Updated: Jul 16, 2019
Many years ago, my father—also an educator—and I began a conversation about the purpose of an education. We went the rounds such conversations tend to do: produce citizens, create happy, healthy adults, etc. Those answers were philosophical and aphoristic. They included undercurrents such as academic knowledge, the skills students would need to survive, and creativity (to name but a few) but those undercurrents were in support of a larger goal.
What I’ve come to realize over the years is that whatever purpose one settles on it needs to fit three criteria in order to be useful; it must be:
Sufficiently broad to include everyone
Sufficiently deep to make it worthwhile, and
Sufficiently flexible to accommodate and encourage the wide variety of ways in which students are smart.
A number of potential purposes my dad and I discussed over the years actually satisfy the first two criteria, but not the third. Finding a purpose that can accommodate and encourage all the ways in which students are smart is critical. Any purpose that fails to do that risks creating a one-sized-fits all approach, which in turn risks a negative judgment when a student is smart in a way the system doesn’t recognize, and not so smart in a way that it does. It is also the most important of the three criteria to consider, because it is the one that insists the purpose be practical, and not just aphoristic.
After years of searching, the purpose of student benefit is the clear winner. The idea of student benefit is the idea that schools exist to benefit students, each of whom comes to school each day with a dizzying array of needs, talents, skills, knowledge, and understanding. It is then the job of an educator to understand how those things fit together, and then how best to guide the student to maximize that benefit.
The idea of student benefit satisfies each of the criteria for a meaningful educational purpose. Regarding breadth, it includes anyone who would benefit from a quality education, which is everyone. Regarding depth, the questions around what that benefit should look like immediately go beneath the surface. They don’t ask about test scores or rudimentary academics, but about what a student can be, their potential, and what can be done to support them.
Regarding the ability to be both flexible and accommodating, the notion of maximizing student benefit automatically brings with it all the ways in which a student might actually benefit from their education, which in turn can accommodate and encourage all the ways that might be made to occur. The job of an educator given the assignment to maximize student benefit is not to ask, “are you smart,” but “how are you smart?” That in turn requires the creation of what we can call a “smartness profile,” which is a straightforward representation of the areas in which a student is smart and those where they are not, which can then become the basis for understanding the educational needs of that student.
What should be obvious is how nicely the idea of student benefit fits the criteria for a worthwhile educational purpose.
But the idea of student benefit is so much more. For example, it aligns with the practical reality that for students to be successful in life they will need to be super smart in a few ways and sort of smart in some others. That is what has enabled every successful adult in the world to be successful, and to think that the current crop of students will occupy a different world than us is silly. They too will need to be super smart in some ways and sort of smart in others.
And it aligns with much that we know about student motivation and engagement. Study after study suggests that students subjected to an education that does not include things they happen to be good at leads to boredom and disconnected students. That isn’t to suggest that students be given an automatic pass in areas they aren’t smart, but rather, kids are more effective, more engaged learners in areas of weakness when their strengths are acknowledged and applauded. A smartness profile that showed strengths and weaknesses honestly would be one way to do that. Simply selecting one way of being smart and making that the basis for judgments would not.
Consider how far from providing an educational benefit the current accountability system is. Imagine a student enters a new school in the eighth grade several years behind his peers academically, but with some musical skills and a reasonable ability to paint and draw. If academics is the only way the school is allowed to believe kids are smart, the only available judgment will be negative, and the school will perceive the student that way—as a burden, someone to be remediated, etc. The student will not receive messages that he is in fact smart in some ways, but rather, that he is smart in no ways that matter or count.
In the current system, accountability for academics sends a specious message (specious refers to being superficially pleasing, but false—a perfect word if ever there was one). In the case of our student, it declares her a failure and treats her accordingly. Music and art may even be seen as a privilege, not ways of being smart, and if so denied until the student can catch up academically, which would, of course, hurt his chances for maximizing his educational benefit by denying him the chance to be accurately seen as smart and successful at something.
Valuing only one way of being smart has led to a skew in the system against the other ways of being smart, at the expense of students who happen to be smart in those other ways. This was easily predictable—not all students will ever be great at academics, meaning a system that holds schools accountable for all students being good at academics will wind up labeling most of its schools negatively without knowing if the students are smart in other ways, or if the school is properly supporting them.
Imagine if just some of the massive effort aimed at making all kids great at academics could be used to support the ways those kids who aren’t great at academics are actually smart. Even if they never became great at academics, the fact that they could be great at something would benefit them far more than a system that constantly labeled them and their schools negatively based on its narrow, inappropriate focus.
The truth is far more useful than specious judgments. Back to our student, the truth is that he is not a failure, not a burden, and not worthy of a negative label, but rather, as are we all, smart in some ways and not so smart in others. A student who perceives the truth, that they are successful in some ways and challenged in others, has a very different motivation than one who is declared a failure the moment they enter school. Declaring that a student is smart in some ways and not so smart in others is not the same as finding a way to give everyone a participation trophy, which is another sort of false message, but rather the simple, honest, useful truth.
The idea of student benefit as the purpose of education is powerful because it cannot operate except from a positon of knowing the full truth about a student. As the basis for accountability, it would require a school to understand that truth, to act on it, and to be effective at doing so. It would hold educators accountable for maximizing that benefit in students. It would formally encourage educators to act on what they already know and believe: that every student is unique and has unique needs, and it is an educators’ job to meet them. What becomes standardized in such a world is that each student experience the benefit of education right for them.
I often reference something Eddie Dean, a barbecue expert, caterer of massive events that often number in the thousands, and a fierce believer in the value of an education once said to me. We were discussing the idea of student benefit as I describe it here and he stopped me. “John,” he said, “everyone has a father, but not everyone has the benefit of a father.” I think of that often.
Too many now get an education without the benefit of an education. State and federal policy, negative (and frequently false or politically motivated) messages about education as a failed institution, and a hundred other sources contribute to this. Waiting for any of them to adopt a more meaningful purpose means that the students in the system now risk missing out on the benefit of an education, so we cannot and should not wait.
If you still doubt the value in the notion of educational benefit, put yourself into a smartness profile. Think of all they ways you happen to be smart, and all the ways you are not (be honest). Now imagine you’ll spend years of schooling only in the areas in which you aren’t so smart, that your educational career will be judged only by those areas, and that your future beyond school will be determined through those judgements. Would that fair? Would it be truthful? Would it be accurate? And would such a thing make you an engaged, interested student who spent every day working hard? Or would you be frustrated, bored, and maybe even give up?
Every student deserves the benefit of an education. That should be the purpose of an education, and it should be our job as educators to make and deliver on a promise to provide it.