Bringing purpose back to the classroom

Before joining Snapplify, I was a high school English teacher for 14 years. At the beginning of each year, I introduced my classes the same way. As my students took to their seats, staring up at me, sussing out this guy they’d be spending the year with, I would ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ Each year, I received the same responses (to learn grammar, to pass the exams, because the timetable said so …) and the same incredulous faces when I told them they were wrong.

We all need to know the purpose behind our pursuits if we are to find them worthwhile and meaningful, and this time of year is the ideal time for teachers and students to reflect on this. If what we’re teaching or studying doesn’t seem relevant, we’re likely to feel discouraged. So what are we actually trying to achieve in the classroom every day? 

The four Cs of 21st-century learning

We all  know that the world is very different to what it was 50 years ago. If the purpose of the education system is to prepare students for today’s working world, we must adapt our educational approach to align with real life. As Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.’

Many teachers will already be familiar with the Four Cs. This is a set of skills that have been identified as essential for the next generation to succeed, both in their careers and as citizens, in the 21st century. These Four Cs are: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

In the Information Age, where digital and media literacy are more important than ever; in an interconnected world, where technology facilitates meaningful teamwork across cultures and countries; in a global economy, where tasks are automated and innovation is rewarded, every interaction calls for a combination of some or all of these skills.

As an English teacher, I worked through a curriculum that included reading, creative writing, poetry and grammar. But at the end of the day, this was not what I really taught, and not what I hoped my students would ultimately take away. To help my students with this paradigm shift, we all took out our time-tables, scratched out ‘English’ and rebranded the class Creative, Cognitive and Communication Skills. 

When my students really understood how the content of the curriculum was a mechanism to develop our skills, like lifting weights in a gym to build muscles, they could take more ownership of the learning process, and were more motivated. I made it a habit to regularly explain the purpose of whatever we were busy with and what skills we were developing and why they were important. Soon, whether we were working our way through Macbeth or presenting orals, English may not have always been their favourite subject, but they approached it with a determination and purpose that made the class a valuable way to spend almost an hour each day.

The fifth C: Courage

I also believe that courage is as important in today’s world as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. Courage is needed to take healthy risks to achieve one’s goals. There are few times in history that learners have had to face a future as uncertain as ours. The implications of the rapid changes taking place in world politics, the global economy and even the climate mean that it becomes increasingly difficult to prepare for an unpredictable future.

So much of the teaching year can get bogged down by pushing students to get a passing percentage on their final reports, but let’s not forget that, so often, the pursuit of good marks cloaks the true value of education. A valuable education system is not one which churns out A students, but rather, one which sends students into the world with essential skills and a strong sense of self-esteem, so they are able to flourish.

But how do we teach courage? To teach courage, we have to have courage, and teach by example. There are many ways educators can model courage in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. Admitting when we don’t have all the answers, and embracing methods and technology that we may not be familiar with, is just one example of how brave and brilliant teachers have relinquished control in the classroom in favour of courage.

By modelling risk-taking and ‘successful failure’ – dealing with the discomfort and disappointment of failing, in a way which allows us to grow and learn – we can show students how to avoid shrinking into shame and self-doubt, and to continue with self-awareness and steadfast determination on the road to success.

As we begin to prepare for this year, before we get swept away by educators’ daily admin, let’s take some time to reflect on educational outcomes – why we’re here, what we’re really doing. Beyond the lesson plans that take so long, beyond all the assignments and endless marking, is a love for learning and a deep desire to make a difference. Let’s pick that purpose up, put it in our pockets, and carry it into our classrooms every day. You’ll be amazed at the energy and excitement it’ll bring you and your students.

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