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I wish I were...: Redefining education's purpose

One of my favourite children's storybooks is titled “I Wish I Were a Butterfly” written by James Howe. It tells the story of a little cricket who, thanks to the careless words of a frog, lost his inner music and instead wishes to be as beautiful as the butterfly. It is a brilliant narrative with a lovely message which seeks to encourage a positive self-identity in our children as well as affirm their individuality. Unfortunately, the cricket’s story is all too familiar to many of us. We disown ourselves, believe lies, and begin wishing for an alternative identity as we engage in comparison.

Opening pandora’s box

When I was younger, like many women, I struggled with a poor self-image. My confidence in my sense of self began to change when I began to work on my essence and identity. While it continues to be a work in progress for me, a strong sense of identity, acceptance of my personal values, and alignment of these to my life’s purpose have provided me a solid footing. Like the old frog in the story, we live in a society that brilliantly packages messages that feed our insecurities related to not being enough, having enough, or doing enough. We open pandora’s box and find ourselves continually striving for more as we buy into the paradigm of following the latest trends, escaping the aging process, continuing self-improvement, and the list goes on.

Like the siren’s deceptive call, our culture’s focus on outward appearance and youthfulness, materialism and commerce, popularity and fame, success, and achievement can cause even the most innocent of us to lose our way. We can never do or be “enough.” “Enough” simply cannot exist within this philosophical framework. Our gaze turns outward as we measure ourselves against standards imposed by others and enter the endless game of comparison and greed.

Wishful thinking: Reconceptualizing education's promise 

Working with young children brings me such joy. I appreciate their zest for life and simplicity, I marvel at their sense of wonder and creativity, and I delight in their candid observations. However, I have noted that even the youngest children are not immune to assaults to their self-esteem. While we can observe the media’s sometimes negative contribution to children’s self-image, I believe our education system’s agenda has often also rendered some children invisible. Education's dichotomous emphasis on academics and devaluing the arts and play, its approach to schooling, classroom environments and schedules, not to mention its standardized evaluation measures, have often sent implicit messages to our young: the ideal is the ability to be “rational” and “achieve” high marks. What happens to those children who don’t or can’t quite fit that ideal well? Are they left wishing they were the “butterfly” – our adult-imposed utopian ideal of what it means to be an educated person?

The quest before us is simply this: how do we begin to facilitate and support our young students in owning their identities, and making decisions that allow for their inclusivity and visibility, regardless of their ability? Can there be a higher calling for education? One that seeks not solely to prepare labourers and professionals for the workforce but also to prepare citizens and stewards for life in an increasingly complex and global world? How does our work in education help to provide formative experiences that support our children to attain this life and ultimately develop their sense of purpose and identities, affirming their true essence, not out of comparison, commerce, and competition, but out of a reciprocity of care and concern for others?

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