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What’s The Purpose Of School?

Everyone believes education is in need of some change. Even teachers and education leaders would agree.

Everyone wants the best for their kids. While other distractions may muddy our intentions around education, I will never doubt our common desire to see our kids flourish.

On these points (and many more!), I’m confident to say, we have unity.

It’s the question of “how” should we do school that opens the doors to disagreement and division.

In order to help us see that we agree more than we disagree, I want to back up a bit and ask you a question.

What’s the purpose of school?

Before you jump to your answer, allow me to add clarity to our current context.

Children start full-time school at the age of 6. From the age of 6 until 12 students are in school for about 7-8 hours per day during the week. But that’s just the beginning. They’re thinking of school more than this. Take into account getting ready for school, doing homework, completing projects (even on the weekends) and participating in extracurricular activities at school. A typical 5th grader could be in their ‘context of school’ for up to 10 hours a day. As they get into middle school and then high school, students are absorbed by the context of school. Extracurricular activities expand, as do sports, and homework can often be up to 2-4 hours per night.

Think about your job. On average we work about 40-60 hours per week, with 60 being extreme and unsustainable for health. Work is our primary context. It’s what takes up most of our thoughts, what influences our health and shapes our relationships. It overflows into our family and leisure time.

School for students is just about the same amount of time as work is for us. BUT, school is the primary context for human development during a person’s most formative years. Add in the ongoing narrative that teens hear about having to perform, always get good grades, pass the tests, and participate in multiple clubs and sports, while looking like they’ve got it all under control in the midst of sleep deprivation, and what do you get? STRESS. And ANXIETY.

Before you say, “That’s not me. We prioritize family time,” think about this. During the week, families with teens may see their child only 2-4 hours per day (and that includes homework and screen time.)

If school is to be the primary context where our kids spend most of their alert hours of the day, I believe the purpose of school must be more than just focusing on feeding their brains.

So now, let’s revisit the question: What’s the purpose of school?

I believe the purpose of school is to provide opportunities for kids to flourish. This means that students develop to become healthy, confident, and graduate prepared to reach their highest potential.

School should be a place where kids learn about what it means to be a whole, integrated human. Schools should give students the space to be curious, to take risks and embrace failure and to dream about who they could be and what they could do. Schools should create opportunities that challenge our kids to think, feel and act in a way that is healthy and honoring to them and others.

Yes, we need to teach our students knowledge and academic skills. AND, we need to do this in ways that honors them for more than just the knowledge they can retain. Students are whole people, not just knowers-of-facts. We must be intentional to the ‘how’ we teach (not just ‘what’) that calls out of students their best self. So that as they learn who they are and what they compelled to do, they have the experience, skills and knowledge to do it.

I believe we can all agree that our kids deserve to reach their potential, and that we need to increase our intention on how to unleash it, in school.

by Tricia Halsey, Executive Director