Is It Time to Refocus the Purpose of Schools?

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I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that has stayed in my thinking for the past few weeks. The article titled, Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization, explores the role of purpose in the work and success of organizations. The authors make an argument that has led me to wonder whether we are missing an obvious and powerful force to make schools more effective, students more successful, and educators more satisfied in their work.

The premise of the article is that in most organizations employers and employees agree that for a specific amount of compensation workers will perform a prescribed role and associated set of functions. However, they note that this arrangement too often results in employees giving only what they see as what they are paid for. The work is tied to the compensation promised, not driven by the purpose of their work.

To be clear, few educators chose their profession because of the compensation. There is little argument that in our society educators are under paid. If they were better compensated, fewer educators would need to supplement their income with second jobs.

My experience also has been that educators as a group continue to persist in their work, despite low compensation, underfunding, and growing student-related challenges. If any group’s behavior pushes back against the perception of “just doing their jobs” it is educators.

Still, I wonder if too many schools are missing the mark when it comes to organizational focus and what should be driving our work. I also wonder if a shift in focus might lead to better outcomes and more satisfaction. Let me explain.

Most schools are designed for efficiency in teaching. Students are organized in groups and moved through the system. Schedules are set with specific time allocations for lessons. Calendars set specific time limits for presenting the curriculum. Teachers are taught to “deliver instruction” effectively. Meanwhile, most incentives and sanctions presented to students are aligned with compliance to adult directions and expectations.

We can argue, and even agree, that this design made sense when teachers were largely sole source providers of the academic information, knowledge and skills that students needed to succeed. However, today information is ubiquitous and we have a nearly unlimited array of tools to assist and options for how we can engage students in learning.

What if the purpose of schools were to ensure learning rather than deliver instruction? What if we organized our work around learning rather than teaching? What if we committed to measuring the full dimensions of learning rather than confining our attention to narrowly focused tests and what students have been told through traditional instruction? What if we organized time and other resources to align with learning activities and needs rather than instruction?

Such a shift may seem like a small thing. However, learning as the driving purpose of our work, rather than teaching, opens the door to so much that we may not have considered or assumed possible. Suddenly, we can focus first on student learning needs and readiness rather than pacing guides and pre-set lessons. We can engage learners where they are, not where the curriculum assumes they should be. We also have a more powerful reason to renew our passion, reinvest our energy and give our full commitment to our work.

I do not mean to imply that there are not structural barriers to overcome. There are long-held assumptions and traditions that will push against such a shift in purpose. Yet, it seems like the right work and worthy of our energy and passion.

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