Thursday, October 4, 2018

What Is Success? Redefining School

Due to a number of different things in my life I only completed my degree a couple of years ago at a ripe old age of 49. I’ve also recently also got into post graduate study with the eventual aim of a masters qualification. While I love reading, and thinking and dialogue about all things education, am I doing it because I sincerely think it’s going to make me a better educator or leader? No, I’m not. I’m doing it because it may open doors for me that not having that qualification on paper would be closed. Despite the fact that I’ve  been an educator for 30 years and in senior leadership and principalship for 22 years in some widely varied and interesting places that have all helped me become the educator and leader I am that one piece of paper would mean more than all that successful experience to some people. Why is that?

I have a brother who barely finished high school. He spent considerable time of his last year at secondary school playing spacies- which was actually helping him regain coordination after a sizeable brain tumour was diagnosed and removed when he was 16.  He is now a very successful businessman, having run many small and medium businesses in his life, has a comprehensive housing portfolio and is positioned to have a significant and influential role in one of our countries political parties. Successful? Many would say highly so.

I have a sister who spent most of her high school years in a lot of trouble- the cliched sex, drugs and rock and roll comes easily to mind. Im not sure what school qualifications she emerged from the system with, but I can’t imagine they were startling.
She is, today, an accomplished  self employed business owner, supplementing her hairdressing salon with the most incredible pieces of art which she sells as a sideline in her hairdressing salon. 
She loves people, connects effortlessly with a wide range of others and has the most varied kind of people forge connections with her. Successful? Absolutely.

I have a daughter who excelled in visual art and drama at secondary school. Right through to the end of secondary school, how many times was I told she needed to do “real” subjects if she was going to be successful in life? When she left school and didn’t know what she wanted to do and worked in hospitality for a few years, how many times was I told to make her go and study or she’ll never do it? Like that was going to be the measure of her success or otherwise in life. In actuality she did go and study at tertiary level but years later when she’d actually figured out what she was truly passionate about. And this young person that hadn’t really got or loved the “real” subjects at school studied science and law and loved it because it had a context that was meaningful to her. And now she is onto her third career, all careers in which she has had to care deeply and compassionately about living creatures- animals and other human beings. How better to measure the success of the child you raised but in how they care for other living things in their careers, and in what a loving partner she is to her husband? I could not be prouder of the successful person she is.

I have a friend who has left jobs without a new one lined up on more than one occasion because the institution he was working for did not mesh with his own value system.  I personally think he is both  highly successful and a passionate advocate for what he does today because he proved to himself, and others, that he is highly principled and prepared to stand behind those beliefs and values in a way that others might decry as being a quitter or showing a lack of perseverance.

I often write messages- blogs, twitter etc, that are aimed at other educators and what needs to change in the institutionalism of schooling, but this post is aimed at my wider community- the community of family and friends I have who are not educators.

The above stories and hundreds of similar ones illustrate why it is imperative that all of society, not just educators, re evaluate what success in the school system actually is, and what indeed the purpose of the school system is. If success in the school system is not necessarily reflective of success in life, what do we need to change?

Educators have been talking about this stuff, or some of us have, for years. We can’t do it alone. Because to adapt or change the school system means we have to adapt and reimagine the role of schooling in society and the role of society in schooling. 

It’s not simple like extend the school day or school year and make kids do more of the same. That’s just making them get better at the wrong things. It’s  highly complex and means we have to deeply and carefully examine all our carefully construed biases. Our bias about what success in life constitutes. Our biases about the role school does or does not play in that success. Our biases about whether School is a place to gain a qualification or a place to hone what being a member of society means to us. A place to be docilely compliant to the adults in power and control or a place to work out what our values are and how to be successful in applying them to whatever we turn our hand in life to. Our biases about the role that qualifications do or do not play in the success of our lives.

We need your support when we try to do things differently, we do not need calls for back to basics or statements like it was ok for me-didn’t do me any harm.

It was ok for you because the society you went into was vastly different.

I lived for the first 30 years of my life without the internet. My daughter has never known a world without it. Just the internet itself has incredibly changed our lives. It’s not ok for School to be the same it was for you. It may not have harmed you, but it also is unlikely to have prepared you for society as it is today.

The new basics are very different from the old basics. Your life is irrevocably different due  to developments in  internet and technology, in transportation and communication. Why do some still support school being the same way? The basics to survive and thrive in life today are different than they were in the past. 

We do not need to hear bring back the cane.  We don’t want to raise young people who think it is ok for someone in power to humiliate them and hurt them in order to coerce them into doing what they think is right.

We want to develop young people who care deeply and problem solve and fix the problems we’ve caused in the world today.

We want to raise young people who don’t believe everything everyone tells them. We want to grow people who are discriminate about what they believe. We want them to have principles and to be prepared to live by those principles.

Next time you think young people have no staying power and should be able to stick to things they don’t agree with because it’s "good for them" think about what criteria you are using for “good.”

And next time you hear about schools trying different things, question why.

When schools are trying to move away from subjects to a problem based approach that integrates subject knowledge and skills into solving big problems or delving into deep issues they are trying to prepare young people for approaching big world problems rather than memorising chunks of content in discrete and disconnected ways.

When schools are moving from tight to broad age groups they are trying to be  more like society is. Where else, ever, do we segregate ourselves based on such tight age groupings? As adults do we only play with or work with or learn with other people within 12 months of our birthdate? Why do we continue to think children learn best in this segregation?

When schools are trying to develop self managing learners, who will be able to direct themselves in society and work why do some call for them to just do what they are told. If we don’t develop those self determination skills at a young age we will have groups of adults waiting to be told what to do, like factory workers of the past, not like the active problem solvers we need to preserve society and our environment moving forward.

When schools are trying to be collaborative they are trying to help out young people learn that we will be able to progress much further and effectively if we work together as a team instead of row after row of single units. We will make a better world for all of us together than just you can make for yourself.

When schools are trying to use space flexibly and you get confused because that doesn't look like school a you remember it being, think about what else still looks the same as it did when you were at school.

And while we are at it as well as reevaluating what makes a young person successful and what the role of schooling is in that lets also reevaluate our definition of what makes a successful school.  Next time you read a media beat up or a list of school rankings listing the most successful schools by a magazine take a bit more time to interrogate the criteria of success being applied, and even more time to deeply consider whether those success criteria are going to mean anything in the lives of those young people in 5 or 10 years time.

Please take some time to consider what success in life means to you. And then how your current understanding of success in school matches this and if you need to spend some time re defining this in today’s context in your own mind so that you can join us in understanding and helping others to understand why schooling as we knew it has to change. And change fast. And change significantly.

Many of us inside the system are trying to change it. Vastly change it, not just tweak it a little. We need your help, and even more importantly your understanding. We need your support in our activism and we need you to talk about this with everyone. These changes aren’t just about and for the school system. They are about and for society and we need to spread this message widely.


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughts on being successful. I believe that education is taught from an early age( from home). Life time skills such as cooking skills, hygiene skills, social skills, hospitality skills and time management before entering into the school environment. Our young can concentrate more on being successful in other areas that schools offer.But for our young to continue to be successful in these areas we need to carry these teachings on in schools as well, so that those same Rangatahi when they become parents can teach those same qualities to there children and the cycle will carry on into future generations therefore people become successful in contributing to having a happy and successful family. Everyone needs to climb on the band wagon and continue these teachings or it will not succeed. This gives our future leaders more time to enjoy their families and their career choices that they may want to venture into.

  2. Such an amazing post, Karyn. You write in such a clear and compelling way. Thank you for sharing!

  3. An amazing post Karyn. I hear you - I hear it from the students I am teaching - some things are not for them so we have to do it differently but that fixed mindset of others can be hard to change. Compassion, collaboration, co operation coming together and personalising learning the best way we can to support our learners is key - enabling them to be competent (no matter what that looks like for them) and allowing them opportunities to grow and in the background we are there to support and encourage them - ultimately they will make the right choices and do what is right for them.

  4. Angel Karyn,
    Thanks for sharing,
    The fragrance,
    Of your thoughts.


    This universe and everything within every unfolding moment is success.

    So how do we define success, usually you will hear, success is;

    Higher education, high paying jobs, big businesses, big expensive homes, expensive cars, in other words ownership of all the big tag items. There is nothing wrong with it, if you dream of it, then it will be good to bring your beautiful dreams to life too, otherwise without even tasting you will have this bad taste in your mouth, which is not good for you or the creation around you.

    Success is the priceless precious gift of love and life within. Every single being, every single one of us is nothing but success. It all depends where you are on this journey and how you use this success of being a part of the unfolding moment in time. It depends upon how much you allow and align yourself to experience this success as you prefer to.

    How we define this success is very individual thing. It varies from person to person to person. One will say success is attaining what you want, the other will say success is aligning yourself with the source to ask and achieve what you want, and yet another will say success is being so much one with the source (just like when drop of water drops in the ocean, then drop is in the ocean and the ocean is in the drop) that you do not even have to ask and everything is there, you realize that you do not exist because of all this matter and material, it is the other way, all of this matter and material even your own body exists because of you. As you realize this, you are totally content, that total contentment is one of the pleasant fragrances of success that you are, now where ever you go, whatever you do, you ride on the wings of this fragrance of success. You are like that strong high mountain where no matter how big of a storm comes, all it will do is dust you, wash you, decorate you, and leave you better than before, bursting with the fragrance of life and love.

    Let’s sing the song of unconditional life together!

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