The Purpose of Education

Today’s post is my contribution to an ongoing project organized by purpos/ed, “a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?”  I am honored to have been invited to contribute my response to this question by purpos/ed co-founder Doug Belshaw.


The short answer: to foster growth & independence.

The long answer: In the States, we have an acronym that appears in our federal law governing special education: FAPE, or Free & Appropriate Public Education.  According to federal law, FAPE is what every child who is eligible for special education & related services is guaranteed.  This means that for every student with an identified disability, the school must develop an Individualized Education Plan [IEP] that best meets that student’s needs based on his/her individual strengths and weaknesses.  For some students, this means they are educated in the same contexts as their non-disabled peers with minor accommodations, while others require instruction on basic facets of daily living.  For some students, the most appropriate educational placement for them involves leaving our traditional American high school in order to learn basic employment skills.  Yet other students spend a significant portion of their time in a polytechnic environment, developing industrial skills in an apprentice-like setting.  For all of these students, their formal educations look very different, yet are presumably appropriate to their individual goals.

If working in the world of special education has taught me anything, it is that education can – and probably should – look different for every student.  With this perspective, the question I constantly ask is: to what degree are we providing ALL students – not just those with identified disabilities – with FAPE?  This includes, but is not limited to, re-thinking:

  • physical presence at school – do we all need to be there at the same time, or for the same length of time?  Why?
  • how we structure our day – should we isolate subjects from one another in 40-80 minute chunks?
  • who provides instruction – can students only learn from certified teachers, or was Illich on to something forty years ago?
  • the increasing emphasis on standardized tests in the US that is driving curriculum to focus more on students’ areas of weaknesses instead of their areas of strength, interest, and passion?

My home state of New Jersey is in the midst of piloting a program called Personalized Student Learning Plans, which, roughly explained, applies the concept of the IEP to all students from middle grades (ages 12-13) through high school graduation (ages 17-18).  I will blog about the initial findings soon, but for now I’ll say they look promising in terms of student engagement, student-teacher interactions, and, perhaps most importantly, student ownership of learning and ability to think critically.  When we honor the individual differences inherent in our students, we reinforce the message that they are capable of learning, thus (hopefully) laying the foundation for a lifetime of self-directed learning, or at least problem-solving.

As an educator, but more importantly, as a father, this is the direction in which I want our education system to move.  Let us engage both our students and our children by structuring their formal educational experiences around their passions and strengths, and let us challenge them to become self-sufficient critical thinkers, not expert bubble-darkeners.


  • Hi Damian, thanks for this! I always found it strange as a teacher that we had IEPs (rarely looked at beyond the start of term by teachers) for only some students.

    What I’m wondering is if we need as much ‘school’ as we do at present if we truly want to personalise education?
    Doug Belshaw´s last blog post ..Effective learning and the physicality of the classroom

  • @Doug Yes, we’re on the same wavelength. While I’m excited about the possibilities that PSLPs can bring about in NJ (and,apparently, in other states where similar programs are already in place, though I haven’t read up on their outcomes), I am still concerned that we will be creating these alternate, individualized experiences within the existing ‘one size fits all’ framework, which severely limits the opportunity for individualization. It’s all well and good to individualize curriculum, but that’s where most discussions seem to end. As I said, we need to re-think structure, location, time, and lots of other potential logistical nightmares as well.

    To neglect those elements seems to me to create a false sense of personalization, like Henry Ford’s proclamation that the general public can have the Model T in any color they want, as long as it’s black.

  • Thankyou for this article Damian. This is all very true. I have also had the pleasure of working in the Special Needs sector, though in Australia. It is similar there. Where you work in a Special Needs school, every student has their own ILP and I think it is wonderful. But then I return to mainstream schools I watch as ‘ordinary’ students struggle to connect with school and their own education, and I’m certain that if each had a faithfully followed ILP, many of these issues would disappear.

  • @Jacqueline Thanks for stopping by to comment! I’ve never worked in a private special needs school, but what you describe is how I’ve imagined them in terms of IEP/ILP implementation.

    As I stated in my comment above, I do think there are significant logistical obstacles to what I suggest (especially as the students get older or the number of students in a school grows), but I doubt they are entirely impossible to surmount as long as the school gets significant buy-in from not only staff but also the community at large. Easier said than done, I know, but I’m thinking that examining some variations on the ‘school-within-a-school’ model might be enough to at least get us started.

  • Here’s another thought, just to push some discussion a bit: what if school buildings were open and staffed 24 hours a day?

  • Interesting post Damien. I agree that more “self-directed” learning is something that we should be encouraging. As others have commented, logistical obstacles would have to be overcome to achieve this. I’m a teacher in Ireland and staffing levels here would have a serious impact on the ability of schools to make any great changes in this area. Unless our new government changes something!

  • @Nigel Thanks for stopping by as well, Nigel. Staffing has got to be the #1 priority when it comes to school budgets, and it certainly isn’t cheap.

    In Pennsylvania, where I have lived for the last eight years or so, the individual counties hire special services personnel (psychologists, speech therapists, behavior specialists, etc.) and contract them out to the many school districts within a county. This saves the school districts the cost of having to hire these specialists on their own dime.

    I wonder if such a model is feasible to do with teachers as well, at least to some degree? Sort of a ‘have expertise, will travel’ model?

    Definitely only a half-baked thought on my part, but maybe worth exploring…

  • Damian – FAPE is the law today, but how much of it will remain if the current trend of unfunded mandates continue and budgets get even tighter than they are today? My guess is that there will be changes to FAPE as we know it, based upon the inability of schools to provide that protection and level of service to its students, due to lack of funds. I hope not, but I am not optimistic about the future of FAPE.

    The reality is in today’s world of Standards Based Learning, Learning Results, Standardized Testing, RTTP, School Accountability, Teacher Accountability and all the other policies and laws that push school leadership ensure that students meet certain milestones at the same time as their peers, appears to make individualized education plans or Personalized Student Learning Plans for all students an unrealistic plan. Either we embrace individualization or standardization and it seems that the U. S. is going down the standardization route.

    Educators are under pressure to ensure that their students meet these milestones or be held accountable and it doesn’t matter if they have an IEP or not. If a certain population of the school is not performing well, we are advised to ensure that they will improve and have the “or else” in the background.

    I wonder what the paperwork requirements of the PSLP will be and how much time they will take to complete each one and if this has been determined. How many of these PSLP’s will become rather similar looking as teachers, administrators and students rush to simply meet yet another requirement that we have “do in school”.

    In order to have the IEP or PSLP process be successful something will have to give, we either need to go to a growth model for our students, which would require a complete paradigm shift from today’s requirements of meeting specific standards.

    PSLP or IEPs for all are great in theory, but until we change how we look at what the purpose of education really is, they will become yet another administrative requirement that get done, checked off and put in the file cabinet or student’s portfolio to show it was done.

    I guess I have unfortunately become a skeptic of the beneficial side of ideas like this in the current climate of educational reform.
    Harold Shaw´s last blog post ..MLTI iLife Training Reflection – February 2011

  • Hi Harold! I hear you, especially after having spent the last week jumping through even more paperwork hoops than I am used to, thanks to another ‘bright idea’ mandate put into place by the state of NJ with absolutely zero guidance.

    I would be very surprised if there are changes made to FAPE, as you suggest. I think the legal problems that would create would be enormous. In my opinion, the likelier scenario is that additional mandates come down and the ‘or else’ demands grow.

    You’re absolutely right about this, though: “until we change how we look at what the purpose of education really is, they will become yet another administrative requirement that get done, checked off and put in the file cabinet or student’s portfolio to show it was done.” It’s one thing for us to blog about these ideas and talk a good game in theory, but what needs to happen is for progressive-minded folks (I won’t say “ed reformers”) to make their way out of the classroom and into the real positions of influence (no offense to classroom teachers) without losing their ideals.

    Last note: I’m right there with you in your disgust with the current climate of educational reform – I’ve got a quickie blog post coming up about that in about two weeks.

  • @Harold PS – congratulations, you’ve inspired this week’s #spedchat topic! 😉

  • […] The Purpose of Education ( […]

  • […] not only the curriculum, but also the physical and geographic elements of our schools.  I wrote about this a few months ago, but to briefly re-cap: rethink the necessity of the 7.5 hour, Monday-Friday […]

  • […] The Purpose of Education ( Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed The cleantech graveyard to start filling up Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponEmailDiggRedditLinkedInPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.