“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Have you ever watched or been part of this scenario:

A Thanksgiving dinner with all the family. Great grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, newly weds, nieces and nephews. Uncle Dan is sitting with the youngest kids and asks Johnny what he wants to be when he grows up. Johnny answers, “A dinosaur!” His father looks over and laughs, “He really means that.” Uncle Dan decides to ask Jimmy, who is entering kindergarten in the fall, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Jimmy, not hesitating, says, “A fireman!” and a dialog begins as Uncle Dan explores all the “whys” behind the decision. He then turns to little Sally and repeats the process and she ponders a moment, then thoughtfully says, “I want to be a doctor.” After exploring her reasons he asks them both, “Are you looking forward to starting school?” Both are. He asks them why and the respond, “Because we get to learn things and do stuff.”

The sad reality is that those kids will enter school in the fall and realize they were sold a bill of goods. I imagine their faces will not be too different from that of the young boy in this commercial:

Unfortunately, kids today are the victims of a "bait-and-switch" cultural paradigm when it comes to school. They are told they will "love school" and that they will get to "learn cool things" and "do fun stuff." And because they trust us, they believe it. They enter school with all kinds of questions and they are sure they will get to find the answers, curiosity is their modus operendi. Then school kills that curiosity. Here is the problem, the adults that run their world have lost a vision for the purpose of school and its function in the world is growing more irrelevant every day. A logical question is, "Why should we keep 'doing school'?"

Over the past few months, as I have reworked this post, I have been asking anyone who would listen, "What the think the purpose of school is or should be?" I would like to have had more takers, but this big lovely thing we call the Internet has allowed me to track down some thinking on the question and broaden the discussion in my head. This fundamental question is begging to be answered, "What is the purpose of school?"

Is the purpose of school to "prepare students" for a "technology-suffused, globally-interconnected era," as suggested by Scott McLeod (Blog, Twitter), in his post, "Our mental models are the biggest barrier to moving schools forward into a digital, global era"? Or is it to "prepare students for what is and will be, not what was" as Scott asserts in his post, "We ARE the system"? I love Scott's willingness to address the question, but I am not sure we can prepare anyone for "what will be" when we have a hard time keeping up with everything that has been with us for decades added to the things that were just created, invented, thought of, and discovered yesterday. For years, keynote speakers have lead with statements like, "We are preparing our students for a future we can't imagine." If that is true, how can we possibly suggest we can nail down what needs to be learned in order to live in that future? Yet politicians, textbook publishers, standards movement proponents, and business leaders all suggest they know and then set about prescribing exactly what needs to be learned.

David Warlick (Blog, Twitter) in his post, "What is the Purpose of Education?" took a similar view:

I’ve had a ready answer to the question.

“The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.”

There are some implied, but essential questions in that answer:

  • What will their future hold?  What will they need to know?
  • What are appropriate method, materials, environment, activity?
  • Who are these children?  What is their frame of reference?

However, his "answer" shifted after an interaction with students at Karl Fisch's (Blog, Twitter) school, where they were conversing with Daniel Pink (Blog, Twitter) using UStream and CoverItLive. Upon reflection, David reworked his response:

The purpose of education is to make the world a better place!

[ ], when there is a mission, where teachers and students are equal partners in achieving new learning — and they both realize that it is not simply about new knowledge, but more importantly it is about new potentials, then we’re not just producing cogs for an industrial and societal machine.  We all becoming better and more inventive builders of the future.

Is that the answer? Is the purpose of school to "make the world a better place?" Of course, but that isn't something that you can easily wrap a framework around. A number of individuals who responded to my question said something similar, "The purpose of school is to educate an active citizenry" or "The purpose of school is to teach kids to be informed citizens." This, too, is a laudable response, but what is an "active citizen" or an "informed citizen" and who gets to write that definition? It feels problematic. It also appears, to me, that it opens the door to widely to the idea that there is one best way to educate kids and that sounds just too much like standardization.

Back in January of '09, Seth Godin (Blog, Twitter) in his post, "What is school for?" gave the question consideration. He didn't try to answer it, but rather tossed out a list that might include an answer to the question (this is just part of the list):

  1. Become an informed citizen
  2. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
  3. Do well on standardized tests
  4. Homogenize society, at least a bit
  5. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
  6. Teach future citizens how to conform
  7. Teach future consumers how to desire
  8. Build a social fabric
  9. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
  10. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
  11. Learn for the sake of learning
  12. Teach future citizens to obey authority
  13. Teach future employees to do the same
  14. Increase appreciation for art and culture
  15. Teach creativity and problem solving

The question was posed at Chris Lehmann's (Blog, Twitter) Educon 1.1 and Tom Kim (Blog, Twitter) provided a reflection of the panels response's in his post, "Panel Discussion: What is the Purpose of School?"

Kendall Croilus, the business consultant, began by saying that the corporate world would like lifelong learners, specifically those who had:

  • Creativity: the ability to innovate
  • Collaboration, especially the ability to appreciate — and not just tolerate — cultural diversity, whether that diversity is expressed in race, class, geography, silos of expertise, or personality
  • Courage, or confidence — especially in embracing change and challenging the status quo

Dr. Stephen Squyres, the scientist, stressed the potential for school to open students’ eyes to what was possible (the old “broaden horizons” bit) and allow people to understand how things really work.

Dr. Molefi Asante, the academic, gave the most open/vague answer of all: that school is meant to provoke inquiry.

I left Prakash Nair, the architect, for last because I found him to be the most radical, passionate, and specific advocate for reform. He suggested that the school of the future ought to serve the following functions (and that these functions should be evident in everything from its building architecture to its curriculum):

  1. Social anchor: or the hub of community life, open 24/7, available not only to kids but to adults
  2. Technology showcase: a place the purchases, tests, and introduces cutting-edge technology so that the innovation and change from such tools would disseminate throughout the community
  3. Idea generator: a place to invent, create, and engage in blue-sky thinking
  4. Idea harvester: a place to prototype, test, and develop those very ideas into reality
  5. Player in the community’s economic network: and then a place to make those ideas marketable and valuable and available to the larger community
  6. Builder of social capital: a place to become socialized into the shared culture of the larger community

Tom reflected that the message he heard was bothersome and made the salient point, "I gradually realized what I thought needed to be acknowledged: that school has been required to become the Swiss-Army knife of institutional influence for American minors — that it has been made to be the surrogate parent, church, and workplace for most people under 18." In the process of being couched as the mitigator of everything, school has lost its relevance, because it has lost a purpose. The greatest hurdle in educational reform today is the fact that society doesn't have a clear vision of what school is for, it doesn't have a defined purpose that informs it's actions.

There are those who feel that school's purpose is to continue perpetuating a specific set of information under the premise that each generation needs to have experienced and cataloged in their mental filing cabinets the same set of "stuff". Anya Kamanetz (Blog, Twitter) provides the example of Julia Fierro in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, that is just a small example of this:

She graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop in 2000 and found herself teaching an honors creative writing class at Hofstra University, the private university on Long Island [ ]. One day, she mentioned in class that she wasn't a fan of James Joyce's Ulysses. "I was trying to open up their perspective and say there's more than just the literary canon. This one girl in class went and told the James Joyce scholar that I told her not to read James Joyce, and I got called into the chair's office."

Can we really define a data set of experience and information that "must" be learned by everyone who travels through the educational system? In his TEDxNYED presentation Dan Meyer (Blog, Twitter) hit the nail on the head when he talked about the reality of being a high school math teacher:

Can I ask you to please recall a time when you really loved something; a movie, an album, a song, or a book and you recommended it whole-heartedly to someone you also really liked. You anticipate that reaction you waited for it and it came back and that person hated it. So by way of introduction that is the exact same state in which I spend every working day of the last six years. I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn't want it, but is forced by law to buy it.

The current form of our school environments don't teach kids the processes of learning as much as it teaches them to be taught. In school, students are typically positioned as receptors and not seekers of knowledge. They are allowed to be observers but not participators or doers. Students aren't thrust into uncharted waters with tools and allowed to explore, instead their floaties are blown up for them and they are placed in the kiddy pool where they longingly look to the deep end of the pool because they know that is where the freedom and the fun are.

As I sat in Barnes & Noble a week ago reading, I over hear a young girl, probably in the third grade, as you brought a book over to her father,

"Dad you know how I want to be a marine biologist? Look at this book"

She then went on to show him pictures from a big coffee table book about sea life. She explained how the ocean floor is just like the land surface with mountains and valleys while she pointed to pictures. She talked about sea spiders and cuttlefish fish as she paged through the book following her parents from table to table as they looked at books. Her love of sea life and the workings of the ocean were evident to everyone around as she excitedly shared about various aspects of the sea and creatures that inhabit our oceans. The parents paid only peripheral attention and feigned interest while she attempted to educate them,  everyone within ear shot who was listening. That little girls experience reminded me of the school experiences of so many students and brings me back to the beginning of this post, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

School should be about empowering young people to find answers for themselves, to present them with big questions that need unraveling and contain deep relevancy to their lives. How can we do this in an environment that; is focused on a predetermined set of fact points; an environment that is driven by insuring coverage over depth, memorization over investigation; an environment that is defined by prescriptive directions/directives from outside interests and top down control?

Geoff Sheehy(Blog) grappled with the question in his post, "What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey." His thoughts come closest to the ones I have been having:

To equip students with the essential skills they will need to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that stage may be.

Geoff, in the course of interview various people about their response to the question, made the following observation:

The only surprise to me was that more people did not answer like my wife, who mentioned that a primary purpose of school is to learn how to learn. I found this surprising because that element is the basic foundation to what I do every day, so foundational that I would think that more people would recognize it. I am grateful that if anyone did recognize it, it was my wife.

I started asking the question a while ago, "What is the purpose of school?" and I think I have arrived at an answer - at least for me - that makes sense. It may be simplistic, but when you let it sit in your thoughts and you build a larger picture around it and dig down into the idea behind it, I think it makes beautiful sense.

The purpose of school is to assist students in achieving their answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We have to stop trying to divert their attention, quashing their curiosity, shelving their creativity, and constraining their communication. If we focus on helping them navigate this great question and exploring its many answers, in the end we will have students who are:

  • Engaged and thoughtful citizens
  • Prepared for a "technology-suffused, globally-interconnected" world
  • Ready to create their future (which we have resisted in defining for them)
  • Seek to make the world a better place
  • Who can create, innovate, and collaborate courageously
  • Who seek to discover the answers to the hard questions

In response to Karl Fisch's post, "What's the Purpose of School?" (a post I leaned heavily on for sources, as I worked on this post), Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (Blog, Twitter) said it more concisely than I have:

[ ] I asked a similar question to Alabama kids across the state, I asked what is the purpose of education? They all, with out exception, in every school, placed their definitions in the future. [ ]

However, I have to side with Dewey in that I believe a good chunk of school should be about today. The purpose of school should be to help kids find and develop their strengths, talents, passions and interests right now. I want school to help my kids learn what they want to know right now, things that will serve them right now as well as what they need for the future. As Dave Mathews so aptly states, "The future is no place for your better days."

Education, says Dewey, should focus on the growth of the individual in the here and now. Education should not be preparation for something: Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body.

He goes on to explain what follows if educators simply emphasize education as preparation for some aspect of the future: The future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present, something must be hitched on to it to make it work. Promises of reward and threats of pain are employed. Healthy work, done for present reasons and as a factor of living, is largely unconscious. The stimulus resides in the situation with which one is actually confronted. But when this situation is ignored, pupils have to be told that if they do not follow the prescribed course penalties will accrue; while if they do, they may expect, some time in the future, rewards for their present sacrifices. Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment have had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for the future.

Kids live to a great degree in the here and now.

Whenever I give students a choice in learning they always pick something that interests them now. Very few will choose a book because they think it will be useful to them in college or an assignment because it will help them in their future careers. Their passions and interests drive what they want to do, just like many of us.

Dewey says: If education is growth, it must progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements. Growing is not something which is completed in odd moments; it is a continuous leading into the future. If the environment, in school and out, supplies conditions which utilize adequately the present capacities of the immature, the future which grows out of the present is surely taken care of. The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort.

We should keep an eye on the future, yes, but this does not mean that we make it our primary focus. Our focus should be on the concerns of our students in the present- what motivates them now. As they grow, so will their concerns and step-by-step they will become prepared for their future.

The question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is the future rooted in the here and now. Sheryl beautifully outlines the depth of this thought. Designing the learning opportunities in our schools around this question would help define a purpose that would drive the one thing that should be happening in our schools, but sadly isn't very often: learning. Yea, I like this: The purpose of school is to assist students in achieving their answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Photo Credits:

Lost in thought: CC from johnb2008 on Flickr

Girl on the beach: CC from mikebaird on Flickr

Old school house: CC from Jim Frazier on Flickr

Old classroom: CC from motionblur at Flickr

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About Greg Thompson

I'm a dad, Educational Freelancer, Edupunk thinker, EdTech Blogger, Paralegal, Foodie, and I love inspiring and facilitating change in education.
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2 Responses to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

  1. Pingback: Epilogue to: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” | Constructing Meaning

  2. Pingback: 21st century (fill in your educational consideration) | Constructing Meaning

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