School: What is it good for? (Part One)

Everyone wants a say on what we go to school for. We don’t have to listen.

The purpose of education is a debate that has rumbled on throughout time. There have been few great thinkers who haven’t tried to grapple with the difficult question of “What do we go to school for?” Even the pop band Busted tried to reach an answer, deciding it was to oggle, stalk and harass a teacher. Their argument was:

That’s what I go to school for

Even though it is a real bore

You can call me crazy

I know that she craves me

That’s what I go to school for

That’s What I Go To School For, Busted (2002).

Profound stuff.

Serving three masters

Gert Biesta, in Why “What Works” Won’t Work” (2007), makes the claim that one reason we can’t talk about “what works” in education is that we have to first consider what we intend it to work for. Several years later he took these arguments further and in What is Education For (2015) proposed that education served three functions. These are:

  • Qualification. Not simply the awarding of qualifications but rather the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, skills and dispositions.
  • Socialisation. The initiation into cultural traditions. The norms and values of a society – the way we do things round here.
  • Subjectification. The way in which children come into their own agency rather than simply as “objects of the actions of others”.

I would suggest that whilst these three purposes might work as purposes of education they are not equally weighted purposes of schools.

People receive and engage in education in the broadest sense all the time. I am educated about world events by watching the news, I am educated about the norms of queuing politely if I attempt to push in and get a barrage of tutting, I am educated through the process of sitting quietly and thinking about things whilst staring at the clouds whilst deep and meaningful connections come into my head. Education is hard to avoid.

School though is somewhat different. School exists to provide the education that other bits of our experience just can’t reach. Much of Biesta’s socialisation would exist whether children went to school or not. They would be initiated into their community through their interactions in that community. School needs to do very little to deliberately and purposefully add to this. They might be one of the few occasions to socialise pupils in how to interact in a more formal setting and so highlight the way rules work differently in a school than elsewhere, but this doesn’t need to form a great deal of the formal curriculum. It will happen regardless.

The same goes for subjectification. As children become adults they take on responsibilities for their actions and so develop agency alongside it. This has happened in all cultures and times with or without schools. It is very hard to argue that this is therefore a primary purpose of schools.

That leaves us with qualification – the transmission and acquisition of knowledge and skills. This of course begs more questions than it answers. Which knowledge and skills are schools there to transmit? I would suggest that if we accept that schools are there to serve a purpose that isn’t filled by other agents in society, then the knowledge and skills it should transmit are those not being transmitted by these other agents. We don’t need to pass on the pupils own lived experiences because life has taken care of that. We don’t need to develop biologically primary skills such as “team work” and a generic “creativity” (one divorced from specific taught skills such as how to create) as these are part of what make us human.

Once we clear away a lot of the things that schools don’t need to do in their very limited 5 hours of lessons, 190 days a year, we can get a clearer purpose of schools.

A Gift and a Challenge

Schools are there to pass on an incredible gift. We have thousands of years of discoveries about how our world works, of artistic creation and techniques and historical events. This collective wisdom of humanity’s tribe is the next generation’s inheritance. As teachers, we are charged with passing along this gift but with an important condition. We are also challenging this next generation to not just sit on this collective wisdom and preserve it but to contest it and to add to it. As such, we don’t only teach them the substantive knowledge of our subjects but the disciplinary and procedural knowledge as well.

Our role as teachers, alongside our subject communities in universities, as curriculum creators and enacters, is an incredibly important one. It is an immense responsibility to select how to best pass on the inheritance to the next generation; how do we decide what to teach and what to pass over? It is just as difficult to decide on how best to ensure the next generation is able to add to our collective wisdom. But decide we must. Avoiding these decisions due to a squeamishness about authority leads to a neglect of the rich resources we have available to us.

The purpose of schools seems quite simple. We can ignore the desire of overgrown school kids like Busted and we can largely ignore the aspects of developing a person that the rest of society can deal with. Instead we can focus on passing on a gift to those who come after us and the message that this is a gift to used and grown further. That’s what I go to school for.

In Part Two I will look at how view of the purpose of schooling might look in practice.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching – A guide to education as it might look if left to the teachers, is available now!

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