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The Purpose of School

Dr Phil Cummins talks to school leaders about their compelling reason “Why?”


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Strategic Educational Development Program

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I’m Phil Cummins. I get called Dr Phil quite often – it’s the only nickname I’ve ever been given that’s stuck. I was born and educated on Gadigal land in Sydney; I now live on Wurundjeri Woiwurrung country in the greatest suburb in the world – Fitzroy, Melbourne. I’m a loyal and critical Australian by birth, and I’m an educator by trade and conviction.

I began teaching History and Latin over thirty years ago. Since then, I’ve worked in and with schools, travelling the world as a teacher, researcher, writer, leader and colleague, and a professor of education and enterprise. I’ve done quite a few other things as well. I’m a father to three grown up children and I have a grandson on the way. I’ve worked for my local church and its community. I’ve served my country as a soldier. I’ve written a lot of books and articles – all up millions of words in history and education, particularly about the strategy, leadership, governance and culture that help to describe an authentic vision for learning and make real its power to transform the lives of students, their families, and teachers through sustainable high-performance in schools. 

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I love telling a story and finding the structure behind the narrative. I love working out where the voice, agency and advocacy lie in human affairs (as well as those that lie beyond) and, of course, I love thinking about the reasons why. I’m an optimist, so I believe that stories should end well, although there’s always more than a fair amount of wrestling with challenge and disappointment to be experienced. I believe that a positive attitude, an inclination to see the best in others, a willingness to work very hard, and the playfulness and wit to adapt what’s at hand to deal with what life throws up are essential. 

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I owe a lot of all of this to my parents. 

Dr Brian Patrick Cummins was an accomplished architect and artist, as well as a successful investor in small ventures. This shy and awkward man, to whom I’m still trying to prove myself even though he died of cancer in 2008, taught me three big lessons:

  1. “Whatever happens in life, you have to sleep at night.” That’s the deep thinker and complicated but visionary moralist speaking.
  2. “Everyone has to be able to feed their family.” That’s the public servant and family man talking.
  3. The third lesson is from the world of cricket – his great love: “You have to get in behind the line of the ball.”

My mum, Dr Rohma Newman Cummins (who’s still going at 91) is a fierce and trail-blazing pathologist, scientist, orchestra manager, gardener and educator. From her has come lessons about the primacy of the value of education in propelling a life – anyone’s life – forward, the importance of striving for both excellence and truth, and the finding of them in the details, and, most of all, the enduring need to hang on in hope, no matter what the circumstances. For Mum, giving up is no valid option. You better do what you say you’re going to do and you’d better bloody keep going till it’s done!

As I hope you’ll see shortly, a lot of what I learned from my parents matches what I’ve also learned from young people, their families and teachers all over the world. People are people wherever I go; although each person is home to a unique life, we are all woven into the fabric of a common and interdependent humanity.

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In 2010, after I stepped out of leading in a school, I felt the need to work with more schools around the world. I established CIRCLE - The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity and Leadership in Education because I thought there needed to be a bridge between the theoretical world of educational academia and government reports and the practical world of schools where students, teachers, administrators, and families work at the “chalkface” helping to prepare young people to thrive in their world using the patient and incremental process of improvement that works best in schools.

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Since then and after more than a decade of engaging with and supporting hundreds of thousands of people in school communities, we decided that it was time to take what we had learned from our global research and consulting work and make it accessible to schools all over the world. So, these days, along with my other roles, I’m now the Managing Partner of a School for tomorrow. – a global network that helps students, teachers, leaders and school teams to thrive in a new world environment. 

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And, together with Adriano Di Prato, I host the Game Changers Podcast, a public education project of over 200 episodes and 550,000 episode downloads to date that is dedicated to showcasing the inspiring work of educators around the world who are the true pioneers, leading the way towards that simple proposition that the purpose of school and, therefore, its whole work, should equip, empower and enable young people with the character, competency and wellness they need to thrive in their world. There’s even a book of ours that summarises what we’ve learned about all of this that you can buy from Amba Press!

So, having shared with you some of my story, I’d like to talk with you about what we at a School for tomorrow, Game Changers and CIRCLE Education are learning that might help you with shaping the direction that your story and your life might take, both individually and collectively in your schools. 

Everything you are about to hear from me is meant for you. It’s drawn from the deep reserves of passion and insight that come from our team of diligent professionals who have assembled a unique evidence-based and research-driven knowledge architecture to share with you and learning communities all over the world. 

And what we are learning most powerfully comes from the mouths, minds and hearts of students all over the world as they tell us about what, how and why they want to learn, live, lead and work.

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So, what will make a difference in the lives of our students? What will help them lead a good life? What will bring them a life that’s both worthwhile and well-lived?

It’s all about a life of purpose.

A life of purpose is about claiming a fundamental reason for everything that you do in your life, and then going out and doing it. It means you both can do and also actually do the things that really matter – it’s your most powerful reason why.

What does it mean to live with purpose?

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When you commit to learn, live, lead and work in A Life of Purpose, you engage in a process of becoming a better version of yourself. 

Discovering what your purpose might be and how you might learn, live, lead and work in pursuit of it requires you to embark on a personal journey of inquiry, exploration, discovery, and encounter that will help you to form the character, competency, and wellness to thrive in the world. 

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I call this journey “The Pathway to Excellence”. It starts with four fundamental questions that will help you to develop your character – the way you live your life and wrestle with the inner drive to realise yourself while replicating the external expectations of others:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where do I fit in?
  3. How can I best serve others? 
  4. Whose am I?

This is an ongoing, inside-out process of being, becoming and transformation that can help you to both experience and contribute through a life of purpose. It’s about helping you to grow, make progress, achieve and succeed.

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Asking and answering the question “Who am I?” is about how you learn. Learning well helps you to become stronger in all of the facets of your life and apply these strengths to realising an evolving and increasingly selfless reason for doing what you do. Learning, therefore, is a quest for self-awareness. You acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits that are connected with values and beliefs, personal development, and academic development. You foster a sense of “My Purpose” through the curiosity and wisdom needed to meet the expectation to "Know yourself”.

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Asking and answering the question “Where do I fit in?” is about how you live. Living well helps you to understand and respect yourself and others, and the language, customs, honourable traditions, rituals, and values of the people and places from which you have come and to where you are going. Living, therefore, is the search for relationship. You acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits associated with family and friends, home life and finance, and relational development. You come to appreciate “My People” and “My Place” with the compassion and gratitude required to meet the expectation to "Earn your place".

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Asking and answering the question “How can I best serve others?” is about how you lead. Leading well begins with who you are. It flows into who you want to become. It is demonstrated through deliberate, targeted, and intentional action. You align vision with intention and means. You inspire, influence, direct, and motivate others to willingly come together and achieve a preferred future for all. Leading, therefore, is the challenge of service. You acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits of service and volunteering, formal leadership, and leadership development. You locate “My Practice” within the courage and humility needed to meet the expectation to "Go on a journey from me to you to us".

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Asking and answering the question “Whose am I?” is about how you work.  Working well is about building around you a supportive network of people for and with whom your sense of belonging, the achievement of potential, and the propensity to that which is good and right in your life – your character – might find a meaningful home. Working, therefore, is the discovery of vocation. You acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits of planning, social purpose, and career development. You connect “My Purpose”, “My People”, “My Place” and “My Practice” through the conviction and commitment to meet the expectation to "Find your calling".

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With every step you take on The Pathway to Excellence, you are more likely to show the character, competency and wellness of which you are really capable. In doing so, you will increasingly feel a sense of belonging, achieve your potential, and do what is good and right in your life. 

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Mastering the competencies to learn, live, lead and work are ongoing challenges that speak to our formation as a person. A lot of this will be about the development of two qualities: self-efficacy (how you organise your character, competency and wellness to its best effect) and adaptive expertise (how you take this character, competency and wellness and use them to respond to the changing world around you).

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Connecting to a sense of your purpose helps you to work through how and what you learn. Learning is natural and normal – if you have a compelling reason to do it. Without a "why?" the hard work of the "how?" and "what?" loses meaning, context and the drive to make it happen. The (seeming) paradox is that the "why" is much more powerful when it's about connection to the other rather than the self. It's why you are most likely at your happiest when it's not about yourself. You were created for interdependence and service of something greater than yourself. Most of what we learn about the character, competency and wellness we need to thrive in the world, we learn through relationships of character apprenticeship. Perhaps we can talk about these designed learning relationships in which adaptive expertise and self-efficacy are forged another time, as they merit their own conversation in their own right.

You also need to spend time on this journey by yourself. To ensure you continue to grow in mastery on The Pathway to Excellence, you will need to commit to a regular program of reflecting on who you have been, who you are, and who you are becoming – your yesterday, today and tomorrow – and the purpose to which this journey is increasingly being dedicated. I’ll return to this element of reflection in particular later.

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Why am I talking to you about the life of purpose that we need our students to connect with and live out?

Because this purpose, ultimately, must also be our purpose as both schools and as the educators who serve them.

So what is the purpose of school?

What young people across the globe tell us is that they want to connect with something that goes beyond their own emotional, intellectual and physical selves. They tell us that they want to embark on a journey of exploration and discovery in which they encounter self-awareness, relationship, service and vocation, and that takes them beyond self-interest towards selflessness. This is what thriving is really about; it’s as much (if not more) about the other as it is yourself. The key assumption that underpins this is that a life of giving to others is transformative for each of us because it is grounded in the genuine meaningfulness that equips, empowers and enables us to make a difference. 

School, therefore, must be more than a holding pen for our young people to help them to socialise while their parents go to work. And it must be more than a source of employment for those engaged in it professionally. I’ve seen both of these things proposed as the purpose of education and neither of them cuts the mustard in and of its own right. 

Education can and should make a difference in the lives of our students. So what is that difference?

Social mobility has always played an important part of the purpose of education. Wherever it is that I have reached in my lifetime, I owe much to the capacity of the grammar school system in the UK and the selective school system of New South Wales to bring tangible benefits to the lives of my parents over 70 years ago, and subsequently to their children, soon-to-be grandchildren, and their wider families. It’s inconceivable that I’d be here without the social mobility function that enabled Brian and Rohma to be rewarded for being bright and diligent with an education that gave them distinct advantages and attendant privilege.

Yet, schools must be more than just vehicles for social mobility. And we need to correct the way that whole systems can become skewed towards a Darwinian sorting system that works out the few winners and the many losers in a race to occupy those precious places that afford pathways to financial and lifetime success via educational systems that are based too much on the testing of the adequacy of the volume of knowledge transmission, largely through competitive timed examinations that are focused on recall of prepared responses to anticipated questions completed with no recourse to a creative process, additional resources or collaboration with a body of peers.

School as a social construct must go way beyond a narrow, technical and ultimately elitist pursuit that focuses obsessively on the acquisition of a contained and definable body of knowledge. Knowledge is important but it’s not everything. An understanding of a values and value proposition for knowledge is much more important. And more important still than understanding is wisdom as to when and why and how knowledge might best be applied for people and place and planet.

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School, therefore, must use evidence of impact on learning gained through proper research methodologies to find better ways to help our students to learn and recall knowledge. School must also go further to help students to understand the value of knowledge and prepare them to apply this understanding with the values that bring real wisdom, and with the character, competencies and wellness required to play whatever role they go on to play in life. The real measure of our contribution is about generating more transformational opportunities for each and every life that’s lived to become both worthwhile and well-lived through the quality, consistency, creativity and care in our purpose and practice as educators. That’s the value proposition of today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.

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School must also prepare our young people for the reality of our world. It’s a world that’s moving fast. For some time now across the world, governments, community groups, and society at large have been telling us that education is important for the future. 

Equipping, empowering and enabling young people for the new world of work is an issue of global imperative. Swift advances in technological innovation and automation, demographic shifts, rapid urbanisation, shifts in global and economic power, resource scarcity, biosecurity challenges and climate change are all tremendous forces reshaping society, leading to transformed economies. The world works differently, and people need to do different work to contribute effectively and be remunerated appropriately. 

This reality brings with it potent implications for the world of work and for the future of the schools and education systems that prepare students to thrive in this world.

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There can be no doubt, therefore, that schools must face the reality that as our world changes, so too must we adapt what we do and why we do it to the needs of the society and the students which we serve. Our schools must be ecosystems which are human centred, technologically enriched, people and place and planet conscious, and intentionally purposeful about what they do. Our schools must create today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.

And yet, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the lack of progress we have made towards both telling the story of the new social contract of education that is today’s learning for tomorrow’s world and building future-fit and future-ready homes for this learning in which people might thrive.

We have known for many years that the world and its expectations of the readiness of our graduates to play the game of life encompasses more – so much more – than the lingering relic of an outdated game of school. Students all over the world speak to me of this gap between the two games. In schools, we’re really reluctant to admit to this and to do something about it.

I think too many of us have built a fixed mastery around the game of school and don’t want to develop the adaptive expertise required for the game of school to become a true rehearsal of the game of life.

Look at the composition of our senior school classes for our older students. They’re no longer an elite few headed for university while the rest have already left to find a trade, a job or social security benefits. Over recent decades, the social policies of our country have increasingly mandated that all students, not just some students, should stay on and complete secondary schooling, with a view to transition into even more education and training, be that tertiary, technical, vocational or other further learning. But is this aspiration reflected in the nature and structure of current pathways and programs for senior students? There’s little difference in what we did then and how we do it now, if we’re honest, than when Brian and Rohma went to school. The final years of schooling are all designed to support the purpose and practice of the privileged paradigm of university matriculation, even if the majority of students in the majority of schools are not headed for that particular destination.

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As a result, I believe that schools now have a moral imperative to help all of their learners and those who teach, care for and then them, to craft and to tell a story of transformation that fulfils a sense of purpose by putting into practice the meaningful, authentic, transformational and sustainable service of people and place and planet.

For good, for real, for change, for life, for the other, for each other. That’s the values proposition for the purpose and practice of today’s learning for tomorrow’s world to which I referred earlier.

Why frame this values proposition, and its purpose and practice, as a story?

Stories are important; you’ve heard me say that already. They tell us about the origins and accounts of the habits, rituals and traditions that are woven into the warp and weft of the fabric of the common and interdependent humanity of a school community.

Almost all such communities begin as a matter of course; they just seem to happen. At some point, they need to develop a shared sense of belonging and identity, a place where potential can be realised through performance, an agreed collection of values and beliefs that can become the basis for that which is considered to be good and right. 

And they must tell a story together, over time, that characterises them. The strategy of a school is, at its heart, the story of why, how and what that connects yesterday, today and tomorrow.

A school community must, therefore, take on a character that is its very own, a purpose that gives it direction for this strategy, and a collective practice that becomes culture – “the way we do things here”. 

It does so, I believe, from the inside out. We lead from the core of our being and we teach who we are. What you think about this matters because you matter.

I want to encourage you and your community of inquiry and practice to think about your story, a story that oscillates between honouring the legacy yesterday, attending to the urgencies of today, and anticipating and preparing for the imperative of tomorrow.

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I believe that only in asking questions and co-constructing the compelling narratives that emerge from our answers to them can we attend to the true purpose of school, the new social contract of education which is today’s learning for tomorrow’s world. The reciprocity of the asking and answering of questions throughout our schooling is essential to help us us grow in the voice, agency and advocacy that characterises today’s learning for tomorrow’s world. 

These terms of “voice, agency and advocacy” are critical to our success in education. It’s important for us to receive the wisdom of the past. What we do with this, however, influenced our capacity to navigate a way forward into the future. Innovation and creativity are both difficult and rare; more often than not the right answers will be found in what was learned before us. 

But this is not always the case. And how we generate the incentive to do the individual and collective work of taking the big step forward and up requires much more than giving us an answer before we’ve made the context and application our own.

People often use the term “ownership” when “voice, agency and advocacy” are more suitable and more honest ways of describing how students and those who teach, lead, care for and live them might claim a sense of purpose about what it is that they might do at school and beyond. Usually, we don’t and can’t have the degree of personal control that ownership of property brings. Instead, ours is a temporary custodianship of school through which we might steward today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.

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In exercising our stewardship, we can, therefore, tell a story with voices that are both germane to ourselves and that also honour our obligations to others. Voice emerges from our need to locate a sense of belonging and express identity through the civic character of respect, civility and courtesy. In school, voice begins with giving students the opportunity to communicate their ideas and opinions without fear of injustice or unfair judgment; this equips them to reveal their authentic selves by sharing the experience of their unique story and how they learn, live, lead and work in community. The co-authoring of a shared story in this way has the potential to shape and influence decisions made by learners with adults around what, how and why they learn, and how their learning is assessed.

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We can demonstrate agency that tests what’s possible and allows us to act with an increased sense of purpose. Agency arises from our need to form relationships that provide meaningful encounters that shape our ideas about self, place and the other through the performance character of purpose, persistence and reflection. In school, agency is nurtured through learning. That is accessible, rigorous and relevant through exchanges with teachers, mentors, experts and peers; this empowers students to act with the intentionality needed to flourish. The increasing permissioning of agency can allow students to step into their experience with greater confidence and to explore what they might know, do, be and learn through the adaptive expertise and self-efficacy required to flourish.

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We can exercise stewardship of our community with a selfless advocacy for a better today and tomorrow. Advocacy arises from our need to serve as the voices of human endeavour and the agents of social change, bolstered by the moral character of doing what is good and right through courage, honour and humility. In school, advocacy is nurtured through an openness to enter into democratic dialogue and an empathy to understand the stories of all; this enables students to listen, write and speak as both supporters and challengers who care about crafting just and equitable solutions for their local, regional and global communities. This approach has the potential to help all learners to go beyond themselves to enact a model of leadership that creates both values and value for all through the cultivation of trust and care for people and place and planet.

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Thus, today’s learning for tomorrow’s world truly prepares our students when it helps them to find, practise and demonstrate their voice, agency and advocacy that will help them to thrive in their world. It is not only future-fit in approach and future-ready in disposition, it is one in which the students themselves play an active role in co-constructing their learning. It’s about them being game changers. After all, an education that is done to you is very different from one which is done with you and (in due course) done by you. It is the latter that is more likely to prompt a willingness to learn to be embraced by more learners, who, in turn, become more purposeful about what they do.

As teachers, we know that this willingness to learn starts with fostering a disposition towards curiosity formed through asking and answering questions. Telling them how it is leads to compliance; helping them to tell their own story achieves a very different set of capabilities.

Some of you might know of our podcast series, Game Changers, which asks brave pioneers who are leading all of us in our quest to realise this new social contract of education of today’s learning for tomorrow’s world to tell their stories, stories that influence, inspire, direct and motivate.

You are, of course, all the most influential and powerful of Game Changers in education. Our global research over the past decade tells us that it is your voice, agency and advocacy, powered by your courageous hearts, that unlocks the door for the members of your school communities to define leadership and culture, and set strategies and systems so that in the learning and performance you might support your students to grow and attain better outcomes so that they might thrive in their world. Leadership and culture, strategies and systems, learning and performance - these are the organisers that are the key strategic levers (and in that sequence) that our research at a School for tomorrow. tells us helps schools change the game of school.

And so, Game Changers, I want now to direct your thinking to the story of the changing game of this world in which we hope our students might thrive. 

To start, I want to focus your attention on the values, skill sets and graduate outcomes required by the world of work in the communities which we serve, as well as the mega-trends influencing the volume, pace and intensity of social, economic, technological and political development in these communities in Australia and beyond. This is the context of a future-fit, future-ready life of purpose.

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In contemplating this context for a life of purpose, our learners should begin by examining what is most true and relevant for their lives – what really matters. They will need to identify those beliefs about what is good and right that can help them to identify and live with a purpose informed by those values I mentioned earlier:

  • Meaningfulness – for good
  • Authenticity – for real
  • Transformation – for change
  • Sustainability – for life
  • Service – for the other
  • Relationship – for each other

When they learn, live, lead and work through their values, they will, we will, you will engage in the process of becoming a better version of yourself. The global work of our research institute – CIRCLE - The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity and Leadership in Education – with schools, students, teachers and families for more than a decade now, tells us that when you grow in this way, and do what you enjoy and are good at doing, you begin to show what you increasingly feel is your true character – what you are really capable of becoming.

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It’s about strengthening your capacity to show the graduate outcomes and key employability skills that will help you to present your own values and value proposition to employers now and into the future:

  • The integrity to lead a meaningful life as a good person – this draws on the skill of self management, which is about building your personal organisation, resilience, adaptability, self-awareness, response to feedback and personal responsibility.
  • The ability to manage complexity with authenticity as a future builder – this draws principally on the skill of communication, which is about building your influence, understanding of others, relationships, connection with audiences, numeracy, and capacity to listen, speak and write.
  • The capacity to grow and transform yourself as a continuous learner and unlearner – the skill of learning through technology is critical to your future in this respect, especially through how you engage in your own learning, develop new capabilities, support of others to learn, and the building of your digital fluency, digital citizenship and management of data
  • The wisdom to provide sustainable direction to the world as a solution architect with the skill of problem solving that is shown through evaluation, decision-making, creativity and innovation, reasoning, consultations with stakeholders and the generation of options.
  • The perspective to balance the local, the regional, and the global as a responsible citizen with the skill of planning and organising through capacity in initiative, taking action, managing risk, managing resources, implementation and review
  • The willingness to work well in inclusive relationship with others to bring success and fulfilment for all of us as a team creator with the skill of teamwork that comprises collaboration, cooperation, respect, ethical conduct, team wellbeing and professional culture.

But let’s be honest with ourselves: our model of education has not really changed to meet the pressing demands of an education centred on these values, graduate outcomes and skills. We’ve been talking about words like these and the importance of realising them through the work of school for over two decades and we can’t even agree on how to unpick and re-stitch curriculum to align to these fundamental ideas, let alone the learner profile and mastery transcripts that might help us to track student growth in character, competency and wellness and report on this properly.

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Yet, we still cling to exams and other standardised external testing as the most pressing call to action in what it is we do and how we organise ourselves to do it. If I look at the History syllabuses taught now and those I wrote for New South Wales back in the 1990s, there is again precious little difference, apart from some rearrangement of topic content. The work of transforming the passage of knowledge into a meaningful process of showing how the character and competency of an historian might contribute to the acquisition of a future-fit learner profile, a proper passport into the world around us, simply hasn’t been done. It’s more of the same. 

Dare I say it, history repeats; the deck chairs on the Titanic have been rearranged again and we feel reassured. I worry that we just don’t want to look up at the iceberg that is already here and look down at the water that is pouring into our badly designed hull.

Think about how sclerotic we have been in our collective responses to the game-breaking reality of artificial intelligence that is already coursing through the veins of how the world learns, lives, leads and works. 

If we were serious about the game of school aligning to the game of life, we’d never ban such a tool simply to protect enshrined habits of classroom curriculum, homework and assessment that are, quite simply, redundant to what our children need to thrive in this technologically agile and enriched society.

I haven’t yet given AI the attention it deserves in my own practice and I haven’t yet gained fluency in driving such a remarkable advance. I have, however, started to think about what we might do instead during those hours of school where we teach young people to do what AI can now do better, faster and with greater consistency. I haven’t yet wrapped my head around what might be done instead, but can I ask you: what should we be doing to help our learners work with the future rather than work against it? 

One thing I know is that were I given charge of a Year 11 Ancient History class again, I’d question the value of the hours and hours once spent on the writing of essays - the generation of a fixed body of knowledge and a repertoire of prepared positions on this body of knowledge –when it’s clear that it’s the adaptive growth, analysis and critique of a body of knowledge which are much more pressing for their future success.

And don’t even get me started on the hours and hours wasted on hand writing. If hand writing promotes knowledge acquisition, then what else can we do that is appropriate to the tenor of our times can we do to replace it in our pantheon of educational practice. Surely the concerted efforts of the science of learning can find us an answer to that? No-one writes by hand outside of the world of education when they have access to a keyboard or a dictation app or an AI engine. I’m still a little old fashioned in this respect. I tapped out this presentation on the notes app of my phone whilst sitting on a plane or three recently. I edited it on my laptop. I’m reading it to you from my device. No ink and no paper were sacrificed to bring you these thoughts. Why do kids need a pen licence? If we believe they do, then why not a stylus licence, just in case they need to use wax tablets at some point in the future?

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We in schools don’t like moving quickly. We don’t like deviating from our ostensibly safe and narrow path, one that maintains a headstrong unwillingness to take the big step forward and up that we know is our moral imperative to honour the new social contract for education.

For to continue to focus solely on an outdated mode of formal education that suits the aptitudes of some, but not all, that shuts its eyes in a vain attempt to deny the way the knowledge engines and social and economic norms around us are already transforming, is playing the game of school, not the game of life.

Maybe we just don’t like the world and the life it brings to us. We do have a tendency to decry our times, and I grant you that these times are filled with uncertainty. The official and unofficial sources of news and information amplify conflict, division and gloom. High-minded feelgood manifestos and declarations of the goals of education become lost in the translation to the chalk-face. We have become bogged down and our well-being suffers as the gap between purpose and practice mirrors the gap between the game of life and the game of school. Too many teachers are too stressed and unwell. Even when we find ways to give them more time and space or fewer students and classes, they still speak to us of a surfeit of unmanageable pressures.

We are not yet Game Changers. We can’t quite see our way through to the adventure that our lives might be. We look to our systems to help us. Yet our patent inability as a profession and as network of bureaucratic organisations to develop top-down systems that can help us adapt and organise what we do to maintain our own relevance in education calls for a different approach.

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I’ve long believed that we change the world one heart at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time. We can only do so if our rationale is clear and our resolve is strong. A disposition towards action and an unrelenting sense of optimism about what the future brings can be hard things to hold onto under such circumstances. We need direction, hope and faith if we are to see the journey through and change the game of school.

And so, I return to where I began: A Life of Purpose and The Pathway to Excellence that binds us to it.

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More than ever, we need to become Game Changers. We need to build a school for tomorrow together. It's not simply the “how” and “what” of the whole work of a school and its intersection with the work of a whole school. It's the “why” of the purpose to which we have been called. If we want our students and our schools to claim their purpose, then we need to do so first!

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I was working with some very bright young people at Oxford University recently and trying to channel them towards working on writing a tangible (and short!) statement that encapsulated their compelling reason why. With the world at their feet, they’d better know what they’re doing with it, or so I figured. 

They challenged me to share my purpose statement with them first. Fortunately, I’d done that work a little time before. Here’s what I had written and shared with them:

I’m going to spend the rest of my career working towards helping people to feel as though they belong, can fulfil their potential, and do good and right things because they have been educated through the transforming power of a future-fit education for character, competency, and wellness. I want to help them to find and claim their purpose, and to become the best versions of themselves by putting this purpose into practice for the sake of people and place and planet throughout their lives.

What’s your purpose?

How will you realise this purpose?

What is it that you want to be good at doing? What are you already good at doing? What competencies do you want to improve? And what are some that you don’t have in your own personal toolkit yet?

What will it take to hear the call of purpose and change your own game so that you can change the game of school so that it is habitually attentive to the genuine service of the game of life?

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In my learning and listening to others, I keep being drawn back to the reciprocal power of trust and reflection in the work of school leaders. The solutions for our people and our place and our planet lie with you, with us, and the young people in our care. 

Yet, the mandating of change is such a challenge. In a recent conversation Jan Owen AM shared her thinking with me about the critical role that trust plays in underpinning every success we have in taking the big step forward and up. I really respect this wisdom.

We need to believe that the new thing that we might do together is possible and desirable; frameworks help us see what this possibility might be. Permission gives us the safety to step forward. Flexibility encourages us to try things out and adapt them to context and circumstance.

Without trust, it just can’t work. I love a win and I love to see a plan come together. No team ever won through with the right plan without trust. No individual led a good process without trust.

It’s trust that girds the warp and weft of daily life in what we do in education. We can’t create a system for trust. It’s personal. It’s relational. It’s accrued. It’s earned. And it’s fragile.

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We change the world one heart at a time, one classroom at a time and one school at a time. We do this because of relationships built on trust and our advocacy for the other. Or we fail because the trust wasn’t there or didn’t measure up to the task.

I’ve learned this all in so many ways, usually because of the mistakes I’ve made in breaking trust with others. I can only seek to do better as I gain in opportunity, experience and character.

How might we increase the character capital in our schools? How might this bulwark of values in action prompt innovation and initiative? How might we create the culture and conditions where hope triumphs over doubt?

How we might we learn both to trust and also to earn the trust that will see others willing to share, to collaborate and to grow?

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We need to be intentional about reflecting often on how we might do this work ourselves. We also need to learn how to collaborate within and across our schools on habits of reflection on which we might build the community of inquiry and practice that will see us construct an education for character, competency and wellness that truly supports learners to thrive in their world. 

Reflection, therefore, is more than just a pedagogy; it forms the core of how we see ourselves and our world, how we notice the opportunity to grow and how we measure our success on the way. It helps us go from the implicit to the explicit, and from the spontaneous to the deliberate. It unlocks the door to making the potential of character real in our lives by helping us recognise, understand and adopt those behaviours and dispositions that can help us to take responsibility for who we are becoming. In time, as leaders and learners we can form and claim a voice, agency and identity driven by purpose that will stand us in good stead throughout the vocation of our lives.

What do I mean by a calling or a “vocation”?

The journey of a lifetime asks each of us to grow in our capacity to ask and answer these four questions and reflect upon our purpose, our “Why?” Why do you do what you do? Why are you who you are? Who and what might be the proper objects of such a purpose? How do you and will you act on this?

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What will be your legacy? 

A sense of vocation speaks to this overwhelming desire to ask and answer such questions. It asks you to name and claim a purpose in response to them as an essential part of the journey of a lifetime, no matter what it is you actually end up doing for work. Vocation connects how you work to how you learn, live and lead. In fact, a vocation is a calling to do work for the sake of others – for people and place and planet. It’s in contemplation of the other that we locate purpose and put it into practice in the stories of our lives.

On our separate and connected journeys, each of us needs to grow in our vocation as much as we do in all the other parts of our lives. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it can be easy for us to give all our energy and effort to that which lies immediately in front of us. Yet, the urgent demands of today can take precedence over the equally important need to tend to the garden of tomorrow.

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We all need to give priority to create the habit of reflection, to establishing the regular time and space in our lives to think deeply about and discover how we are growing in our capacity to answer those four questions of The Pathway to Excellence:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where do I fit in?
  3. How can I best serve others? 
  4. Whose am I?

I invite you to commit to your own life of purpose. I invite you to reflect on how you are changing your game and changing the game if school. I invite you to contemplate how you might grow further in how you might put your answers to these four questions into practice through your purpose in what you do to learn, live, lead and work.

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Each and every one of us needs to tell our story, a story of vocation that is our tale of how and why we are travelling on The Pathway to Excellence, a story of our own lives of purpose.

The story of your own vocational development, therefore, must be ongoing and intentional. It must have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it, and how to connect this to your “Why?” While you cannot predict everything that will happen, committing to ongoing preparation and revision through planning and adaptation will equip you with the competencies to get the job at hand done, the wellness to solidify your sense of vocation in your own presence, and the character to strive for transformation over transaction.

At the same time, you need to take the necessary steps to take responsibility for the mapping of your career to your burgeoning sense of vocation. You need to keep track of the qualifications, accreditations and other valuable information that play a role in your career development program. You need to be actively researching new, innovative methods to incorporate into your career program as well as seeking out hands-on work and leadership experiences that will sponsor us in our professional growth. You need to pay attention to the program requirements of your academic studies and consider how they might influence your career progression.

You will, therefore, also need to be committed to building connections and expanding your reach through meeting new people and leaving a positive and lasting impact on them. If it is possible to see your career progress as the narrative of your vocational development, then the network you build holds and sustains the other leading roles and supporting characters of your story. Their existence and endeavour are as essential to its composition as your own purpose.

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Sometimes this growth in both career and the sense of vocation that drives it will involve taking on different, new, and greater responsibilities, while at other times, we will develop and exercise new competencies in pursuit of deeper or broader expertise. This expertise itself should be an adaptive expertise, for with growth must come the assumption that we all need to accept the need for ongoing learning and development. None of us was made to stand still; there is a pathway to excellence that calls each of us to press on towards the prize.

Your vocation is your calling to place your labour and love on the pathway to excellence in service of someone or something greater than yourself. It is the connection of your purpose to your practice in the context of your people and your place. In particular, it gives you a tangible meaning and a practical context in which you can situate your yearning to realise your “Why?” through the enactment of your career.

The development of your vocation through reflection on purpose and the cultivation of a career directed towards it goes further than achieving mastery in those four fields of establishing and making a career program, making progress in it, augmenting it through your ongoing studies and work experiences, and earning due qualifications for what you have accomplished. It is about you telling your own story of aspiration, purpose, decision making, agency, adaptation, and reflection as your life and your world all move around, with, for, and against you. 

And as much as a career can be based upon practical experiences and growth, it is also about growing who you are and who you might become – your character, competencies, and wellness. 

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While you are building your own character,  competency and wellbeing, you may not be able to realise your purpose either fully or permanently, nor should you expect to do so. Yet, try as you might, you can and will do none of these things in your life completely or separately. Each of you has strengths and weaknesses and the way you cope with the vicissitudes of life is never as constant as you would wish. You will surprise yourself on occasion, just as much as you will disappoint yourself. It’s all part of your story.

Dealing with imperfection and impermanence always seems to involve contemplating and focusing on either that which you can manage to do – your strengths – or that which you can’t – your weaknesses. I think working from strength is better and healthier, but many take the opposite approach. Either way, both strength and weakness will play a role in how you work out what is important enough to gain priority for your time and energy, as will the mutual relationship between both your strengths and weaknesses and how they operate within the whole of your humanity. No mortal has either the degree of perfection in execution or the degree of circumspection, reflection and self-effacement required to do this; it’s why humility is as essential as will power.  

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What you can do, therefore, is to keep trying to do the best with what you have at your disposal – your gifts, talents, companions, and the opportunities presented to you to put them to good use in a whole life. You won’t be perfect and you might never get as far as you might like, but by doing what really matters, you will be transforming yourself and those around you. You will be doing the right thing.

So, a life that is well-lived and worthwhile is about fellowship, fun, and faith with family and friends in which we explore, reflect and articulate the who, where and what that are most important for us.  To achieve success, we don’t need to be perfect or even exceptional. We need to be committed to growth and to take responsibility for becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can be.  

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It all starts with belonging. If we feel as though we belong, we are more likely to fulfil our potential. And if we feel as though we belong and are achieving our potential, we are more likely to do that is good and right in the world.

As you do this, I want you to adopt a practical approach to establishing and maintaining progress in your career development – how you set and achieve goals in your career so you can grow in the character, competencies, and wellness needed to fulfil your sense of vocation, while also attending to the practical requirements for looking after yourself and those who share your life.

The ambition of your vocation should be not only to succeed in a material or transactional sense, but also to aspire to be and become a better, more whole person. It needs, ultimately, to be about transformation: transformation of yourself through the transformation of those around you. It’s about bringing the benefit of both values and value that do good and right to people and place and planet through enacting a purpose that is greater than yourself.

Thus, most of all, though, I want you to find your vocation and pursue your calling so that you can know your purpose and see it realised in the journey of your lifetime.

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After all, Game Changers, life is an adventure ... so let's go!

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Thank you. 


Dr Phil Cummins FRSA FACEL FIML is the Managing Partner of a School for tomorrow, Managing Director at CIRCLE – The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity & Leadership in Education, Associate Professor of Education & Enterprise at Alphacrucis University College, and co-host of the Game Changers podcast series.

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