What’s the purpose of schooling?


Apr 15, 2021

Even though it may seem like a straightforward question, once you scratch the surface, it’s anything but.

There are countless views on the topic. But as we seek to build schools back better—and not just return to how schools operated prior to the pandemic when the system writ large didn’t serve anyone particularly well—individual schooling communities must be clear about purpose and priorities.

That means—as Stephen Covey wrote in one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—beginning “with the end in mind.” Or, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote in the context of education in Understanding by Design, good teachers start with the goals and how they would know if students have met them, and then backward map all the things they need to provide to get to those outcomes.

Although it’s unlikely there will be any consensus across all communities in the country around a central purpose, that’s OK. That’s part of a robust pluralism underlying our democracy that values the fact that students sit in different circumstances and will have different needs.

But clarity in any specific schooling community is critical.

To help school communities think through what’s the purpose of schooling, a little history can help, as the dominant policy rationale for public schools’ purpose in society has changed over time. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson, and I offered a brief history of these shifts.

Through much of the 1800s, a kind reading of history would say that the central role of public schools was to preserve American democracy and inculcate democratic values.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, competition with a fast-rising industrial Germany constituted a mini-crisis. The country shifted by creating a new role for public schools: to prepare everyone for vocations. That meant providing something for everyone, with a flourishing of tracks and courses and enrollment in high school.

Another purpose was added to America’s schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s: keeping the country competitive. Although this one had echoes of the prior purpose, it was quite different, as the nation became consumed by how students were doing in school as measured through average test scores.

The vast choices that students had in a “cafeteria-style curriculum,” the landmark report “A Nation at Risk” noted, was one “in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.” Having something for everyone, in other words, was no longer a virtue. It was a vice.

Just 20 years later, the primary purpose shifted again to asking schools to eliminate poverty by not just focusing on schools’ average test scores, but instead to make sure that children in every demographic, on average, reach a basic measure of proficiency in core subjects. The theory of action, in essence, was that academic achievement would unlock opportunity.

As much of that consensus has eroded in recent years, there has been some drift in the primary purpose of schooling from a political perspective, but what it is at the level of an individual school is a vital conversation to build a coherent model.

Schools tackle this in different ways. A common exercise for a school is to construct a portrait of a graduate to try and understand what an individual entering the world in some number of years would need to be prepared to lead a choice-filled and civically engaged life.

For my part, I’d argue that the goal at a high level is producing students who are prepared to maximize their human potential, build their passions and lead choice-filled lives, participate civically in a vibrant democracy, contribute meaningfully to the world and the economy, and understand that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution. As such, I’d encourage schools to think through five domains as they build specifics around their central purpose and priorities:

1. Content knowledge. There’s a mountain of research on the importance of academic achievement and content knowledge across a range of disciplines. After students learn how to read, for example, evidence suggests that the ability to distill the meaning of new passages we confront isn’t so much a skill as something that is derivative of our knowledge base about the topic we’re reading. Building academic achievement to at least a baseline is important for future life success.

2. Skills. The purpose of knowledge isn’t necessarily for its own sake, but so that an individual can do useful things with that knowledge and apply it in ways that make a meaningful contribution. Critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity are vital skills that employers report consistently as being more and more important for their employees. The ability to use these skills, of course, is dependent on having some domain knowledge. As in, I can think critically and communicate well about the future of education (some would agree with that statement anyway!), but if you dropped me in a coding job, for example, I would be lost and unable to apply any of these skills. At the same time, as the example of the Minerva Institute shows—and as is described in Building the Intentional University by Ben Nelson and Stephen Kosslyn, as well as in books like Critical Thinking by Jonathan Haber—these skills can be defined and individuals can learn how to do them in a repeatable and intentional process. As an individual masters these skills in a variety of domains with intentionality—not something the vast majority of schools focus on today—individuals can then more rapidly apply them in new domains as they master its knowledge and lexicon.

3. Habits of success. Also called character skills, social-emotional skills, and noncognitive skills (my least favorite), habits of success revolve around things like self-regulation, executive function skills, growth mindset, self-efficacy, agency, self-direction, and more. Education psychologist Brooke Stafford-Brizard developed a framework around 16 of these habits for Turnaround for Children, which Summit Public Schools has most notably put into action in its schools. These are the sorts of habits that help turn individuals into lifelong learners capable of navigating life’s twists and turns—arguably more important than ever as the half-life of knowledge and skills continues to shrink in the digital age of the knowledge economy. And they can best be modeled, taught, and learned in the context of students’ academic journeys—not as a set of add-on modules.

4. Real-world experiences and social capital. Connecting school to the real world—through projects, extracurricular activities, externships, internships, and more—is important so that students can build a deeper sense for the different ways in which they can contribute to the world, why what they are learning matters, why certain goals are worth attaining, and what resonates with them, among other meaningful opportunities. If the goal of school is not just to ensure students are prepared academically but also that they have access to good life opportunities and careers, then relationships will also be critical. As Julia Freeland Fisher argues in her book, Who You Know, in today’s world, schools need to engage in this activity. After building a baseline of academic knowledge and skills, who you know often trumps what you know in life. And teaching content knowledge, skills, and habits of success in the context of real-world experiences and the cultivation of social capital can be a critical way to ensure success for all students across all these domains.

5. Health and wellness. As schools come back from a challenging time thanks to the pandemic, students will have a variety of different challenges around their social and emotional wellbeing, as well as their more basic health and wellness. Although there’s an argument around whether schools should be involved in these areas, for students to learn effectively, if they aren’t in a sound state in their wellbeing or health, learning will be challenging at best—which means it will land in the domain of schools. On top of that, schools have always played some role in health and wellness—witness the long history of physical and health education in schools. But I’d argue that we’ve often distorted the purpose of these sorts of experiences and that we ought to return to a more foundational one around preparing students to live healthy lives—and being sure to see these domains as not separate from academic learning, but as critically integrated.

If one accepts these baseline ideas, the nuance of how they land in any given schooling community will differ—and the approach to implementing them should likely be personalized based on each student’s distinct needs and background. But as a starting point, taking these domains and building SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound around each would be where I’d advocate starting.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.