Developing institutional character

For my secondary education in the UK, I attended one of the longest-established and most esteemed schools in Liverpool. Founded in 1825, the Liverpool Institute educated many merchants of the city, and attained the apogee of its fame in the 1960s — the time when I was there — when two of our most famous alumni constituted 50 percent of the Beatles.

Looking back, in those days there was an unspoken certainty about education. The curriculum was clearly divided into the languages, humanities, mathematics and sciences, sports and crafts and your aptitude was speedily assessed so you didn’t waste time on subjects where you couldn’t succeed. You moved steadily towards the sole objective of the school: entry into university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge.

There were, of course, pioneers who challenged not just the prevalent pedagogies but even the purpose of education, as I discovered later when I myself trained as a teacher. But this debate certainly wasn’t filtering through to downtown Liverpool, and it didn’t have a great effect on my own practice in large comprehensive schools.  Teachers did at times question the purpose of their work, but mostly on a Friday afternoon following a particularly exasperating lesson with one of the ‘sink’ classes, which usually ended with expressions like “I really don’t know why I bother!”

Those better read than me can perhaps reflect upon such exasperation from a philosophical standpoint: should school education be purely utilitarian, readying students for college and careers, or should it fulfil a wider social purpose in preparing students for adulthood and citizenship in a rapidly changing world? All available evidence suggests we need a new paradigm for education, what Partnership for 21st Century Skills (a US government and American industry initiative of 2002) describes as “a vision for learning that better prepares students for work and life in the new millennium”.

All this cerebration leads to a well-trodden path and an exhaustively debated topic. How do we find a starting point for incorporating this thinking into our schools?

Most teachers are familiar with mission statements. Through them schools try to express what is most important to them. Mission statements should incorporate a set of concepts which can form a framework for decisions about programmes, curricula, facilities and staffing. In other words, the mission statement should be a measuring rod, not a marketing tool.

Statements of “desired student out-comes” are not merely inspirational; they vitally enable school planning. If schools know what kind of graduates they want to produce, we have a far better chance of devising the progra-mmes which will enable us to achieve our goals.

In terms of teaching, mission statements offer a roadmap for curriculum development, including the choice of externally-examined courses, and encourage a distinctive way of teaching. For example, two of Woodstock’s goals are that our graduates need to “know how to learn and are comfortable with exploratory learning”, and “utilise technological resources responsibly and with ease”. Such expectations have an obvious impact on teaching style.

In respect of learning, mission statements could encourage students to engage personally with the stated outcomes throughout their careers, using them as personal guides to growth. Perhaps they could on arrival, write a message or record a video reflecting on how they hope and need to develop while they are within the school community, and spend their last weeks before graduation exploring how they have changed, and how prepared they are for college, career and life. What a wonderful foundation for a true curriculum vitae!

How should such a statement be written? For schools with vision and established traditions, it would be best to develop it in cooperation with staff, parents, alumni and students. One of the more stimulating planning exercises we carried out was to bring a group of students together to describe the Woodstock their children might attend — its programme, facilities and teaching style.  Students really know what they are looking for!

To a great extent, the content of the statement will reflect the unique characteristic of your school. There are sure to be common elements — the considerable work being done on 21st century skills is a good start. But when it comes to values, attitudes and behaviour, we have to draw on our own convictions about what will make a difference in the world. For Woodstock, the four aspirations are that students should: equip themselves to survive and thrive in the 21st century; develop a profound sense of self; develop healthy interpersonal relationships; and strive to become model citizens. Within these objectives we name many qualities: critical thinking, collaborative learning, personal well-being, leadership, communication, social justice and — topping the list — personal integrity.

As we teachers go about our daily business of teaching and learning, it’s useful to know in the back of our minds what kind of people we want to release into the world.

(Pete Wildman is head of communications and marketing, Woodstock School, Mussoorie)