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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Our Students Just Told Us What School Should Be For

It is almost two months since Learning By Design 2019, which was essentially a call to reimagine school by focusing on a single question:

What should school be for?

For two days, the thoughts and ideas of hundreds of students, faculty & staff, parents, as well as fellow educators from around the world collided. It was a powerful conversation and many would agree that, as we came together on the last day, the place was buzzing with hope, expectation and an overwhelming sense that it was time to really start listening to what our students were telling us about their experience of life and learning in our schools.

Nearly two months later, the brightly coloured Post It notes have been removed from the walls, we have retreated to our work-a-day classrooms and offices, and I would hazard a guess that some of our revolutionary commitments have been overshadowed by the resumption of "normal life".

Back in February, in one corner of our school, more than 100 students of all ages had taken the time to reflect directly on the question of what school should be for. So, acknowledging the fact that I was as guilty as anyone in failing to life up to my own commitments, I decided to read through each one of these comments again. I wanted to listen once more to what these students were expressing and perhaps find themes and patterns that would help us navigate a future direction.

A photograph of a series of post its on a wall all answering the question what should school be for?
What should school be for? An interactive exhibition at the International School of Brussels.

This is what I learned.

1. School should be a preparation for the future, but not necessarily university life. The majority of student comments appear to see school as preparation for life in some way. What I find interesting about so many of the comments, however, is that they are far more oriented around life skills than the pursuit of higher education.

School is for learning math and to learn stuff like making robots and cooking. (Roxana, Kindergarten) School is for learning so when you are a mum or dad, you can answer questions. (Louise, Kindergarten) School is for learning how to do things to prepare for when you grow up. It is for taking risks, making mistakes and getting messy. (Emmanuela, Grade 2) School is a place where creative people can prepare for the future and try to make an impact on the world. (Lennox, Grade 6) School should prepare us for our future lives as adults, as professionals, as individuals. (Anonymous)

2. School should be a happy and safe place, a place of friendships, a place to leave but also to return to. So many of the comments move away from typical academic discourse towards a recognition that school is about living in the present, learning to love oneself, and a place where lifelong friendships and memories are made.

School is for fun, playing around and friendship. (Eli, Grade 1) School is for having fun. You learn with technology and write reports about things. (Nevo, Grade 2) School should be to learn about our present, make friends, and also learn about self-love and self-care. (Anonymous) School should be learning about yourself and others. School shouldn’t be about stress or storing so much information. It shouldn’t kill you! (Anonymous) A place you'd want to go to, even if no one was forcing you. (Anonymous) A place to leave but always come back to as we take a huge foundation with us. (Anonymous)

3. School should be a dream factory and a place where you can discover your superpower. I am also struck by how many students see school, not as a place of socialisation or conformity, but as an arena in which they should be given a change to find themselves, discover what they are good at, and encouraged to dream.

School is for learning to swim. You learn how to float and be a supergirl! (Aria, Kindergarten) Finding out what your passion is. (Victoria, Grade 3) To share your passions. (Shadi & Sophie, Grade 3) School is for exploring your creativity. (Jake, Grade 6) Finding your dreams and who you are as a human being! (Juliette, Grade 8) Discovering your dreams. (Anonymous)

For those of us who are responsible for finding the words to express how we want our schools to be in the future, after reflecting on these comments, I find myself wondering whether our task would be easier if we spent more time just listening to the students around us.

So maybe that's the commitment that I need to make for the sake of the students who will be part of the future that we are currently trying to shape.

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