Monday, September 7, 2015

What's The Point?

While having lunch with my son the other day, I brought up the subject of school because the start date was only a few of days away and he was about to enter middle school. The whole notion of middle school is somewhat unreal to me... where did the little baby who fit into the palm of my hand go? Was he really ready for middle school? Am I ready for middle school? Would he be successful in middle school? Would kids be nice to him in middle school? There were literally dozens of questions swirling in my mind - most of them stressing me out a little bit - so I wanted to see what he was thinking and feeling about the whole situation. 

I started by asking him what he was most excited about and he said... "Seeing my friends! That is definitely the best part of school - getting to see all my friends in one place." He went on to explain that he wasn't particularly stressed out about starting middle school but in general was sad about the summer ending, which I guess is consistent with the way that many kids at this point in the year feel... dreading the end of summer and the start of school and all that comes with it. 

Still, as the educator who loves school and has devoted much of my life to learning and teaching, I had to push the conversation further. After an exchange that was somewhat like pulling teeth Paul finally said, "Dad, I know you are a principal and you like school and everything but I am a kid and I just don't love it. I feel like I can learn a lot more while I am not in school. The truth is, I don't understand the point of school. What's the point? Everything that I am interested in and connects to my world doesn't ever come up in school, so what's the point?" 

Needless to say, I was kind of speechless (which, if you know me, doesn't happen often). I didn't know what to say or how to respond. I didn't want to be that parent who simply said... "School matters because I said so and you have to go to school because that is the law...blah, blah, blah!" or something along those lines. That would not work with Paul. Would he accept the answer and shrug his shoulders in passive agreement? Yes, but would he really have the answer to his critical question... what's the point? No. That was a hard thing for me to accept because I believe a good education is the gateway to whatever it is an individual wants to pursue in life but if Paul fancies himself a YouTuber right now (his current obsession - check out his two channels here and here) or a future movie director (or chef depending on the day you ask him), then I am not quite sure that I can give him the best answer to his simple question... what's the point?

As I reflect on this experience it made me think about the work that we do each and everyday within our schools and how we go about helping our learners understand the point so they can answer the question (what's the point?) themselves. The truth is, I am not sure if we have given that as much thought as it deserves. Yes, we can talk about project based learning and growth mindset and "real life" learning situations but maybe for one minute we just pause and think to ourselves... what's the point? What's the point of the lesson? What's the point of our teaching? What's the point of the learning? What's the point? Maybe instead of trying to come up with fancy exit slips for the purposes of formative assessment, at the end of the lesson we just ask our kids... what was the point of that learning experience? If we can push them to reflect critically on a learning experience maybe they won't be left scratching their heads and wondering themselves... what's the point?


  1. The purpose of school is to teach the curriculum society deems necessary. That of course does not take into account the interests of every students (or perhaps even a large minority.) I explain to my junior high students, and anyone else that will listen, that the curriculum may not be their choice but we often have to do things we don't want to do for the betterment of our community. In laymen's terms, we teach what the public at large wants us to teach.

    I do think that much of what we teach is important for all to learn, I also think there are a lot of things we force on kids they don't need. I think we would be much better off with half the day teaching society's curriculum and half the day allowing students to pursue more personal interests.

    1. I'm sorry for this opinion, especially if you are an educator like me. Your mission is far short-cited as it is our moral obligation to inspire students and use their interests to teach the enduring understandings of the curriculum. Think beyond State Mandated tests and what is our moral obligation to prepare students for the world they will inherit (that school life closely resembles worklife).

  2. Great post Tony! I believe your sons thoughts are the same as many kids his age! Teaching kids to be reflective is key to self management!

  3. Great post...again. You rock. thoughts are relatively simple here. If kids don't connect things to their world they won't like it. Doesn't mean that everything has to connect positively to their world, but needs to connect. There will be things that they don't want to do, but if it has a connection they are more willing to try because they see the relevance. Our staff knows that our principals will ask two questions to kids when they go into classrooms...What are you doing? Why are you doing it? The only wrong answer is "Because the teacher told me to." Create relevance and kids will learn. Teach in a stand alone environment and everyone will be asking, what's the point. Great thoughts, my friend. Hope Paul's experience helps him make that connection. If not, I'll send open enrollment papers to have him come here. He can stay with us. Ha!

  4. Out of the mouths of babes. ..This has given me something to think about!
    I spent 22 years teaching junior high students to learn! Now, I am teaching high school and beginning year 30...We are all learning to learn. That is always the point. Period. Sometimes we practice using math facts; sometimes we explored science! Occasionally, we even reflect on our history, literature, or the topics in the news! But we always try to learn something and even look for relevance beyond the immediate gratification of an impending test! It isn't always easy to get excited about curriculum, but learning... Learning is a whole new world!
    I hope your son learns to learn regardless of the curriculum which he chooses to use to practice those skills !
    Have an excellent year! Thanks for adding depth of thought to my PLN!

  5. Thanks Tony, very poignant post. I wonder at what point Paul wondered the answer to the "why school" question. Was it something that just dawned on him or has it grown over time? I think most educators could answer the question "what's the point of school?" but I wonder how many students could? It is really refreshing to see a leader write so openly and honestly about schooling in the modern era. We do need change. Why? When there are young people like Paul who think what's the point, we must change.

  6. Thanks Tony, I saw this post on Twitter and had to read the whole thing. I am currently a credential student at Cal State San Marcos in Southern California, and we have been exploring this idea of the point of school. We actually were instructed to read a book called "Why School" by Will Richardson, in which Will discusses the potential change in education due to the teachnology boom. Within this ideas such as real-world problems, and possibly even project based learning is mentioned, but what I think speaks more to your dilema is his idea of Transferring Power.
    Transferring from how I understand it, is for the teachers to relase power in the classroom over to the students. What this looks like in a classroom is students deciding what they specifically want to learn about, what problem they want to spend time on. Teachers then have an important role in making sure standards are still met and students stay on task within their respective subjeccts.
    Being an inspiring high school math teacher, which can be the most boring class for students, something needs to get students involved in their learning. Can you imagine you son offering up a problem relating to cooking and the amount of students that don't recieve three meals a day? Then him along with his classmates could come up with some sort of mathematical model as to what needs to happen in order for the number of hungry students decreases, and who knows maybe they take it a step further and make a change in their school. Don't you think that students would see more of a point for school if they were working on problems they hold close to them. Another "perk" to this approach is that students would learn more about each other and learn how to work together and be sensitive to different backgrounds.
    Now I want to make clear, that being in the credential program, I have yet to teach my own class. Which means I have not practiced what I preach, but that being said I do hope that my classroom is able to have this environment.

  7. Strip away the grades, the awards, the "you'll need this for next year", the tiny box of packaged and most often out-of-context knowledge, and you'll see that the point is to do the thing we've designed called school. The learners, like your son, get it. They spend time learning and then have to go back to school. We do school so we can do more school. Having taught high school for 25 years, it became clearer that we weren't preparing students for life after school.

    War, refugees, YouTube personalities larger than Hollywood, asteroids falling to earth, archaeological discoveries, mixed media creations, climate change, video games...It's not hard to live outside the little school box and learn. What's the learning for?

    Thankfully, there are teachers who get it that the point isn't some magical mandated curriculum that will help develop responsible, creative, critical thinking people.

    Educators and parents, like yourself, demonstrate that we need to LISTEN to the learners who tell us where and how the learning growth happens.

  8. Hello Tony. Students never seem to amaze me in the talents and interests they possess in and outside of the school environment. Learners who, may by virtue of standardized test scores or letter grades, seem to be disengaged from learning and doing, frequently from my experience demonstrate passion and talents in other areas that interest them the most. Behind this always seems to be an element of ownership in choice in learning.

    In a previous comment, a respondent to your post mentioned that we teach "what the public at large wants us to teach". This may be true in terms of state mandated standards and benchmarks, but reasoning like this is not going to go too far with your typical kid in the classroom. It doesn't take much work on the teacher's part to give a reasonable explanation on "what's the point", but the kid still doesn't own it nor does the idea grow from there.

    I teach middle school math and science at Taipei American School, Taiwan. The bulk of my teaching experience has been in public schools in the state of Minnesota. Often I have felt that, especially with math at the secondary level, the default answer to your son's question goes something like this. "You need to know this to go into math course X next year". "This will likely be on your AP, SAT, or ACT test so we have to learn this". "We need this skill before we can move on to our next chapter". I do think that critical reflection as you've mentioned is key to answering the question "what's the point of this learning?". How that reflection takes place is another story.

    Not too many years ago, I would have quite likely had my students, on an exit slip or in my classrooms "a.k.a. ticket to leave", write down a reflection on a piece of paper in the last few minutes of class and then hastily give it to me as they left the room. The conversation about learning stopped there. There would be little feedback from me or others, no sharing, no building on ideas that might transcend the classroom learning experience. I am not saying that Twitter or blogging is the silver bullet in answering your son's question. However, part of answering the question may involve changing the way in which we ask students to reflect. I don't think we can just "push" students to critically reflect and expect it to happen.

    While I can't say I've figured Twitter out quite yet as reflection and sharing application, I have seen and participated in some powerful examples of its use. Most recently I was in a live Twitter chat that posed five simple questions to a larger group of learners from around the world. The exchange and depth of ideas was simply staggering. After experiencing this, I thoroughly have committed myself to at least trying its use in my grade 7 math and science classes. Here are some resources I found to be useful in better understanding Twitter's application as a teaching and learning resource.

    The Teacher's Guide to Twitter (
    Twitter in the Classroom (

    Best wishes and thanks for sharing your son's question. It's a great reminder to teachers about the importance of knowing and understanding "what's the point?"