In the last decade or so, Australia has grappled with the issue of refugees who travel often via Indonesia and into Australian waters by boat. These refugees are fellow human beings who go through incredible stress and danger just for the glimmer of hope in reaching a place that is more stable than their home. Many don’t want to leave their homes, if they had a choice and were safe. Despite whatever political rhetoric whips around in an angry storm of words and fear, these people are desperate for a place of calm. A place where they can simply live their lives and be part of a society that does not seek to persecute them for who they are or what they believe. (Note: in the 1970s Australia dealt with a similar issue due to the conflict in South East Asia – but some have short memories and don’t read their history.)

Though not as often advertised, I would like to suggest that another issue facing Australia today is the role of schools. Invented during the Enlightenment (thank you Ken Robinson) many schools – there are a growing number of exceptions – were designed and built to house clusters of young people based on age, in order that they are managed and instructed by a single teacher for a set length of time.

Some argue that schools have lost their purpose. That schools, as they are, are essentially redundant in that students can now learn anywhere and any time. They can learn, through services such as the Khan Academy and many others, about whatever they choose. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are even challenging universities – the bastion of advanced and specialised learning and research – to rethink what services and experiences they provide for students. In other words, a lecture room with an hour long content conveyor-belt may not be adequate any more.

The usual argument goes that the world has moved on and schools are trying to retain traditional modes of education within the school gates. They are ignoring or blind to the changes going on outside and incapable of dealing with them when they are aware.

I suggest that schools do have a significant and clear role in the future of education. I think that schools can act as an island of heightened and targeted and rich learning in a sea of change and, for some students, personal chaos. When effective leadership and support structures are in place, chools have the ability to pool significant resources – human and financial – into the life of a child that services like Khan Academy just cannot do. Learning is a social activity (dust off your Ed Psych text and look up Vygotsky – or go here which requires as often as possible the physical presence of others, as well as stimuli and an engaging environment, for great learning to occur.

Schools provide a society to students that is a part of their real life. Increasingly I am rejecting the notion that schools “prepare” students for real life, as they seem to be alive during most of my lessons. Certainly in the playground, at least. They are making decisions and forming (and breaking) relationships and ideas. They are growing and forming the person they will eventually be. (Though this is problematic, really, because do we ever just “become” the person or are we always just a phase through which we move on to the next level of person we can be?)

Schools that identify current and future needs of their students instead of focusing on compliance and administrivia will be the ones who do not close down. These are the schools where, as much as possible, the teachers are passionate, engaged and leading learning. These are schools where the built environment is designed with the students’ learning in mind. These are schools where technology is harnessed to reduce clerical duties and increase time for building relationships and designing effective learning. These are the schools that will shine as islands of excellence, not just calm.

Schools should be the place that students want to be. Not a place they are afraid of, or “over”. The greatest schools are not those who put their public image first but who understand their public image will sort itself out, if only they do a good job for their students and their community.

I can’t possibly start to suggest a “solution” for the Australian refugee issue, nor a single future for education. You can probably gather my feelings about refugees from this post and through my tweets. (It’s like saying one has a “solution” that will educate every learner in Australia – too diverse an issue and too narrow a soundbyte for my liking.) But, in both cases, if we consider those at the centre of the issue as fellow human beings, and people in need of our expertise and assistance to lead a fulfilling life, then we have a duty to do so. Forget conventions and laws and traditions if you must, but try looking at a fellow human being in the eye – a fellow world citizen with all their feelings and thoughts, experiences and possibilities – and deny them the right to their own destiny.

Let’s grapple with the tough issues. It’s the only way to grow.

I would love you to share a story via comments about how your school or workplace serves its community as an island of calm, of energy or of innovation.