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What is School For? - Passing Exams or Enabling Students to Thrive

Posted by Peter Barnes on July 3, 2015 at 11:24 AM

School educationOver 200,000 teachers go into their primary & secondary classrooms in Australia and New Zealand every weekday during school terms.

What are they there for?

To teach the students the curriculum, of course! That’s the answer some people (including parents, employers, & politicians) will give to this question.

But why do they need to teach the curriculum? What is the reason Australia & New Zealand, and almost every other country in the world, invests so much in education? Why do we have so many talented, dedicated, experienced and passionate teachers doing their very best to teach their students the curriculum?

Many would say it's so that students can learn as much as possible, get the best marks they can in their exams and go on to further education or training so they can get good jobs.

Others say that it's much more than students learning to pass exams.

The nature of work & the economy is changing

The ongoing technology revolution and changes in society are exerting huge forces which are altering the nature of work and how our economies will operate in the future. Many of the jobs and careers that will be available to our current students when they finish their education have not yet been invented.

So should the purpose of education be to prepare students to operate effectively in the future world, even though we don't know exactly what that world is going to look like?

Education should enable students to thrive

My personal opinion is that education should enable our students to THRIVE in life, in the widest possible definition of thrive. We don’t want them to merely do OK, to be prepared to operate effectively, to just get by. Thriving is much more than that. To thrive means they become fulfilled, competent adults with a sense of control over their lives and the ability to make positive contributions to their communities and to society.

And this means our teachers need to help them learn* to:

  1. Be able to collaborate and learn from others.
  2. Be able to create something new with the skills they have learned.
  3. Know how to find information and then do something with it.
  4. Be able to think about problems and find new solutions.
  5. Ask questions and then find the answers.
  6. Love learning, reading, writing, art, music, science, mechanics, astronomy or anything else that interests them.
  7. Be responsible citizens, capable of contributing to a community.
  8. Know they can choose to thrive.
  9. Understand that they are not just subject to external events, they have control over their lives (to a fair extent) if they choose to exert it.

*My thanks to teacher Amy Heavin for points 1 - 7 (I have added 8 & 9)


While I know there are many educators who share this view of education’s purpose, this position is controversial. It is not the view of all teachers, education leaders, parents, employers or politicians.

However, whatever your position is on this question, I urge you to take a look at this TED talk by Seth Godin, “Stop Stealing Dreams”.

Godin, a renowned thinker, writer, blogger, commentator and entrepreneur, asks “what is school for?”

He makes these points:

  • School used to be about teaching obedience
  • The original intent of universal public education was to train workers for industry
  • We built an industrial system in schools – to process people through the curriculum, one year at a time
  • Standardised tests are an “abomination”
  • We should measure experience, not test scores
  • There is zero value to memorise anything ever again – ask Google
  • A myth: Great school performance leads to happiness & success
  • We are at a crossroads because of technology which enables:
    • Homework in the day (with a teacher), lectures at night (via technology)
    • Precise focused, individual education, not mass batched education
    • Teacher’s role to transform into coach
    • Education anywhere, any time
    • Lifelong learning.

It’s controversial, thought provoking, and it's only 16 minutes of your time.

Take a look at this TED talk by Seth Godin, “Stop Stealing Dreams”.

Which side are you on in this debate? Do you have another opinion?


Related Posts

Learning Capacity - a School Principal's Thoughts 

Teachers Change Students' Brains - How Amazing, says Dr Martha Burns

Tech in the Classroom - Does it Enhance Performance?

Designing Educational Resources - Keeping the Learner in Mind

Topics: School, For Principals

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