Thinking about the Purposes of Education


If you’ve never read a book or watched a youtube video by Sir Ken Robinson, I highly recommend it.  As a teacher, I have always found his vision and message to be inspiring.  (Snippets or video clips would  most likely encourage great conversation in PLC, faculty, department, or back to school meetings.)

Here are two very popular talks from Sir Ken Robinson:

Do Schools Kill Creativity

How to escape education’s death valley

Recently, I read his latest book, Creative Schools.  The title caught my attention as I think in this age of testing and measurement, creativity is the first thing to go and something that even well intentioned teachers struggle to implement. In this post, I cover an overview of the first two chapters of the book.

Towards the beginning of the book, Robinson (p. 37) says:


At this point, I was excited to read more because I have experienced this myself as a student and have seen countless students experience this same idea.  Far too many high school students approach college application deadlines with very little awareness of their own strengths and hardly any inspiration for what type of contribution they would like to make in society.  I’ve written about this further here.

As I continued to read Creative Schools, Robinson makes many comparisons and references to the Industrial model of schooling to which he, of course, is admittedly opposed.

“Products, from screws to airplanes, have no opinions or feelings about how they are produced or what happens to them.  People do.  They have motivations, feelings, circumstances, and talents.  They are affected by what happens to them, and they affect right back.  They can resist or cooperate, tune in or tune out. Understanding this points to an even closer analogy between mass education and industrialism” (p. 41).

In Chapter 2, he then explains his beliefs about the



Purpose #1:  

Economic   “Education should enable students to become economically responsible and independent” (p. 45).  

While Robinson is not a fan of the Industrial model, he does agree that education should have economic purposes as this is essential for economic prosperity.  The question Robinson raises is:

 What sort of education do students need now to become economically independent?

Even so called “21st century skills” are not skills of the future as they claim to be.  Just about all of them are fairly timeless:  civic literacy, health literacy, initiative and self direction, etc.

He says,schools need to cultivate the great diversity of young people’s talents and interests; to dissolve the divisions between academic and vocational programs, and to foster practical partnerships with the world of work so that young people can experience different types of working environments first hand (p. 47).

Purpose #2:

Cultural  “Education should enable students to understand and appreciate their own cultures and to respect the diversity of others” (p. 48).

Robinson points out that cultures are affected by interactions with other cultures.  Since the world is now very connected, it is becoming more culturally complex.  Some may see this as an educational challenge, but Robinson thinks there is much potential for cultural diversity to be “one of the glories of humane existence”.  Yet he also recognizes that sometimes there is a darker side and differences can breed hatred and hostility.  As a result, Robinson thinks education should serve 3 cultural purposes:  students understand their own culture, students understand other cultures, and schools promote a sense of culture tolerance and coexistence (p. 50).

Purpose #3:

Societal  Education should enable young people to become active and compassionate citizens” (p. 50).

For Robinson, there are two current problems.  One: The achievement gap – poorly focused resources, high rates of teacher turnover, and compounding social problems for some of the reasons schools are not equal paths to achievement.   Two: Democracy is dangerously blunted.  Robison gives the example of the 2013 Los Angeles election for mayor.  Eight candidates spent eighteen million dollars on the campaign.  Only 16% of the 1.8 million registered voters in LA voted.

He says, “Schools have vital roles in cultivating that sense of citizenship.  They won’t fulfill them by running academic courses on civics but by being the sort of places that practice these principles in how they operate every day” (p. 51).

Purpose #4:

Personal  “Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them” (p. 51).

Education is a personal issue and we must remember that education is about enriching the minds and hearts of living people.  For Robinson, engagement is at the heart of raising achievement.  Unfortunately, traditional curricula focus on the world around us – but not the world within us.  While we must attend to all the important things that we want students to know, to understand, and to be able to do, we also have to attend and foster each child’s personal and future development.

He says, “Making education personal has implications for the curriculum, for teaching, and for assessment.  It involves a transformation in the culture of schools” (p. 53).

The remaining chapters of the book include:  Natural Born Leaders, The Art of Teaching, What’s Worth Knowing, Testing Testing, Principles of Principals, Bring it All Back Home, and Changing the Climate.   Here is a link to the book if you are interested in reading further.

Throughout the book, Robinson elaborates on his philosophies in a very practical way, making frequent connections to classroom and school settings.  He also gives examples of teachers and leaders who are implementing innovative and creative approaches to education in their schools.  While reading this book, the task of changing the culture of schools to being more creative and more engaging and more fulfilling for students can seem incredibly wonderful yet overwhelming at the same time.  It can be hard to think, “I’m just one person, how can I make a difference”.

Here are some of my own specific ideas on how teachers could begin to adjust the culture of their classrooms to incorporate Robinson’s 4 Purposes of Education:

  • Be familiar with the developmental levels of your students.  Review Child Psych 101 and find out what specifically your age group is typically wrestling with at this time in their lives and what they are capable of processing.  Use this information to guide ideas for class discussions and activities.
  • (#1 Economic)  Ask around in school to see if students get a chance to look at job postings, average salaries, home prices, typical monthly expenses, etc.  If not, is there a way you can be incorporating these important conversations into your own classroom and/or assignments?  For example, if you teach math, have students find a job description for a math-related profession.  Find the salary and what type of housing and lifestyle someone could afford with this job.  An extension could also be to have students do a phone/in-person interview this person.  Sharing these findings as a class could make for some great discussion and help students think about becoming economically independent and getting exposure to real-world options.
  • (#2 Cultural)  Even if you are not a history, language, or social studies teacher, there are still many relevant and wonderful ways for your students to collaborate to do project based learning with students from another part of the world. Sharing pictures, videos, and information together will help your students develop some of these cultural competencies that Robinson suggests.  One way to do this is through the EPALS website.  If you’re looking for other resources, check out:   ISTE and these  Collaborative Project Resources
  • (#3 Societal)  For example, with regards to Robinson’s concerns about low voter turnout, what can you be doing in your classroom to show that voting matters?  Within your comfort levels, put classroom decisions up to a vote.  It can be as simple as having students vote to do odd or even number problems for their homework, or more complex like voting for discussion topics, class reading books, or project ideas.  The main thing is to regularly show kids that voting does matter and can have an impact on their individual situations.  Give students a voice so they feel involved with their own education. They can do this informally through class or you can use tools like Survey Monkey, PollEverywhere, or Nearpod.  Another idea:   ICivics is one example of a reality game that students can play to make choices and see the effects of their decisions in realistic scenarios.
  • (#4 Personal)  In general, offer journal prompts or discussion questions to have students regularly be thinking about their strengths/weaknesses and goals for the future.  Students get very little time to do this type of thinking in a traditional school day.  Then, every few months,  give students an open-ended project where they can pursue just about anything that interests them, as long as they make some kind of connection to your content area.  It’s okay if it does not relate to the current unit of study.  Allow them to explore (with general expectations and standards) and see how this subject matter acts in the real world in a way that may have a connection to some of their own interests, passions, or potential life pursuits.  Grading can be based proof that students spent a certain amount of time on the project, journal/reflections, and a presentation or product of what they discovered and what their own personal take-a-ways were from this pursuit.

Overall, reading Creative Schools was a way for me to really reflect on the purpose of education.  It was a gentle reminder that the focus of what we do every day should be on the students and helping them to get usable and meaningful skills to help them engage in the real world throughout their experience of schooling.  We need to go beyond the textbooks, workbooks, and fill-in-the-blank tests and focus on the fact that these students need to be prepared to make significant and important decisions about their futures.  That preparation on our parts, and their decisions on their parts, will affect our society’s future.

If you are interested in this topic, another book to check out is World Class Learners – Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yang Zhao.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are you familiar with Ken Robinson’s messages?  What, if anything, appeals to you?  How do you think his ideas are implementable at the classroom level?
  2. What are your opinions of each of the four Purposes of Education that Robinson advocates for?
  3. Would you add/subtract any purpose(s)?
  4. What purpose(s) do you feel are most important for the group of students you have in your classroom?
  5. What are some of the biggest challenges you would face in implementing these philosophies?
  6. What are the benefits of adopting some of these ideas?
  7. In which ways do you already use some of these ideas in your classroom?  Share examples.
  8. What can teachers and leaders do to help students identify and develop their abilities and goals?
  9. What type(s) of professional development might be needed for teachers to implement these ideas?

One thought on “Thinking about the Purposes of Education

  1. Pingback: Thinking about the Purposes of Education | Brave new world

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s