Education’s Overlooked Purpose

In her earlier post, Lindsay Whorton laments education researchers’ failure to do little more than affirm the obvious: teachers matter. Students in great teachers’ classrooms consistently land in the upper percentiles on standardized tests, even if these students faired poorly in previous years. Research bolstering this basic “teachers matter” reality does little to answer what Lindsay observes is the far more important question: if great teachers cause great scores, what causes great teachers?

However, the question we should be asking is not necessarily what causes great teachers, but what causes great students? And once we understand what makes students great, how do exceptional teachers bring this out in students?

I taught high school social studies for two years in Jackson, Mississippi. After my first year in the classroom, I came to see academic content as a mere vehicle for something much more important: character development. This is a major pillar for charter networks like KIPP and Achievement First, so what I’m positing certainly isn’t anything new. But it fills some of the gaps we currently see in research on teacher effectiveness. A classroom with a strong culture, where students approach their study of academic content as an opportunity to develop character strengths like grit, zeal, curiosity, and optimism produces a natural byproduct: high test scores. A good teacher may produce strong test takers. An exceptional teacher will produce strong people who embrace the challenge a test poses and value the opportunity to grow through preparation more than the final result.

Obviously, a teacher cannot forsake strictly academic skills, and I do not diminish their importance. Quite to the contrary, character development allows academic content to flourish. It is only in classrooms where students have a willingness to tackle challenges that are initially daunting, to persevere through failure and to take risk that they will actually apply academic concepts outside of the school building- where we actually want students to use them!

Our most exceptional teachers powerfully combine academic and cultural components in their practice. Education reforms need to somehow identify the character and culture-building components of high-performing classrooms and incentivize teachers to bring them to their own students. Under our current system, which incentivizes test scores, teachers might skirt classroom culture inputs because they may regard them as superfluous. With such scarce time, they opt instead to refine their lesson plans and draft and redraft sample test items to perpetually assess students’ abilities to answer multiple-choice items — something that happened all too often in my own experience. We end up with scant gains and frustrated teachers who feel they are unable to reach students on issues of deeper meaning, and students who leave our classrooms without skills that stretch beyond multiple-choice tests.

Researchers like Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania are exploring this frontier in education. Others should follow her lead if we are to build an American education system that teaches students, not tests. Students, teachers, and society at large will reap the benefits.

Image Credit: MichaelMaggs, via Wikimedia Commons


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  • Sophie

    Love this! We should be preparing students to take on the world, not to take a test.

  • Rachel

    Great piece. Some might argue that a “character and culture-building” curriculum attempts to systematically raise children. Which isn’t the responsibility of the education system and could potentially lead to grave consequences. Any thoughts?

    Additionally, Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed” explores the importance of character development and dives into Angela Duckworth’s impressive research.

    • Juan

      re: systematically raising children, wouldn’t someone be able to say that today’s test-focused environment also aims to ‘raise’ children? After all, it values attributes such as obedience, ability to pay attention, and a strong work ethic and rewards children accordingly. I’d say that any system that involves putting children under the watch of an authority figure for a significant amount of time will “systematically raise children,” so the question then becomes which qualities we would prefer be encourage in the public education system. Do we want children who are able to stay quiet and study for long periods of time or children that are comfortable taking risks and working with others? I know that this is a value judgment that most people don’t want to enter the conversation with regard to public policy, but in education, I don’t see how it’s avoidable. Thoughts?

      • Sean Duling

        A test-driven environment can (I think…) adequately grow character in students. So I agree with your point. My primary concern, however, is that we seem convinced that the solutions to our woefully under-performing education system are to be found in more “rigorous” tests (bearing in mind that multiple-choice exams are frighteningly one-dimensional assessments of ability). With that said, there is absolutely a place for tests-for robust tests! There’s a place for high standards in terms of high scores on those tests! As I’ve tried to convey, I’m not making any argument for lowering standards or abolishing testing altogether. However, the cost of allocating our teachers’ and administrators’ energies into professional development about tests (tests that we’re changing all the time…standards that we alter…giving teachers a moving target…) is time they can put into developing DEEPER, more ROBUST curriculum that expands the depth of student thought, and providing stronger student feedback, and (at risk of a broken record…) establishing ways to strengthen the ties between their content and character growth. At the end of the day, we will assuredly not rejuvenate American education by giving students harder tests. There’s a lot of missing logic in the jump from hard tests to skilled students.

    • Sean Duling

      Rachel-you raise an important question. I challenge the idea that schools don’t have a responsibility for character-education for a couple reasons. First, as I tried to convey in the piece, I truly don’t believe that a high-quality education can take place in an environment that fails to address character growth. As I said, “character development allows academic content to flourish.” Reflect back on your high school days when you were sitting in, perhaps, an economics class, staring at a complicated supply and demand problem for the first time, or whatever happened to be on the day’s agenda. Aside from the (probably small) slice of students who knew were determined at an early age to go into economics or some math-intensive field, you may have fairly asked yourself (or your teacher) the question, “why is this important? Why do I need to know this, when I may never use this again outside of this class?” I found that students asked me this question frequently, and there’s a lot of potential answers. One is to convince them that engaging in high-level thinking is both a pleasure and/or a healthful activity. In other words, learning for learning’s sake is a good thing. When I was a student that could sometimes work. When I taught, however, I arrived at a different answer. I would be honest with students, particularly the ones that dreaded their economics, and reply that they were correct in that they may indeed never again solve equations like these, or use every concept we cover in class or any class they take for that matter. And while the content may provide students with new ways to think about the world and help them generate creative solutions to complex problems down the road, at the end of the day this…truly isn’t really about economics. It’s about confronting a task that is initially difficult, making the conscious decision to persevere through that difficulty, and to ultimately master an idea or a skill that beforehand you were sure was beyond reach. And while I have absolutely no idea what sort of events you will face in your life, Student, or whether or not you will ever again use economics or (insert subject), I can absolutely promise that you will face times of trial, in which circumstances will demand your inner strength and your willingness to confront something that you would rather not. So today you are garnering the strengths that the world will assuredly require of you, and that is why this class is important. It comes off as overly-dramatic, but if you have strong relationships with your students, if you yourself authentically believe in that vision, and if you persistently connect it with your daily actions, they’ll buy in wholeheartedly (with the occasional dissident to be expected…). In short, a great classroom intertwines the academic component with the character component. They’re inseparable as far as I’m concerned. A second point is that I’m concerned about our schools when they’re perceived as institutions that are alien to community and family life. In fairness to you-I think I’m definitely stretching your words here. In any event, I think the notion that we can raise our children only from outside the school walls, or that we should do this, is flawed. It’s a partnership among schools, families, and communities. Think about how critically important the school environment is to a kid’s social life and to their formative years. We can’t extricate the school experience from the family experience. They’re interwoven whether we like it or not. We should leverage this relationship for the good of both environments.