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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

School Advancement: It's a Necessary Waste of Time

When future generations look back at schools in 2019, they will likely conclude that we were a generation of educators that had the foresight to know that it was time to reinvent the way in which children learned, but didn't entirely have the capacity or courage to make it happen.

They will speak of a 19th Century "factory" model of education in which, in the words of Erica Jacobs, "students shuffle from class to class and begin to feel like cogs in a machine". They will speak of school as an experience of "benevolent incarceration" that, even as we approach the middle of the 21st Century, is for too many little more than a "waste of time".

Speaking of time, they will speak of a conveyor belt, in which students, parents, faculty and staff are relentlessly moving towards Graduation Day with a collective sense that there is never enough time to cover the content, do all that needs to be done, or learn what needs to be learned before the full-time whistle on childhood is blown.

They will say that we were the generation that, despite our time-saving devices, deprived our children of those incredible moments when time literally stops.

In his latest book, In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman speaks to this issue and our modern, somewhat ironic, obsession with not wasting time. And whilst it is easy enough to read this book in a single sitting, there is one extract that captures my attention more than any other; an extract that captures Lightman's central idea that "the ethos of schedule and speed that has penetrated the lives of even our youngest children".

I cannot imagine many children today who could take a few hours wandering home from school as I did in my childhood, wasting hours watching tadpoles in the shallows or the sway of water grasses in the wind. My own children certainly did not. Their afternoons were filled with scheduled sports and extracurricular lessons of various kinds. My children are now adults, married, grappling with the harried lives of their children.

A photograph of a man lying on the grass by a river with jeans and brown shoes
Is it time to give up on the idea that every moment should be scheduled and planned?

So why is Advancement, you might be asking, a necessary waste of time?

Framed by our 19th Century "factory" model of education, we have become used to the idea that Advancement is an important cog in the wheel of the machine. Each year, we keep the enrolment funnel going and churn out new students to replace the old. We run a small fundraising business on the side to supplement any shortfall and we are constantly polishing our brand and ensuring that we are the most spoken about operation in town.

And the more we do, the more is demanded of us. The conveyor belt just keeps getting faster and there is less and less time.

But I'm wondering if there aren't moments when our job is also to put a spanner in the works. Could it be that the real art of Advancement is to create a space in which we can collectively pause and step off of the conveyor belt; a moment in which we can gather our colleagues, parents, and students together and honestly ask ourselves, What are we actually doing here?

Of course, enrolment numbers and fundraising targets are important. No one is denying that. But this is what we do when we are plugged into the system.

Truly reinventing the system, as future generations will no doubt discover for themselves, is about finding time to be unplugged; stepping back and finding opportunities to take stock, play and quietly reflect.

To those on the outside it will all seem a waste of time.

But it might just be the one thing that frees us all from the tyranny of this particular machine.

Photo by Kyle Ryan on Unsplash


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