The Four Purposes of Schooling

Erin Lynn Raab, Ph.D.
Published in
10 min readFeb 14, 2018


Organizing school for possibility instead of efficiency…

There’s a lot of talk these days about shifting our schooling system (including by me here and here).

But here’s the thing — the first step toward shifting a system is knowing what it’s meant to do.

Systems change requires a clear understanding of both our purposes for schooling (why we have schooling), as well as our aims (our goals and vision)[i]. Yet current debates have largely lost their connection with both.

We’re asking, “how can we reimagine school?” without asking, “why do we have school?”.

We mix together many different purposes and don’t make our assumptions explicit, which leads to a lot of confusion and poorly designed solutions.

As an example, recent education newsletters included the following headlines:

1) “Interventions can boost success of first generation and minority students in college”;

2) “Cultivating a growth mindset in mathematics”;

3) “Learning to assimilate: benefits of dual immersion programs”;

4) “Examination of education as a popular — but inadequate — tool for addressing racial inequality in America”.

Each headline assumes different aims for school, and thus a different problem for research, policy, and teachers to solve. These four above include implicit assumptions about the aims of school being: 1) academic achievement, social mobility; 2) character/mindset development, math learning; 3) social cohesion, and; 4) social equality.

Which are the correct purposes for schools to tackle — which can they achieve? All of them? None of them? How do we know? How can we compare them? How can we put them in conversation?

In other words, Why School? At a time when the answer to almost any question is literally at our fingertips 24/7, why do we even have schools?

Why School?

There are actually four distinct purposes for schooling [ii]. They are:

· Individual Possibility — classic “education”: shaping the learning and development of individual students. (How do children develop deep content knowledge and the ability to apply it? How do I make sure my child develops a sense of empathy or wonder?)

· Social Possibility socialization processes: shaping collective culture and social norms at the micro and macro — i.e. the community, national, and global levels. (How do we create a local community or national sense of identity? Or, How can we develop democratic values?)

· Social Efficiency — classic human capital perspective: sustain current social, economic, and political institutions. (How do we ensure there are enough STEM workers in our economy? How do we make sure our national economic growth can compete with China’s?)

· Individual Efficiency — to serve an individual’s own ability to navigate the education or socio-economic systems (this is often “social mobility” in a capitalist system). (How do we make sure every child graduates from high school or college? How do we make sure poor students or girl students have the opportunity to get high paying jobs? How do I make sure my child gets into Stanford?)

These purposes can be mapped on two-main dimensions: individual-collective and intrinsic-instrumental as shown below.

Source: Raab 2017

Individual purposes take the perspective and needs of the individual, while Collective purposes are reasons a society would invest in schooling beyond what individuals could be expected to invest.

Intrinsic purposes of schooling relate to the actual experience — the process and practice of schooling itself. It’s how we structure, manage, teach, and learn in schools. By intrinsic I mean “happens within or through”. Intrinsic aims are achieved through the lived experience of schooling — the pedagogy (approach to teaching) and the community. They happen regardless of whether we are intentional about them just by the fact that students and teachers spend so much time together in schools over many years.

Intrinsic outcomes are variable depending on what actually happens (this is why they’re called “possibility”). For example, rote memorization vs. inquiry-based learning approaches will have different outcomes; or, if you’re in a school that feels unsafe physically or psychologically, you’ll develop different beliefs about the world than if it’s a safe, secure place.

Instrumental purposes are the ways schooling as an institution is used to try to achieve other socio-economic outcomes. These are not achieved through the experience of schooling — they are extrinsic to the practice of school, though schooling may help to achieve them. Instrumental aims are related to efficiently maintaining or navigating the economic and political institutions that currently exist in a society.

Instrumenal outcomes are constant and pre-defined because they are based on what is assumed society needs now or in the future. For instance, we talk today about needing STEM workers, or computer engineers to feed our economic system today; or, we talk about wanting to make sure all students go to college.

Purposes vs. Aims of Schooling

Okay, so, there are four core purposes — reasons why we establish and maintain common schooling. These are the same four purposes for every society that maintains a schooling system — whether it’s Plato’s Republic or modern day China.

However, it’s clear that the kinds of societies they’re trying to create will be different. This is where aims come in.

Aims are the vision and goals of a schooling system — they are highly reflective of culture, norms, power structures, and institutions. The aims provide direction for the kind of societies and the kinds of individuals that will be fostered.

For example, every nation state may justify the existence of schooling by saying it wants to socialize its citizens into a national identity (social possibility purpose), but the desired national identity of the United States and the national identity of Ukraine might differ (social possibility aims). Every nation might want to ensure all jobs are filled in its economic system (social efficiency purpose), but the kinds of jobs in WWII France and 2018 Silicon Valley are different (social efficiency aim).

Importantly, aims that fall within instrumental purposes have specific ENDS in mind, based on the ways the current socio-economic system functions, while aims arising from intrinsic purposes lead to MEANS, methods or approaches to be used within schools and, though there is hopefully a vision, the ends are not pre-determined.

Which Purposes and Aims Should be Used to Design Policy and Practice for Schools?

All four of the purposes for schooling are valid — they are simply justifications made for schooling as an organized institution and thus are not mutually exclusive. We want to achieve all of them — they are why we have established common schooling.

The aims within different quadrants are not necessarily mutually exclusive either: in fact, many of the instrumental goals seem to assume that human development and learning occur through schooling. For instance, to make the connection between economic growth (social efficiency aim) and increased levels of schooling, we must assume that some kind of knowledge or skills get developed (individual possibility aim).

That said, the aims can become mutually exclusive when instrumental aims are used to design schools or dictate education policy. This is because instrumental aims are not achieved through the actual practice of schooling — schools cannot “do” instrumental aims — and trying to organize school practices to maximize the achievement of these instrumental aims can undermine schools’ ability to achieve any of the aims[iii].

For instance, aiming to maximize literacy test scores can end up undermining the actual literacy capabilities students develop, as Nicole Hensel talks about in her blog post this month.

High stakes tests that measure limited outcomes (i.e. content knowledge) exacerbate the issue — as Goodhart’s Law states [iv]: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a reliable measure.

Instrumental aims set measures of performance outside of the process of schooling — we want “X% of students to graduate from high school” or “1 million STEM workers” — but these aren’t things educators can teach on a daily basis. They give no guidance about how to design the kinds of environments and experiences in high school that are likely to cultivate the capacities, character, and mindsets or beliefs we hope students will develop. They ignore the fact that:

it’s the experience of students and educators that matters for achieving any bigger picture outcome we care about.

Instrumental aims will ignore this fact and let the ends justify the means in an effort to maximize extrinsic metrics like test scores and graduation rates[v].

Moving from Efficiency to Possibility

Today we largely frame the purpose and aims of schooling as individual efficiency. Even when we talk about social emotional learning or character development, the underlying question is often implicitly, “How do we make sure poor children can compete with wealthy children for a limited number of jobs at the top?” (e.g. “Race to the Top” or “No Child Left Behind”) or “How can we make sure students absorb content knowledge most efficiently so they can pass the SAT/college entrance tests?”

Our obsession with efficiency aims in schooling has serious implications individually and collectively. It undermines the experience of students and educators in schools; it endangers the long-term health of our society; and, it jeopardizes the survival of our democracy.[vi]

We need to shift out of the efficiency frames and into possibility frames when we design school practice or policies.

Instead of asking, “How do we make sure students pass the SAT?” or, “How do we make sure every child goes to college?”, we should be asking,

“How do we design environments in which students’ core needs are met so they are able to learn and grow?”


“How do we create experiences that give children opportunities to practice the capabilities, mindsets, and character they need to be agentive citizens who are able to work with others to make a better world?”.

Moving Toward A Shared Vision

Questions about the practice of schooling must be answered using possibility aims because they are how we “do” school — and it’s how we experience school that shapes who we are and who we become, as individuals and as a society.

Think of the 10,000 hours of practice rule Malcolm Gladwell popularized from Ericsson’s research [vii] : What we practice in school — who we practice being and how we practice being together — makes us experts in that way of being over the course of 14,000+ hours.

The questions then become:

Are we practicing being the people and communities we want to be?

Who do we want to become, and what community do we want to create together?

Answering these questions requires a shared vision about the kinds of communities, country, and world we want to create — it’s this vision that become our possibility aims and will shape the ways we teach and socialize in schools.

In other words, the second step to shifting a system is knowing where you want to go.

As Dewey asserts [viii],:“The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.”

After defining the purposes and aims of the system, the second step is thus creating a shared vision for our society.

To develop the shared vision for today’s world, my team at REENVISIONED is learning with educators, schools, community organizations, and individual Catalysts, to co-create shared visions through intergenerational conversations. For more on the importance of vision, and what we’ve learned so far, check out If we want a more just, equitable society we have to re-envision school.

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[i] I draw on Senge and Luisi & Capra’s work in different aspects of systems theory (Senge looks at organizations, Luisi & Capra look at the natural sciences).

[ii] This piece draws directly from my Stanford Ph.D. research “Why School?,” which in itself is “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as they say — thinkers, philosophers, and practitioners have been asking about the purpose of schooling since Aristotle . Forgive me as this thought piece is a bit more academic and in-depth than most of my pieces will be — I’m trying to condense many millennia of thought into 2000 words.

[iii] The belief that organizing the practices of schools for instrumental aims will create adverse consequences is theoretically justified: how to organize what happens in school is a logically separate question from why we might have or sustain schooling as an institution. Drawing on Rawls’ “Two Concepts of Rules” (Rawls 1955), Allen (2014, 2016) discusses the need to distinguish between three logically separate justifications for schooling: 1) how we justify establishing an institution as a state; 2) how we justify sponsoring or maintaining the institution or practice over time; and, 3) the kinds of practices that need to happen within it to make it successful. These three levels are logically separate: any overlap or similarity is “merely accidental.”

[iv] The original language is: “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes” — or, in other words, (Goodhart, 1975) in (Chrystal & Mizen, 2003, p. 4).

[v] I am not saying instrumental aims are unimportant — rather, I’m arguing we need to be careful about the kinds of evidence or vision we accept as applicable when trying to change school practice. When the question at hand is one of utility and related to maintenance of the system, for instance, “Should education be provided by the state?”, or “Does common schooling result in better citizens or increased economic growth?” then it is logical and valid to use instrumental aims to guide research and analysis . However, when the questions at hand are, “What is the best way to structure teaching and learning?” or “How should the school experience be designed?”, then the efficiency frames are NOT relevant and in fact are very harmful precisely because they define metrics without defining means.

[vi] We’ve adopted the language of “efficiency” from economics and, especially, from manufacturing — but it’s not useful in the same sense in education for a variety of reasons I will write more on soon. Hence the title of this piece. Truly, forget efficiency in education — it will only lead you astray.

[vii] Gladwell drew on Ericsson’s research for the 10,000 hour rule

[viii] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (I used the Simon & Brown, 2011 version).



Erin Lynn Raab, Ph.D.

Solving systemic problems to create a more just, loving world. Transforming education for human flourishing and thriving democracy. Co-Founder @ REENVISIONED.