Don’t Let the Past Block Your Path to the Future

By Mary Coverdale, Director of The Learner First, Australia.

At the moment, I’m reminded of the way the city of Troy was invaded by the Trojan Horse. The invasion succeeded because of subterfuge and deceit––tactics that preyed on the misplaced trust that the leaders of Troy placed in prior experience.

We see something similar with education today. Those in positions where decisions are made tend to use past experience alone as their anchor. This makes a mockery of student-centred learning, and of the rhetoric of holistic student improvement. Because systems cannot serve the needs of the present if they place all their trust in the ways of the past.

This is visible in the familiar, outdated tropes that continue to haunt the education profession.

“If you work hard, you’ll get a job.”

“If you go to university, you’ll be better off.”

“If you study what we tell you to study, you’ll succeed.”

The pathways to success in this new age have changed. And still, there hasn’t been a significant shift in what schools help their students to learn and to do. In most cases, we still judge our students only in ways that can be indicated with a mark at the end of a year. The impact is devastating, widespread, and lifelong.

I used to tutor a senior student called Laura. She was (and is) an amazing artist. But she wanted to excel in English as well, so she worked extra hard to improve in the subject. Her Tertiary Entrance score was 74, which placed her in the top third of the nation in Australia. However, twenty years later, she remains angry with a system that weighted her Art subjects down, while her peers taking Maths or Language subjects had their outcomes weighted up. In a system like this, students with particular skillsets are told that they’re lesser than students with others. Our education system has created a hierarchy among different pathways to human success.

The issue runs deep––particularly in the classroom. Despite our best efforts and incredible investment in professional learning, why have outcomes stalled? Why do so many students and teachers report feeling overwhelmed and stressed? We continue to try to push square pegs into round holes.

Teachers are highly professional and intentional about being accountable for their work. So, when they’re inculcated with the expectations of the school system, they drown in their best intentions to be data conscious, to use approved pedagogical frameworks, and to know their curriculum, instructional models, standards, feedback processes, subject matter, and what it all means for their students. They try their best to serve both the students and the system. And having to do so isn’t best for their students.

We know that many students, while generally compliant, are bored and disengaged. We also know that business and industry are dissatisfied with how students are being prepared for contemporary workplaces. By continuing to work in the ways of the past, we’re not giving students what they need to succeed.

Creating an inquiry-based learning environment does not mean foregoing assessments, abrogating standards, or throwing out the curriculum. It does mean that students become active partners in their learning, that they understand themselves deeply, and that they connect with others in a way that’s positive and respectful. They have agency and they exercise curiosity and wonder. They collaborate, reflect, and actively construct their understandings in a highly social community of learners. Those are the outcomes our students really need to succeed in a complex and ever-changing world, so they have to be the focus of our classroom environments.

Can we do it? Of course we can. Education can write its own Trojan Horse story––one where we recognize what learners really need, embrace new experience, and enable the teaching and learning experiences that develop the whole child, every lesson, every day.