Last year, while living in Australia, I read this Sydney Morning Herald article suggesting that NSW secondary schools focus too much on university pathways for their students, at the expense of employment pathways. A report for the NSW Business Chamber found that the state secondary school system emphasises entry into university over entry into the workforce and, as a result, it is failing to teach people the skills they will need in the workplace.
Leaving aside the fact that a report for the NSW Business Chamber came to a pro-business conclusion, this article raised some important questions by not asking them. The article, and the report it cites, seem to assume that the point of secondary school is to get kids either into university or into the workforce.
Now, when students leave secondary school, they will enter either university or employment – unless they decide to travel or are unfortunate enough to join the ranks of the unemployed. It is important that people have the skills to succeed either at university or in a job, though it is arguable whether they need to have those skills before they get to those places or whether those places should help them to develop those skills. Nevertheless, thinking of secondary school simply in terms of preparing people for the next stage does it a grave disservice.
There are two important aspects of secondary school that are being dangerously overlooked by this ‘university-or-employment’ dichotomy. The first is that secondary schools should be instilling in people a love of learning. The second is that secondary schools should be developing in people the skills they will need to live a fulfilling life, not simply to succeed in a degree or a job.
If you have never read or watched anything by Ken Robinson, stop reading this and go do so now. To make it even easier for you, just click on this link. In various places and ways, Robinson describes how young children enter education with a thirst for knowledge and a never-ending curiosity and yet leave with a hatred of school and wanting to know “Why do we have to learn this?”. “Will this be in the exam?” becomes their guiding principle.
Life-long learning is tremendously important. ‘Mastery’ – developing new skills and overcoming challenges – is one of our fundamental psychological needs as human beings. Basically, we need to keep learning. Learning is a vital, intrinsic component in our motivation, as we will discuss elsewhere on this blog. Learning is also central to our mental health and our chances of leading a successful life. Carol Dweck does a great job in this book of explaining the importance of having a ‘growth mindset’. We are worse off if we do not love learning. Yet most students are leaving school having lost their love of learning. This has to change.
Having a job and going to university are both important components in a fulfilled life (though not everyone can or should go to university). As we discuss elsewhere, work is centrally important to our sense of identity, to our mental health, and even to our human nature. That being said, life is always about more than work. Secondary schools should not limit themselves to thinking “What do our students need to learn in order to get a job when they leave here?”. They should be thinking “What do our students need to learn in order to lead a fulfilled life?”. Getting a job is part of that, but only part. And schools know this. The schools we have worked with care deeply about educating ‘the whole student’, helping young people to grow into confident, resilient, responsible individuals. Schools know that they are trying to empower their students to lead a fulfilling life, and yet wider conversations about education overlook this fact. Why? As a society, we’re not comfortable asking questions like ‘What makes a fulfilling life?’ so we lower things from the ethical level to the economic level – getting a job. But ‘getting a job’ – any job – can never be all that matters. And while important, it is certainly not the purpose of education.