Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

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  • David Willows

Traces and Echoes: Understanding School Backwards

The relentless forward motion of time frames our understanding of school.

In the modern Game of Life, it is hard to get away from the hard-wired idea that school is a staging post and has value only inasmuch as it unlocks next-level adventures that include higher education and early career moves.

Even progressive opinions about what school should be for are often underpinned by the notion that the real “value” of education is in the treasures - skills, dispositions or values - that can be “picked up” and deployed in future scenarios.

But what if we force ourselves to understand school backwards. What if, like Martin Amis in his haunting book Time’s Arrow, we try to swim against the tide and understand school from the perspective of the end rather than the beginning? How would that story unfold?


Understanding school backwards is a commitment to tell the story of what remains after school is done.

This is actually not a difficult question, because our students are telling this story time and again, years after they leave our schools. It is just that we are still not listening.

If you are not convinced, try asking a former student. Listen to them talk about that teacher who believed in them or gave them a second chance; that game of soccer that was won in the last minute of extra time; that time when they laughed so hard and were still laughing the following day.

The list goes on, but each memory and each recollection makes me think that the real value of school is not so much what it leads to but what remains when it is gone.

Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionist philosophy, refers to these moments as “traces”. Traces, he explains, are signs of what is left by something that is now absent. If you like, they are distant echoes that stand out from the rest of the white noise and bring meaning and humanity to our lives. They are the stories that have marked us, framing who we are and who we will become.

So the next time I try to capture the story of the school in which I work, I am wondering whether there is an opportunity to write it backwards, rather than forwards; no longer focusing on the narrative as a means to unlocking future adventures, but already anticipating those traces of light that will guide and provide beacons of hope for the remainder of a life. Photo by Dil on Unsplash

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