Things I Know 286 of 365: I wrote my purpose

You may recall one of my assignments for my School Reform course called on me to articulate my beliefs around the purpose of school. Thursday, I’ll likely be receiving the graded paper. Below, you’ll find what I submitted.

The What and The Why

“You’ve made interesting points in your writing,” I said, “I’d like to hear what happens when your points start interacting.” Before I set them free, I asked the students what a productive conversation would look like, and wrote their words on the board. I offered one suggestion, “If things lose steam, ask a question.” Then, they were on their own – a room of 32 high school sophomores left to discuss the themes of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. If I’d done my job correctly, the room would be quiet for a moment. Then, the first student would dive in, “What I didn’t get was why they all talk so strange.” It wasn’t a question, but it was the necessary spark. We were off. Students pulled in the historical implications of the novel’s setting. Laptops flipped open to find what others had said and exactly where in Florida we were reading about. Students said things like, “Remember what we said about power when we read Lord of the Flies?” I kept my mouth shut, scribbling notes furiously. This task and successive iterations of it as I refined my practice came to embody my belief of the purpose of schooling.

Schooling’s purpose is to provide a space for practice toward mastery of literacy, numeracy, and citizenship embedded inquiry (Sizer, 2004; Postman & Weingartner, 1969). I am straying from the traditional early 20th century definition of literacy e.g., reading a book and writing an essay. Instead, I am referring to a person’s ability to access and create texts across myriad iterations and formats. Numeracy refers to those processes of mathematical thinking that call for the consumption and production of numeric understanding. It asks, “What do I need to understand about numbers to fulfill my definition of success and have the options I want?” This definition applies to the many iterations and formats possible within the realm of numerical thinking – taxes, price comparisons, musical rhythm. Citizenship refers to the habits of mind and action necessary to understanding, questioning, and furthering society. Finally, inquiry is here defined as the process of asking questions, devising answers, testing those answers and then refining one’s thinking by following those refinements with the next level of questioning.

My reasoning is built first and foremost on what I, a teacher – any teacher – cannot know. To quantify the unknowable I need only reference the infinite. No teacher has ever known fully this student or that student sitting before him in a classroom. He has only ever known those attributes and pieces revealed through the relationships he has cultivated with his students and the limited intellectual eavesdropping allowable through assessments he’s designed. He sees only the narrow pieces of themselves school teaches students to exhibit for display and public scrutiny (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2011). His students have remained more unknown than known.

While the teacher of the past may have made peace with this unknowability of students and their personhoods, he could take solace in a fairly clear map of the futures of his students. With few exceptions, he could accurately predict the paths down which his students would embark once they left his classroom and prepare them for these futures. The students may have been diverse, but their futures didn’t seem as such. My purpose of school finds its genesis in the fact that the paths down which students may embark are now as infinite and unknowable as the students themselves. The connectivity, globalization and immediacy of opportunities have taken away any certainty teachers may previously held as to the purpose of their work. All schooling can do is work to develop an understanding of societal systems in the moment as well as the actions and habits of mind necessary to adapt to whatever changes exist on the other side of the horizon.

The Idea’s Evolution

My time as a teacher and student most directly affected my thinking on the purpose of schooling. Exercises in literacy and citizenship such as the one described above were not the norm in my classroom throughout my first few years teaching. A strict focus on management of my teaching served as a placeholder for focusing on learning. When students asked why we needed to read the same book at the same time, I gave the answer my English teachers had given me, “The shared reading experience is an important one.” After a time, I started to reflect on this statement. Nowhere in my personal literacy did I seek out experiences where I read the same parts of the same books at the same time as 30 other people. In truth, we were reading the books together because it was easier for me and it was how I had been taught.

I always believed in the importance of those purposes outlined here, but it wasn’t until I formally returned to the classroom as a student that I became equipped with the language to articulate my beliefs. Minds like Theodore Sizer (2004) gave me words for my ideas on inquiry, “One thinks, one imagines, one analyzes those ideas, one tests them, and then thinks again” (p. 103). This was the road down which I’d embarked when stepping outside my students’ conversation and let them test and refine their ideas. These skills embodied the citizenship toward which I was preparing my students. To paraphrase David Perkins (2010), I was helping my students to play a junior version of the whole game.

Regarding numeracy, I was taught in the usual way – practice set, problems with teacher, homework and eventual test or quiz. This was how I understood numeracy instruction until I observed my teaching colleagues. To be sure, their minds were focused on measurement and estimation, but their practice was focused around rooting those ideas in the questions of our students. When introducing a topic, they opened by inviting questions or uncertainties. Those questions served as the goals toward which a unit of study would work. When time came for students to create projects to present their learning, they were much less stressful than I remember being because, as John Holt (1995) writes, “When we feel powerful and competent, we leap at difficult tasks.” Rooted in inquiry, the numeracy skills they were earning held deeper meaning and were immediately practical. They realized Sizer’s claim that “Education’s job is less in purveying information then in helping people use it – that is, to exercise their minds” (p. 84).

My understanding of the purpose of schooling began in my experiences as a k-12 student and deepened in my missteps as a middle and high school teacher. Those experiences were rooted in compliance, management and transfer. They focused on management of teaching and of student behaviors, yet they failed to invite joy and curiosity into the learning process. Not until I engaged in reflective practice and worked to align my espoused beliefs with my enacted beliefs and encountered those thinkers on whose shoulders I stand did I see how literacy, numeracy and citizenship could and should be embedded in inquiry to awaken the learning of all students.

What it Looks Like

The most accessible vantage point to see this purpose enacted is that of a student engaged in its practice. Our student, Troy, is a 16-year-old African American male living in an urban setting. He transferred to the Learning Center Mixed-Grade Charter Public School (LC) at the age of 12 from a traditional school in the district. He’d experienced some struggles with reading at his old school and his parents noted how distressed he’d gotten with school as he watched his peers move forward while Troy was placed in remedial classes.

Transferring to the Learning Center, Troy was most immediately struck by the fact there were no English, science, history or math classes – let alone remedial classes. Instead, Troy had a week of getting to know each of the five clusters within the school. Each day, he was greeted by a more veteran LC community member of a different cluster. That member mentored Troy and helped him understand the nuance of the cluster such the focus of learning for the International cluster (global agriculture) or the current project of the Media cluster (journalistic standards). At week’s end, Troy met with his faculty advisor and a member from each of the clusters to help him decided where he would like to spend that academic year. While each cluster representative assured Troy they’d be happy to have him as part of their cluster of roughly 80 students each, they also made it clear they were present only to help make certain he made the best decision for his own learning. When he returned to the LC the following Monday, Troy had decided to join Media.

This year, Troy is a member of Media again after spending last academic year as a part of Health and Wellness. He is two mastery projects away from graduation from the LC. He and a team from his cluster are working on a project about interpreting online advertisements that they hope to present to novice learners in the cluster as well as during community time at the end of the day to any LC members who are interested. Troy is responsible for gathering, synthesizing and then making easily understandable the data his group gathered around the amount of money corporations spend on online advertisements for children. In a brainstorming session, another student had asked, “How much do you think companies spend on advertising each year?” Troy volunteered to head up their investigation into advertising budgets as well as the science of psychology behind advertising choices.

Troy is happy with his selection because it has led him and his advisor to discuss the possibility of Troy completing a proposal for a children’s literacy campaign to present before city council as his next mastery task. Of course he will have to refine the task by first presenting it to his learning cluster and then the entire LC. During the presentation, Troy will be required to synthesize and explain his use of the literacy and numeracy principles expected of a Level 5 as outlined by the LC’s mastery rubric and handbook and established by each Mastery Standards Council. Troy appreciates the freedom he has in deciding how to show his mastery, but is also happy to have the guidance of his cluster’s 6 faculty members, including his advisor. He knows he won’t be allowed to advance unless all of his faculty members and 80% of the other students in his cluster at Level 3 and above agree he’s reached mastery according to the rubric.

Today, Troy and other community members who have reached Level 5 Mastery on their Learner’s Permits have organized a field trip to the local food bank to help stock the shelves and make some general repairs as part of a citizenship project organized across three of the clusters. One of the Level 6 students on the trip is also planning to interview the food bank director for her capstone mastery project on the factors influencing citizen philanthropy. Troy knows his sister, a Level 2, would like to come along, but she can’t because Level 2s are only allowed on adult chaperoned trips. Troy knows his sister is also jealous that Level 4+ are allowed to budget their 40 hours each week at the LC as opposed to the standard schedules for Levels 1-3 students.

Troy also has a meeting with the Level 3 Mastery Standards Council. Two representatives from each mastery level above 3 and a faculty member from each cluster have been engaging in the biennial review of the rubric and mastery standards required to move to Level 3. The council means a great deal to Troy because his first mastery project at the LC was Level 3. He was disappointed when his cluster had advised him to revise his presentation, but felt much better when he read all the positive feedback from faculty and community members. Troy found their suggestions for improvement in the literacy zone of the project to be particularly helpful in guiding his studies before his next attempt. He’d also been proud when he finished and had his Level 4 presentation approved in a year and a half. Reading was easier when he was surrounded by people who helped him understand how to get better and remain mindful of the successes he’d had in the process of learning.

Troy knows he wants to go to college when he completes his capstone, and thinks studying marketing might be an interest for him. At the same time, the work he did with the science of epidemiology during his time with the Health and Wellness cluster has piqued his interest as well. Troy’s parents are proud of the joy he has in talking about his learning in literacy numeracy, and citizenship.

Troy’s teachers meet daily from 8-9 before the start of school to review cluster progress, discuss individual students and organize the learning space to fit the needs of each cluster’s activities. The malleable environment allows for the creation of large shared spaces as well as smaller collaborative environments. Though sometimes frustrating, the faculty appreciate the standard of consensus in making decisions for the school.  They see it as an extension of their own citizenship as members of the LC and as adding value to their vision of schooling as providing practice toward mastery in literacy, numeracy and citizenship embedded in inquiry.


Holt, J. (1995). How children learn [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2011, October 12). The ecology of education: Culture, communities, and change in schools. Lecture conducted from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Perkins, D. N. (2010). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Sizer, T. R. (2004). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..

Appendix A

Salient Quotations from Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise (2004):

p. 43 It is a new experience to make up one’s own mind.

p. 44 The supervised youth does the homework but may never learn the self-discipline that he will need in the future.

p. 48 Many adolescents parade their new sexuality. The choreography in a high school hallway during a break between classes is colorful, with awkward strutting, overdressing or underdressing for effect, hip swinging, hugging, self-conscious and overenthusiastic joshing, little bits of competition clumsily over expressed.

p. 50 Eighty years ago, most adolescents had far more sustained contact with both older and younger people than do today’s youth. The separateness and the specialness of adolescence were less attended to.

p. 51 They are impressionable, but also autonomous; the two are not contradictory.

p. 51 Franklin Zimring: “How do we train young people to be free?” he asks. “If the exercise of independent choice is an essential element of maturity, part of the process of becoming mature is learning to make independent decisions. This type of liberty cannot be taught; it can only be learned.” Adults can help this learning, in powerful ways, by example, by being honest, by trusting young people, and by giving them the compliment of both asking much of them and holding them accountable for it.

p. 52 In a word, we shouldn’t pander to youth. WE should show them respect by expecting much of them and by being straight – and part of being straight is telling them that they are still inexperienced and therefore must share their freedom with older people until they have learned the dimensions of liberty. (Learner’s Permit)

p. 52 Wise teachers and parents wait, explain, encourage, criticize, love and explain again.

p. 53 But the kid who’s fun to teach is the questioning one, the kid who wants to know why.

p. 113 Holding a student’s commitment requires convincing him that the subject matter over which he is toiling is genuinely usable — if not now, then in the future.

p. 105 observing-recording-imagining-analyzing-resolving

p. 103 One thinks, one imagines, one analyzes those ideas, one tests them, and then thinks again.

p. 94 Israel Scheffler, “Knowing requires something more than the receipt and acceptance of true information. It requires that the student earn the right to his assurance of the truth of the information in question.”

p. 86 The essential claims in education are very elementary: literacy, numeracy, and civic understanding.

p. 84 Education’s job is less in purveying information than in helping people to use it – that is, to exercise their minds.

p. 68 A sensible school would have a variety of means for exhibition – timed tests, essays, oral exams, portfolios of work.

Appendix B

Salient Quotations from Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969):

p. 1 To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively.

p. 11 Change changed.

p. 19 It’s not what you say to people, it’s what you have them do.

p. 23 Once you have learned how to ask questions-relevant and appropriate and substantial questions-you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

p. 33 The full spectrum of learning behaviors – both attitudes and skills – is being employed all the time.

Appendix C

Salient Quotations from John Holt’s How Children Learn (1995) [e-book]:

  • What teachers and learners need to know is what we have known for some time: first, that vivid, vital, pleasurable experiences are the easiest to remember, and secondly, that memory works best when unforced.
  • A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence? Surely we can find more way to let children see people using some of the skills we want them to acquire—though this will be difficult when in fact those skills, like many of the “essential” skills of arithmetic are not really use to do anything.
  • All children want and strive for increased mastery and control of the world around them, and all are to some degree humiliated, threatened, and frightened by finding out (as they do all the time) that they don’t have it. When we feel powerful and competent, we leap at difficult tasks. There are times when even the most skillful learner must admit to himself that for the time being he is trying to butt his head through a stone wall, and that there is no sense in it. At some times teachers are inclined to use students as a kind of human battering ram. I’ve done it too often myself. It doesn’t work.
  • I feel even more strongly now than then that it is in every way useful for children to see adults doing real work and, wherever possible, to be able to help them.
  • While this goes on, I say nothing.
  • Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations – and many, even most real life situations are like this – where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise.

Appendix D

Salient ideas from David Perkins’s Making Learning Whole (2010):

1. Play the whole game.

2. Make the game worth playing.

3. Work on the hard parts.

4. Play out of town.

5. Play the hidden game.

6. Learn from the team.

7. Learn the game of learning.

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