Tag Archives: Purpose of School

What Are Schools For?

8 Jul

In her “Education Memo” Simona Choise asks “Do Employers Belong in High School?“. Canada introduces students to vocational education much later than others and countries such as “Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia” have partnerships that allow students to begin vocational or apprenticeship training before leaving school.

It’s a pressing issue as the recent economic downturn has left millions of young people unemployed or underemployed and left politicians and policy makers scrambling for solutions. But it raises the bigger question of whether it’s schools’ role in our society to train students for employment?

Ask someone why we send kids to school and their answer will accurately predict their position on most other educational issues. Education and schooling are often seen as synonymous, but they are not the same. Education begins at birth (and maybe before) and persists until we die. Teachers may express frustration that students can’t or won’t learn, when what they mean is that students aren’t learning what they want them to. What they mean is that some students won’t or can’t “school”.

Schooling is different from education. It’s process of formal education designed to achieve a specific purpose. In “The End of Education” Neil Postman argues that the main purpose of schools is to create a cohesive society by communicating a shared narrative. He argues that  schools no longer do this and schools and society are poorer because of it.

Mortimer Adler suggests that there are three main objectives of modern schooling:

  1. Citizenship: To equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully as members of society. Since all citizens can participate in decisions we should try to equip them with what they need to make good decisions. Citizens should be able to think critically and effectively express their opinions. This is what Postman suggests was the original ‘narrative’ of schooling. 
  2. Self-Actualization: To equip students to follow their dreams and achieve their potential. Learning is a life long process and schools should give students the skills and opportunities they need to pursue their hopes and dreams.
  3. Preparation for Work: To prepare students for their economic future. Students should emerge from school with a clear career path and skills that allow them to support themselves and their family and contribute economically to society.

These objectives aren’t exclusive. A student can be educated to be a good citizen, self-actualized and ready for work. Conflict arises, however, when we must choose which objective is most important. If we have to choose which of them to emphasize, which one comes first? Teaching cursive writing may be useful, but if it isn’t required for employment should schools continue teaching it? Should schools take from developing language and math skills and instead devote it to civics or discussing current issues?

The gap between those who think schools’ main function is to prepare students for work and those who have other, “loftier” goals is the great divide in educational discourse. Many educators are attracted to the profession by the thought that they are making the world a better place. They see schools as places for students to better themselves, maximize their potential and go out to make the world better. Other are dumbfounded by this “wooly headed idealism”. What the point of being self-actualized if you can’t feed yourself?

The balance between these objectives shifts over time and responds to changing conditions. During times of economic prosperity we don’t worry about job preparation as much. As unemployment rises there are calls for schools to do a better job in preparing students for work by teaching the basics.

The focus of our school system is increasingly preparing students for work. In early July the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) met in Nunavut. Their statement after their meeting began:

The best way to address Canada’s growing need for an educated and skilled labour force and ensure a sustained economic recovery is to expand education opportunities and improve learning outcomes in early childhood learning and development, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult learning and skills development.

No mention about improving citizenship or self-actualization. Increasingly, non-essential “employment” skills are marginalized or removed from the curriculum. Less arts and physical education and more language and math. Students aren’t taught cursive writing because it’s not required by the curriculum.

Most of the discussion about education policies and practices for the last 20 years (and perhaps before that) has been about this central issue. What are schools for? Rather than discussing the relative merits of standardized testing or various instructional methods or the many other proxy debates let’s begin to address the real issue. It’s time to open up the debate and talk about what schools are for and why we have them. It’s a debate that should include everyone, because our views will have a huge impact on our collective future.

Where Are The Beautiful Learning Spaces?

8 Jan


In the summer of 2011 I had a glorious trip to Rome. It was hot (I love it) and I was alone, so I got to travel in my preferred mode. I set out each morning with a vague plan and mostly wandered around searching for cool stuff.

I saw breath-taking historical sites like The Coliseum. I ambled through museums and art galleries. I saw incredible archaeological sites and ate great food. I discovered that I really like fountains 🙂

Once home, I reflected on the trip, and was surprised by how much time I spent in churches. Rome is full of amazing churches packed with renaissance art, and it seemed that around every narrow cobbled street corner was yet another undiscovered gem housing something by Bernini or Raphael.

I’m not a religious person so there was no spiritual dimension to this for me, but each day I found myself wandering church to church, slack-jawed again at the beauty, gazing at statues and madly reading the history of “St Somebody of the Something”.

I could easily understand the inspiration a believer drew from these incredible buildings. And I’m a jaded citizen of 2013 who isn’t impressed by much anymore. Casting back hundreds of years its easy to see why the church was the dominant institution of the time.

I pondered the power of buildings to inspire us and wondered what the implications of this are for education. People visit churches on vacation because they tell us about the places we visit, their history, culture and what they value.  I wondered what our schools say about us and whether they too could be places of inspiration.

Typically schools are utilitarian buildings, “factory like”. Their function is to support the learning happening within those walls in the most cost-effective manner and facilitate the production of graduates who are ready to take part in society.

As society is rapidly changing so is the function of schools. The need for the standardized production of workers is fading. Increasingly schools are being asked to produce citizens who think creatively, know and follow their passion and change the world with innovative ideas. If the function of schools is changing, shouldn’t the form be changing too?

I’ve never heard of anyone travelling to Rome, or the other great cities of the world, and touring its schools. I’m a bit of a “school geek” and I’ve never done it. Why? Are there no great ‘Cathedrals of Learning’?

I don’t believe that. I think that there are beautiful, inspiring learning spaces in the world. Spaces that educators would see and know that this was the pinnacle, something to aspire to.

But where are they? Where is the Sistine Chapel of Education? The Blue Mosque of Learning? The St Paul’s Cathedral of Understanding?

I want to find them and hold them up as inspiring models. To show what’s possible in a learning space and encourage educators to think more creatively about the spaces we create for learning. I want to use them as we go forward and remake our learning spaces to better meet the changing needs of our students.

Five Critical Education Issues That Need More Consideration

16 Dec

In 1912 The RMS Titanic sank in the north Atlantic causing the death of 1502 people. This was only the 7th deadliest maritime disaster in history, but its’ impact on popular culture goes far beyond that status.

When the “great ship went down” the deck chairs were stowed, but that hasn’t stopped the increasing use of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to signify “a pointless effort in the face of impending disaster“.  An excellent example of this phenomenon is found in discussions on improving education.

Current discourse on ‘improving’ education is a lot of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.  We have  important and difficult issues to address but ignore them. Bring up “flipping the class” or “BYOD” and experts flock to tell you why and how wrong you are, but mention the big issues affecting student learning and you’re greeted by silence.

Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face so we distract ourselves, choosing instead to focus on where we can make an impact. But if we don’t acknowledge the big challenges, efforts to move education forward will be for naught.

These are the biggest ignored challenges affecting education today. Failing to address them resigns us to working in the fringes while allowing students to slowly sink into the frigid waters:

  1. Poverty: The UNICEF Report Card 10: Measuring Child Poverty said that 13% of Canadian children live below the poverty line, 24th out of the 35 industrialized countries studied (the US was 23%, 34th out of 35 countries). Finland has the second lowest child poverty rate at 5% and the best education system in the world. Coincidence? There’s evidence that in  US schools where poverty levels are low student learning is “the best in the world“. The problem for many low performing students probably isn’t an education problem, it’s a poverty problem.
  2. Safety: The work of Abraham Maslow (way back in 1943) said we can’t expect students to be creative problem solvers (self-actualization) if they are feeling unsafe. There’s a laundry list of threats to student safety: bullying, family violence and the fear of intruders, etc. In the wake of the tragedy in Sandy Hook schools are increasing security, adding to locked doors, video cameras, armed security guards, metal detectors and “lockdown drills”. No wonder parents are increasingly deciding that schools are no longer safe and choosing instead to home school their children (31% of homeschooling parents said they do so because of safety concerns).
  3. The Purpose of School: In his 1996 classic “The End of EducationNeil Postman wrote that the initial purpose of public education, to produce “good citizens”, is no longer relevant. Postman asserts that we need a new narrative for why we school. Ask ten educators what the purpose of school is and you’ll either get  confused looks or ten different answers. The lack of agreement on a clear purpose makes progress almost impossible. Are we producing future workers? Effective stewards of the planet? Problem solvers? Critical thinkers?
  4. Teacher Morale: 2012 could be called “The Year of the War on Teachers“. The teacher strikes in Ontario are just the latest battle in an ongoing war fought in British ColumbiaChicago, Australia, and many other locations. Teachers that aren’t striking are under attack  from government officials and religious extremists. In the US, teachers are battling against merit pay and unfair evaluation systems. All of this while research indicates that teachers are the most important in school factor in student achievement. If we want the school system to work we have to start showing ongoing, meaningful support for teachers.
  5. Funding: The global economic slowdown has led to shrinking economies and smaller tax bases. Rather than growing the economy by investing in education, governments chose job layoffs, program cuts and increased tuition in higher education. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t solve the short-term economic problem or the long-term one. When will we “get it” that public education isn’t a cost, it’s a long-term investment.

Educators work within a bigger context and it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. We need to step back from time to time, look at the bigger picture and make sure we’re sailing in the right direction.