The Purpose of Schools

“Schools began in ancient time as places set apart from the real world…the theory and practice dichotomy is nothing new…the idea that a school ought to provide both abstract and practical experience is largely a twentieth century convention” (Ellis, 2004, p. 150-151).

socrates teaching

What is the purpose of schools? This simple yet fundamental question has been at the cornerstone of debate amongst theorists, practitioners and the general public since well before the 20th century yet educators are no closer to consensus today then our predecessors before us. As I change gears to reflect on the curriculum portion of my internship, I am keenly aware that I am involved in the active crafting of a school-wide explicit and implicit curriculum that will set the educational direction for the children that attend our school for years to come; this is no small task, nor matter to be taken lightly. Instead, the answer to the question what is the purpose of schools requires a thoughtful response, a response grounded in research and practical experience that speaks to present and future needs of those to whom it matters most; children. Schubert (2010) tells us that, “Good answers lie in continuously asking what knowledge and experiences are most worthwhile now, and now, and now…throughout the whole panoply of situations that lie ahead” (p. 24). My challenge this year, as I work through the building and crafting of the taught and lived curriculum, will be to balance what knowledge and experiences are crucial now as we work to address academic integrity and rigor of our school while keeping a clear eye on the needs of our children as individuals and members of society; the future is only a day away.

A very real, yet I would argue artificial and unnecessary, dichotomy exists in the possible answer to the question what is the purpose of schools cutting a wide swath between Progressives and Essentialists. Progressives believe that school should reflect “real life”, be purposeful and include active project learning and “emphasize the quality of experience and processes of growth and development over content and skill mastery” (Ellis, 2004, p. 33) while essentialist believe the goal is to learn “the canon” “…an agreed upon essential knowledge that students should learn” (Ellis, 2004, p. 93). To complicate matters further, there are generally two divisions within the Progressive camp, those that are focused on a learner-centered orientation and those that are concerned with a society-centered focus. Schubert 2010 believes there are four general “speakers” or perspectives when approaching the curriculum:

  • Intellectual Traditionalist Speaker
  • Social Behaviorist Speaker
  • Experientialist Speaker
  • Critical Reconstructionist Speaker

Though each “speaker” gives voice to a somewhat differing opinion to the purpose of schools (discrete academic knowledge, social knowledge, individualistic knowledge, democratization of knowledge) they nonetheless have the pursuit of knowledge at their core. As Ellis succinctly puts it, “…there are three ways we know what we know, that is: knowledge received, knowledge discovered, and knowledge constructed…” (p. 150). It seems that knowledge in some form is the end purpose of schools, full stop. It’s the means and the types of knowledge that are in such great dispute.

One of the realities of administration that is becoming clear to me is that I simply cannot have a personal hand in every curricular and instructional decision, the knowledge that is received, discovered and constructed in the school, despite my unrealistic desire to do so. I have been working on a final draft of after-school Committees for this year, created in part to empower teacher’s as leaders while addressing the very real areas of concern expressed in our latest WASC report. I am finding myself torn as to which committees I should be a part of; Best Practices and Curriculum are naturally at the top of my list but there are other areas that I feel a compelling need to be part of. I want to continue my role in rewriting the Student-Parent Handbook; never mind that I will effectively rewrite the 2013-2014 handbook on my own, I still want to be part of the 2014-2015 rewrite that will begin after the Board approves revisions to the current Policy Handbook. The Advisory committee is another area that is close to my heart. True to the learner-centered curriculum, a derivative of the Progressive paradigm, I believe strongly that one of the purposes of schooling is to provide children an opportunity for self-discovery and exploration: “…it is the goal of self-realization…the school experience should be such that each individual has the freedom and opportunity to aspire to what he or she dreams of becoming” (Ellis, 2004, p. 41). A focus on individual growth and development, a relational environment where teachers know their students well and a valuing of exploring dreams are all good things that can be accomplished within the purview of an Advisory program and I can’t help but want to be a part of crafting that part of our students’ experience.

But I cannot ignore the very real challenges we will face this year in building expectations around a solid culture of learning  and academic excellence; this is the primary mission and vision of the school and will take precedence over all other concerns this next year. I have seen first-hand how a curricular program focused solely on learner-centric ideals has done a great disservice to upper high school students that are now playing catch-up as they struggle to fill in the missing gaps in their knowledge, skills, and academic credits in order to graduate let alone be eligible for University. As a growing school that needs new enrollment, admissions standards have not always filtered students with low English language skills. As Bagley (2010) so bluntly puts it with regards to US schools (but is relevant here as well), “In opening high schools and colleges to ever increasing numbers, it was just as inevitable that scholastic standards should be reduced” (p. 33). The standards of the past with a sole focus on learner-centric self-actualization has been replaced with an Essentialist academic rigor; though we’re not about teaching “The canon” we are about rigor and learning for the sake of learning. Yet our “essentialist” prerogative is softened by the very “Bruner-esque” acknowledgement that materials must be “appealing, inviting, and otherwise capable of empowering the students as active learner” (Ellis, 2004, p. 99). The Head of School has charged the technology committee not only with identifying needed hardware and software but to survey teachers as to their professional development needs around integrating technology into their lessons. To this end, I have made sure to re-assign our Media Specialist to this committee as she will play a primary role in co-teaching with teachers as they integrate technology into their lessons, bringing relevance and real-life application of learning to their students. Academic rigor doesn’t have to mean learning mired in the Ancient past.

As much as I’m enjoying the rewards and challenges inherent in my administrative internship, there is no point denying the fact that a part of me very much misses being in the classroom; I miss the daily interaction and relationship-building that comes with teaching young people. One of my most memorable times teaching was when I had had a direct role in facilitating situations and opportunities that allowed students to construct knowledge through their interaction with society. The goal of a society-centered curriculum is to explore and solve social issues; it is an activist model where the solving of problems is the academic content. I felt this most keenly when I taught the Exhibition at my IB school in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “Real world” relevance was the focus of the Exhibition through problem solving, promoting democratic relationships, encouraging participation and group effort. My new school honors society-centered curriculum through courses such as entrepreneurship, through the creation of a Student Council, and through required community service hours for high school graduation that can be fulfilled through work with Habitat for Humanity or singing around the community. As much as we are focusing on academic rigor, we also recognize that each of the four major goals of schools can and should be realized in many different ways:

  • Academic knowledge,
  • Participatory citizenship,
  • Self-realization, and
  • Career opportunity (Ellis, 2004, p. 17).

As I wrap-up my thinking (at least for the moment) about what is the purpose of schools I must pause to consider Schubert’s (2010) perspective that “…the great curriculum development task before us is to draw upon all curriculum traditions for the insights and understandings that best fit situations at hand” (p. 24). I take Dewey’s (2010) warning to heart, as we move forward in supplanting the failings of the past with a vision for the future: “There is always the danger in a new movement that in rejecting the aims and methods of that which it would supplant, it may develop its principles negatively rather than positively and constructively” (p. 41). There are moments in the day where our purpose must be focused squarely on academics while at other times, the individual affective needs of any one child may require a setting aside of all else. Clearly, we all live and must learn how to function within a society that is built upon relationships; knowledge of how to construct those relations is key. To reject utterly a learner-focused curriculum would be to undermine one of the purposes of schools; to nurture, support and encourage; to build relationships that transcend differences and to become knowledgeable through receiving, discovering and constructing. I maintain that a rigorous, academically focused curriculum also has room for students to explore their inner selves while interacting with society to solve the great problems of our time; these are all equally important purposes of schools.


Bagley, William C. (2010). The Case for Essentialism in Education. In Forrest W. Parkay, Glenn Hass &, Eric J. Anctil (Eds). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs Ninth Edition (pp. 32-35). New York: Pearson.

Dewey, John. (2010). Traditional vs. Progressive Education. In Forrest W. Parkay, Glenn Hass &, Eric J. Anctil (Eds). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs Ninth Edition (pp. 40-42). New York: Pearson.

Ellis, Arthur K. 2004. Exemplars of Curriculum Theory. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Schubert, William H. (2010). Perspectives on four Curriculum Traditions. In Forrest W. Parkay, Glenn Hass &, Eric J. Anctil (Eds). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs Ninth Edition (pp. 40-42). New York: Pearson.



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