In our schools, we move through the year following a tightly scheduled calendar packed with dozens of scripted events that have been the same for what seems like eternity. We design our calendars for 175-185 school days depending upon whether the school is public or private. These calendars have not changes for decades. Our curricula rarely change, except for a tweak here and a tweak there. Some teachers use the same lesson structure, and maybe even the same lessons, with little consideration for the uniqueness of the new students appearing in their classroom each year. We give our unit tests, collecting them at the end of the unit, so we can use the same test next year. All of these scripted events are in the service of moving students from grade-to-grade with the desired outcome being graduation, the final hurdle before starting a job or entering higher education. Granted my description is a slight exaggeration because some schools have adopted whole new approaches to how students experience school (see project-based learning schools like High Tech High).
Schools are probably one of the most important organizations in our society that have not significantly changed amidst an explosion of change across the globe. To some extent, the consistency and predictability of schooling is welcomed and maybe necessary. However, we have witnessed extraordinary political, social, and technological changes that have accelerated our ability to communicate, fueled our mobility, and produced a wealth of knowledge that we need to understand the complex systems that drive our planet.
Airbnb, Twitter, Uber and countless other new technologies put the world at our fingertips and help us coordinate activities at previously unimaginable speeds and scale. Myriad on-demand platforms are enabling new levels of convenience and flexibility, and at the same time, they are undermining well-established notions of work and employment.
At this frontier of change, she points out that societies have been slow to adapt to the impact of these changes. We can see this mirrored in the actions of adults as they use new technologies in both constructive and destructive ways. All forms of technology allow us to communicate faster and access vast streams of knowledge in a heartbeat; however, some of the same technologies are used to create and circulate false or misleading information. While the actual technologies are neutral, people behind their use are the creators of the good or corrupt outcomes. The evolution of our social-emotional development has not kept pace with our technological innovations.
Therein lies the frontier. And we will need dynamic thinkers and policymakers to balance established needs with this growth.
So the questions are: (1) Are our schools preparing students to be dynamic thinkers who understand complex systems; and (2) Do our schools have the capacity to prepare the next generation of policymakers with the interpersonal skills necessary to successfully negotiate amidst this growing complexity? If these are the right questions, might schools have to rethink their purpose?
Schools have reluctantly avoided evaluation or realignment of their purpose in light of the changes we experience. Why don’t we create conversations among faculty, parents, and students about the purpose of school? What role should school play in the fast changing world in which we live? Simon Sinek points out that organizations in the midst of change should focus on the WHY. From the perspective of leadership, Patrick Lencioni says that organizational leaders need to answer and be aligned on six important questions.
- Why do we exist?
- How do we behave?
- What do we do?
- How will we succeed?
- What is most important–right now?
- Who must do what?
What is our purpose or why do we exist come up time and again as critical work for organizations that expect to thrive in a changing world. Therefore, in schools we should create space to grapple with the question.
Philosophers and educational thinkers have proposed reasons for why schools exist. Here is a sampling of what I found:
Aristotle believed the purpose of school was to develop and exercise students’ potential for reasoning, form ethical character, and provide a skill and knowledge base. He thought the purpose of schooling was to develop dispositions and habits that exercise reason and forming a human’s ethos. (click here)
John Dewey’s thoughts on the purpose of education are clearly captured in Maria Popova’s piece, John Dewey on the True Purpose of Education.
While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.
Finally, the great philosopher, Confucius writes about education in this way.
He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger. He taught his students morality, proper speech, government, and the refined arts. While he also emphasizes the “Six Arts” — ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy, and computation — it is clear that he regards morality as the most important subject. (click here)
In a more modern context, a Washington Post article on the purpose of education, What’s the Purpose of Education in the 21st Century?, comes at the question through a political lens.
What is the purpose of education? The question came into stark relief when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently tried to quietly change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by proposing to remove words in the state code that command the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
The author, Arthur Camins argues:
Education should prepare young people for life, work and citizenship.
He goes on to explore the purpose of education through the NEXT Generation Science Standards framework, a new way of thinking about how to design science curriculum for the 21st Century. While I would agree that using the NEXT Generation Science Standards would generate a more engaging and inquiring approach to learning science, I wonder if it’s sufficient to look at the purpose of school merely through the lens of curriculum. School is so much more than the curricula students learn, it is an intellectual, personal, and social experience.
If school’s purpose is to prepare students for life, work and citizenship, then what outcomes must be achieved for every student so that the purpose of school is fulfilled? If in the mind of Confucius school should be designed to fulfill a moral purpose, what kind of school would that be? If John Dewey’s ideas have merit that school should prepare each student to have an inquiring mind, how would you design a school to achieve that end? Finally, if we go all the way back to Aristotle who thinks that the purpose of school is “to develop dispositions and habits that exercise reason and forming a human’s ethos,” then how can we be sure our schools are designed to fulfill that purpose?
In the end, the purpose of school is probably some combination of all of these ideas. Our responsibility as educators is to sort through our own thinking about schooling within the context of modern life, and be sure we are preparing students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to fully engage in life and contribute to the well-being of our planet, our only home.
We must ask the question why school?