The Future of School as a Place that Matters
The American Essayist, Henry David Thoreau, understood that some places matter more than others.
Is it some influence, as a vapour which exhales from the ground, or something in the gales which blow there, or in all things there brought agreeably to my spirit? (Journal, 21 July 1851)
In the modern era, it is perhaps Jeff Malpas who has most succinctly articulated the complex relationship between human experience, identity and place. To put it (too) simply, just as a surveyor maps the topography of a particular region by traversing the terrain and triangulating multiple landmarks across the landscape, so, in order to truly understand our experiences, we need to consider the complex web of influences that mean that some places literally carry more weight and significance than others in the story of our lives.
A few days ago, I was speaking to a student from the International School of Brussels (ISB) Class of 2018, who is now studying in the UK. I asked him to describe his old school. In a second, his answer came and I immediately saw the emotion in his eyes.
Home. As soon as I walk onto campus, I feel like I'm home.
Such familiar words. I have lost count how many times I have heard the same over the years.
But what is this feeling of connection and rootedness? Where does it come from? And why is it so universal?
If we learn anything from Jeff Malpas' philosophical topography, we have to give up the idea that it is any one thing. It's not about winning on the soccer field or performing in the school play. It's not the inspirational teachers or lifelong friends. It's not the sun shining low through the forest trees in late October. Neither is it sitting under the old magnolia tree on the Chateau lawn.
It is all of these things, and a thousand more besides.
Each moment, a reference point and marker that forms a complex human memory and determines that this school, this place, will always be a true homecoming.
In a recent blog post, I noted that some of our current students were already identifying their school as "a place to leave, but always come back to".
The same story, already emerging.
So when it comes to any consideration of the future of our schools, whilst many appear to be of the view that learning is easily transportable from one place to another and some will even argue that learning no longer requires a physical location at all, I find myself wondering what is at stake. Are we potentially in danger of altering the topography - the culture - that has formed the landscape until now?
Maja Angelou once wrote:
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
As a parent, I'm learning that even as our children leave home, home is still important to them. Even if they only return from time to time.
As an educator, I'm beginning to think that school is a place that matters to our students for a long time.
Even a lifetime.