On the Purpose of Schools in a Changing World — A Conversation with Valerie Hannon | 4 Min Read

We walked on the moon. You be polite!

Joni Mitchell’s piercing words were quoted to me by Valerie Hannon in our recent conversation for the Future Learning Design podcast. Just as Joni’s protagonist is sharply put back in her place by the patriarchal status quo demanding respect for his achievements, so too does the current dominant version of schooling resist change and demand respect for just doing what it does. Don’t interrupt the sorrow!

The pandemic is an interruption. But enough to spark lasting change? We know the status quo isn’t working for so many people. Arguably, it excludes more than it elevates… stresses more than it supports… it boxes off more than it brings out.

And it doesn’t even provide the skills that the economy needs — often its strongest narrative justification.

As Valerie says, “the future just kicked the door down”. We need a new narrative to take hold.

Valerie Hannon:

I started passing this book almost six years ago and the first edition came out five years ago. And I think it’s fair to say it got very little traction. So… I’m just delighted that Cambridge has published the second edition because it is the case that people are starting to relate to a different kind of narrative around education in the way that five years ago, actually, they weren’t. They kind of shrugged and said, “Narrative, seriously, what’s all that about!?”, which is something I sort of related to because my background is a very logical one. I taught math, I studied philosophy. I have a bent towards data, evidence, logical progression. And I had sort of deep in my soul, the thought that this is what matters and what moves people. Now, I learned that it’s not the case and that narrative actually changes people’s views and actions.

I mean, whether you look at Trump or Obama, both of them in their different ways told a different story regarding what the nation was about… and that resulted in powerful followings.

Now the story around education, as I try to show in my book, is when you really pick at it and start to excavate it is a fundamentally economistic one — a misleading economistic one. But one which says, we invest in public education because it will make us more prosperous (aka GDP), produce more growth, and individuals should care about education because it will get them better jobs. And all of that is completely out of kilter with the realities that we face.

But it’s just so profoundly within the psyche. And I think people who are really interested in educational change have not fully grasped, if I may hazard the proposition, the extent to which that old story has a grip on the public and the political imagination.

So when you’re arguing for different approaches, it’s all very peripheral because it doesn’t fit with this background narrative in which those are the things that count and therefore garnering credentials, mastering a knowledge-based system… that it’s all about getting into university and university is what counts, and the rest is fundamentally second class.

So you’ve got to shake that up somehow. Now I don’t pretend to know how to shake it up. I’m going to have to go!

It helps maybe to put it in lights and say, “Is that what we care about?” And to craft an alternative, which might… just might start to connect with people’s lived experience.

I’ve been really influenced… by Michael Sandel, his book Merit. And I think every educator should read that because what it shows is the profound hold merit is in spades, profound prejudice towards the cognitive and the degree to which we elevate cognitive intellectual endeavor and achieving above and beyond anything else. And you know, it’s understandable. As Joni Mitchell puts it… “We walked on the moon. You be polite!”

But there are other dimensions of human life that are profoundly important, and which the education system disregards at its peril. But the outcome of it all is that 50% of people who go through education systems are written off.

Valerie Hannon:

Tim Logan: Yeah, interesting. There’s a kind of an irony… between the idea that stories connect with us on an emotional level and we buy into them, but it’s a cognitive bias and a rational bias in the content of the story, right?!

Valerie Hannon:

You’ve nailed it there. Exactly. … My proposal is that… we have to think about thriving as interrelated in how we thrive as a planet and on the planet, how we thrive as communities, how we thrive in our personal relationships, and how we thrive as individuals.

And the pandemic itself really only touches on the first of those, [though] you can see how it flows through all of them. We need to unpack what it means to thrive at those other levels.

One way it really does touch directly is thriving at the personal level because of the impacts on people’s mental health. And it’s been thrown into sharp relief how fragile that is. I think many parents were quite shocked, you know, to see the sort of state that their kids got into, but for others, it revealed what was underlying anyway.

So we’re starting to see what kind of education system will really enable my kid to thrive as a human in this new world. What do they need to feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and have a quiet sense of calm?

Valerie Hannon

Listen to the rest of the interview here on the Future Learning Design podcast.

Tim Logan

Tim Logan is an experienced school leader and curriculum designer, with a passion for connecting and facilitating global networks of innovative educators. As well as being a member of the BU Agile Innovation Lab, Tim works with the world’s top international schools, as part of Notosh strategic design consultancy, and produces the “ground-breaking” podcast, Future Learning Design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *