3. Consensus on purpose is the norm
We asked over 600 learners from schools a straightforward starter question: “Have you heard of the four capacities?” And they were shown the most recent four capacities icon.
We discovered that the majority hadn’t heard of the four capacities. 60% hadn’t heard of them at all, and over 20% more weren’t sure.
50% of upper primary school learners had heard of the four capacities, therefore backing up the evidence that they are more commonly referred to in primary schools than elsewhere. However, the results for S1-3 and Senior Phase are stark. 74% of S1-3 learners and 68% of Senior Phase learners have never heard of, or have entirely forgotten, the four capacities.
So, instead, we asked these 600 learners how they understood the purpose of school. We also asked 80 educators to anticipate their answers. These educators came from across the education sector: from early years, primary and secondary, ASN specialists, and other specialists from Local Authorities. The results were almost identical.
The top three responses for educators and learners were jobs, education/learning and friendship. Interestingly, the importance and value of qualifications came further down the pecking order.
No educators anticipated that the learners would highlight the importance of their parents (or the law) in compelling them to go to school.
The importance of friendship and socialisation, beyond getting a ‘good education’ to get a future job, is a notable purpose of Scottish education, according to both learners and educators.
We also asked them what their own ‘superpowers’ were as a jargon-free way of understanding their capacities, capabilities and attributes. There was more to this than making up an appealing question. The word ‘capacity’ suggests a limit, the maximum amount something can contain or a person can do. Four capacities, four flavours of skills and attributes cannot be all there is. But education focuses on opening new doors of opportunity, learner pathways and wider achievement.
Exploring beyond traditional ideas of 'success'
We wanted to reflect that opportunity, and avoid any potential for narrowing the discussion to fixed ideas of ‘competence’ or what it means to be a ‘successful learner’.
‘Superpowers’ are those unique and essential skills and personal attributes you recognise in yourself. And as young people talk about their superpowers, they also tend to reveal their own definition of the purpose of going to school and why it matters:
School matters because it allows us to gain social skills and make friends.
A school is a safe place for many people.
School matters to me because it is setting you up for life.
I go to school to be active and have a better understanding of things.
School matters to people around the world so they can learn, achieve their dream, work hard for the job they want, and get the stuff they need.
So I can live a good life.
If everybody gets a good education, they can do great things and change the world.
I think school matters to my parents because they want me to try my hardest to achieve my future dreams and be happy.
Learners identified a broad and potentially infinite range of superpowers. These superpowers are developed inside and outside school and in the exciting cracks between formal and informal education. And they are not found in boxes on policy papers.
Learners identified their need for successful learning habits such as critical thinking, communication skills, curiosity, creativity and teamwork. Leadership featured highly across all age groups.
Some of what matters most is what tends to get squeezed
But they also recognised their ability to game the classroom, understanding the hidden rules of achieving success at school, with superpowers such as ‘a big brain’, common sense, being a quick learner and working on developing a good memory. They emphasised the importance of socialisation through personality traits such as empathy, kindness, and simply being a good friend.
A plethora of big-ticket responses dominated the answers. Art, PE, English, Maths, Science, Woodwork and Home Economics were underscored by endless examples of unique variations on those themes. Highland dancing, mountain biking, practical electronics, hill walking and juggling are a small sample of the richness and diversity of their superpowers.
These are the same areas that, in recent years, have seen a curricular squeeze when practitioners have felt the weight of accountability (Shapira et al., 2021).
We can recognise achievement in far more sophisticated ways than exams
We asked the learners, ‘In what ways does your school recognise, develop and celebrate your superpowers?’ Out of over 600 learners, none suggested exams or formal qualifications. Therefore, if we are serious about measuring what we value in our experience of school, we need to be bold and cast the net of opportunity and resources far and wide. Learners offered this list of possibilities to define different ways to celebrate and mark successful learning:
Values assemblies, Skills assemblies, Rights assemblies
After school clubs and sports
Creative and interesting learning
Trying and experiencing new things
Verbal awards - compliments
Not giving rewards
Duke of Edinburgh Award
Teachers who know what you are good at and what you struggle with
Sharing news from your weekend
School sports day
Sports tournaments (football, netball, basketball etc.)
Star of the week and Class Dojo points
Residentials and school trips
John Muir Award
Strong individual support and mentoring networks
Teacher feedback and positive language
Treats like baking, free time and extra playtime
People who are good at maths are ‘doing harder stuff’
You can download the full paper (PDF), return to the overview or read the next section.