Sunday, March 7, 2010

What is the purpose of school?

I am participating in the crowd sourced “10 big questions for education” that Will Richardson has facilitated.  Will put an invitation out to his personal learning network (PLN) for people to contribute what they thought are the top questions for education today.  I think there were dozens of questions posed.  He then asked the crowd to vote on their top questions from the list and from that surfaced the 10 big questions for education and a wiki for people to contribute their ideas to.  The goal is to potentially publish an “e” book representing, hopefully, a broad cross section of people and thinking.

I think I had a weak moment… I volunteered to moderate / edit question #1 “What is the purpose of school?”  This question has been on my mind for some time.  I think the answer has changed and evolved since the invention of school many hundreds of years ago.

Let’s start with a higher education’s (drop-out) student’s (Dan) perspective.
This video as of March 5th 8:44pm has been viewed 96,000 times and more interestingly has generated 4,315 comments.  4,315 people took the time to critique, support, rant, add to, etc. Dan’s views on education.  He provides, in a somewhat entertaining way, an interesting walk through the history of education.  Information (facts) has become free…  something that used to be valuable and funneled through schools, has become free.  Why pay for textbooks when the essential information is available for free, on the Internet.  I think he is essentially saying that the method of delivery needs to change, education needs to be reinvented.  The purpose of school is to educate but in ways that are relevant, flexible, and engaging.  Education should stoke new ideas, empower students, to change the world.

My own three boys, now 22, 21, and 17 (grade 12), experienced school (K12) as an obstacle they had to get through.  They rarely saw or bought into the relevance of what they were learning.  I found it rather frustrating since I love learning…  but that’s another story.  I’ll share a story about my youngest son Tyler.  He never really enjoyed reading in general, certainly not for information, or learning about history, politics, government, etc.  Recently he picked a book off my shelf with a strong conspiracy story line.  Something sparked in him!  This started a journey of learning for him.  He has now spent probably 100’s of hours researching historical and current conspiracy theories, government actions and legislation (in many countries), etc.  He even read Dan Brown’s latest book, “The Symbol” (my son read a novel!!) and enjoyed it.   He’s now reading a book I just read, the Upside of Down (I referenced this in a recent post “How much technology is enough?”), which shocked me given the difficult and intense read this book is.  My point with this story is that Tyler hasn’t been a great student in school (doesn’t like it, works to the minimum) but is now an engaged student outside of school doing “homework” ‘for free’ (no marks) just because he is fascinated by the topic. 

My wife Shelley (@shellsdesigns2) is great example of extreme learning with no connection to school or credit.  Just under two years ago she became a digital designer and created an online store Shell’s Designs using a print on demand service called  She has had to learn digital design, online business concepts, Internet marketing, and has become a writer in the process using her blog and her Squidoo lenses.  She tapped into expertise from people around the world.  She has written articles to help others from her learning.  I can’t tell you how many hours she’s invested in this journey but when someone is connected to their passion, they invest in learning no matter how much time it takes.  Now she has a growing online business and has connected with 100’s of people she’ll never meet.

Shouldn’t the purpose of school be to engage students where they are at?  Shouldn’t the purpose be to help kids discover their passion?  To connect them to essential learning but through methods and topics that they can relate to?  For sure society needs educated citizens to be able to function.  This involves learning a variety of knowledge (coverage), developing a variety of skills, discovering abilities, becoming socially responsible, etc.  But does the process have to be boring and something many kids dread?  Kids will pore themselves into things they connect with – shouldn’t school be designed to be this connection?  How should it be redesigned?  I’m not sure the purpose has really changed but I definitely think our methods need to.

Besides leaving me your comments here, please join the crowd over at Will’s wiki for the question I’m moderating “What is the purpose of school?”.