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School Culture: Performance vs. Service

OOPS - if you are looking for the article by Ray Trotter on 'WHAT WOULD A SCHOOL BUILT BY WALT DISNEY LOOK LIKE?' you can find it HERE. Sorry about that!


A Culture of Performance

Our schools make the claim that they are educating their students for life. But what kind of life are we referring to? Students are quickly drawn into the pressures associated with high achievement and winning. From the earliest years, a child delights in the special sticker declaring “Good Work!”. This is followed by the realisation that getting the ‘top mark’ on the spelling test may result in free time or a mention in the weekly school newsletter. Eventually a student’s performance in school ranks them publically, in ways that may ultimately determines their future options.

The concept of merit in schooling was originally introduced to replace university entrance criteria based on social status and replace them with a fairer selection process. Unfortunately we have taken this concept into every level of education and no longer educate for the love of learning.

Excitement about learning for the sake of learning quickly fades in the earliest years of schooling. Completing assignments to please the teacher directs the attention to the teacher’s response more than the student’s actual learning. Schoolwork is reduced to a quest for a favourable praise or a good mark from the teacher. Soon the child becomes aware of their standing in the class group. We set children off on a quest to perform not just for their teacher, but to perform better than others in their group.

Within this ‘performance culture’, the class becomes a competition rather than a friendly group of equals. Children are expected to get along amiably with their classroom of friends, while at the same time striving to achieve top marks on the weekly spelling test that publicly declares him better than all of his classmates.

In this culture we define success as we would in sport – winning the game and toppling the competition. High performing schools celebrating their ranking, effectively saying “we are better than the others”. High performing students feel a pride in their achievements that leads to an appetite for winning and ranking above others. School becomes a competition where success equals good marks, which leads to university and career options.


Preparation for Life

If our goal in education is to prepare our students for life, what is the message we are giving them? A performance culture in schools only prepares children for a life of competitive challenges, where they strive for success at the expense of others, to get to the top and savour in the feeling that in some way they have won an important contest.

So, what’s wrong with that? Many believe life is full of challenges that will only be overcome with a strong individual drive and perseverance, determination and hard work. These are admirable characteristics often used to describe people who have made it to the top of their career or achieved high success.

Educating all children in our society with the skills to make it to the top in this way means we are actually setting the majority up for failure, as only the very few will truly succeed. Focusing on performance as the goal in education is creating unnecessary hardships for most of our children who complete their education in a competitive schooling environment.


A Culture of Service

What if our focus was different? Shifting the focus away from individual achievement to an emphasis on service suggests up an entirely different approach to learning. Schools are microcosms of society –communities in which groups of children share their interests, work together, and discover ways in which they can function in a world filled with others who are similar to us, and different. Success in a community does not come from its members all seeking to get to the top. It comes from learned skills such as collaboration, cooperation, empathy and resilience. Healthy communities have individuals making contributions for the good of the whole, along with the community structures that allow for laws to be created and enforced.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that our world community faces great challenges that require innovative solutions. Sitting complacently waiting for world leaders to come up with answers leads the individual to ignore the challenges and to pursue self-serving goals. As long as schools encourage individual success rather than empathy and cooperation, we stand less chance of preparing children to act and address the challenges facing their world. On the other hand, schooling that fosters the skills to work with and ultimately serve others will provide the necessary tools future generations will need to successfully combat world problems.

Schools should be creating a ‘culture of service’ rather than a ‘culture of performance’. While having high academic standards and expecting students to do their best will always be a part of the school’s aim, we must avoid the competitive element that pits one child against another. Preparing a child for life means preparing a child for the life we know will create a healthy society for all – not just the privileged. Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”.


Service in the classroom

A school and classroom is a functioning community where children have a valuable opportunity to practice their social skills and values. It is an ideal community to learn about helping others. The initial acts of pre-schoolers helping each other eventually expands and becomes more structured as the child enters the primary years.

It is common to see primary classrooms with organised jobs for the students. When opportunities exist for the child to spontaneously help others, especially where help is given in the academic area, the children benefit enormously. Those helping and serving other students with schoolwork feel valued as class community members.

A feeling of responsibility and importance is placed on these acts of service in the classroom – service becomes a part of the class culture and embraced at a time when the child is learning about the broader world.


Service to the wider community

One thing can easily lead to another with children. Service to others in the classroom leads to understanding need, which leads to a wider understanding of society’s needs. There is a time, especially in the later primary years, to take this desire to help others to the unfamiliar arena of the wider community.

Children who are given the opportunity to traverse the city and see the world through the eyes of a participant rather than a spectator will witness such things as homelessness, poverty, and environmental abuses. Rather than protecting children in the family home and family car, it is important to make connections with the surrounding community by simply participating, as many do on walks, using public transport services, and attending a range of community functions. A child riding a public bus or train and witnessing a homeless person, for example, may wonder why people are living in such conditions and will want to try and find ways to fix the problem.

With an appreciation of the needs in their community, children will most benefit from becoming involved in an authentic service project. Here, the child learns how others may have done the planning and organising, then found ways in which they can link in volunteers. Knowing there are many organisations helping others, the child can become encouraged by the response of society and feel a part of a larger system of service. The child and class community may elect to become involved in assisting a local area project to feed the homeless, help pick up litter in nature reserves, or help the elderly or disabled.

If your school is a community with material privilege, you face the reality that the most effective service may be material assistance in the form of money. Nevertheless, direct contact with individuals and communities in need will provide the most authentic motivation to continue giving and serving.

Children who not only learn about the ills of the world, but also have opportunities to directly assist, will learn valuable life lessons. Opportunities to serve outside ones own community may provide some valuable life lessons. Children may not have the means to travel around the world helping others, but carefully planned “journeys of service” may open doors to understanding how different it is to lend a hand in a culture different from our own.

When schools move beyond a culture of performance by eliminating academic competition they can create a culture of service. As a result, they can nurture students ready to give rather than perform. By encouraging them to see the opportunities to serve through their actions, we can raise a population of citizens who will work hard to assure a long and healthy future for future generations.



Bill Conway

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