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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 02/22/2010

Willingham: Why goals matter in education

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
In my last post I made the point that measurement is essential to progress in education. If we are ever to improve the methods by which students learn, we must be able to measure the consequences of those methods. Only then can we eliminate the methods that don’t yield the results we want, and adopt new methods that work better.

But what outcomes do we want to measure? Outcomes are important or unimportant depending on the goals we set for schooling. Yet I hear remarkably little discussion of big-picture goals. Why do students go to school?

Here is a non-exhaustive list of possible reasons.

*Students go to school so that they can better carry out their civic duties.

Early patriots (notably Thomas Jefferson & Noah Webster) wrote extensively on the need for an educated populace in order to preserve the republic; education was seen as the best weapon against despotism. If you saw citizenship as primary, you would want a high school graduate to be able to, for example, make informed judgments about policy matters which might touch on the scientific (e.g., global warming), political (e.g., limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns), historical (e.g., viewing the Afghanistan war in historical context), and so on.

The emphasis would be more on training students to be intelligent consumers of information, rather than producers. Another relevant outcome of schooling would be civic engagement. What classroom practices might increase voter participation, decrease the dodging of jury duty, and so on?

*Another possible goal of schooling would be to prepare students for the workplace.

Under this goal, students would learn science with an eye toward becoming scientists. Engineering would be introduced, perhaps in 9th grade, or even earlier. Economics, accounting, management and other fields relevant to business would be more commonly offered. It’s not clear that music, literature, and the arts would be in the curriculum. History would have a less prominent role. So called "soft" skills that are relevant in the workplace--working in groups, emotional intelligence--would be relevant outcomes to be measured. Also relevant, of course, would be reports from businesses that students are well prepared for the workplace.

*The third plausible goal of schooling would be to maximize the potential of each student, whatever his or her talents and interests might be--in short, self-actualization.

Under this goal, schools would offer a broader variety of activities in early grades, so that students could discover what interested them, and pursue it in depth. Certainly, students would not spend two-thirds of their instructional time on language arts, as they do now in early grades. There would be a much greater emphasis on pursuing individual projects. A key outcome to be measured would be happiness. (Yes, you can measure happiness.)

The obvious objection to these goals as I’ve outlined them is that they become cartoons when one goal is emphasized at the expense of the others. Certainly, a mixture would be possible, of the sort offered by Jay Mathews last week. My point is not to argue for one set of goals or the other. My point is that it’s smart to be explicit about goals. If you know what your goals are, you know what outcomes to measure. You also have some guidelines for what to do when the goals conflict, as they will at least on occasion.

The Common Core standards are written with the goal of preparation for college and for workforce training programs. What’s notable to me is that there has been so little discussion of these goals. Whether or not these goals are actually followed in the standards remains to be seen.

That parents might hold very different goals for schooling seems inevitable. Rather than having schools try to be all things to all people, this diversity of goals strikes me as a good (but not definitive) argument for school choice.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, guest bloggers  
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This question of the point of schools is absolutely critical, and to answer it we need to think deeply about what kind of society we are. We are a multi-ethnic democracy and as such still an experiment in the broad sweep of history. Any dictatorship can have schools that are geared solely to training a workforce. In contrast, a democracy rests on an educated citizenry that knows how to function in a diverse environment. Preparing such citizens is the point of schools in the United States. I will say, one of the obligations of citizens is, whenever possible, to earn a living. So ensuring that people are prepared to find a way to fit into the workforce is one of the many things subsumed under the general category of preparing an educated citzenry. But that's different from training a workforce.

Thank you for raising this. It is a question that is too little discussed. Once we are clear on the goal, it is a lot easier to figure out how to get there.

Posted by: kchenoweth | February 24, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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