What is School For?

In the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences.

What if you got cast, tracked or made the cut because you were resilient, hard working and willing to set yourself up for a cycle of continuous improvement?

We’re not spending nearly enough time asking the question:

What is School For?

The above quotes are from the same post, same author: Seth Godin. I listened to his podcast on solving interesting problems this morning on my way to school. That led me to his website and the show notes for the episode where I found these words. What is school for? Do you ask this question? And if you do, from what perspective? Of a child, a parent, a teacher, a professional working in another industry? Is school simply to get you to college, which in turn will get you your first job and out of your parents’ home? Or, is it just something you have to do because every other child also goes to school? Do you look forward to school, and not just to see your friends but because of what you will learn and discover, and uncover? So, what is school for?

At admissions open houses for the past couple years, I’ve been sharing two broader trends I observe in our culture:

  1. Childhood is under assault. We are ruining our children and their childhood by removing play and imagination, blocks of free and unstructured time when they can create and solve those interesting problems that they want to solve. Children are adulting earlier now, and instead of learning healthy social skills and emotional resilience, they are building resumes longer than any of us and yet, unable to make good choices or navigate their days and weeks without checking in with an adult at home or at school. Too many of us are telling our children what to do, instead of giving them the freedom (and the appropriate level of structures surrounding it), to figure it out for themselves. How do we amplify childhood? Instead of stressing out our children, which will only lead to stressed out adults who are unable to manage and self-regulate their emotions, their behaviors and choices, how might we create environments at home and at school that preserve and protect children’s right to be children? Two years ago, when asked to write the introduction for The Children’s School’s redesigned admissions collateral and website, I wrote a letter that has now become the TCS Manifesto. For children who no longer get to be children, TCS is a safe place that allows them and encourages them to engage their minds, hearts and bodies in all of the things that children are meant to do! Research suggests the same; play is the work of children, to paraphrase Dewey, and in the words of Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research.” So, what is school for? They must become the panacea for children and offer families the information and education to do the same at home. Instead of causing stress and anxiety, we must offer children the release and the opportunity to learn, apply their creativity, solve interesting problems and realize their impact on those around them.
  2. For at least a few years, I’ve seen an increase in what I’ve begun to call the “retailing of education.” Whether it’s technology in general, services and tools like Amazon Prime or Google, we expect instant answers to our problems. Patience is a lost virtue today. Some parents, not the majority yet, expect for the tuition they pay independent schools that schools will deliver on certain outcomes in the time frame they expect. Humans, however, are not produced in a factory and do not respond differently to technological advances and any economic progress in our lives. In many ways, technology has made us less efficient and less effective, and it has adversely affected our expectations of each other in personal and professional relationships. Our tools may have advanced but children still develop at pretty much the same rate they did ten or twenty or hundred years ago. Of course, nurture affects nature but nature still dominates. So, what is school for? Schools can do a better job of building, and preserving, our capacity for imaginative play, kindness and compassion; how we form relationships with others; how we learn and lead; and when we teach and follow; when patience is a virtue because certain things just take time; and (maybe) the most important of all, teach us those universal values and what really matters in the end.

Godin says on his podcast that there really are two purposes to schools: One, teach children leadership, and two, give them interesting problems to solve. He’s right and if we can do the two things I’ve shared above, then we will have achieved the two on his list too. Then our culture will have interesting adults who can form healthy attachments and relationships to and with one another; who care about others too and not just their own; who are self-reliant and self-regulate their behaviors and emotions but also know the value of interdependence; who want to make a difference and not just today but for a world that will long outlive and outlast them.

So, what is school for? Why do you go to school, send your children to one, or work in one now? And if none apply to you, what kind of a childhood do you wish for our children today? What kind of a childhood did you have?

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