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School culture at the heart of shaping new education futures

In a previous article, Mark Potterton described the educational potential of technology but cautioned against reducing learning to an online experience. In this piece, he emphasises the importance of a school culture that fosters interpersonal relationship as its core value. Technology becomes a powerful tool to enhance the learning experience but does not replace the human connections that are at the heart of education.

It was a Friday evening unlike any other. I sat with a lump in my throat and felt the goosebumps. There hadn’t been any gathering at the school for so long. The ceremony had been organised outside to ensure social distancing and the quad had been especially decorated. Attending a gathering, after lockdown and all the restrictions, on such an auspicious occasion as a valedictory service, was very powerful. Seeing, listening, and being with our Matrics, who have navigated so many challenges this year, was inspiring.

As I sat there, I thought to myself that Sacred Heart College is indeed a very special place. What makes it so special in comparison to many other schools? During the 1980s, the school set in motion a series of changes that would forever become part of Sacred Heart’s culture. Brother Neil McGurk (a Marist brother who led the change) set out to change the school from an all-white boys’ institution into a racially integrated co-educational school.

He assembled a team around him and often talked about his vision at staff meetings and met people in small groups. His down-to-earth nature and authenticity were his strengths. He crossed the battle-lines with ease, and always made sure that equity was addressed especially during those dark Apartheid times.

Defining the culture of a school

During the early 1980s around the world there was a proliferation of ideas around culture change. Schools struggled with this concept because many of these theories did not translate well into the day-to-day experience of schools.

Ted Sizer, a leader in education reform in the United States in the 1970s aptly recognized that:

“To find the core of a school, don’t look at its rulebook or even its mission statement. Look at the way the people in it spend their time – how they relate to each other, how they tangle with ideas. Look at the contradictions between words and practice, with the fewer the better. Try to estimate the frequency and the honesty of its deliberations…Judge the school not on what it says but on how it keeps.”

Ted Sizer

The short, sharp, and thoughtful speeches delivered at that Friday valedictory service reminded me again of our deeply held values, our experience of care, and our sense of interpersonal responsibility. A mother’s reflection on the school and her history as a parent spoke of ingrained habits of commitment, hard work, and solidarity.

The teaching-learning relationships described by students, and the emotional ‘tone’ of exchange provided testimony of the dignity of all, mutual respect, integral human formation, and a spirit of love and freedom at the school.

Seeing the Bishop Bavin matric pupils who had experienced an abrupt interruption to their schooling this year (when their school was liquidated seemingly without warning) wearing their own blazers was particularly moving. These students had been unconditionally accepted into our school community, and this spoke of the warmth and acceptance in our school.

We may not have an up-to-date all-encompassing value or mission statement, but we certainly live it. These formulations can play a key role in defending the school’s reputation and promoting its mission in external forums. We would do well to articulate these guiding principles, which includes liberal Christian humanist values and natural justice. These principles permeate the curriculum and have an impact on the content of teaching and the approach to learning.

At their heart, the values of Sacred Heart College are infused by the Catholic ethos that Brother Neil’s school culture embodied.

Such a statement would describe our underlying values, our appreciation for the uniqueness and giftedness of each member of the school, and the application of these values to promote the common good. At their heart, the values of Sacred Heart College are infused by the Catholic ethos that Brother Neil’s school culture embodied. These values are dynamic, as the school continues to live and grapple with in an ever-changing world. What kind of education must we offer in this changed world?

Human relationships at the heart of technology driven education

In his book Natural Born Learners, education expert Alex Beard considers the future of learning by looking closely at artificial intelligence, our growing understanding of the infant brain, the roots of creativity, and the exam factories of South Korea among other things. His conclusion is that education is intrinsic for progress and that there is no magic bullet to learning.

Despite a growing appetite for technology or innovation that will transform education, he argues that the future of education lies with teachers. The most important tool we have, he says, is our mind and the focus of our mission is to strengthen critical thinking and other human-based skills of our students.

The most important tool we have, he says, is our mind and the focus of our mission is to strengthen critical thinking and other human-based skills of our students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the potential for multimodal communication in schools through the appropriate use of existing technologies to develop powerful ways of thinking and construct new knowledge. In a learning-centred school, students who have access to technologies will discover new ways of working individually and collaborating with others.

Beard, however, reaches the same realization that Brother Neil did years ago: that the perfect education system is not out there or in a computer programme. The system is made up of people and requires relationships between people. Everyone has a role to play in the system and holds the power to influence how it functions.

The [education] system is made up of people and requires relationships between people.

We need to rediscover our shared power to create a better future for our children. Families, schools and communities must become key players who contribute to the educational culture of our schools.

The widespread technologies used during this pandemic shows the potential to communicate and collaborate beyond the traditional boundaries of schools. If used effectively, they can develop relationships in ways that were not previously possible. In connecting our schools, our students will have opportunities to engage in different cultural contexts and be exposed to range of perspectives, thereby building their knowledge and new paradigms that can help them to navigate in a changing world.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.