Today’s post is my contribution to an ongoing project organized by purpos/ed, “a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?” I am honored to have been invited to contribute my response to this question by purpos/ed co-founder Doug Belshaw.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION?
The short answer: to foster growth & independence.
The long answer: In the States, we have an acronym that appears in our federal law governing special education: FAPE, or Free & Appropriate Public Education. According to federal law, FAPE is what every child who is eligible for special education & related services is guaranteed. This means that for every student with an identified disability, the school must develop an Individualized Education Plan [IEP] that best meets that student’s needs based on his/her individual strengths and weaknesses. For some students, this means they are educated in the same contexts as their non-disabled peers with minor accommodations, while others require instruction on basic facets of daily living. For some students, the most appropriate educational placement for them involves leaving our traditional American high school in order to learn basic employment skills. Yet other students spend a significant portion of their time in a polytechnic environment, developing industrial skills in an apprentice-like setting. For all of these students, their formal educations look very different, yet are presumably appropriate to their individual goals.
If working in the world of special education has taught me anything, it is that education can – and probably should – look different for every student. With this perspective, the question I constantly ask is: to what degree are we providing ALL students – not just those with identified disabilities – with FAPE? This includes, but is not limited to, re-thinking:
- physical presence at school – do we all need to be there at the same time, or for the same length of time? Why?
- how we structure our day – should we isolate subjects from one another in 40-80 minute chunks?
- who provides instruction – can students only learn from certified teachers, or was Illich on to something forty years ago?
- the increasing emphasis on standardized tests in the US that is driving curriculum to focus more on students’ areas of weaknesses instead of their areas of strength, interest, and passion?
My home state of New Jersey is in the midst of piloting a program called Personalized Student Learning Plans, which, roughly explained, applies the concept of the IEP to all students from middle grades (ages 12-13) through high school graduation (ages 17-18). I will blog about the initial findings soon, but for now I’ll say they look promising in terms of student engagement, student-teacher interactions, and, perhaps most importantly, student ownership of learning and ability to think critically. When we honor the individual differences inherent in our students, we reinforce the message that they are capable of learning, thus (hopefully) laying the foundation for a lifetime of self-directed learning, or at least problem-solving.
As an educator, but more importantly, as a father, this is the direction in which I want our education system to move. Let us engage both our students and our children by structuring their formal educational experiences around their passions and strengths, and let us challenge them to become self-sufficient critical thinkers, not expert bubble-darkeners.