College and Workplace Preparedness v Holistic Education

The danger of the focus on “college and career preparedness” is that it takes a narrow perspective of the purpose of education. One of the least discussed aspects of this narrow approach is that it only sees the purpose of education as being in the future and takes little account of the present. Children need to learn how to deal with the world around them in an age-appropriate manner, and schools should not be perceived as training grounds for adulthood. Children have a right to be children – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child “includes the rights to education, play, leisure, cultural activities, access to information, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” These are intrinsic rights of children in their capacity as children, not as “future adults.” It is, in fact, contrary to the human dignity of a child present them as economic fodder with little purpose in life than to join the workforce. There is a real dichotomy between the mantra of “College and Workplace Preparedness” and genuine holistic education. How are children expected to develop a joy of life-long learning if the focus of their education is purely preparing them for college and the workplace? Surely education must enable children to discover a sense of joy in academia (in learning for the sake of learning)?

For learning to be genuinely holistic, there must be a focus on the full development of every child. All children by their nature as “created in the image of God” have an inalienable right to flourish and “live life to the full”. Education should focus on the social, moral, physical and spiritual needs of children – not because these “soft skills” might make them better members of the workforce but because these skills help them to be better, more virtuous, compassionate people (firstly as children and later as adults!) The knock-on effect of such genuinely holistic education is that the next generation of adults will be more wholly prepared for college and employment and, more importantly, life in general.

It is bitterly ironic that whilst educationalists encourage schools to promote analytical/critical thinking as a key 21st-century skills for their students, educators themselves are discouraged from doing the same and are expected to blindly conform to the demands of policymakers. It is imperative that educators “think (and act) otherwise,” but it takes a brave leader to steer their school/district in against the prevailing current. Given that catholic schools (often) have a greater deal of autonomy over their decision making and are guided by a distinct world view that differs from mainstream (increasingly secular) society, there are opportunities for leaders in Catholic schools/districts/diocese to challenge the systematic norms and to offer a real alternative to the prevailing educational culture. Perhaps at no other time in history have catholic schools had such an opportunity to lead the mainstream debate in education. At the very least catholic schools have the autonomy to offer something different to the prevailing consensus and accepted norms in the education world.

Even working in the (English medium) catholic international sector, I too often find that senior leaders uncritically follow trends from the US or UK (and perhaps not often enough Australia) rather than embracing the autonomy that the international and/r catholic sector allows. Even ECIS/CIS accreditation standards encourage uniformity between disparate schools and, to my mind, discourage innovation and creativity. School leaders in catholic schools have an “obligation to speak otherwise” and present alternative models and challenge the current status quo.

Despite the challenges educators face in the 21st century, there are also real opportunities for forward-thinking and creative school leaders. Our Catholic schools have a real opportunity to lead discourse and practice in the world of education and offer a genuinely different curriculum diet in an educational world that is increasing “one size fits all.”

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