I want to try to connect some dots.
How would you answer the question, “What is the purpose of education?” Would your answer be different depending on your country of residence? Would the purpose change if the context changed?
How did I get so philosophical? Well, I was reading a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jan Resseger. Jan begins her blogs with this quote:
“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”
—Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000
Jan’s page banner reflects her clarity of purpose. She writes to highlight instances where we continue to fall short of Senator Wellstone’s commitment to “…an equal right through a sound education…”. She writes to hold such instances up to the light of day. She writes to challenge us to refuse to accept the continued failure to make this right equally available to all children, regardless of race, income or zip code.
As I was reading her most recent post in which Jan explores the purpose and impact of the recent teacher strikes, I wandered into a reflection on the notion of my first dot, clarity of purpose. I can’t “blame” Jan exclusively for this reflection. I’ve been participating in a virtual learning community, Modern Learners, for the past year or so. Recently, I expanded that participation to join a cohort-based learning experience called Change School. This experience brings together educators from around the world in weekly discussions and largely self-directed learning experiences designed to encourage and support a change away from our focus on “schooling” to one in which student and adult learning is center.
Both Jan and the Modern Learners team place a great value on the development of commonly understood meaning. Hence my focus on purpose and what we mean by it. Want to see how far we are from such common understanding? Define what you mean by learning? Better still, ask a couple of friends/colleagues to join you. Can you recall something you’ve learned recently? How did you go about it?
Now spend a minute or two (or ten) and write down the purpose of education. Is it an enlightened citizenry? Is it good citizens? Is it literate adults? Is it caring, kind graduates? Whatever you picked, try now to define what that is. What is “an enlightened citizenry”? What’s “a good citizen”? What does literate look like? What is “caring”, “kind”?
In my time teaching, many of us informally and quite privately determined “our” purpose and tried to make that a reality. I changed my purpose more than once in the years I taught. Based on my observations (we never actually talked about it), so did many of my friends. I’m tempted to thrash this into insignificance but you get the idea.
What we mostly accepted as our public and dominate purpose was to keep on doing school… to do a bit better what others had done before us. In 20 plus years as a classroom teacher, I never had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of why we were doing what we were doing. So my second dot…We just did what was always done.
If you recognize this as somewhat accurate, imagine now for a bit how the general public (parents, community members, politicians, etc.) see the purpose of school. What do you think might be the major factors in how such folks reach their conclusion/definition? I suspect a fair number of these factors are a result of looking in the rearview mirror… at how they remember school, what worked for them, what the economy needed at the time, etc… a form of “marching backwards into the future”.
Continuing a growing trend, while the majority of community members see their schools in a positive light, this same majority has accepted the notion that our schools are largely failing – i.e., not doing things as well as they remembered. Paradoxically enough, this same majority (with the help of Grover Norquist and the Freedom Caucus) has also accepted the notion that all forms of taxation are bad… money given to the government is wasted and, therefore, money given to school is a waste… and the result? Oakland, Los Angeles, West Virginia, the charter school and voucher movement, etc.
As I have written elsewhere, we are in a time of a story that is dying. The story of school as the path to prosperity and security is foundering, if not already dead! A purpose for school that is based on this story, regardless of how efficient it might seem, can no longer be used as the driving force for school change. My third dot…Doing schooling better is a terrible purpose.
What? But wait… am I saying that we shouldn’t be sending our kids to school? No. Am I saying we should have lots of empty school buildings crumbling in disrepair while kids wander aimlessly through the community or sit comatose in front of their electronic devices? No.
What I am saying is that we need to spend some serious time looking at and deciding exactly what the purpose of our schools must be in the context of our current time… not the context that existed in the 1890’s when the current curriculum for our schools was developed. What I’m asking is that next time a district begins the seemingly never-ending process of strategic plan development, why not begin with a discussion of the purpose of school? Why not begin with why kids should attend school? Couldn’t we at least begin with a discussion about what learning is? What we are doing to enhance the possibility of learning? Maybe even expolore what are we doing that actually gets in the way?
Years ago, I encountered a book edited by Art Costa, If Minds Mattered. The contributors asked the question, “If minds really mattered, would school like it does?” Taking license with that notion, I wonder why we organize our schools and student learning the way we do? I wonder what our schools would look like if learningreally mattered? Would we group our kids by age? Would we judge them and their teachers by a once a year, large-scale assessment? Would we continue to use grades as the measure of learning?
So, for now, a final dot. What matters to us? What would happen if we decided that a drop of student engagement from almost 80% in 3rdgrade to something less than 45% by 11thgrade mattered to us? Could we ask kids in our school if this is their experience and why?
What would happen if we recognized that the growth in student anxiety, depression, and suicide is growing dramatically as kids move through school? Could we look at policies and practices we have in our schools that might contribute to this? What would happen if the way we and kids learn is dramatically different from how we do school? Could we look at increasing student agency, increasing the control they have over their learning… the how when and with whom part?
What would happen if you asked two “I wonder what would happen if..?” questions?
What would happen if you asked two “Could we at least try…?” questions?
What would happen if we committed to creating a space where such questions were encouraged and valued?