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Why are we doing this? Thoughts on Narrative and Purpose

As a maths teacher one of the most common questions I am asked in a Secondary classroom is “when will I use this in real life?” Behind this question is an assumption; the purpose of Maths class is to learn a process or formula that I can recall and apply in life after school.

A similar question I am often asked is “in what types of jobs would I use this?” Behind this question is an assumption; the purpose of Maths class is to learn skills that I will one day use to earn money. 

But is this the purpose of my Maths classroom? 

Is this the purpose of education as a whole? 

I can see why it is said that the education system, namely the way in which many schools operate, is outdated, archaic, broken and irrelevant. 

The above statement is harsh and dramatic. Chances are, this is not the first time you’ve read or heard something to that effect. This sentiment seems to be part of an ongoing conversation when it comes to discussing current day issues. Whether they be about community engagement, work ethic, job skills shortages, soft skills shortages, unemployment, issues of consent, career pathways, career preparedness, comparison to the Finnish school system, literacy and numeracy standards, Education World Ranking data… the list goes on, and I often feel that there comes a point where a voice will tie it back to how “the education system isn’t working right now”.

It doesn’t take long at all to type into a search engine ‘education system broken’ and sift through the results to find a multitude of news reports, opinion pieces, research articles and media content such as ‘I sued the school system’ by Richard Williams (a.k.a. Prince EA), which was published 7 years ago and currently has 26 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqTTojTija8), that all echo the same message.

And for all the research, professional development, classroom practice innovations and technological integrations, there is still this agitation that within the education system, something isn’t right.

In their book, 10 things schools get wrong (and how we can get them right), Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott (2020) suggest that the system isn’t in fact broken, it simply needs to be tweaked. 

Narrative is one of their Top 10 things schools get wrong, and I think they’re onto something. We can notice that our attribution of purpose is nested within the Narrative (yes, capital N) that we live in. That Narrative is a world view, it becomes the system by which we organise the past, the present, the future and the way you live in it. Any narrative has three essential elements; it must:

  1. Organise how the world has got to the moment we find ourselves in. Essentially, explain the past with relevance to today with a sense of projection to where we may be heading.
  2. Establish clear societal norms and rules. Society is made of different groups of individuals, the Narrative needs to define what those groups are, why they exist and how they interact with each other.
  3. Identify what it means to be an individual within this massive story. What does it mean to live a good life, to be a moral person?

Is it possible that the underlying Economic Consumer Narrative that the majority of the Western World inherently adopts is the driving force behind the purpose of education, and therefore what schools value and prioritise?

Have you ever stopped and asked, why are we doing this?

Homework for Primary students, why are we doing this?

Standardised testing for literacy and numeracy every second year, why are we doing this?

High stakes testing and numerical ranking our graduates, why are we doing this?

When it goes undetected, the Economic Consumer Narrative defines education and schools as a system and place where young people learn skills to give themselves the best chance at maximise their earning potential. Simply put, Economics. The individuals value and self-worth is tied up in their wealth and the goods they own. 

  1. We use economics to explain our past, the Framing Revolution, then the Industrial Revolution, we’re showing how these advancements build the economies up. 
  2. The world is made up of different levels of society that are largely based on economics, the Western, Developing and Third worlds. We use socio-economics, to some extent, in explaining crime rates and living standards. 
  3. The personal life is meaningful in that, school exists to provide you the skills to get the highest paying job.

I think that this Narrative is so out of sync with what we really want for our children, and I don’t think it’s what our children want for themselves. This year I have been speaking with Sam Burrows, who is joining CEN in 2024 as the Director of Professional Learning, and he was reflecting that Generation Z are very capitalist in their narratives, but perhaps they’re not convinced or satisfied by this either. As they witness cost of living going up, and the great Australian Dream of ‘owning your own home’ becomes more of a fantasy than a reality, they see no ultimate purpose in the pursuit of everything to an economic gain. In their nihilism it is hard to see how a boat load of money will benefit them greatly as they watch the sea levels rise. 

This is why I believe it is crucial that we hold on to the distinctiveness we have at MECS. The MECS difference is so significant because it speaks precisely to this issue of Narrative and in turn, purpose. It is clear in how the school operates that value is placed on the transformation of the individual through challenging learning experiences, over broadcasting it’s highest ATAR results or spotlighting measures that other schools are drawn to, to showcase their success. That the Narrative of a Biblical Worldview is held up to be directly contrasted with the gravitational like pull of an Economic worldview, to demonstrate what is good and true and worthy of our pursuits. 

In a way I see this as a version of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7, “you will know them by their fruit”, the evidence is in the everyday decisions to keep Transformational Education the core business of our wonderful school. If you are new to the community, like I am, I encourage you to ask someone, “what is Transformational Education all about?”, or if you have been at MECS for a while perhaps ask yourself, “what am I doing to echo the Narrative within the Transformational Education framework?”

Tim Eddy – Year 9 Coordinator & Secondary Teacher

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