What do students need to #learn in their #schooling?

Maybe before venturing into a conversation about this question, we need to have a clear sense of the purpose of education.  If the purpose is clear, we will have less difficulty arriving at the “curricula,” and therefore what students should learn in school.

So what is the purpose of school?  When I searched the question, the first resource was a website with the question as the title (click here).  They reference research, much of which is devoted to the work of Steven Stemler, a professor of human intelligence and social behavior.  Here is a list of five common reasons given for the purpose of school (click here for website).

Civic development

Emotional development

Cognitive development

Vocational development

Social development

In a July 2012 edition of Education Update, a publication of ASCD, the purpose of education was the lead article.  The authors suggest that the purpose of education is a question that most teachers, administrators, parents, educational policymakers and politicians are unable to find common agreement.  The authors write:

In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace. (Education update, July 2012, page 1)

What are the needs of society in 2015?  How does our educational system, both public and private, define its purpose in the midst of a rapidly changing world?  Is the purpose:

  • to prepare our students to compete in a globally-connected world;
  • to create students who are eager to learn in a technology rich culture;
  • to create students who are literate in math and language arts and can perform well on high-stakes tests;
  • to create students who are civically minded citizens with a moral conscience
  • to create students, well-grounded in STEM disciplines, that have an interest in STEM careers.
  • other

As we think about the purpose of a 21st Century education, we have consider whether our thinking is restricted by a mindset and framework tied to the past.  We still struggle with initiatives devoted to integrating disciplines so that students learn to critically think and problem solve using a diverse set of skills and strategies.  We clearly struggle innovating curricula that are burdened by an enormous set of learning objectives.  We are all familiar with the response from a teacher who might consider creative approaches to her teaching: “Can I afford the time to think outside the box because I have so much content to teach in so little time?”  Finally, we have little consensus around the right amount of assessment and the right balance of types of assessments that students should experience in school.  Can we agree on the purpose of education?

Whatever we do, we must come to an understanding of the breadth versus depth conversation in education.  In traditional schooling, where content is the driver we tend to place blame on students when they don’t learn the mountains of content we expect them to know.  “I taught it, they didn’t learn it.”  We need to shift the focus to: “If they didn’t learn it, maybe I didn’t teach it very well.”  I would suggest that teachers honestly reflect on the quantity of material they expect students to learn and opt for deeper learning.  Of course, they need to be supported by their administrators, district leaders, and educational policymakers.  Teachers cannot make this shift towards more conceptual understanding of ideas without widespread support.

So what are the purposes of education?  I would suggest the following:

  • to help students develop the skills, knowledge and habits of mind to enter into the workforce using their talents and interests;
  • to help prepare good citizens in family and community;
  • to help students see the connections between what they are expected to learn in school and the things that relevant to their lives; and
  • to help students tap into and develop their creative potential as it relates to the curricula they are expected to master.

You might suggest some other statements of purpose, but I would argue that these form the foundation of what school should be about.


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