What do we really value in education?

November’s EDfutures Community Night (our second-to-last for the year!) was facilitated by Kendall Clifton-Short from The Purpose:fully. This event was all about values in education; what we think we value, the values we embody in our actions, the education system our values have produced, and the values we would need to act out to create the system we want. No small feat to cover all of that in a few hours on a Tuesday night!

We got started with a discussion about what ‘values’ mean to each of us.

This event was so valuable to me because it forced me to reconsider the way I approach my work; to rethink the core narrative I hold about what it is I do.

Let me explain.

For many people who work in education (inside or outside the classroom), there’s a certain story it’s very tempting to tell ourselves. There’s a commonly held belief that ‘the system is broken’, and that it’s our job to fix it. How did it get broken in the first place? It depends who you ask, but usually it’s some combination of broadly-described system elements; it’s the ATAR, or standardised testing, or that shadowy organisation we call ‘the Department’. Most importantly, we (the system fixers) can start to see ourselves as somehow separate from the system — and immune to its failings. We know better, which is why we need to dive in and get fixing.

At this event, Kendall led us through an exploration of values that challenged this narrative. Actually, all of us are a part of the education system — and our values play a role in shaping the outcomes we see in that system, just like everyone else’s. If we want to create a system that’s fair and future-focused, and which nurtures independent, curious young people, we all need to embody those values in the way we work. Unfortunately, the values we think are important aren’t always the values we live out in our actions. For example, when we run our schools on strict timetables with bells and demand that kids raise their hands and ask permission to use the bathroom, we’re actually living out a set of values that are the exact opposite of the independence we want to foster. At times like these, it’s way too easy to unknowingly promote a set of values that we know won’t lead to the system we want to see.

Kendall shared the above model for how values shape behaviours, which in turn shape outcomes in a system.

For me personally, this dynamic became most obvious when in one group discussion activity, I drew cards with ‘Achievement’ and ‘Power’ values. My initial reaction was to scrunch up my face — those aren’t values I hold strongly at all, I thought, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to demonstrate them in the exercise we’re doing. But once we got started, I realised I had more of a tendency towards achievement and power values than I thought. I realised that I wanted to be an influential voice in my group, in a way that wasn’t always helpful — sometimes I was just trying to be seen by others as intelligent and capable. When I felt the discussion wasn’t moving in the right direction, I recognised a desire to take control and drive towards what I thought would be a successful outcome.

Kendall sharing some thoughtful feedback during one of the exercises.

On reflection, these are tendencies I often display in my work more generally. But thanks to Kendall’s guidance and models, suddenly it was much more clear that these were expressions of values that I know won’t shift the education system in the direction I’d like. This isn’t to say that there are good values and bad values — in some circumstances, power and influence are exactly what’s needed to achieve a positive outcome. But I realised I have to be mindful of the values I live out in my work, and of the values I encourage and reward in others.

When you apply this theory to all of our work in education, that ‘us’ vs ‘the system’ divide starts to break down, because you remember that ‘the system’ is made up of people with complex inner lives and values just like ours. Almost all of them want the best for the education system and the people it serves, just like we do. Maybe the best way to start is by paying attention to our own values and how we manifest them first — and then we can worry about everyone else.

Kendall Clifton-Short works with organisations to imagine tomorrow’s future, and then embed purpose-driven strategy to create purposeful impact. Click through to find out more about The Purpose:Fully.