What is an education for? Fighting conformity in the classroom

A classroom of conformity – oh the shame!

If you haven’t watched the short film “Alike”, then I fully recommend it. I stumbled across it a comment from Sonya (@terSonya, sonyaterborg.com) on Patricia Friedman’s blog (already showing the importance of blogging on professional development) and it really struck a chord with me. There are so many messages running through this wonderful short film and I imagine it could be interpreted in many different ways, which is the beauty of art. For me, it sent tingles down my spine and at around 3:58 sent a small tear running down my face. In my interpretation, the message is that humans are born creative and come to school with energy, enthusiasm and a desire to make things and discover. However, at key points in their journey, we (adults) create and enforce systems and reactions that stifle this creativity. What does this do? It turns these wonderful bundles of creativity into worker bees who conform to what we expect of them, rife for the factory line. What should we be doing instead? Cultivating the creativity that is in all human beings so that we help educate individuals who are full of energy and zest for solving the world’s biggest problems (as well as the not so big…).

This video reignited a dormant belief I have that creativity is so important in the classroom. This is timely for me. We follow the IB and IGCSE curricula and there is, of course, a need to finish the course content. Therefore, an excuse has always been, “There’s no time to be creative. There’s no time to explore other content. There’s no time to do those projects. There’s no time to slow down. We have to finish the course!” This has led me down a path of simply delivering the content of the syllabus to my students so that I could sleep at night thinking, “Well at least I taught all the stuff.” Hmmmm, conscience clear, but had the students really learnt all the ‘stuff’ and had they enjoyed learning it. I’m sure that some (maybe most) had not.

In a previous blog post (see here), I wrote about my belief in developing primary greatness in my students. Stephen Covey sees this as making a contribution with your life, as opposed to secondary greatness which is the pursuit of wealth and fame. In the classroom, I equate primary greatness with a love of learning (and the subject I’m teaching) and secondary greatness with grades. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades. It is often a necessity for many in order to move into the next phase of their lives. However, for this to be your main driver means that you are missing out on a lot of what life has to offer.

For the most part, I believe my students are mainly interested in secondary greatness. They want the grades and they are under enormous pressure (often by accident) from themselves, parents and teachers. I have been guilty of applying this pressure. It came to a head for me when a student broke down in tears as we were discussing an action plan. She felt under so much pressure to get high grades that she was losing the love of learning. This was a moment for me when the fog cleared. I had to take back my classroom. Part of the reason I think that my classroom has become a hotbed of secondary greatness is because of the programme-centred nature of my classroom.  

It is important to note that I still recognise the importance of getting students from A –>B. They have a course that they need to finish and will sit an exam at the end of their time with me. They need to be able to give a good account of themselves in an exam! However, what I wish to do is allow students to self-pace how they get from A –>B and build in opportunities for them to go off on tangents of discovery and creativity along the way.

So, it is time to realign my classroom to become a more student-centred place that is more student centred, fosters primary greatness and helps develop the creativity that all students have. I am then pretty confident that secondary greatness (grades) will follow suit.

How I do this is a matter for another blog post. For now, let me return to “Alike”. Once I have my tools for making sure my classroom values creativity vs conformity, I need to express my rationale to my students. It is hard for students when we give them back the classroom. They can feel insecure and like they are not being taught anything. Therefore they need to be carefully supported through this process. Part of doing this is introducing the “why?” properly to them. This is where “Alike” comes in. I think, after watching this, students will begin to see the why.

I have my ideas on some tools and method I could use to help me foster primary greatness, student centred learning and creativity in the classroom, but would love to hear your thoughts. What might be some of the best ways to achieve this?

3 thoughts on “What is an education for? Fighting conformity in the classroom

  1. Hi Louie,
    When I first saw the film, coincidentally when I first met Sonya at Learning 2 Europe last April, I too felt sadness and realisation that this occurs only too often in education. I agree that this seems to happen when students reach Middle School/High school due to the “seriousness” of their studies. I’m trying to reach out to ADE Chemistry teachers or at least HS Science teachers for you to connect to, to see how you can share practices in creativity in the classroom and empowering students. You recommended Launch to me and in return I suggest “Empower” also by John Spencer (only just out in paperback and a book I am aiming to read this summer!).
    Unfortunately, she will not be the only one out there. We are all under such pressure from others or within to help students achieve to the best of their ability but we also have a duty of care as well as helping them to be better learners and thinkers in the future. I really look forward to hearing how you upscale your teaching.
    Have a restful summer (and Richard-DoverUWC-football-CBD says Hi!)


  2. Hi Louie,

    I know we have spoken at length about these issues so I thought, having read the second last paragraph about the ‘why’, that you might enjoy the TED talk on ‘How great leaders inspire action’. It focuses on several world famous leaders in various fields and how their success boils down to an explicit purpose behind what they do.

    Check it out and let me know what you think.




  3. Hi Louie,

    Thanks for the shout out in your post. Pushing students to engage with learning as a primary objective which feels more essential than results is a task I think all educators struggle with. I often think we could do more with collaborative grades–and I think very often of the famous ‘Last Lecture’ talk (this is also bound to get you emotional) which you can view here. Years ago I watched it as part of a ‘kick off’ to IBDP with my students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo
    It is a long watch, but worth it.
    I think with your journey towards rethinking SDL you’ll enjoy it.
    Kind Regards,


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