The purpose of education: What do parents really want for their children?

The American education system is the subject of many impassioned and polarizing debates. Ideologies and pendulum swings drive the conversation. The only thing we all seem to continue to agree on is education’s importance, both to the future happiness of our children and the success of our society.

In the midst of the polarizing debates surrounding the American education system, I’m exploring a question that should be central to the conversation: What do parents really want their children to get out of their preschool-12 education?

A parent’s perspective is unique. Unlike many of the loudest voices in the education debates, parents have no political agendas. Parents’ motives are pure: to serve the best interests of their children.

A side note: This is my first blog post in what I hope to be a series of posts that will address important and interesting questions facing our education system today. For example: What education outcomes are we trying to achieve and how can we measure those? What should be the role of technology in our schools? What can be done to address the frightening high school student suicide rates seen in affluent communities such as Palo Alto? What is it about Montessori that inspires the English Royalty, YoYo Ma, the Clintons and Willie Nelson to choose this model for their children?

Full disclosure, I’ve been a public high school science teacher, an education technologist, a Michelle Rhee supporter and education reformer, a Montessori teacher and advocate, and a parent of school age children. I’ve looked at these questions through all of these lenses and my perspective has evolved greatly over time. I hope that this blog will generate discussion, feedback and perhaps even action (by myself or by others!)

Parents Focus on Passion and Positive Impact

To find out what parents are thinking about education, I posed this question to my Facebook friends:

What should be the main goal or goals of our education system? Or as a parent, what would you like your child to get out of his or her PreK–12 education?

First let me say that I was so impressed by the thought that parents are putting into this question. Clearly, this topic is something that people think about frequently whether they are thinking about how to choose the right school for their child or about how the next generation will fill the needs of our global workforce.

Not surprisingly — no one said they want their child to learn to perform well on standardized tests! (That is not to say that standardized tests have no place in today’s education system, but more on that later.) What was surprising was how consistent the themes were across the comments.

I tried to pull out the distinct pieces of each comment, find consistent themes across the comments, and tally the comments related to each theme. You can find a pdf of the analysis here.

Here are some of the major themes:

  • A desire to have a positive impact on the world. This included an appreciation of one’s place in our diverse, global community and an interest in making a positive impact.
  • An ability to find their passion and pursue their goals. One comment summed this up very well: “make good decisions to execute long term vision of life.”
  • Be able to think critically and creatively. This included problem-solving, analytics and reasoning, thinking “outside the box,” independent thinking.
  • Be able to work collaboratively. Including being respectful of others and thoughtful.
  • Be independent.
  • Embrace Challenge. And take risks and reach potential.

In addition, the following were mentioned: resilience, love of learning, academic foundation. (At least one person recognized that schools are responsible for teaching children to do math, read and write, and have some understanding of history and science!)

My own answer, which is based on quite a bit of training and observations in the field, mirrors very closely the instincts of my friends.

For me, I would like my children (and all children) to develop the skills and motivation to pursue their interests and accomplish their goals in order to have both a positive impact on the world and a fulfilling life.

A 10,000 Year History — From Play to Drill and Kill

Our thoughts on this topic have definitely evolved over time. In a fascinating article in Psychology Today, Peter Gray traces the evolution of the purpose of education since hunter-gatherer times. A brief summary of his conclusions follows:

Based on anthropological evidence, hunter-gatherers learned through play and exploration (and no doubt observation!) In this “knowledge-based” society deep knowledge of plants, animals and how to use them for human benefit was critical to survival. Then came the agricultural and industrial revolution and the needs changed. Now society needed most children to develop into unskilled laborers who would willingly submit to authority. Schools evolved as places to teach children to sit still, follow directions, and learn the basic skills of reading, writing and math, and also to indoctrinate children into a set of religious beliefs or the prevailing political ideology. “Drill and Kill.” It was believed that if left to their own devices, children would not be motivated to learn, but would instead play — the enemy of learning!

This focus has resulted in what we call the “factory model” of education where we input children, use a one-fits-all model to mold them, and then we spit them out into the world. John Dewey understood that, “any education is… an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.” 70 years ago, the factory model of education may have been appropriate. But today, society wants something different for their children. We want children to be innovators, to be able to think creatively and courageously, work collaboratively, and discover the next big thing, ideally something that improves the world. We also want children to love learning and to be life-long learners and independent learners.

Today’s Schools — Are they serving their purpose?

In my opinion, and with some exceptions, schools are doing a decent job of educating children on basic skills (simple math, reading and writing), basic content knowledge (What is photosynthesis?, What was the Revolutionary War about?), and some critical thinking. And some schools are beginning to understand (or at least talk about) the need to help students achieve the life skill of persistence (grit, resilience, dealing with adversity, etc.)

But how about helping children find their passion or inspiring them to create a vision for their lives that is ambitious and includes having a positive impact on the world? And what are we doing to help children develop the skills (including independence, risk-taking, collaboration) to execute on that vision? Are any schools trying or succeeding in this department?

Please comment!