Sunday, February 01, 2009

What's the Purpose of School?

While I've certainly blogged about and around this topic before, I've run across a couple of interesting posts in the last few weeks that both address this question directly. I'm going to quote liberally from both posts, because I think it's useful to see them both on the same page.

First, David Warlick wrote after watching - and participating - in our videoconferencing with Daniel Pink:
On several occasions, lately, when working with teachers and administrators at independent schools, I’ve been asked, “What is the purpose of education?” It’s not a question that comes out of public school conversations very often. We already know what education is for. The government told us.

Education is about:
  • Covering all the standards
  • Improving performance on government tests
  • Meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress)
  • Producing a competitive workforce
We don’t even ask any more — and even in this season of Change (, we’re still not asking that question.

Now I generalize when comparing different types of schools, and to be sure, independent schools are also governed by testing, as many of their students attend so that they can get into Harvard, Yale, or Duke (Go Blue Devils). But, again, there is a palpable sense of confidence in the conversations I witness when away from public schools — a willingness to ask tough questions.

I’ve had a ready answer to the question.

“The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.”

There are some implied, but essential questions in that answer:
  • What will their future hold? What will they need to know?
  • What are appropriate method, materials, environment, activity?
  • Who are these children? What is their frame of reference?
Today, I have a new answer. My old one is still good. I’ll continue to use it. But if you ask me, “What is the purpose of education?” today, I’ll say,

"The purpose of education is to make the world a better place!"

What drew me to this answer was Karl Fisch’s teleconferencing activity last week (see A 2.0 Sort’a Day: Part 2). As I thought more about the experience, it occurred to me that this was an almost singularly unique activity — beyond the fact that students were interacting with an internationally renowned writer, exchanging thoughtful insights, and the really cool use of technology.

What struck me in hindsight was that these students were earning respect. They were respected by each other, by their teachers, by the instructional support professionals, and by the internationally renowned figure, Dan Pink. Their engagement in that activity will continue to be respected by people, young and old, who will read the archive of those multidimensional conversations.

Those students were full partners in their learning, and they were entrusted to go beyond just what was expected. They were encouraged to freely extend and develop their own thoughts, skills, and knowledge, building on their own frame of reference, pushing and pulling through conversation, and being responsible for their part of the endeavor.
Then yesterday Seth Godin wrote:
So, a starter list. The purpose of school is to:
  1. Become an informed citizen
  2. Be able to read for pleasure
  3. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
  4. Do well on standardized tests
  5. Homogenize society, at least a bit
  6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
  7. Give kids something to do while parents work
  8. Teach future citizens how to conform
  9. Teach future consumers how to desire
  10. Build a social fabric
  11. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
  12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
  13. Learn for the sake of learning
  14. Help people become interesting and productive
  15. Defang the proletariat
  16. Establish a floor below which a typical person is unlikely to fall
  17. Find and celebrate prodigies, geniuses and the gifted
  18. Make sure kids learn to exercise, eat right and avoid common health problems
  19. Teach future citizens to obey authority
  20. Teach future employees to do the same
  21. Increase appreciation for art and culture
  22. Teach creativity and problem solving
  23. Minimize public spelling mistakes
  24. Increase emotional intelligence
  25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
  26. Increase understanding of a life well lived
  27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players
Both David and Seth, coming from different backgrounds, have some fairly negative views of what some folks think school is for, as well as some more positive views of what school should be. If you've read my blog for any length of time you most likely know the general trend my thoughts take on this, so I'll spare you my own ranting and raving (for now, anyway). But I thought these were worth posting on the same page as a good starting point for discussion, as Seth suggests:
If you have the email address of the school board or principals, perhaps you'll forward this list to them (and I hope you are in communication with them regardless, since it's a big chunk of your future and your taxes!). Should make an interesting starting point for a discussion.
Please leave a comment or do as Seth suggests and contact a school board member, superintendent, school administrator, teacher, student, parent, state legislator (Colorado), community member, congressperson (Senate, House, or possibly this link for both), or President Obama and ask them for their thoughts, without the spin.
What's the purpose of school?


  1. The motto of our teacher education program is "teaching for a better world". Yea, it's loaded, but I like being able to come back to it, the simplicity but strength of the statement keeps me on course.

  2. This was the topic of a keynote panel discussion at EduCon 2.1 this year.

    I posted my own rant in response to the panel discussion on my blog.

  3. A couple of weeks ago I asked a similar question to Alabama kids across the state-- I asked what is the purpose of education? They all -- with out exception-- in every school, placed their definitions in the future. Much like those you mention above.

    However, I have to side with Dewey in that I believe a good chunk of school should be about today. The purpose of school should be to help kids find and develop their strengths, talents, passions and interests right now. I want school to help my kids learn what they want to know right now, things that will serve them right now as well as what they need for the future. As Dave Mathews so aptly states, "The future is no place for your better days."

    Education, says Dewey, should focus on the growth of the individual in the here and now. Education should not be preparation for something:

    Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body.

    He goes on to explain what follows if educators simply emphasize education as preparation for some aspect of the future:

    The future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present, something must be hitched on to it to make it work. Promises of reward and threats of pain are employed. Healthy work, done for present reasons and as a factor of living, is largely unconscious. The stimulus resides in the situation with which one is actually confronted. But when this situation is ignored, pupils have to be told that if they do not follow the prescribed course penalties will accrue; while if they do, they may expect, some time in the future, rewards for their present sacrifices. Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment have had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for the future.

    Kids live to a great degree in the here and now.

    Whenever I give students a choice in learning they always pick something that interests them now. Very few will choose a book because they think it will be useful to them in college or an assignment because it will help them in their future careers. Their passions and interests drive what they want to do, just like many of us.

    Dewey says:

    If education is growth, it must progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements. Growing is not something which is completed in odd moments; it is a continuous leading into the future. If the environment, in school and out, supplies conditions which utilize adequately the present capacities of the immature, the future which grows out of the present is surely taken care of. The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort.

    We should keep an eye on the future, yes, but this does not mean that we make it our primary focus. Our focus should be on the concerns of our students in the present- what motivates them now. As they grow, so will their concerns and step-by-step they will become prepared for their future.

    I do agree that the purpose of education should be about making the world a better place. That is why I advocate for collective action as where we should be aiming in terms of curriculum development.

  4. While the public purpose of school continues to be debatable (that debate goes back to even before the founding of our nation), no one can debate it's importance not only to the life of each individual who receives an education but also the collective society in which those individuals live. In our nation, simply put, school needs to provide the fundamental knowledge and skills needed to effectively participate in our democracy and free enterprise system. Now let the public debate continue to hash out what the skills and knowledge are.

  5. I've never been asked those questions. However, as a teacher, I should have a response to such questions. And there are some good responses in this blog and its comments. However, as I read this blog and that of Tom's, I had to ask myself what was the question being asked: "What's the purpose of SCHOOL?" or "What's the purpose of EDUCATION?" I think they are two different questions that would have two different answers. Are we comparing apples to oranges?

  6. I think that Jen makes a very good point about the difference between school and education.

    In the end, I think the most people who deal with education feel like other people should know what they know. That kids should learn what they had to learn. That their passion is what should drive the policies that everyone else should know.

    I do remember sitting in high school and wondering exactly when and where imaginary numbers were going to come into play in my life. Now at 32 and in the classroom for 10 years, I still haven't found the time or place - except for a brief chuckle a Mental Floss t-shirt. I think that most teachers would be hard-pressed to really explain the usefulness in everyday terms of at least 50% of what they teach (secondary teachers anyway) unless the student asking is either going into the field or going to be teaching the subject.

    Therein lies the problem. Along with "What is the purpose of education?" you also have to ask the question, "Who should decide in which area one should be educated?"

  7. Anyone who can use the word "Pasteurize" in a blog post about the purpose of education is OK by me.

    Actually- this is a good list to generate some discussion. I'm not much of a list-maker myself. My brain just tends to hiccup on that kind of maneuver. I tend to be the type who is most comfortable taking items from a list someone else generates... and taking each one out as far as it will do.

    Needless to say, this collection of thoughts will keep me busy for some time. I actually had Godin's post open in a browser tab... unable to put it away... even as a bookmark. So thanks for posting this, as well as linking it on Twitter. Seeing this post allowed me to close that tab. Hey- as long as someone in my private little learning network addresses a topic, then I don't have to panic about letting it go when I am terribly swamped with other things.

    ps- I did troll about in the Daniel Pink teleconference for about a half hour that day. I thought the kids proved the worth of such an event.


  8. As I am nearing my student teaching, I've asked myself this questions multiple times. For my own goals to benefit students, my answer has evolved into: "Teaching to inspire students to positively change the world."

    Whether students become capable middle-class workers, ingenious researchers, or servers of the poor, they're all going to change this place for the benefit of at least once people group.

  9. It is an interesting question, and I believe that the answer changes when the asker does. At first I thought that the answer was simple.

    To learn. But then realized that anyone anywhere can learn especially in this day and age; it takes no school.

    So, as a current student, I say that for me there are three purposes of school.

    1. to give me choice, and opportunity

    2. to give me a love of learning, so that my learning doesn't stop when school does


    3. to teach me to think - (and how exactly do you do that?)

    I suppose that school should be about today and even more so about tomorrow, but perhaps it should also be about the individual, the student. Its the start of my opportunity to write my own story titled life.

  10. Our school motto is "Learning to make a difference." I suppose we mean that in two senses: We provide a learning that makes a difference and, more to the point here, students learn (how and why) to make a difference in the world; "to leave the world a bit better," as Emerson says in Success. It's an idea championed by Jesuits schools.

    But, I think there is something that comes prior to this. It's a fine thing to say the purpose of education is to make the world a better place. But it's a fair question then to ask "Why bother?" I don't mean to be flip; that's an important philosophical question similar to "Why be good?"

    The best answer I've found is found in many places, but is especially well-said in Jacques Maritain's writing on education. We learn to do good in order to enlarge civil society so that the goods of that society, which are greater than what any individual in society could produce alone, flow back on us as persons. In turn we are made better and contribute yet more to society and so on in a positive feedback loop. The ultimate purpose then of an education, is not the betterment of the world, but the betterment of the person. Jesuits or Maritain would say the purpose is to become more Christ-like. Pindar famously says it's to "become what you are", namely human.

  11. This post reminds me of a quote in the cafeteria: "Not for school, but for life, we learn."

  12. @Jenn - In my perfect world, there would not be different answers to those two questions.

    @Cary - I believe that, ultimately, the student has to decide (because, ultimately, they decide anyway, no matter what the "educators" do). Now, that doesn't mean I think that educators can't help with that . . .

    @kailynw2012 - So, how are we doing? At AHS, how are we doing on those three things you listed?

    @amyw - Yep, I like that sign as well. Although I do worry that it sometimes reinforces the notion that school isn't life, that somehow the students at AHS don't get to have a "real life" until after high school or college.

  13. Mr. Fisch,

    That's a tough question, tougher then it might seem at first. Due to the fact that with that question I am indirectly representing the student population at AHS I will chose my words carefully.

    Everyone learns differently, so in order to fulfill the purpose of school, one must teach to the student rather then to the class. (I am not sure if this concept makes sense but I am not sure how to word it.) This many of my teachers try to do, and do well. It is nice, in a way, knowing that I am not going into a class that will be taught just as last years class was; in other words that I have some influence as to the structure and flow of my classes. And I truly believe that I do.

    Is AHS giving me choice and opportunity? Yes. Perhaps due to it's sheer size, or perhaps due to the educators and people within AHS, or perhaps due to both I have huge potential. Do I want to go into medicine? I can try taking a medical class before school. Want to talk to an author of A Whole New Mind? Why not? Opportunity, it is out there now it is my turn to seize it.

    I, personally, love to learn. A somewhat strange phenomena for a person my age (sadly!), so yes school has not failed me in that sense either. For others, perhaps teachers should put that intangible concept of enjoying learning) into their curriculum.

    Now I get to thinking... Is AHS helping me to think? That is harder to put a finger on. Maybe even just writing this response and posting in the first place are steps to true thought, but I am not sure that I can define thought, or reality for that matter.

    This all said, AHS isn't necessarily perfect. I think that in a way school is a living thing. People come and go and change the school as they do. Maybe by making a school more "user friendly" and exciting it would be easier to make AHS that much better. (personally my classmates and I believe that color might do a lot - just because school was originally red brick doesn't mean that it can't be colorful now.) I think that education is a huge part of school, but Im not sure it is the only part. I think that at AHS we should continue to build on our education, but also develop that other part.

    True education and learning, it a combination of facts, connections and greater thought.

    Question: Is AHS meeting this?

    Answer: Only if my teachers, my classmates and myself are doing our part.

  14. @kailynw2012 While certainly you should keep in mind that you are indirectly representing the students at AHS, don’t feel constrained by that – I don’t think anyone assumes you speak for everyone. (At least I sure hope so, or my entire blog is in trouble if people thought the same about me.)

    While I understand your comment about “love of learning” being somewhat strange for a person your age, I think I would qualify that. I think all students your age (really, any age) love to learn, it’s just that they don’t always love to learn what we are offering them at school.

    I think you are demonstrating thinking, and struggling with complex issues, in your responses. So how can we help other students do the same? And how can we help everyone at AHS - teachers, administrators, students, parents, community members - "do their part?"

  15. I hope you go back to older entries and read newer comments. I don't have the time to follow all the blogs I like, so I'm a little behind in reading yours.

    I am a business educator currently working as Newspapers in Education Coordinator for a small community daily newspaper. I often show your "Did You Know" presentation when I do teacher workshops. I tout the newspaper as a "daily textbook." Yes, the program is driven by the prospect of future readership, but our interest is also driven by the need for movers and shakers, buyers and sellers that make a community vibrant.

    I have read and reread this entry. I have printed it and the comments and have poured over all of it. I have marked it up with highlighters and made notes in the margin. I wish I had a more profound contribution on the subject, but it just isn't ready yet! Isn't that a commentary in itself?

  16. @~M - Yes, I read comments on older entries (although I don't always have something valuable to respond with). I'm glad you've found the post useful. I'm also glad about your work with Newspapers in Education - keep going!

  17. Are you familiar with The director has a TED video that is so inspiring and aligned with your view of the purpose of schooling: