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Uncategorized   |   Feb 26, 2009

What is the purpose of school?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What is the purpose of school?

By Angela Watson


This was the opening panel question at the EduCon 2.1 conference last month, as reported here by Assorted Stuff. And it’s certainly one worth asking. But can we really come up with a definitive answer?

Seth Godin has a starter list with suggestions ranging from the tongue-in-cheek (“Teach future citizens how to conform”) to the practical (“Give kids something to do while parents work”) to the profound (“Build a social fabric”, “Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage” and “Learn for the sake of learning”).

I thought it would be interesting to ask my third graders what THEY think the purpose of school is. I posed the question and gave the kids twenty minutes to brainstorm their lists. I was deeply afraid I would get a stack of papers incessantly referring to the FCAT, our state standardized test. Fortunately, there was only one, and it was written by a child who just transferred to my class (check out the parts I highlighted):


School communicating the purpose of learning to students: FAIL

The top 5 responses were:

  • To get ready for the next grade
  • To be ready for a job [yay!]
  • To get an an adjucation, ajacashun, or edjucasun.
  • To learn vocabulary, animals, history, place value, times tables [and 8 million other specific skills]
  • To become smart/get smarter.

Alright, kiddos, very good. You get the big picture, and I’m proud of you. Some other interesting responses:

  • To meet new people
  • Help kids communicate
  • Get a career we want
  • To go to college [glad to see about half the class mentioned this]
  • When you get a job, you’re going to have to know things about the job you’re working in
  • To learn instead of being home, just playing around
  • If you grow old and there’s someone who needs help on something, you might want to teach them what you learned
  • To learn fluency, which is reading smoothly, reading correctly, reading with expression, taking breaths at end marks and pausing at commas [presumably copied from a poster I reference often]
  • On a test, you’ll know what to do and what to write for yourself
  • When you grow up, people are going to ask you questions and you are going to have to tell them
  • You come to school to be somebody
  • Make your mom and dad proud

And my favorite random statements:

To go and get education and when you get smart, you might get a job, and when you get all smart, you can be a teacher.

To help other people who want to be smart like you are.

We go to school because it’s cause and effect. The cause is we learn, the effect is we are smart.

If you get a job and you don’t know things, you can starve.

So you can teach YOUR kids things.

What are your thoughts on the purpose of school? Have you ever asked your students about this? What do you think they would say?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. What a great post! Thanks for sharing those. I might have to try the same thing with my year 5/6 class and see what they say.

    I am an Australian teacher and I always check out your blog. We have our standardised tests coming up in May and Admin are telling us we must perform (not sure if they realise that teachers don’t actually sit the test!)

    Miss K

  2. I’m definitely going to try this with my kids. I would *love* it if some of them could say that they want to make their parents…or even their teachers, proud!

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