Becoming Human

Most of us will spend time in hospitals, normally towards the end of our lives. In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande softens his previous stance—the pursuit of better performance, which its lexicon of outcomes and systems—and suggests that we should take care and quality of life much more seriously.


The time that we might spend in hospitals pales in comparison with the hours, days, months, years that we spend in school. Almost everyone born today will spend more than seven years of two hundred days each year and five hours each day in these institutions. How do we want that experience to be?

We’re used to debating the state of our hospitals. Are doctors sufficiently highly valued? Do we focus too keenly on preserving life at all costs, rather than concerning ourselves with quality of life? Should treatment be a free public good? These questions are fundamental to society. We all want a say.

Yet in schools the debate seems to be sharpening to a narrow point. We ask how we can ensure more kids can attain a limited set of outcomes at sixteen. We ask what the perfect formula of subjects and curricular knowledge should be at that point. WWII or the Vikings? Of Mice and Men or Kes?

We need to talk about school differently.

The formative years of a person’s life set up their long-term sense of purpose, well-being, success and happiness. Yet compared to medicine, we’ve a strangely hands-off approach to those years, outsourcing them to relatively low-paid professionals, leaving the decisions about why, what and how we learn to governments.

It’s time we reimagined this view of learning. As a focus on preserving life at all costs perverts the work of doctors, so a focus on knowledge, exams and jobs perverts the work of teachers. We’re not learning machines, we’re learning animals, learning humans.

If Gawande’s thinking has evolved from Checklists to Being Mortal, so ours in the field of education should focus on the most important outcome of becoming human.

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