Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Arguing the case for "creating knowledge" as THE purpose of schools

In a recent video of a TEDxYouth talk he gave (and in his book, Stop Stealing Dreams), Seth Godin suggests the vital question facing our educational system is, "What is school for?"  In other words, "For what purpose do schools exist?"

On the surface, this may seem like a somewhat easy question to answer.  On the other hand, if you really begin to think about the implications of your answer, a great deal of complexity may begin to seep in.  If there was one purpose, then there would only need to be one type of school.  So, I tend to fall more on the side of there being "purposes" of schools and the need to have different varieties to address those purposes.  Malcolm Gladwell gave a good TED talk about this concept.

Having said that, I want to take a stab at answering Mr. Godin's question...or at least offer ONE possible answer.

The purpose of school is to "create knowledge." 

Creating knowledge, as I use the term, is the act of sharing information, observations, solutions, and questions in a manner that elevates the overall understanding and application of something (or things) previously discovered.

For example, your students may know the basic facts about the building of the Panama Canal. They may also know that America's involvement in world affairs is an essential theme to the study of American history.  However, by allowing those two pieces of information to collide in your classroom, students will not only walk away with a deeper understanding of the Panama Canal and America's role in world affairs, but also a potentially new lens through which they can judge future discussions on those two topics.

I propose these four reasons to consider "creating knowledge"as the purpose of schools.

1.)  Creating knowledge requires active participation.

"Creating knowledge" is an action.  It cannot happen by thinking alone.  You need to do something with your thoughts.  It takes effort to make connections, and creating knowledge requires connections to be made.  Creating knowledge is intentional.

2.)  Creating knowledge is a social function.

In order to create knowledge, you need to share what you know and what you are thinking.  That cannot be done in a vacuum.  The "shipping" of ideas for others to digest and respond to along with the internal satisfaction of redefining your role as a contributor to a greater understanding can be a major motivating force.  Social media works because people, essentially, like to share and feel connected.  The same basic premise exists in creating knowledge.

3.)  Creating knowledge values risk takers.

It takes guts to put one's ideas "out there" for others to see and consider.  This is especially true knowing that not everyone will accept your ideas.  Creating knowledge, therefore needs and values risk takers; and risk takers are important for the future of our society.  When I speak of risk takers, I am not talking about daredevils, but instead of those of us who face "resistance" and tell our "lizard brains" to shut up and get out of the way.

4.)  Creating knowledge rewards those who focus on growth rather than fixed results.

An underlying concept in creating knowledge is the belief that every idea can be improved upon.  To throw oneself into the creation of knowledge, therefore, there must be a belief that the goal is to improve an idea, to take an already good concept and apply it to a better use, to discover a gem of hidden value that was previously buried underneath reams of facts and data, etc.  Focusing on the making an idea better allows you to take risks and experiment with new ideas in a way that those afraid of being wrong or labelled cannot possibly understand.  There is a saying that the best get better.  When creating knowledge, the only way to success is to work towards better.  A fixed "best" restricts thinking and, thus, the creation of knowledge.

The debate over the purpose of schools will continue.

It should.

Ultimately, we may find that, like spaghetti sauce, there is no PURPOSE to school but rather PURPOSES.  Once we stop trying to find THE right answer, then maybe more "dreams" will be accepted, protected, and encouraged.

Maybe we will agree that one of those reasons is to create knowledge.
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