I have spent a significant amount of time this summer conducting workshops and giving presentations to teachers, administrators, and school boards about topics ranging from disruptive innovation to emerging technologies to project-based learning. In nearly every presentation discussion seems to turn to some degree to the question of, "What is the purpose of school?"
Whenever I pose this question the responses always seem to vary between three distinctly different overarching concepts. First, I always hear people refer to schooling as serving a Jeffersonian purpose of creating an informed electorate which is essential in a democracy. Second, I always hear people bring up the Hamiltonian idea that schools should prepare students to enter the workforce or go to college so they can be further trained to enter the workforce. Third, I usually hear people say the purpose of schools is to prepare students to become lifelong learners.
When I think these ideas through I always come to the conclusion that the first two are inherently contradictory in nature and the fact that for the duration of state sponsored education these ideas have always been at the foundation of our education systems is amazing. The notion that schools are supposed to prepare students to become lifelong learners is one I almost only hear from other educators. I also find it flawed or at least not complete. This thought, and I am not sure where it originated from, implies that people are not inherently lifelong learners. I find this hard to fathom. Do we need schools for this or are people naturally learning creatures? Is there ever any point of any day that a living, conscious person is not learning? Of course not, learning is a quality of life.
So, why does this notion sound so appealing? What does it imply that is not really said? I think what is really meant by this notion is that the purpose of schools is to help direct students' learning. It is not to create lifelong learners so much as it is to create lifelong learners within a socially acceptable and proper context. A context that has been established. When viewed this way there are two divergent paths that can be taken. First is conformity and adherence to authoritative structures and the second is critical thinking. I propose we drop the idea that the purpose of schools is to create lifelong learners altogether and instead replace this third purpose with, "The purpose of schools is to create lifelong critical thinkers."