The Purpose of Education – A Year-Long Inquiry

What is the purpose of education? It’s a question of have posed in my comic strip at times (all the way back in 2001).

As my English students enter 9th grade, some are already great students, some are (like I was) middling students, and some have dreadful habits that make them less-than-successful as students.

But what few, if any, of them have done is to actually think much about the purpose of education. My good students seem to think the goal is to get good grades in order to get a high GPA and get your diploma in order to go to college and get good grades and a high GPA in order to get another diploma and then get a high paying job and work until you retire. That’s seems to be the whole purpose – get credentials. You play the game of school and get the prizes.

I think my middling students see school as a game you play for prizes – but they perceive themselves as not very good at the game. They get the consolation prizes – Cs and Ds and a less promising future.

As for my less-successful students, my Dirths, I’m pretty sure they don’t see the purpose at all. The whole game of school is a pointless, BS-y game that they wish they could drop out of completely, but which they are forced to play. So they passive-aggressively sit on the sidelines and feel superior to the “smarter” kids falling all over themselves to play the game. I sometimes think Dirth is one of the more popular characters in the Mr. Fitz comic strip because he is not entirely wrong about the system. It often is a ridiculous game.

And so I pose the question early in the year: What is the purpose of education?

They tell me they have never really thought about it before. And so we begin to look at it from every angle I can think of. Get a snack and something to drink. This is an epic!

Our district curriculum maps, which I bend to my will, have had several recurring themes over the past few years (we’re on a second textbook with the same publisher, and some of the units carried over). We have a survival unit. We have a Romeo and Juliet unit (titled Sweet Sorrow or something like that…), we have a freedom unit. We have bonds between us unit. They vary from year to year as the district keeps tinkering with the map. But I have developed a flow of ideas that incorporates those themes and then adds some of my own. What follows is an account, sort of cobbled together from the past six years (things change from year to year) of doing the Purpose of Education as my year long theme.

My first day involves changing up the usual way to start the year, which is to establish class rules and punishments. I ask students to write about the best class and worst class they have ever taken, and then we discuss the traits of a good class and a bad class and establish that you can only have a really good class when most everyone is there to learn and is trying to make the class run well. There is only one “rule” in my class: Be here (physically and mentally) to learn and help others learn. There are no consequences, really (except in extreme circumstances) other than having the learning not go as well. I have written in detail about these activities at Middle Web. The idea is to get away from compliance and rule-following and into a more thoughtful approach to what we do in class.

After establishing how we create a good class together, I next ask students to write personal essays called “My Education So Far”. I have detailed the process here at the Moving Writers blog. The end-result is that I try to get them out of the mode that writing is following the teacher’s instructions and into the idea that writing is making series of choices using a flexible set of tools. I supply them with both the tools they need and the autonomy to make choices when they write. Again, the idea is to get away from compliance and rule-following and into a more thoughtful approach to writing. So – the purpose of education to teach compliance, or to teach actual thinking and decision-making? Which one should it be? Which one happens more in schools?

I think we know the answers.

Somewhere during the first week or two I ask students to do four “maps” (webs of ideas) in the opening pages of their writer’s notebooks: an Enthusiasm Map, a Frustration Map, a Worry Map, and a Wonder Map. I’ve written about the first two in my book Writing Extraordinary Essays and about all four in a Middle Web Article, “Freeing Students to Write What They Know“. The idea is to get students ready to find their own topics to write about rather than prompting them to death. Those topics, usually dozens per student, are returned to all year long.

One of my other start of year activities introduces them to the idea that reading a text involves more than sounding out words – it involves interpreting, analyzing, and making connections, among other things. We read two short poems. The first is Robert Frost’s “The Secret Sits,” which reads:

“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

We discuss what it means, and everyone has a different interpretation. Somewhere during the discussion students begin to realize that we are enacting the poem. The poem itself becomes the secret and we all suppose we know what it means. We then read the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and compare it to Frost’s poem. The idea I want to convey to them is that there is truth – not all opinions are equal and not everything is relativism – but that we need to be humble enough to realize that we each have only a piece of it. That is one reason why we read – to gather more perspectives on the the “elephant” in the room: reality itself.

After that, we get into the survival unit. I broaden the scope of the textbook unit to ask the question, “Is education necessary to our survival?” We read pieces from the textbook, including excerpts from the books A Chance in the World by Steve Pemberton and Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, as well as the essay “Is Survival Selfish?” by Lane Wallace. All of them raise issues. Is always being compliant a good thing when it comes to survival. Deep Survival talks about people at the second tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11 going back to their desks as told after the first tower was hit – because the people in charge told them too. As the book states, “They were rule-followers and it killed them.” We also discover the idea that people are often found dead in life boats with everything they need to survive close at hand on the vessel. You have to use the tools at hand – having them in not enough. That’s a message with educational implications.

I add the essay “Automation and Anxiety” from The Economist, which offers a fascinating look at jobs of the future and whether they will be replaced by technology. The takeaways? Creative jobs and Caring jobs (jobs in medical and caregiving fields) are unlikely to be automated. Even more important is the takeaway that the job skill of a future in which everyone will have to change jobs frequently to stay ahead of technology is the ability to learn anything quickly. Learning is the job skill of the future. Therefore no learning is wasted – because whether you will ever actually use calculus or Geography lessons or not, you are getting practice in learning.

I also add the Ken Jennings TEDx Talk “The Obsolete Know-It-All”, in which he talks about the need for us to not outsource our intelligence to our devices, but to actually know things. He tells the survival tale of Tilly Smith, the girl who saved about 100 beach-goers from the boxing day tsunami in 2004 because the remember the signs of a tsunami from a class and alerted people to the danger. One fact, used at the just the right moment. Another piece we generally read it “Professor Caveman“, about a college professor who teaches a course in Experimental Anthropology. He and his students actually go out into the wild and live like primitive humans. There are so many implications for education here I can’t go into them in this space. Read the article.

Some years there has been a unit called “The Bonds Between Us”. Whether the unit is no the map, I include certain things about how education can help us relate to other people better. We look at the article “With Friend Like These,” which claims that we form friendships around shared beliefs and interests, but grown in our friendships because of our differences.

I also share Eli Pariser’s TED Talk “Beware online ‘filter bubbles‘” in which he discusses the algorithms that keep us in an endless loop of seeing only what internet algorithms want us to see, thus isolating us from other perspectives that might widen our world-view. Since we have started to drift into the realm of definition, we also do a definition unit. We read a variety of definition essays and students eventually write their own definition essay about a word of their choosing.

One of the units-within-a-unit is a short detour from definition into attention. We read the introduction to Winnifred Gallagher’s book Rapt, which defines your life (anyone’s life) as what you pay attention to. Your life consists of what you pay attention to. Is one of the purposes of education to get you to direct your attention to good things?

Two big takeaways from our reading: how we define things alters how we view reality, and whoever makes the definitions in a society has the power. We also discuss our definitions of “student” and “teacher” and “school” and “human mind.” We talk about what kinds of people school should be producing. Is one purpose of education to be producing certain types of intellect and character? Should it be? How do we define a healthy intellect or good character?

To form a bridge between “The Bond Between Us” and Definition over to Romeo and Juliet, we usually read the article “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” a piece that looks at conflict, censorship, online the bullying, and the consequences of your digital footprint. It’s a bit edgy – but it always generates reactions, questions, and discussion. Could some of the purposes of education be to make us capable of civil discussion, and capable of being aware of the power of words? (The answer, I think, is YES.)

Before we get into Romeo and Juliet, I call the unit “Educating the Emotions.” We follow the big questions “Do the emotions play a role in education?” and “Can people be taught to be more emotionally intelligent?” Students read a variety of articles about emotional intelligence. Students read different articles in small groups and then share their finding with the class. Each student creates a one-pager of ideas about how to be emotionally intelligent. When we read Romeo and Juliet, we constantly ask how characters could have handle their emotions better and acted differently. We talk about which characters are least (and most) emotionally intelligent. When students finish reading, they write an analytical paper on a topic they choose, but they also do a creative project.

Of course, as we are reading literature, I acquaint them with different lenses they can use to look at a text through: biographical, psychological, gender, social power, historical, etc. For some students this ability to see the world through different lenses and perspective becomes their purpose of education.

The “Freedom” unit has been a constant and has shifted around from place to place, but it currently settles in nicely at the end of the year. I ask students to consider what educating people from freedom would entail. Sadly we realize that the school system as it stands now tends to educate students not for freedom but for compliance. We read excerpts from Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis 2. We read the “I Have a Dream” speech. We read the short stories “Harrison Bergeron” and “The Censors.” We read about censorship and look at lists of banned books. Finally, after discussing freedom from several angles, we read the Ray Bradbury short stories “The Pedestrian” and “The Smile” (perhaps my favorite short story of all time). And then we read Fahrenheit 451.

Fahrenheit ties it all together: survival, censorship, emotional intelligence, literacy, books, the idea of reading opposing ideas and making your own mind up (we echo back to “The Secret Sits” and “The Blind Men and the Elephant”). While we are reading the novel, students don’t answer my questions, they ask their own. They again write an analysis of their choosing but also do a creative project of their own.

The last part of the year involves reading some further texts about the purpose of education we haven’t gotten to during the rest of the year. Fiction includes my story “Scorefall” but also James Clavell’s disturbing tale “The Children’s Story.” Non-fiction includes some stand-alone, some contrasting essays and speeches. We read Scott Newstok’s address to college freshman, “How to Think Like Shakespeare” and look at a whole variety of purposes for education. (The speech later become a book – in which I am quoted!) My favorite term from the speech is the Latin term Inventio – the source of inventory and invention. We build an inventory of learning so that we can create things!

Why Don’t Students Like School? Well, Duh!“, an essay that claims schools are prisons, contrasted with Malala’s speech to the United Nations, where she claims school means freedom. “Why We Need Vocation Education,” which argues for job training, contrasted with “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” which argues for the liberal arts and humanities. We read Robert Fulghum’s “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” and Harry Chapin’s lyric “Flowers Are Red.”

All through these readings and activities, students are writing each day in their writers notebooks, and complete about three major writing pieces per quarter: essays of different types, fiction, literary analysis. They also create art and performance art. The final exam is simple: write something that make it clear what you think the main purpose or purposes of education are. They can write essays, fiction, poetry, plays, screenplays, or comic strips. (I sometimes feel Mr. Fitz is a 22 year exploration of the purpose of education. I’m still exploring.)

I don’t think most adults think much about the purpose of education. They assume it’s to play the game of school to get a good job and make a lot of money. By the time we finish the year – my students have thought about it more than most of the adults in the building. From what I read in their final exams and in their final journals, they have been given a new perspective (or 10) on what the purpose of education is.

Is it to learn emotional intelligence? To just get a job? To learn to see the world through multiple lenses? To find a job in a future of automation? To become a knowledgeable citizen? To know how to evaluate what you read and view to know what is a reliable source or not? To be free?

My hope is that thinking about the purpose of education may make a difference for them going forward.