A Simple Question

Today I was struck by a question that I never thought I would ask myself. This question is a simple in form, but highly complicated in meaning:

What is the purpose of education?

The schools, educators, and partners that I have seen this week have changed the way I answer that question.

This question is what motivates all of us to join the teaching profession—many teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, and others get into education in the first place because they have an idea about how to answer this question. Having grown up as a product of the Virginia public education system, I can say the purpose of my education was to gain content knowledge.

While this was the reality while I was growing up, it is no longer the push in many educational environments. Instead, making sure that kids have the skills in order to be problem solvers in the 21st century is the priority—and with the change to Common Core, students specifically need skills in English and math.

A staff member at Summit Shasta Public School in Daly City today said something that really struck me: He told us that when he was a classroom teacher, he did a really good job of giving his kids multiple ways to solve a quadratic equation. But when he looks back now, he doesn’t really care if they have four ways to solve quadratic equations because they can Google it. What he said he wanted was a student with the skills to find that information and then apply it.

Which brings us back to my original question: What is the purpose of education? I now believe that purpose of education is to create choice. Students should graduate from a K-12 education with choices. And as an educator, I want to create highly skilled problem solvers who are motivated to change the world around them.

And in order to make this happen for all students, we need to innovate. We need to create new ways of thinking about the problems in our schools and classrooms, and Summit is a great example of this change. They have created an amazing personalized system that includes their entire network of staff—all of whom truly own their work.

It was also nice to see innovation on the high school level. So much of what we often see in innovation is focused on 8th grade and below, and high schools don’t make these kinds of changes as often. To be clear, the changes made at Summit were drastic for them, and they would be seen as an earthquake in most public schools today. I really think that if the lowest-performing schools could adopt models like Summit’s and help to create the ownership and problem-solving skills I saw at Epic, we could really get to the heart of our question.

There are some amazing schools doing amazing things in pockets all over the country. Perhaps what will help us get to where we want to be, what will allow us to take the real risks that are necessary to fix our problems, is being honest with ourselves about where we are. The old model doesn’t work; do we have the bravery to admit it and be some of the first in the public sector to try sweeping innovation?   ​

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School


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