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 zazzle.com.  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?”.


  1. this uneducated (hah!)young mans rant ids PERFECT!

  2. What is the Purpose of School? As an elementary teacher, I find myself thinking a lot about this question lately. I find that I am spending a great deal of time reflecting on my present educational practices in the classroom. The world has changed so dramatically over the last ten years and it is important that as educators we keep pace with these changes, so that we remain relevant to our students. It is easy to become isolated in your school and unaware of the tremendous changes that are taking place, not only in British Columbia, but around the world.

    I recently completed a graduate diploma in the use of technology in education and during the program I was fortunate enough to hear presentations by such visionary educators as Will Richardson, Dr. Alan November, Chris Kennedy and Sir Ken Robinson.

    Sir Ken Robinson pointed out that many educational systems around the world focus on preparing students for university. However, a significant portion of graduating students will not participate in studies at the college or university level. He also commented on how literacy and math are the primary focus in our present educational system and the fine arts (dance, drama, music and art) are a low priority when it comes to educating children. Based on my 10 years experience as a teacher, I would have to agree with him. As teachers we have a certain number of school based Professional Development days each year and they always focus on literacy and numeracy. It may not be during my career as a teacher, but one day in the future someone is going to stand up and say we need to do more music, drama, P.E., art and dance with elementary students. When my students have finished their assignments in class and have some 'free time' they love to take a blank piece of paper and just draw at their desk.

    Another one of Sir Ken Robinson's observations is what he refers to as the 'inflation of education'. You now need the Master's degree for what you previously only needed an undergraduate degree. I have applied to continue beyond the graduate diploma into a laddered MEd program but I spend a lot of time wondering if I would be better off focusing my time, effort and money on pursuing my own passion in life and just taking the initiative all on my own.

    In regards to boys and literacy, as a teacher it is quite common to have students in your class who are 'reluctant readers' and they generally tend to be boys. The other day my mom commented to me how she remembers that I never brought a book home during high school. I realized she was right, however, now I am a voracious reader and always have a stack of books by my bed that I read every night. Somewhere, along the line, someone instilled in me a love of reading.

    There is a website called 'Guys Read' which has been created by the author Jon Scieszka which helps boys to become self-motivated and life long readers. It has lots of recommendations for anyone who has a 'reluctant reader' in their family.

  3. Jens - thanks for sharing your reflections on the past 10 years. Isn't it great that we do keep on learning after and outside of our formal education (eg, you becoming a voracious reader). I'll check out the site you referenced - might be something my boys would enjoy.

    I wonder what our reflections will be in 2020...

  4. When I took my master's program, I had a great professor named Dr. David Coulter. He spent a lot of time discussing this same question. He spoke of the purpose being to "lead a good and worthwhile life". We spent many classes discussing what this meant. Love this topic!

  5. Another interesting read is "What's the Point of School" by Guy Claxton.

  6. Chris - it is a deep question isn't it. I'm not sure why I've only recently thought about this... I think I'm wondering more and more about how we're going to "enter" the future successfully as it becomes increasingly complex!

    Thanks for sharing Guy Claxton's work. For others, his talk on this topic is found here: http://www.dystalk.com/talks/49-whats-the-point-of-school

  7. Great topic! I'd like to think that we would design schools to engage kids for where they are at and they would be further inspired because of this engagement to become avid learners. But as much as schools like to embrace technology and use it as a banner to evidence our march into the future,I think it is a misguided banner on a misguided walk. In someways we have moved backwards by narrowing children's options of study, particularly in elementary school. I know I am guilty of shepherding a focus on either numeracy or literacy but in truth I agree with Jens. By ignoring the fine arts, we are ignoring a primal need and a universal language of communication. I've always had a love of literature and how some writer's communicate so eloquently our most raw emotions. I also loved the movie Runaways and have always been a Joan Jett fan for the same reasons. If the purpose of education is to graduate students to lead a good and worthwhile life then we must become more inclusive. We must reach out to and engage students through all their senses. Technology is then another tool useful for creating that which matters.

  8. Judith - well said. If students have a narrow educational experience, they may well miss their passion. Too many people go through life in occupations or other activities they hate, which is sad isn't it. With the amount of time students spend in school, it should be a key factor in connecting them to something they love while they gain the knowledge and abilities required for living out a full and productive life. Thanks for sharing your thinking with us here.


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