Core Aims

Brief – The aim of this task is to arrive at three solid ‘Pillars’ on which all aspects of the school will be built

The simplest way to find out what is desired by the community to be the central direction and purpose of the organisation is to ask the right questions and engage in open two way debate that allows the sharing of visions and passions. The question I have most commonly used is…

“If your school system could only deliver three things for your own child what would you insist on them being?”

OR rephrased, for example…

“Imagine it is 2030 and you are giving an international presentation to your peers.  You have just enough time to draw out the three achievements of all your learner that you are most proud of, which three would you choose?”

I have asked this question of schools in 85 countries and to over twenty ministries of education.  The answers that you get are always similar to those listed below.  This is because even though it is almost impossible to predict the future (who could have predicted the internet or the next ten amazing innovations we don’t know about yet!) it is true that the way people learn and gain fulfillment remain fundamentally the same throughout time and over continents.  This fact remains the most sound basis on which to set up an education system fit for the future.

It is absolutely essential that your own school starts with a blank sheet of paper and determines its own three answers.  Please, therefore, don’t let the following list sway you in any way. It is the complete list (in no particular order) of all responses gaining more than one vote, from asking this key question in 85 countries.

  • Enjoys learning, un-learning and reflecting
  • Is healthy and able to stay healthy
  • Achieves progress every year
  • Achieves Standardised qualifications
  • Learns the subject knowledge in our curriculum
  • Is prepared for today’s job market
  • Is a confident, resilient person
  • Contributes positively to all groups in their diverse society
  • Is Literate and Numerate
  • Is aware of bias and can question assumptions / think critically
  • Is able to work collaboratively in a team
  • Is creative and entrepreneurial
  • Is Caring and compassionate with emotional intelligence

When pressed further and asked to choose three from these, the similarity is even more striking.  The following list shows all of the responses to this second task I have ever received from group workshops.

  • Is able to work collaboratively in a team
  • Is a confident, resilient person
  • Enjoys learning, un-learning and reflecting
  • Contributes positively to all groups in their diverse society

Once you have conducted this same process with your own school then it is worth sharing the international version with them to note any similarities but it is essential that their own list remains the three that go through.  These are the blue print for your school or education system and it is up to ALL of those involved in agreeing them to maintain this focus as we find new innovative ways of using the tools available to us to achieve it.

This process is often referred to as connecting to the ‘moral purpose’ or ‘core aims’ of education and this tool is really more concerned with this process than the outcome.

During the process you will uncover some very strong views amongst different audiences and it is important to relate back to the initial question.  This is not the three things we must do now at the expense of current projects and current priorities, it is trying to identify answers much deeper than this: answers that may well outlive us.

To illustrate the kinds of discussions that occur, there are three of those shown in the list above have evoked passionate negative responses and excellent debate.  It is an important part of the process to allow such debates to play out.

For example in the case of ‘Is prepared for today’s job market’,   the response is frequently that preparing people for today’s job market is pointless in the 21st century because the pace of change is so rapid that it will no longer be relevant by the time school is completed.  This debate uncovers the wider debate about how exactly do you prepare people for a changing job market.  If you observe trends such as those reported by Levy and Murnane[i], you may conclude that the best way to prepare people is to enhance their creativity, collaborative skills and ability to adapt.

A second example is the case of “Learns the subject knowledge in the curriculum”.  Once again the debate centres around the fact that future learners are able to look up any information they need in seconds using the phone in their back pocket so how is information different from knowledge?  Perhaps we turn information into knowledge through debate and deep engagement, the very activities that are so often curtailed because of the amount of content we need to cover in the curriculum.  Can we know the knowledge that will best serve learners in the future?  Should we concentrate on the process of finding information and converting it into knowledge rather than the knowledge itself?

A third example is the case that literacy and numeracy are often not included and this surprises particularly the staff working in these departments.  Often discussions move towards the purposes of literacy and numeracy rather than the skills themselves.

A fourth example is the question of new technology.  Some will say that in the future all students will need to be able to use technology but two counter arguments tend to also come up; namely that the aim of all technologies is to be so easy to use and intuitive that anyone can use them i.e. without any training, and secondly, even if we did believe that training in these technologies was essential what on earth would we teach?  Technologies change so rapidly that five years is much to far in the future for such predictions so what we teach 13 year olds and younger is likely to be of very little use to them but the skills required to adapt, be flexible and a curious lifelong learner will serve them through all of these changes.

These are all deep and useful debates that would not be able to be engaged with in such depth if they had not arisen from an open discussion.

Placing the task a long way in the future (imagine it is 2030…..) is particularly useful if trust levels in the audience are low and there is a fear of change or a deep entanglement with current stressful problems.  By placing it much further into the future it forces people to contemplate the core of education despite the reality of their current experiences.  Interestingly, when it is phrased in this way the list reduces and the four most controversial phrases tend to not appear.

You can use this task with almost any set of stakeholders.  You may not involve all of them to the same degree, but certainly, the more groups you can include at a detailed level the better the result and the more people you will ultimately have to help achieve the goals of the school or district.  The Engagement Scale is a the most successful approach I have used for keeping track of who you have engaged with and to what degree.  Follow the link here to find out more or if you have already included all the stakeholders you wish to during this cycle you can continue to the next step of considering strategies.


[i]  The New Division of Labor:How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Frank Levy & Richard J. Murnane

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