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Performance Versus Learning: What's the Purpose of Education?

As a nation we're obsessed with competition rather than collaboration, and it shows in our schools.

We have a fundamental question—perhaps the most fundamental of all questions about education—to address in the United States: What purpose do our schools serve in and for our country?

To begin to explore this question we need, first, to concede a central and sweeping proposition: that pedagogy, policy, and politics have been isolated and protected as separate discourses—both in the hyper-local conversations of our learning communities and in the national discourse on education—and that this separation has caused damage to our schools, to their stakeholders, and to our children from which we now must decide to recover.

The anxieties experienced by our schools' stakeholders in a time of transformational change, the factionalism that limits our participation and collaboration in the creation of more effective policy, the disengaged (and disengaging) practices that persist in many of our schools' classrooms, and the devaluation of "learning" in a nation obsessed with "performance" will continue to demoralize us, unless we work together to bridge those conversations about pedagogy, policy, and politics in a common conversation that identifies the purpose of "education" itself.

I want to venture the suggestion—along with Bo Adams, Grant Lichtman, Peter Gow, and many other colleagues—that an appeal to the principles of John Dewey will be the key the key to unlocking the many doors that have been closed:

It is this separation, this lack of vital unity, which leads to the confusion and contention which are so marked features of the educational situation. Lacking a philosophy of unity, we have no basis upon which to make connections, and our whole treatment becomes piecemeal, empirical, and at the mercy of external circumstances.

Our current situation thus ceases to be a conflict between what is called the “old education” and the new. There is no longer any old education, save here and there in some belated geographical area. There is no “new education” in definite and supreme existence. What we have are certain vital tendencies. These tendencies ought to work together—each stands for a phase of reality and contributes a factor of efficiency. But because of lack of organization, because of the lack of unified insight upon which the organization depends, these tendencies are diverse and tangential. Too often we have their mechanical combination and irrational compromise. More prophetic—and more vital—is the confusion which arises from their conflict.

We have been putting new wine into old bottles, and that which was prophesied has come to pass.


What Dewey wrote in 1902 is true today not only of pedagogy in our schools, but of policy in our nation—and invites a more urgent call than ever to the collective resolution of pressing questions in both domains. These are in many ways the same questions in each domain, owing to the misguided political ideology that infects each discourse—though we endeavor in our classrooms, and allege in our legislative halls, to appeal to more intrinsic values, authentic evidence, and higher principles than our parties’ platforms might suggest. The driving question to which we need to calibrate our efforts is simply this: "What is the goal of education in, and for, our country?"

To answer this question we'll also need to identify the answers that haven’t worked to date, to deconstruct the answers we've provided so many times before, and to reconstruct an answer that can help us develop a shared vision—firm enough to establish certain shared principles, but flexible enough to be responsive to our local contexts—to guide our collective movement forward in our schools, and as a country. A central premise of this exploration is perhaps best framed by Carla Rinaldi:

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated.


To artificially separate our conversations about teaching and learning in our schools from the political discourse in which they, as institutions, are situated, is to ignore the opportunities we have in front of us to discover a unified purpose and a higher calling. Such a separation, says Dewey, "would mean that the requirements of civilization are fundamentally at war with the conditions of individual development; that the agencies by which society maintains itself are at radical odds with the forms by which individual experience is deepened and expanded."

Our national education policy, and much of the public debate surrounding it, relies on myopic and reductive assumptions about the symbolism of our country in the world's imagination. We are preoccupied as a nation with products rather than processes, with competition rather than collaboration, with dominance rather than participation, with achievement rather than imagination, and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.

Consider the extraordinary call to action in our classroom practice, issued by Grant Lichtman: "Why have we yielded that high ground of the progressive era of education to the industrial age model that has been planted on us?" Reflect on the highest aspirations of the education system, as framed by Peter Gow: "We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education." And consider the urgency of Carla Rinaldi's warning as we work together, as stakeholders, to bridge these conversations about pedagogy, policy, and politics: "For the future, school must have a decisive influence on the present; otherwise the message and the very identity of school will not survive."

This post is the first of three on finding the true purpose of education.

Click here to add committing to the Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development's 16 transformative education principles to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Boy sitting with friends in classroom image via Shutterstock

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