we succeed? (process).  It’s a clear focus on theose first two questions that then lastly defines WHAT they do. Sinek highlights that this is harder to do as what is the most obvious and easy to define, where as how and certainly why are fuzzy and more difficult to tackle and decide on.

Society has such a preconceived notion of what school is, it can be hard for a school to ever return to the why and as it might result in significantly changes to the how and what, which makes many teachers and parents nervous. But I don’t think the why conversation is as hard as people think and does not have to result in disagreement.

New Zealand’s official answer to: why school?

Only hoping for “why?”

A school’s aims are often defined by saying that graduates will be something like:

  1. responsible,
  2. independent,
  3. confident,
  4. proud,
  5. well-balanced and
  6. motivated.

This is apparently why schools exist but having such a dominant focus on what takes place in a school, teachers and administrators can only hope that the why is achieved and when questioned will often admit that:

  1. The majority of graduates do not truely achieve the targets. (Most school leavers are not confident or motivated to discuss clear independent future trajectories)
  2. Teachers will often admit that the experiences in a school day are not organised in direct relation to ensuring the majority of students achieve such character traits as listed above.

Knowing WHY makes everyone happy

… and leads to better grades

Recently I made a comparison between the end-of-year national assessments submitted and undertaken by 17-year-olds in an “X School” (conventional high school with lessons and subjects) and a “Why School” (all school day experiences designed directly in relation to the school’s targets for graduates with little or no subjects & lessons). Both were state schools servicing the same socio-economic demographics but the “why school” had done much better overall in the same or similar assessments. By convenient coincidence, I had visitors from another country visiting both schools, who could report to me that in addition to better grades, the enhanced attitude, engagement, and critical thinking held by the 17-year-olds in the ‘Why school’ was very evident in conversation. The visitors highlighted that the conventional teenager can seem like a “rabbit in headlights” when asked the “big” questions regarding themselves and their future but that the students in the “why school”  had competed to discuss themselves and critically discuss the issues regarding their future.

Understanding your Why makes the What simple

My conclusion from all this is that students and schools focussed on why they exist develop stronger engagement in all activities and this results in making achievement in what we do much easier. In my book you will find further examples of where schools have improved performance and achievement by removing much of what schools think are integral components of a school.

It’s time to stop (X) WHAT we do and return to the question of WHY and HOW we will achieve our genuine targets for graduates, knowing that the grades will follow naturally.

P.S. To deal with statements that start with “oh, but we have to …”, I would like to reiterate what both Ken Robinson pointed to and the UK government are also pushing: Challenge all those things you think you are officially obliged to do, in many cases you find you do not have to do them. You can build a whole new rich learning environment by returning to the real why behind education.

It’s amazing what you can achieve when you challenge the existing conventions!