What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey
by Mr. Sheehy
An innocent graduate school assignment has prompted me to pester 8-10 people I know with a question they always find exhausting to consider: What is the purpose of school? All but two of my respondents replied immediately with a sigh. Of the ones that didn’t, one had finished her answer more quickly than the others managed to sigh, and the other was too young to know that the question sounded profound and important.
I demanded answers from three basic pools, trying to keep my results interesting by avoiding too many colleagues. To be honest, in asking colleagues what the purpose of school is, I feared I would draw one who had not really considered the question and might start a long, rambling explanation based on years of experience. Not only would I not have had time for such a conversation, but I would be disappointed to find that one of my peers had not thought thoroughly through this question . But I suppose those are not fears that would divert me; in reality, I found it more interesting to ask non-educators. The one colleague I asked said that the purpose of school is “to ensure that people have opportunity for organized, accessed knowledge,” which I believe reveals her philosophical position that education should grant freedom. It smacks of Paulo Freire, but I know this colleague well and have never heard her mention Freire. It would be interesting to trace her ideas back to discover where they originate.
My second pool of respondents are my friends, who are generally around 30 years old and either highly educated or practicing professionals. Each of these attached to their purpose statements whatever comes after school, claiming students need to “critically analyze, reason, and interact in/with [the] world” “so that they can become learned, active citizens [who] function well in society [and] . . . contribute to society,” or they mentioned that students “are (or can be) actively pursuing your life goals.” That was the biggest point from this group, though they were close to unanimous in asserting that the means to achieving those goals are through acquisition of skills. One called those skills “fundamental knowledge,” which could be construed to be different than skills, but he qualified it with skill sets (“reading, writing, rithmetic”), so I understand him to mean something similar to the others. Another qualifier attached to the skill attainment was that the school would not teach “ALL skills, because many will be taught by the family.”
Social purposes entered into two of these definitions. The first mentioned it after mentioning the traditional skills, but he did not make any effort to subordinate its importance:
This involves teaching kids how to behave socially as well as book knowledge so that they can build upon that knowledge with either more schooling or in whatever lifestyle or occupation they choose.
The second mention of social aspects of schooling qualified them slightly:
I would also add that high quality schools can be a positive environment for young kids to learn social skills, though that’s certainly not the goal of school.
The interesting thing about that comment is that this respondent’s mother added almost verbatim the socializing factor as a secondary purpose of school. Others mentioned it, but these two added it onto their definitions in almost identical manners. Looks like this gentleman was right about certain skills being taught by the family . . .
My third pool of respondents is my family. My mother, a fellow teacher, won the award for most succinct response. She claims it is so succinct because she has to state it so often to students wanting to challenge the authority (which of course makes perfect sense since she teaches 8th graders):
School is appropriate preparation for future endeavors, whatever they may be.
That worked for me, and I found it interesting that it basically matches mine:
To equip students with the essential skills they will need to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that stage may be.
Two for two on the mothers matching their sons in this survey, generating an assortment of new hypotheses. My father in law basically matched my friends, focusing his attention on the end result of schooling,
To prepare oneself for a career or living
and his wife expanded it to include “skills for life.” I am sure, too, that he would change his definition if anyone thought he excluded folks who don’t have vocational careers, like staying home to raise kids, so I think of these two answers as the same.
I found it interesting where the two explanations veered. He included that an element of the purpose of school is for an individual to function as a knowledgeable citizen in one’s country, making him the only respondent to mention the duty of a school to convey cultural relevance or cultural knowledge. I found this intriguing, though I do not draw any conclusions from it.
Mom-in-law, on the other hand, thought of communication as a bedrock idea behind skill-sets. Those skills taught in school, be they math, reading, and writing, enable people to think and communicate in their worlds. This led her naturally to the aforementioned social aspect of school, which teaches kids to get along with others and respect authority.
The only surprise to me was that more people did not answer like my wife, who mentioned that a primary purpose of school is to learn how to learn. I found this surprising because that element is the basic foundation to what I do every day, so foundational that I would think that more people would recognize it. I am grateful that if anyone did recognize it, it was my wife. Sorry to the rest of you – she rules.
These were all good answers, I thought, considering that most of my respondents are not teaching 8th grade and do not have to state this every day. But they all fall short of the first person I asked: Ellen.
Dad: What is the purpose of school Ellen? Why do people go to school?
Ellen: To work.
Dad: Oh, well why do they work? What do they do at school?
Ellen: They read.
Dad: Ah, they read? Well, why do they read?
Ellen: To write.
Dad: Great point – so they read to write. Well, why would someone write, do you think?
Ellen: on paper.
Dad: I think that works for me.
This post has received a high bit of traffic through its life, which is something I find ironic since in other places I have written more definite accounts of what I think the purpose of school might be. For more, I would point you towards a post I wrote when my students were reading The Odyssey and Of Mice and Men.
Thank you for your post and other references. I am intrigued with Mortimar Adler’s words.
Actually my daughter responded with interesting insights to the question: to learn math, social studies, and so on.
To me it’s almost obvious why this specific post has generated high traffic. I am currently reading through a document sent to me by our school’s principal. As a quick glimpse into references, your blog’s title was my search phrase in google.
What I feel is lacking from the discussion in the few documents I’ve seen until now is a “down to earth” realistic awareness: in a complex society like we’ve evolved to become, school is an institution that supports the economies of scale we rely upon.
It allows parents to engage like other adults in the maintenance and development of society.
It exposes kids to their most relevant peer groups throughout their formation years.
It generates workplaces for individuals and industries.
Eventually, my belief is that almost all responses are true or at least hold a component of truth in them. Most times our challenges are in communication that yields excitement and conviction in social engagement. We constantly search for proper words in the pursuit of constructive action.
When we discuss the steps to maintain success and improve contemporary realities we employ tools that usually concern ourselves as adults. We might say or think that our kids are at the center of our concerns. By that, I am afraid, some of us miss the point.
So I’ll leave you with this and thank you again for your piece. It has been a great reference point for my musings.
All the best,
I am an lsa at a local school with children needing support in behavoiur. They see no purpose of school and do not care about their futures. Any information you can give me would be great.
[…] to ask colleagues and friends the question, “What is the purpose of school?” I chose to share mine on my blog, and because (apparently) I put the question directly in the title of the article, the […]
Thank you. I have a question for you, if you wouldn’t mind. I wonder if you could answer the question before reading what else I wrote, then tell me both answers after you fully understand the situation.
What is the job of a teacher?
First, a little background: I’m a junior at a High School in the SF Bay Area, California. I’m number one in my class, taking three AP classes. English, Biology, and Chemistry. I have a hard schedule, yes (also Spanish III and Precalculus). My Chemistry class, however, is extremely aggravating. My teacher gives us homework every day. Sounds regular, no? It, however, is amplified in difficulty due to the fact that she does not teach us the information. Oh sure, she gives us packets of notes, tells us to read the book. I’m sorry, that’s not teaching. If I could learn all of the information from reading the text, why would I be spending my time in that class? It’s extremely aggravating and discouraging especially because I wish to have a profession in the physical sciences, and the subject really interests me. I’m willing to work hard to learn, but I cannot figure out all the material by myself. My mom is a vet, has a doctorate in animal sciences. I was attempting to complete homework, and she could not help me in the least. Just today, I asked our teacher to explain to us how to do a problem. After much complaint and a rant about how we should have already learned this (in what class would we have learned how to use the Clausius-Clapeyron equation? Is it not her job to teach it to us as it is only discussed in AP Chemistry?). Reluctantly, however, she went over it. And got it wrong. I, actually, got the correct answer before she did. There are answer manuals in the classroom, and between the little work shown in that and what she was demonstrating, I figured out what we were supposed to be doing. We spent the entire hour and a half going over two problems. The thirteen other problems we had for homework? I am reluctant to even try because I know that I don’t know the information. The whole class, only twelve of us because the rest dropped, agrees with my thinking. What can we do? There is not another science teacher at the school with an extra period who could teach the subject, so we’re stuck with her. Can you help me?
Wow, Zac, that’s quite a story.
First, I’ll tell you that you tempted me to play the game, and I wrote an answer to your question before hearing your story.
What is the role of a teacher?
I said, “To assist students as they attempt to educate themselves for a fulfilling participation in our society.”
My answer surely would aggravate you, given your story, but then, I had not read your story before developing my answer.
A key part of my answer, of course, is that I as a teacher am just an assistant. Students have me for one subject, for one year, but their education takes 12 years to complete (not considering college), so saying I am an assistant is mostly recognizing my small role in the overall education of the student.
I also say “assist” because if a student is going to learn, he or she needs to be the one working. If one simply “plays school,” one can get the grades needed and learn nothing. Lots of my students play school well, but when we have conversations or when I ask for creative, non-traditional work, they often expose their lack of depth.
Now, as to your chemistry experience: it reminds me of a theory I have about physics. I took physics in high school and my classmates and I labeled our physics teacher no good and said he/she (I won’t tell) was a nice person but a bad teacher. Then later in life I met other people who claimed the same thing about their physics teachers, and I hear students at my school claim the same thing about our physics teachers. The common factor here is physics, and I’ve come to realize this: physics is hard.
Not much of a realization, I know, but the deal is, I am convinced, that the subject matter takes a great deal of independent hard work and application. A teacher can explain it in a lot of ways, but not every concept can be illuminated with a quick and cute analogy and a relation to some common concept of our world. I can do that in English with almost all our literature terms and other content. I can watch clips from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to illustrate a character foil, and I can invent alternative definitions of basic grammar terms, but when you’re talking about AP Chemistry and “the Clausius-Clapeyron equation,” you’re talking about complex stuff that isn’t so simple to pack into a nicely wrapped box. Your experience is echoed by hundreds of college freshmen all across America, freshmen who think if the professors cared about their students, they would be able to explain everything quickly and make it all make sense in just a few minutes. But those profs don’t, and those students (many of whom are pre-med, carrying visions of themselves wearing stethoscopes for the rest of their lives) often drop out of science classes and find something that fits their idea of possible.
Hearing your story, I think of one thing in particular. Somewhere along the line you have been tricked into thinking it is bad that you figured something out before the teacher. If my daughter and I are reading a book and I read it wrong and she catches me, she gleefully tells me I got it wrong and then tells the story to her mother like it’s the funniest thing ever: “Daddy said the dog was green, but he was blue!” She celebrates her achievement. Why shouldn’t you celebrate your achievement? Who says the teacher is always right? You are engaged in a difficult subject–high level chemistry. You have now reached a point in your schooling where your subject matter is difficult, no matter who you are.
Sure, a college prof might be more comfortable with that material, but that is especially because she/he gets to work with it all the time and is primed for problems like the one you mentioned. Your teacher might spend most of her day trying to get freshmen in physical science to write down the parts of a cell, which means she does not have opportunities to sink herself in high level chemistry all day. Your mom is in the same situation. If she’s a vet, she’s done what you’re doing, but she hasn’t done it for 20(?) years and it’s not like riding a bike–it doesn’t just “come back” to you. It has to be practiced and practiced. Take me, for example. I just finished a master’s degree, but the other day I had to do some long division and I hesitated, forgetting for a couple moments how to begin. I hadn’t done long division in I don’t know how many years, and I’d forgotten.
The other thing about your teacher is that I obviously do not know her. You have had some personal interactions with her that have left you feeling chaffed. I’d say two things to something like that. One is that you might not want to be too hard on every comment. Many AP teachers feel pressure to get through the content that will be on the test, and if things are going slowly, they might direct frustration to their students if their students don’t know what the teacher hopes they know. It’s a mistake on the teacher’s part to fall into thinking about the content before thinking about the students, but as a teacher, I know it is an easy trap to fall into when you have the pressure of an AP class.
The second thing is more practical, however. No one should let a frustrating teacher interfere with your goals. This is your education, not hers. She is your assistant in your education, so you should not let your frustration with her derail you. Take pride in how much you are learning as you work your tail off. Study those handouts, study that book (not just read it), and ask questions in class that go beyond them. Push yourself so hard that your teacher needs to push herself to keep up with you.
You asked what the role of the teacher is, and I’ve answered in part. Another relevant question is, what is the role of a student? Any thoughts?
[…] second note was attached as a comment to the article I wrote ages ago called What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey. It continues to be my most-read post, mostly because it is the top hit on Google when one searches […]
Interesting thread. Can I ask what you did your thesis on? I am currently deep into my thesis on the learner profile of the IB and am looking at values of schools and the purposes of schools and schooling. Great stuff!
What about hearing the experience from this guy: John Taylor Gatto. He at least have researches on this topic and used a various of resources than speculating.
The purpose of school is to prepare children to think critically? Then why teachers ask students to mostly repeat stuff like a parrot?
Dare, I find it amusing that you mention Gatto. I happened across this article in Harper’s in my public library the month it came out and have returned to some of his ideas again and again in the past six years. I have not read any of his book length work, but I would likely be interested.
I would also admit that some of what he mentions always crops up again when I think about my reasons for choosing to educate my own children at home (a topic I will take up in earnest on this blog someday, possibly this summer when I have more time to write my formal “thesis” on why we have chosen that path). I have a post in draft form right now that extends some of that thinking you mention about the parrot-response. Perhaps it will be of interest to you.
I did my final work with technology, specifically with wikis in the K-12 professional environment. You can see the summary of the work on a different post.
Values and education are topics that tend to pop up here. Though I wrote about it when reading certain texts (or this one)for graduate school, I tend to return to it again and again.
Thanks for visiting!
Cool can’t wait for it.
Also would love if you come up with more posts like the one you mentioned in your first comment. I know that usually material taught in school can’t be implemented but by asking the question you mentioned I think it’s a great way to at least start adapting and gain use instead of memorizing (and usually forgetting) what you have learned.
Or maybe the US system is different from the one here…in Eastern Europe. Usually people who come to the US from here complain of how little material students are taught in the US 🙂 Maybe there students are taught more practical things than here…you may be familiar with the Eastern Europe educational system and that it focuses TOO MUCH on quantity…probably because of some belief that “more is better? Who knows.”
I would like to contribute by saying that the purpose of a school is to provide the student an environment that teaches him or her how to learn and acquire all the skills they need to fully dominate and exploit their environment to their own advantage and that of the society(or the entire world) where they live
I would like to say that the above comment is in my opinion a pure bul*s***…if you provide me with facts and arguments then we can discuss or maybe you’ll start preaching…doesn’t all teachers do that? School is kind of religion. Public school I mean.
[…] Sheehy(Blog) grappled with the question in his post, "What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey." His thoughts come closest to the ones I have been having: To equip students with the essential […]
Interesting to read what you wrote because I have also asked myself the same question. What is the purpose of going to school? The purpose is of course to learn. But when you forget most of what you have learned it makes me think that it`s just something to keep kids occupied. In todays society, where should we else have placed them while their parents are at work? I have asked myself that question because when I look back on all the subjects I have had, I don`t think I remember much of it. Except maths, writing and reading, and english that makes me able to write this even though my mother tongue is norwegian. Or maybe I do remember, it`s hidden somewhere in the back of my head even though I don`t remember all the details in for example the subject of history. I read a book that said that the wages in Norway are so high because the worker is so well educated and can do what he does because of that. Not true. The work I do, you dont need 15 years of schooling to do even though its a college education. Just some thoughts.
[…] their future.” or “The purpose of education is to make the world a better place” and A teacher writes “to prepare one for a living”. One of my favourite bloggers, Seth Godin has a list of […]