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What’s the Purpose of School? Part 2

purpose of school 2

Yesterday I started a series on the purpose of school. I introduced a new book to you that will be released in June. I’ve been working on the manuscript for two years, in an attempt to provide solutions for leaders who work with students. The book is called, Artificial Maturity—Meeting the Challenge of Helping Kids Become Authentic Adults.

Today, I’d like to do a second part to my blog on one section of the book. We will call it:

What’s the Purpose of School?

Over the years, our school system has changed. It moved from a very personal, one-room schoolhouse to an industrialized system today, where we crank out compliant, satisfied, homogenized people who are eager consumers. That’s precisely what the industrial revolution needed from future factory workers. The trouble is—I am not so sure that’s what we need today.

Recently, Seth Godin provided one example that illustrates what’s happened to our education system. He reminds us that in 1914, a professor named Frederick Kelly invented the multiple-choice test. At the time, we had an emergency, as World War I was ramping up and hundreds of thousands of new immigrants needed to be processed to work in factories. The government had just made two years of high school mandatory in parts of the country and we needed a temporary, highly efficient way to sort students and quickly assign them to suitable slots.

Prof. Kelly himself said, “This is a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders.”

A few years later, as President of the University of Idaho, Kelly disowned the idea, pointing out that it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught in school and should be abandoned. It rarely showed if a student really learned something. The industrialists and mass educators, however, revolted and he was fired. Consequently, we migrated into a “mass education system” that dumbed-down the content and testing we felt compelled to download to students. Actual learning was less important than processing millions of students through the system.

So—what should we be doing in school? What is it that students today actually need, regardless of the career they move into?

Four Purposes for School

I believe in the new economy we live in (one that does not resemble the industrial revolution but the era where information is ubiquitous), we need for school to accomplish four things, aside from the basics of reading and writing:

1. Critical Thinking

Schools must teach young people how to think, not merely what to think. In fact, because our world is changing so rapidly, this is more important than ever. Facts about how things work will shift. Think about communication for a moment. In less than a century we moved form mail, to telephone, to fax machines to email to cell phone calls, to texting to Facebook as primary means of communication. We must teach our kids how to evaluate and interpret what is happening to make wise judgments in their lives.

2. Problem Solving

what we really need in our world today, are young, creative graduates who know how to go about solving problems. Our society is full of them. If we could model and furnish experiences for problem solving in school—about issues that really matter—we could turn loose an entire generation that would be passionate about addressing real world issues, not merely video games and Wii and Facebook profiles. We could harness the good inside of them and see the best version of these kids surface.

3. Personal Development

This involves the discovery of their personal strengths (their talents, gifts, acquired skills and primary base of knowledge). It also includes developing character and ethics for their interactions with others in their careers and families. This will mean assessing and interpreting who they are, what their major value is to a team, and their chief contribution they make when they come to the table.

4. Leadership Skills

I think the Higher Education Research Institute got it right when they reported: “In today’s world, every graduate will need leadership skills.” We live in a far too complex era to simply churn out followers, “factory workers” who know how to comply. While learning to live in a community is important, I believe what’ missing is teaching kids how to think like a leader, how to develop their emotional intelligence, their communication skills and how to leverage their influence in a positive way.

By the way—if you enjoy grappling with these kinds of issues, join us on June 28-29 in Atlanta for our National Leadership Forum. The forum is designed for decision-makers who want to see a revolution take place in colleges, schools, non-profits, churches, workplaces, anywhere young people are.

Until then, what do you think about the purpose of school? What else do we need to accomplish in school today? Leave your comments below, and let’s start a conversation.

2 Comments

  1. Jasonraitz on May 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Wow, absolutely great post! I agree with you 100% I meet with parents, teachers and principals all the time and I hear their frustrations about the system daily. I think if more schools began teaching emotional intelligence and made it a priority, so many of the social emotional problems that exist would become a thing of the past. Thank you so much for all you do!

    • Tim Elmore on May 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm

      So true. I know that the fundamentals are important but a focus on emotional intelligence would yield great results.

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What’s the Purpose of School? Part 2