What’s our purpose?

Why do we do anything? Where do our motivations for action come from? How does this impact the way we act and what we may hope to derive from it? Most organizations – no matter the size – begin with a clear sense of purpose, and everything they do is directed toward realizing that purpose. With schools, we might think, that purpose is education. But we know that we all have different ideas of what education is, and what it is meant to do. The term “education” could mean anything from building basic literacies to preparing one for the workforce to enabling an individual to seek self-realization…or something else entirely. The term “school” then could mean an institution that fulfills any of those purposes, and we probably will find statements that give us a sense of this in a school’s publicity materials or other institutional literature.

But when we look around us at the many schools that dot our landscape, it’s not clear how they think about education or about the core purpose of their institution. Hoardings address parents, promising that they offer a caring, nurturing, stimulating space for children. Others emphasize their ability to turn a child into a competitive, skilled player in a global job market. Yet others might focus on their infrastructure and teaching rigour. These are highlighted as Unique Selling Propositions in their advertising. Internally, the schools measure themselves by a set of metrics that are less about these admittedly vague parameters, and more about visible performance as evident in marks and grades and percentiles. Structurally, schools in the private sector (which is rapidly dominating) are also assessed by financial efficiencies, driving administrative and even teaching staff to worry more about return on investment rather than quality of instruction and ability to nurture young minds. Education becomes a commodity, and the better one is able to sell it, the greater the return. But the nagging question remains: what exactly is one selling?

For individuals in the system, it’s often a challenge to keep an eye on the ideals that may have prompted them to take on the role of teaching. Teachers need to balance the “coaching” they may need to undertake to ensure that the school’s average marks remain high, with the “nurturing” they would need to provide to students who need a little more to just get through. Schools are forced to think about where (and in whom) to invest resources. Computers or play equipment? Olympiads or literary competitions? Debate club or science fair? What is going to attract the competitive parent and bring the school more plaudits?

Education is a challenging space, made even more so by its commodification. But maybe from time to time, it helps to ask ourselves those fundamental questions. Why are we here? What do we really want to achieve? And if our answers make us uncomfortable, perhaps it’s time to think again — and if at all possible, find ways to address that discomfort.

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