The Purpose of School

Just what is the purpose of schooling in the 21st Century? 

In his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?, Seth Godin highlights how our current school system was developed for the purpose of training young people how to be productive labourers in an industrialized economy.  Acknowledging that we are no longer an industrial age, Godin states:

“If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.” (2012)

While I would agree that the work of 21st Century economies is quite different from that of the previous hundred years, I do not believe that the sole purpose of school should be to create workers for any economy.  I believe school must do more.

In a previous blog post, I referenced a Google search of the term “What is the purpose of schools?”.  The first link I followed outlined the need to provide students with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.  That stance on the role of education made me shudder then.  And it still does.  While it may be naive to think that global competition is not a driving force in our society, I want more for my kids. (Lasher, 2012)

Gardner outlines five minds which he believes should be cultivated for our future (2010).  Three of these are in the cognitive realm: The Disciplined Mind, The Synthesizing Mind and The Creating Mind.  I whole-heartedly agree that developing skills in different disciplines, skills in synthesizing knowledge and ideas, and skills that develop creativity are essential, and would place all three of these concepts in any description of the purpose of schools.  The Respectful Mind and The Ethical Mind fall not in the cognitive realm, but more in the human dimension of character.  My response to the purpose of schooling question would most certainly include such elements of the human dimension

It is perhaps not possible to define the purpose of education in one sentence.  Godin posted a starter lists of 27 purposes of school, which included such things as “become an informed citizen” and “teach problem solving and creativity” as well as more prescriptive and perhaps derivative things like “give kids something to do while parents work” and “minimize public spelling mistakes”.   (2009).  My own list would probably align more closely with Wolk (2007) who suggests that schools should develop knowledge of self, a love for learning,  caring and empathy, environmental literacy, multicultural community, social responsibility, peace and non-violence, media literacy, creativity and imagination, global awareness, and money, food, family and happiness.

In whatever way the purpose of schools is defined, I hope that at the core, schools serve to meet the needs of the students, and not merely focus on the needs of society.


Gardner, Howard. (2010). Five Minds For the Future. In Bellanca, J & Brandt, R. (Eds), 21st Century Skills, (pp.  9-31). Indiana: Solution Tree Press.

Godin, Seth. (2012). Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). (Free Online Publication, 2012). Retrieved October 2012 from

Godin, Seth.  (2009) What is school for? [Web Log Post]. Retrieved October 2012 from

Lasher, K. (2012, July 13). What’s It All For? [Web Log] Retrieved from

Wolk, Steven. (2007) Why Go to School? Phi Delta Kappan, 88(9),  648-658. Retrieved October 2012 from

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4 Responses to The Purpose of School

  1. mooseonskis says:

    The quote by Wolk was one with which I am in broad agreement. However, I note from the rather extensive list at the end of your blog that there seems, for me, too much of an intrusion into what I would consider “family values”. I think that schools have neither a responsibility nor a right to mandate what children should be taught in this area, especially when government controls the reins. I accept that there are dysfunctional families where such values are absent, but there is a line that needs to be respected where families are free to make their own choices. For example, there have been instances where teachers have inspected children’s lunch boxes and confiscated items that they (the teachers) deemed inappropriate (i.e. unhealthy). Schools should be about giving students the knowledge to make informed choices, but how can they teach happiness? also, what happens when the moral lessons that schools teach come into conflict with religious teachings?

  2. kelasher says:

    Thank you for your comment. You make a valid point, to which I would agree. As a parent, I strongly believe that it is my responsibility to instil the characteristics of honesty, resilience, confidence and persistence in my children, not the job of my children’s teachers. As a teacher, I am currently working on report cards, in which we are asked to comment on our students’ character, citizenship and personal development in relation to their learning. While I agree that this information is pertinent to the assessment of a child’s learning, I struggle with the additional pressure this places on me as the teacher. However, we are required to deal with many children who have insufficient skills in these areas, which ultimately impacts their learning. I find myself spending significant amounts of time helping students to deal with stress and social conflict in healthy and appropriate ways. I do not expect schools to teach my own children to be happy. I do, however, hope that they offer supportive and caring environments that promote and encourage these positive values the way that I try to do in my own classroom.

  3. I just completed a blog post on the same topic, so I was very interested to read your thoughts. I was particularly interested that Seth Godin listed 27 purposes of school, and you also included a lengthy list. This underlined, for me, the idea that the expectations we have of schools seem to be ever increasing. I often wonder, when people talk of schools “failing”, if our schools are just as effective (or not) as in the 1950s, but that they’re simply falling short of vastly increased expectations? I agree that it’s very difficult to express a satisfactory purpose of schools in a single sentence, but schools must draw a line in the sand to demarcate what they will and what they won’t do.
    As an aside, I think it’s important to remember which schools we’re talking about. As long as public schools are funded by society, it’s acceptable for the society to set a purpose for the social good. Private schools are more suitable for achieving a purpose that is individual (e.g. elite sports).

    • kelasher says:

      Thanks for your comments. My experiences as a teacher in the public system support your notion that schools are not failing, just being asked to do more. I would love to read your blog post. Could you share a link here or in our course email?

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