Why is school important? As an educator, I can tell you I know it is. As a parent, I can tell you that I feel it is. But why is it? It’s important because I want my own children to be able to express themselves in writing, to explore the endless body of information bound in books and online. I also want them to be able to navigate numbers and understand that the world is math. Yet, as my son’s eyes droop at night and he slumps over a worksheet assigned for homework, my wife and I find ourselves tapping into a reserve “tank of gas” to find the energy to ensure teeth are brushed, hair is combed, and to read a bedtime story to our youngest son. In those moments, as I wrestle with the question, “why is school important?” I find myself reverting to old narratives and slinging these narratives at my son: that the purpose of learning will be apparent to him later. That struggle now, however unpleasant, is just a test of character–a life lesson.
It’s not wrong that we want our kids to be resilient. I do want my son to be prepared for university and for life. Yet each of us has given the “it’s for your own good” speech too many times with results that do not look like success. So what have I learned from these late-night homework battles? That it is between hard and impossible to motivate a seventh grader with the threat of SAT results and that second graders care nothing yet about third grade–certainly not when compared to the importance of tomorrow’s recess.
Ultimately, students deserve to know why they are learning what they are learning. They deserve to know why it matters. And they deserve learning that matters to them, their classroom, their community, and the world.
Simon Sinek, author, and speaker, shares his insights on why knowing your WHY is so important.
“Knowing your WHY is not the only way to be successful, but it is the only way to maintain lasting success and have a greater blend of innovation and flexibility. When a WHY goes fuzzy, it becomes much more challenging to maintain the growth, loyalty, and inspiration that helped drive the original success. By difficult, I mean that manipulation rather than inspiration fast becomes the strategy of choice to motivate behavior. This is effective in the short term but comes with a high cost in the long term.” (Sinek, 2009)
As my son starts his seventh-grade year, I think back to my own experience in middle school. I remember the terror of my first book report presentation on a book I did not even read. I remember floundering as I tried to figure out what would be on the math test and how to study for it. I remember the stress of figuring out where to sit at lunch and how to open a padlock on my locker.
My middle school experience taught me that: (1) I didn’t need to do my reading to pass a class, (2) some kids are not good at math, and that I was one of them, and (3) your happiness is mostly determined by who you sit with at lunch. I wonder what my principal would have thought about my middle school takeaways…
Traditional schooling asks teachers to obsess over what students need to learn. I myself spend most of my energy thinking about how students learn. But we don’t spend enough time and energy thinking about why learning is important beyond “you’ll need it later.”
If we are ok with education being about short-term compliance and late-night homework battles, then we are fine continuing on this path. But I want my son to have a better experience than I had. I want him to find a fire in himself during middle school–a fire that lights his own journey. I’d love that when I ask my son why he’s doing his homework, even when his eyes droop and he slumps over his work late at night, that he himself has an answer to why the work he is doing matters.
Small steps can bring about big change. And this new reality is within our reach. So what are the small steps we need to take? First, as Sir Ken Robinson asserts, we must combat the misuse and misappropriation of standards. It is lunacy to claim that every child should learn the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, for 14 or more years of their life. This was not true for me as a learner, nor for my two sons or the thousands of students I have taught in my career as an educator. Second, with limited hours in a day and limited months in a year, we must reprioritize what learning matters. We must make room and even prioritize our students’ engagement with the world around them.
Consider taking one small step now by watching What Students Want to Learn or Civic Engagement in the What School Could Be community. These powerful videos may give you the inspiration and strategies to make a difference today.
It is important to me that my sons can express themselves in writing, can access the boundless knowledge kept in books, and that they can navigate the world of numbers. But as the light fades and my energy wanes on school nights, I want my sons to engage with learning that matters to them and the world. I want them to be part of the solution to problems they are inheriting. I need them to think about our climate, our justice system, and our democracy. And I need them to be the protagonist of their own education. I am excited to explore this with you this fall as we continue to imagine and design What School Could Be.