What Is School for?
Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This means, school is a powerful institution because it has a major influence on the education of individuals. Therefore, throughout history the primary purpose of school has always been to be a place to learn. This original idea of school continues until today. Over the centuries, the definition of learning and what to learn has changed several times, and it needs to change again, if we want to ensure that the fast and radical changes in the world do not overtake humankind.
Nowadays, schools are still too much focused on teaching students knowledge. But in the western world, where almost everyone has access to more or less all the knowledge of the world within seconds, the teaching of knowledge seems unnecessary. The ultimate question is: What do students need to learn if it’s not primarily knowledge?
The answer is skills, character and meta-learning (after The Center for Curriculum Redesign). The people of tomorrow need hard skills like reading, writing and calculating, but more importantly, soft skills, such as social skills. Because knowledge is always accessible, students need to know where and how to find the information they need and how to decide if the source and information is trustworthy. Furthermore, they need to develop their character, their values, train resilience, mindfulness, leadership, and decision-making. As a part of meta-learning, students learn metacognition, how to develop a growth mindset, and learn how to learn, how to (self-)reflect, and how to adapt to new circumstances. Of course, teaching these skills and competencies is not possible without also teaching knowledge. The difference is that the primary goal – the output – is not students who know as many facts as possible and who can obtain those in the fastest way possible. The goal is rather students who know how to use their skills in a way that enables them to orientate and navigate themselves in this world.
What the future society needs are critical-thinking individuals who do not shy away from making mistakes and then learning from them. Individuals who are mentally strong and resilient and are able to communicate and collaborate with other human beings respectfully. Individuals who are willing and capable of trying new ideas and are mentally flexible to adapt to changes.
The burning question is: How can students learn these skills and traits in the best way? First of all, we need good teachers. And by that, I mean teachers who embody (in the best case) everything the students are about to learn and who also know how to teach those skills and character traits. Hence, teacher training has to change in order to prepare the teachers adequately for their important job. Secondly, the school and the staff need to care for all their students. The basis of learning – a feeling of security and acceptance – can only be established in a protective and caring environment. It then enables the students to trust, to be themselves, and to unfold their potential and widen their horizons. Particularly disadvantaged children need caring teachers at school because their families often do not have the resources to support their children properly.
In short: School is a place to learn. Rather than knowledge, it needs to teach skills, character, and meta-learning, which require trained and caring teachers. As we need to change the world, we need to change education.