Fit for Purpose

It’s a big room, the opening session of the ECIS conference near Windsor, England. Hilary Cremin, from the University of Cambridge, takes the stage after the other welcomes, awards, and thank yous have been taken care of.

She is going to talk about education and peace. She recently became a grandmother. She starts with the uplifting experience of her daughter’s experience bringing this new child into the world and how that experience is so different from other women. Women in places like Gaza, Ukraine, and so many other places in the world confronting horrors most of us can never imagine.

“Education has to be our hope,” she says. She’s a peace educator, encouraging us to start with ourselves, with our family and colleagues, everyone radiating peace outwords, through communities, countries, and toward our planet. For this particular group of school administrators, it is key to start with our faculty and students. Providing them with the space and permission to model a peaceful coexistence. Yes.

Like so many of the blogs, articles, books, podcasts, videos, and presentations I watch, she tells us “schools are not fit for purpose.” I agree, at least, I agree that the fit is uncomfortable. I’m always struck in a group like this, a room filled with school administrators from around the world, that we are politely listening to someone telling us that our schools are not fit for purpose. That we could do better.

There is a reason so many people watched that Ken Robinson TED talk. Yet … after the conference we’ll all go back to our schools where we are creative, yes, but mostly around the edges, in ways that won’t upset our parents, our students, our teachers. We’ll mention the constraints, university acceptances, all of that. Yet, how much are we really locked in, and how much are we justifying because the way forward is difficult. Getting the fit right would be a lot of work.

Cremin is working on a book project. “Rewilding education.” From unsustainable ways of thinking and doing to sustainable ways. From factory farming to permaculture. (Schools as a wild garden!) From abstraction to embodiment. From obsession with growth to, to what? We are bumping up against the big issues here. Bigger than big. She mentions moving from current university models and career preparation to micro-credentials and portfolios.

This is an opening session for a conference, the format can only be a presentation, must really just focus on motivating us. But I’m starting to squirm a little. You know, like when a school shows that Ken Robinson TED talk at a faulty PD session on how our school model is outdated, how the head might say some polite and quite sincere words – don’t get me wrong – yet the faculty knows that it’s a feel-good session. Nothing specific is going to change, nothing that will significantly change the school approach and what and how they are going to teach that afternoon, next month, or next year. 

My colleague has been jotting his notes and reaction on his phone. He sends them to me:

My notes: Is peace at any price really worth it – surrender (by Ukrainians or Palestinians) would lead to peace but also domination of the strong over the weak. In a period of conflict and crises should we really focus so much on teaching ”peace?” Or should we focus on teaching our students about what is worth fighting for and what isn’t so that in the future they can make informed decisions about how to respond to conflict, whether to engage in it or oppose it? And if we take the metaphor of nature seriously, we need to recognize that the natural world is full of violence and competition, it certainly isn’t peaceful. And regarding outdated models of education (school as a factory or a prison): if we want to move away from traditionally hierarchical, control-focused institutions, if we want to make real progress, perhaps schools need to be a bit like a factory or prison, first so that we get our message across, and second to learn how to subvert such structures or how to become ungovernable.*

Jan and I have made the session a conversation despite the large group lecture format. We are carrying on this conversation here. I’m all for peace education, I’m also all for being open to how we continue to wrestle with our purpose, and then what the right fit is, even when it’s difficult, murky, gray, and full of contradictions. 

* Quan, H. L.T. (2024). Become Ungovernable. An Abolition Feminist Ethic for Democratic Living. Pluto Press. ISBN: 9780745349114

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