Hello! I’ve been a teacher for the past 16 years, and I’m writing (and drawing) this article to answer a student question that comes up every September: Why (even now when we have the Internet to look up any “answer” or tutorial) is school important? To answer this, we need to get clear on the question: What IS learning? Here’s a real-life situation to help illustrate.
What is “Valuable Education?”
#1. Building Community IS “Real Learning.”
Many school classes — especially English courses like mine — start their year with activities designed for students to get to know each other, foster feelings of safety and connectedness, and create respectful and functional norms for the classroom.
Every year, however, there is a student who raises their hand on the second day of getting-to-know-you activities and asks, “Why are we spending time introducing ourselves? When are we starting the REAL learning?”
This student is wondering when the grammar instruction, tests, and worksheets will begin. They have been trained over the years to believe that anything besides those traditional “school learning” tasks are a waste of time, and that the other people in the room are not a worthwhile part of the educational experience. Yikes!
In fact, a paramount reason why school is important is to learn from EVERYONE in that building — not just teachers. When you ask any adult what they learned in school, they will almost always share a social revelation (ex: “I learned to find true friends who didn’t put me down”) in equal or greater parts to traditional academic learning.
As teachers, our job is to proactively support positive social interactions and learning just as much as academic learning. We need a society of people who can work well together and respect one other — not just hate-spewing humans who are really effective at taking tests. Moreover, there is a surprising connection between learning the names of people in your class and your test scores. Read on…
#2. Test Scores Connect to the Body and Emotions.
To anyone who thinks that spending time to create a connected, respectful classroom environment is a waste of time, please check out the HUGE body of research (ex: here, here, and here) about how our brains literally cannot learn unless our whole selves feel safe.
Feeling safe requires knowing who is in the room with you, seeing there are norms to uphold respect, and feeling heard and understood. Learning requires taking risks, collaborating, discussing, failing, trying again, revising, sharing, and listening. If you don’t know the names of the other students in your class, those key tasks become increasingly difficult!
Learning also requires basic body supports such as enough food, exercise, water, and sleep. For anyone poo-pooing Physical Education or Gym class as “not real learning,” read the research about how increased exercise correlates with boosted academic achievement here, here, here, and here.
I hope you’re starting to see how “real learning” is way more than worksheets, and how the importance of school stretches far beyond academics! When done right, school is powerful because it helps integrate the social, academic, and physical aspects of learning.
#3. Skills are Everything Nowadays.
In an era where we can look up any fact at the touch of a button, the most important function of schools becomes teaching skills and habits of mind — chiefly critical thinking, perseverance, collaborative teamwork, and creativity — instead of just pumping facts into brains.
Let’s start by looking at critical thinking, also known as “using your own brain to figure out what’s true.” Yes, in the 21st century we can look up any “fact” online, but we still need school to teach us the skill of separating fact from fiction. In this day and age, this skill has become a matter of life and death.
What about the skill of perseverance? If done right, school is important because it teaches us how to push through difficulty and not give up. Chatting with a friend yesterday, he remarked that he doesn’t remember many specifics of high school Calculus, but he does remember the set of skills he developed to get through such a challenging class: metacognitively reflecting on studying strategies that worked, effectively asking for help, getting more sleep, and so on. He uses those skills to this day.
Learning collaborative teamwork is another central skill which makes school important. The Pew Research Center and this college point out that jobs of the present and future revolve around being able to work well with others as a team. Further, companies that have diverse groups outperform others by 35%! Our progress revolves around us practicing effective connections with others — even and especially those from different backgrounds than us.
On to creativity. Just as we often divorce the concept of “real learning” from the body, we also often forget that imagination and art are integral to understanding our world and building brainpower. For more on this, see “Why Is Art Important?”
The image below is an example of art fostering learning, because I was practicing the skill of trying something new (pastels) and making some progress (learning how to blend the colors) — at the same time as failing a little! The picture didn’t come out exactly how I wanted, but I’m including it here to remind myself that learning is a continuous process, and “not getting something perfect,” yet continuing to practice is all part of building our brains and skills.
#4. Learning May Be Present… But Hidden.
For those who want more traditional worksheets and lectures, I urge you to take a deeper look at where academic skills may be hidden but present. In other words, you may be practicing a very useful academic skill, but it’s not obvious at first.
Here’s an example: In the first unit of my ELA class, I usually have students create some sort of group presentation in which they introduce each individual student, highlighting commonalities at the end. Though this is not a classic test or worksheet, this project embeds the following academic skills: Collaboration, community building, writing and editing, technology skills, presenting and listening, and so on. It is most certainly not a waste of time!
#5. School Provides Essential Services
We’ve now seen how school is important for: 1) Social skills beyond academics, 2) Integrating the body and emotions with academic learning, 3) Teaching skills and habits of mind (not just facts) that can be applied to new situations, and 4) Demonstrating how learning can take many forms, and be embedded in surprising places.
This brings us full circle back to the clear and obvious function of schools: Our educational system, though not perfect, provides essential services of learning, safety, and food which our society needs in order to function.
The clearest example of the essential learning is with reading. My son (the one learning to eat veggies, and practicing how to apologize) is in Kindergarten, and watching him learn to read from the instruction of his expert teacher has been magical.
I am an educator myself, but I teach middle school and had no idea about all the steps and science that go into fostering phonics, word recognition, and a love of learning. Without school, so many kids would never learn to read, learn to write, think — and so much more! — to the level our society needs.
Learning is the obvious main purpose of school, but this year in particular, people are increasingly realizing the essential functions of food and safety that our educational institutions provide. 22 million kids in America rely on free or reduced lunch programs at school for food. On the topic of safety, teachers and school staff are essential monitors of student safety, as they listen for signs of danger and are required to try their best to connect kids with help when needed.
VIDEO: What Is Learning?
Do Schools REALLY Do All These Things?
I’ve just listed 5 complex ways that schools can foster learning and contribute to society. In other words, this is a huge a list of reasons why school is important — when it is done well. It begs the retort, however, that all too many times, school is NOT “done well.” It’s jarring to juxtapose the ideal of what education SHOULD be with the pain of what it often looks like.
All too many times, school does NOT integrate the body with the mind. It does NOT create a safe and connected learning environment. It does NOT encourage creativity, integration, skills needed for the modern workplace, or critical thinking. Arghhhhh!
As a happy teacher and writer, however, I was compelled to write this piece so we can all examine the ideal of what school can and should be, and what learning actually is. In this way all of us — teachers, students, administrators, and families — can work towards doing learning and school well.
Why Do YOU Think School Is Important?
In our current context, we are at a pivotal juncture — a liminal space — in our world’s education system. Suddenly we are realizing that we can’t continue to do school the way we have. This necessitates a long hard look at the question: What is learning, and what is the point of school?
Let me close by emphasizing that YES, I do still think traditional academic skills like reading, writing, and math need to be taught — and taught well. But the purpose of this article is to show that learning takes many forms, and school has a wide variety of different kinds of importance. We must not ignore that as we build our new educational future.
What is your take on the importance of school? What does learning look like to YOU? Do share!