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“Success” is the word most holding back reform.

I listen to many podcasts, TED Talks and other presentations and conversations about education, and I read many books, papers and articles on the topic. I see that there is a huge movement to change up the way we approach education across the world. However, one very common feature that I find problematic throughout this conversation is the conception of success.

I listen to many different people with widely different experiences and voices advocating for change in education systems, teaching approaches, curriculum design and so on, and for the most part there are some great ideas being developed. However, the one thing that is yet to be redefined is success.

People talk about how the current education system does not give all students a fair chance for success, and how we as teachers need to change our approach to ensure all of our students are successful. (This also relates to talk of “equity”, which I shall come back to in another post.) The sentiment underlying these talks is obviously a positive one. However, in 90% of these conversations, it very quickly becomes clear that success is defined as going to a good college after school, and then getting a well-paid, most-likely corporate, job after graduation.

This is where I think the conversation needs to shift before we can ever see real reform.

I want all of my students to be successful. But I also want to let them define what success means to them individually, independent of whatever traditional definitions of success might be foisted upon them. This is where I believe true reform lies. An education system that is genuinely interested in the varied aspirations of the students and is flexible enough to help students achieve the successes that they want to achieve, rather than prescribing a single ideal of success that every student must conform to and that teachers will be judged against.

Because that’s the other problem with this singular definition: it ignores the differences between students, their preferences and aspirations, and then it holds teachers accountable for how close the students get to this traditional conception of success. If on the other hand we allowed students to define success individually, and then encouraged our teachers to help their students achieve success as they define it, I am sure everyone would benefit.


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Of course, I can see the risk of these ideas landsliding into a overly privileged, bourgeois ideal, prioritising art and enjoyment over income, which is simply not realistic for the vast majority of the population, whose main concern is making ends meet. However, I assure you that I am sensitive to this, and it is not at all the frame for my thinking. I simply believe that there are many ways to make a living, and that the standardisation of life experiences that results from standardised education is a model that can be overcome. What’s more, I believe the only reason it has yet to be overcome is because those in charge of designing our education systems prefer it this way, partly because it is the only version of the world they understand, and partly because reformation seems too great a challenge. But it needn’t be.

All we need to do is accept these two propositions:

1. Different individuals have different aspirations.

2. There are many different ways to make a living.

Once we buy into these two propositions, all that is left is to help our students align them; that is to say that one role of educators should be to help their students identify the different ways that they can make their living doing the things that interest them. If we can only subscribe to this general notion, then it doesn’t need to be the folly of the privileged classes at all. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are those doing non-traditional work, but this is all but ignored within mainstream education in the vast majority of the world.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, no matter how academically oriented you are, there is something out there that you will both enjoy and be able to make money from. I am certain that this thing exists for everyone (or at least almost everyone). The difficult bit is recognising that whatever it is, it is not the same thing for everyone!

P.S. Perhaps the biggest irony is that it is widely recognised that the standard model of school-college-corporation is one that almost nobody enjoys—it’s not even as though the majority of people love this life experience, and I am talking about a niche segment of the population who would prefer something different. Almost everybody who finds themselves in this system dreams of getting out of it!