What is the purpose of school?

When will I ever use quadratic equations in my “real” life?

As an Algebra teacher – this question came up every year in my classroom.

And every year, my off-the-cuff answer would change.

1st Year Teacher (ambitious and full of ideas): In such cool applications as Physics and object trajectories (like shooting out of a cannon!), economics and optimization, area problems and fence building, and so much more!

3rd Year Teaching (beginning to build my teaching rhythm): You’ll really need to understand them when you get to Algebra II and beyond. I mean – it is the foundation for all polynomial studies! Just trust me. You need to learn them.

6th Year Teaching (maybe a bit of cynicism setting in): Let’s be honest – you probably won’t. But that isn’t the point. Learning quadratics is a fantastic mental exercise and builds critical thinking skills. The mathematician in me believes they are beautiful. 

This progression of answers may seem backwards to you and my last answer wasn’t all that popular with many students (and maybe a few parents too). It goes against the idea that everything we learn in school should be for a specific purpose.

Whose Purpose?

How we answer questions like these depends on what we view as being most important in the purpose of schools as a whole.

For many, the logic is that younger grades prepare you for older grades, older grades prepare you for the university level, and higher ed prepares you for a job.

This seems reasonable.

Others might argue that in today’s environment of accountability, the reality is that what you learn today prepares you for the tests you will take at the end of the year. The tests will make sure that you are ready for next year. Next year, you get prepared for another set of tests!

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My Purpose

What if the real purpose of school wasn’t about preparing for jobs or creating an informed electorate?

What if was simply about learning fun stuff, absorbing as many ideas as possible, and seeking answers to challenging questions?

Instead of concentrating on the visions of business leaders or politically motivated legislation, we need to continuously evaluate what students need and deserve out of their school careers.

My ideal purpose of schools and formal education is to expose students to as many ideas, topics, and challenges as possible. The end results (achievement tests) and the specific curriculum covered isn’t nearly as important as the learning experiences along the way.

The rest will then fall in to place.

What I am saying, especially to all of my friends and former colleagues in the midst of another stressful round of heavy state testing – do not forget that all of those great lessons, activities, and projects you did with your students this school year are way more important than any test results or grades.

Yes, really.


Leave a comment below with your ideal purpose, or any relevant thoughts you might have!

Image: Quadratic Equations from Bigstock

12 thoughts on “What is the purpose of school?

  1. The purpose of school is not universal to all and is quite different for most. I agree that as you become a more “seasoned” teacher your attitude changes. However, I would never ever tell a student, regardless of the course, that you will not be using the knowledge you learn in the course. Instead, what I do every class each semester is to tie in what they are learning with the outside world, whether it is their community or their future occupations. We are responsible, I feel, to explain why and how they will use the information in their lives, and when we do so, we also create buy-in to the course.

  2. The purpose of school is to grow and develop the mind with information, interaction and interpretation about life subjects and fields of exploration. School created an environment to form relationships with people of many different mindsets, thus teaching tolerance and an open-minded approach to new ideas and concepts.
    School provides students a firm foundation and base upon which to continue to problem solve and research for answers to questions they encounter as adults. School sparks an interest in becoming a reader and a learner for life.

  3. Ronnie,
    I really enjoyed your thoughts on the purpose of why students must take Algebra. As a history teacher, I found it interesting that although we teach different subjects there are similar underlying themes: students learn skills that although at times not directly related to the subject, what they are doing is a result of skills and thought processes learned within the content of the class. In addition, the comment regarding test scores is accurate. Test scores are not the only measure of a student’s ability or experience.

  4. Although the author introduces himself as a math educator, he has, in simple and concise terms made a compelling defense of the liberal arts education. Learning for learning’s sake, or learning as a process is more important and enriching than learning to secure a fixed goal. The former encourages thought and self exploration; the latter serves a practical yet limited end.

  5. Love this post! I think it has to be the process that we value: thinking intensely about anything makes you more likely to think well about the next question that comes your way. So one purpose of school is simply to practice learning.
    The second, I think, is to develop patterns that one can apply to problems down the road: in the real world, we tend to solve problems by flipping through our experience of previously solved problems, so the second purpose of school is to expose students to as many sorts of problems, and as many sorts of solutions to them, as possible.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  6. School days was best days of my life, free from all things. But now study is totally become medium to earn money for better life. Everyone wants to got placed in big companies.

  7. Ronnie,

    My mind connected with your post in three directions:

    1) I remember being in high school and was ready to give up on my geometry class because nobody was answering my question, “Why do I need to know this? When would I ever use it?” Until my big brother answered my question by simply stating that it teaches me how to think logically and follow a line of reasoning that can be applied when I’m problem solving just about anything.

    2) “What’s the purpose of school?” is such a powerful question. With this question in mind, but still thinking about my big brother, I checked out the changes on his website, and just fell in love with what he says about the team he built at his firm. The connection here is Kevin always looks beyond the surface, which is why he’s such a visionary and amazing leader. — This relates back to your post because to me, the purpose of school is to get us to be like Kevin, focusing on peoples strengths, thinking outside the box, thinking innovatively, and being fulfilled by serving others. — And none of those things can be assessed on some state test.

    3) How do schools fulfill the purpose described above? Through service learning, and by doing things that add value to others. Kathleen Morris and Linda Yollis did in their Ugandan Global Project. Look at what Gina Fraher’s class did to raise money for their pen pals. It can be done, while providing a quality education, and no test will ever be able to measure the value of amazing learning.

    Love the post, and appreciate the value it brought me while I pondered what really matters.

    Kind regards,

  8. The first job of education is to discover and honor children for who they are; then devote time, support and resources to helping them become the people they want to be.

  9. I wrote a blog about about asking my students :“Well, what is the purpose of English class? Why are you here?”
    Here is a section from that blog:
    Then it hit me. They really had not given a thought as to why they were in English. I mean, they know what English class is, they have been in English every year they have attended school-nine years to date. They looked perplexed.
    “Because, we are forced to come,” said Chris.
    “Yes, we have to come,” agreed Mike.
    They shifted nervously in their seats.
    “That’s not purpose. That’s a result of someone else’s purpose,” I replied.
    “To learn….(student voice trails off)…English?”
    So, I took the cup of popsicle sticks labeled with each student’s name. ”What is the purpose of English Class?” I asked each student after I called out a name. One by one they offered suggestions:
    “….to learn…how to…write”
    “…to learn how… to read?”
    “…to learn about the comma?”
    “…so we can go to college.”
    “…to learn what is in a book…characters.”
    After each response, I asked the next student “Do you agree with that reason?” before I asked “What is the purpose of English class?”

    As we went around the room, I explained there could be “no repeats“; the responders had to think more critically about what I was asking. Slowly, their responses became more sophisticated. Their responses did not have the sound of a question. They were answering my repeated question as a statement. They began to stir and leaned forward in interest trying to see who could come up with the “answer”.

    “To learn about how characters are like people”
    “To experience stories that we cannot really be in”
    “To read and write about how we are all connected.”
    “To be able to write so that other people can understand what we are saying and maybe believe what we write.”
    They started to raise their hands to adding new ideas to this brainstorming sessions. They wanted to give the correct answer….to stop my interrogation. Honestly, I did not have an answer. I had no idea where this exercise was going, I was simply letting them critically think about why they came into my class day after day. They were suddenly engaged and eager to answer. At some level, they understood the importance of English class, they just had not thought about the purpose.

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