Friday, April 13, 2012

What Are Schools For?

I was listening to the local NPR radio  station on the way to work this morning and the recent teacher strike in central Vermont was being discussed. The interviewer asked if parents were relieved that the strike was over suggesting that it must have been difficult for parents finding someone to watch their children for six days. The interviewee agreed saying it had put quite a strain on local families.

The exchange made me wonder, not for the first time, why we have schools. What is the purpose of the school, of education?  Imagine being from another planet and listening to this exchange on NPR; what would you think? Perhaps you would think that schools are places where parents keep their children during the day so they can go to work. You might conclude that, as communities, they employ people to look after them and keep them gainfully occupied during the day. They employ people to take them to and from school and other people to feed them at lunch time.

All joking aside, the purpose of schooling has changed significantly over the years as times have changed, to use a line from Bob Dylan. Schools change in response to all kinds of local and global forces. The one I remember most was the changes in the science curriculum in the western world when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957.  Changes have occurred in what we expect students to learn, how we expect them to act and what we expect them to be able to do as a result of their education.

It used to be fairly easy to predict the future and have a sense of what students would need to know and be able to do but with the current rate of change and uncertainty about the future things are becoming more difficult. Gone are the days when a job out of college or high school was for life. One wonders if the Common Core, due to hit schools in 2014, might be out of date before it even arrives. I often wonder if those creating the Common Core have examined what comprises the curriculum carefully enough given the ever increasing rate of change we are experiencing.

In my own field of math education, arithmetic still takes up a significant part of the K - 6 math curriculum in the Common Core. Do we really still need to spend so much time teaching children how to subtract 38 from 92 with a pencil or pen? Shouldn't we be acknowledging that basic numeracy and problem solving skills are so much more important things to learn,  and that cellphones, computers and calculators can now easily perform such menial calculations. Wouldn't it be better to spend the time helping students become quantitatively literate and be able to work out which one of the four operations is required to solve a particular problem?   

Perhaps it's time that thinking and understanding replaced knowing as the primary goals of education?    

1 comment:

  1. I do agree with you, the educational system is totally changed...Parents