What Is the Purpose of School?

Lilipoh55By Douglas Gerwin & David Mitchell
Spring 2009: Redefining Education - Issue #55, Vol. 14
Before we can address the forms of assessment appropriate to each phaseof childhood, it is important to identify and set aside three widely held yet misleading assumptions given as reasons for going to school. The first is that one chief purpose of school is to instruct students. On this view, the teachers’ task is to convey what they know to their unknowing students, then confirm the efficacy of this transaction by testing the students’ ability to remember––or at least recognize––what they have received. Often the instruction takes place by textbook or other medium. Students receive their lessons primarily through what they hear and what they see. Other modes of learning are secondary and often neglected, such as working with the hands, demonstrating through gymnastics, and practicing elocution.

But teaching is not just the transfer of knowledge but also drawing out students’ nascent capacities. Herein lies the fundamental difference between in-struction, which in its etymological origins means to pour stones (Latin structus) into an empty vessel, and e-ducation, which in its origins means to lead or draw (Latin ducere) forth or out (Latin e-). When they instruct, teachers insert what they know into the empty vessel of the student who knows not. By contrast, when they educate, teachers draw forth from a student what he or she in some sense already knows, whether implicitly or explicitly. The difference between storing content and developing capacities is simple enough: in the one, you receive something from without; in the other, you generate something from within.

If we are to place education ahead of instruction, we need a new form of assessment, since the purpose of assessment would be to determine whether a teacher is drawing forth capacities from his or her students, not whether the students are retaining certain information.

A second assumption about going to school states that one of the chief purposes of education is to prepare students for the work force. This assumption posits an economic motive for education. We often hear that schools need to ready the next generation to compete in the global marketplace. Does this mean that the mark of successful schooling is students who are productive wage earners? If so, testing needs to focus on skills having to do with economic values, such as competition, efficiency and speed.

But teaching is not just the transfer of knowledge but also drawing out students’ nascent capacities.

The fallacy of this assumption becomes clear when we distinguish in society three interrelated yet distinct spheres of activity: economic, political and cultural. To the economic sphere belongs all activity having to do with commerce and the generation of wealth; to the political sphere, all matters of law and political rights; and, to the cultural sphere, all that is connected with the arts, humanities, science, morality and philosophy.

A school, however, is not primarily an economic organization; it is primarily a cultural organization. The purpose of school is not to generate wealth as a business but to unfold human capacities as a center of learning. Place schools in the service of economic goals and we begin to undermine the purpose of schooling. Instead, the best way to prepare students for economic and political life is to develop in them capacities of judgment and discernment, and this is what we need to assess.

Cultural institutions, or activities motivated by something other than themselves, soon lose their cultural integrity. The value of a poem is in its poetic worth—that is, cultural values are self-reflexive. Consider what would happen if the primary value or purpose of a publication were to become economic (that is, to make money), rather than remain cultural (that is, enrich the life of ideas).

Social scientist Donald D. Campbell arrives at a similar conclusion by means of this social law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subjected it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it was intended to monitor.” We have only to recall reports of cheating by school officials anxious to raise their state-mandated test scores to recognize the efficacy of this social law. Instead of basing assessment on the economic goals of efficiency, speed, and competitive advantage, an education free of economic motives requires a different form, based on the cultivation of essential human qualities that unfold throughout childhood and into adolescence.

cational practices may be distorted not only by a commercial motive; they may also lose their integrity if their motive is political. Literature taken over by political activity devolves into propaganda; religious worship controlled by the state appears as idolatry. This brings us to a third commonly held assumption: one of the chief purposes of education is to prepare students to become responsible citizens. This motive for teaching is to inculcate the values of a society and thereby help students align themselves with their political and social environment. Here testing takes the form of assessing familiarity with (and perhaps even obedience to) codes of conduct and social norms.

But this assumption flies in the face of the original intention of the founding fathers of the United States—Thomas Jefferson in particular—who explicitly inspired a system of education designed to strengthen the individual against the tyranny of social norms and conventions. Far from raising children to fit a pre-existing order, according to Jefferson, education is intended to cultivate a generation of leaders who renew society out of their own insights and their own thinking. In a letter to his friend William Roscoe on the subject, Jefferson writes:

“These schools will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

In sum, education needs to be pursued for its own ends, not for some extrinsic goal beyond itself. The moment education—and its assessment—becomes primarily a means to some other goal, political or economic, it begins to lose its cultural value and its own integrity. And what is this integrity? If not to fill students with instruction, train them for the work force, or outfit them as good citizens, what is the purpose of education?

Educational practices may be distorted not only by a commercial motive; they may also lose their integrity if their motive is political.

The overarching purpose of education must be to assist human unfolding: physically, emotionally and intellectually. School serves not the business world nor any political agenda, but rather the child and young adult as he or she unfolds those capacities that make him or her uniquely human. And what makes the human being unique? Humans are distinguished from other animals, among other traits, by their high degree of flexibility. We see this in the free play of a preschool child, in the tireless creativity of a grade school child, and in the dawning of free and self-determined thinking in a young adult.

A teacher who works with the flexibility—behavioral, emotional, cognitive—within human beings at the appropriate stages of their development fulfills the purpose of education.

As children pass through distinct phases from early childhood and elementary grades to the high school years and beyond, they learn in different ways, and need to be assessed differently:

• Preschoolers are “educated” mainly through physical activity. A life rich in play—both free and structured––is crucial to learning at this age. In this phase we cultivate and discipline children’s will, which sets the groundwork for more conscious learning in later stages in childhood.

• Elementary school children need to have their imaginations stimulated through storytelling and artistic work. A life rich in inner imaging holds the key to learning during these years. This is the phase of emotional development.

• High school students need to have their abstract thinking challenged, their powers of discrimination exercised, and their confident and meaningful participation in the world encouraged. At puberty, critical thinking, scientific investigation, and rigorous thinking are crucial.

In this context, standardized tests have a role—though not a major one—to play in the assessment of cognitive abilities. Other forms of evaluation may be more productive, however, as tools of learning and predictive of success in adult life. And the younger the child, the less useful are these standardized tests, since they assess primarily cognitive function.

Ultimately, teachers who test their children are testing themselves. When our children are left behind we need to turn to the teachers who are responsible. We need a culture in our schools that proclaims there shall be “No Teacher Left Behind.”

This does not mean that teachers are to be rewarded according to the performance of their children, for this introduces unhealthy dynamics into education. It means that, for students to succeed, their teachers need to be on a path of self-development that includes self-assessment. Before teachers administer tests to their students, they need to submit themselves to self and peer review, asking: How am I doing? Only then can they administer effective tests to their classes. Even these tests will have as their primary purpose not the assessment of students’ comprehension but rather the effectiveness of the teachers' own teaching.

In the final analysis, educational reform is the task of a school’s circle of educators, not of a government’s house of legislators. Teachers need to be charged with the task of studying their students, deepening their expertise, and developing appropriate methodology as a result. They can then set appropriate educational policies based on freedom and cultural pluralism. The task of the government is not to guarantee equal schooling for everyone; rather it is to guarantee equal access to the kinds of education that parents believe right for their children.

Douglas Gerwin, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Anthroposophy, including Chair of its Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program, and Co-Director of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education. Himself a Waldorf graduate, Dr. Gerwin has taught for 30 years at university and high school levels in subjects ranging from biology and history to German and music.

David Mitchell has been a Waldorf class, high school, and adult education teacher for 38 years. Currently, he writes, edits, and published books as Chairman of AWSNA Publications and he is the Co-Director of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education.