Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What is the Purpose of School?: Understanding Purpose Helps with Student Motivation (updated)

By on August 11, 2014

I start my school year with a little blog post about what students think school is all about.  It begins a year-long conversation about purpose that I then refer to throughout the school year.  “What is the purpose of the digital portfolio?”  becomes a homepage writing assignment for their individual Google Site.  “What is the purpose of a particular assessment?”  becomes a reflective piece that can turn a summative assessment into a formative one. 

Discussing purpose is a kind of reflection.  Flip that. Begin your activities or unit with a discussion of purpose, and it can even serve as the foundations of a goal-setting activity or the development of a student-created rubric.

The big question, of course, is to ask students what they think is the purpose of their even being at school.  After all, with understanding purpose, comes appreciation; and with appreciation comes motivation. 

So to begin this journey, in the first week of school, I show my students the following video by John Green:


I then ask them what they felt was the purpose of school.  “Write what you feel,” I ask, “not what you assume I want to hear.”  They can agree or disagree with Green, but the assignment is about honesty and about starting to look deeply into their own purpose for being here.  I tell them to show me what they’ve got.

The following are quotes from my last year’s students’ writing journals that I figured might give me a little insight into why they felt they were here.  This knowledge helps arm me as I help guide them through their last year in middle school.

Many of the entries, I admit, mentioned the boredom students felt at school, the mistrust of the need for endless drills and memorization; but they all seemed to get around to a common theme: optimism.  They all believe that school has a purpose and they have a place in it.  They just don’t seem to understand how they relate to the methods used in school.

One journal entry by my student, Julian, stated:

“Public education is, of course, for students to get smart, to graduate, and to finish college.  And once you finish college then learn what school is for.”

Of course, that got me thinking of a theme that I’ve written about in the past, that of applicability.  It’s important that students know about what school is for, not after school, but during school.  Kids deserve to know why and how school applies to life beyond its walls.  And if we don’t have that answer, then we shouldn’t be teaching the way we do.

But the good news is that we haven’t lost them.  They still have hope.  They still have trust.  In us.  In the schools.

Because while I received confused and angry entries, I also received just as many wonderful ones as well.  Here are just excerpts below:

Sam – “Education is vital.  Without our minds filled with knowledge, we would all suffer.  One empty mind can ruin another mind…”

Julia – “I think the purpose is to spread knowledge.”

Andrea – “I think the purpose of school is to help other people.  Some people think that you go to school so that you can go to college and then get a job.  This is true, but by doing a job, you are helping someone.”

Michelle – “School is a place to charge your mind like you charge your phone…You might believe that school is a place to see your friends, get useless information just to forget about the next day, and get homework you’ll just rush through, but most people don’t know that what you do in school can change the world.”

Tim – “To me, the purpose of school is to bring the foundation of life to children.  Math, science, language arts, and of course social studies, are all subjects that give you a variety of choices for your future.  This is why the world has people with occupations like scientists, teachers, accountants, politicians, and how can we forget, chefs and fishermen?”

Venisa – “One of the greatest joys about going to school and starting the school year is knowing that ‘I’ll learn new things today!’…One of the purposes of school is to help prepare us for the future.  The second…is to help get us socially friendly.  I mean, getting a job has all the parts of being a social butterfly.”

Scott – “The purpose of school is to grow and learn more so that you can make a positive mark on the world.”

The way I see it, my job now is to make sure that their optimism does not go unrewarded.  Help them learn knowledge that applies.  Help them fill their brains with information that won’t spill out from lack of use later on.  Help them prepare for the future that will be theirs.  Help them change the world.

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