How do we assure students are prepared for a world facing unprecedented change? New purposes in education are needed to prepare them for their future.

In his 2015 budget request, now-former Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin included language that attempted to change the purpose of the University of Wisconsin system from goals such as “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to the singular purpose of “meet the state’s workforce needs.”[1] The attempt generated intense criticism from academics and others, and the language was removed.

This incident illustrates the debate that is ongoing regarding the purposes of an education in the United States. While many frame the choice as being between developing students’ minds and preparing them for jobs and careers, the true change in the purposes of education may be somewhat different.

It’s worth noting for a moment that the purposes of education in the United States have always evolved over time. They were initially quite modest and were focused on basic literacy sufficient to read the Bible and transact common business, for those groups allowed to attend school in the first place. Horace Mann and the universal school movement expanded the population of those attending school along with the purposes to include an emphasis on socialization and good citizenship.

The biggest change, however, occurred from the 1890s through the 1920s, a period of time during which schools took on three distinct roles. One was to prepare an elite for secondary and post-secondary education designed to enable them to assume positions as leaders in religious, political, and business settings. A second was to train those deemed not candidates for additional education for immediate entry into the workforce. The third was to offer a general education for those who did not plan to go beyond secondary school but who were not candidates for “vocational” education.

This tripartite model remained in place for nearly 100 years, in part because the economy did not require large numbers of highly educated people and it was possible to get a good job without a great deal of education or training.

All of this changed beginning in the 1980s when forces were unleashed that continue unabated to the present. Job creation has increasingly been concentrated in “knowledge worker” fields. Job losses have been concentrated in previously stable blue-collar areas of the economy. Wage gains for all but the most highly educated have stagnated. Additionally, the knowledge level needed for individuals simply to navigate a highly technical and technological society has increased dramatically. Finally, the demands of citizenship have also increased, particularly in terms of what it takes to be well informed and to weigh the evidence and sources in the public and political arenas.

Educators are familiar with much of this. Some schools have made changes in response to these forces. Vocational education has been replaced with career-technical education. College preparation programs have been ramped up. More students have been encouraged to go on to post-secondary learning. More courses with a 21st-century emphasis have been added to the curriculum. Computers and technology have been integrated into the instructional program.

These structural responses are certainly a welcome sign of adaptation by schools to the dramatic remaking of the economy and society. However, structural changes alone are unlikely to be sufficient to address the needs students will have in the future. Key among those needs will be the ability to adapt. This will require greater self-knowledge and self-management, among other skills.

We cannot know the specific knowledge and skills students will need in 20, 30, or 40 years. Think back in your own life to your high school education and consider the knowledge, skills (and mindsets) you’ve needed to add since then to be successful. The new goal of education is not to guess which industries will be important in a few decades. It is to equip students for whatever they may encounter. At the heart of this challenge is the need for students to develop self-knowledge and ownership of learning.

Self-knowledge consists of pretty much what the term states, the ability to know yourself well enough to make intelligent decisions about what you want to be and become. Ownership of learning means the ability to act on that self-knowledge to make decisions about what you are learning, how you are learning it, and the purposes to which you are putting your learning.

The most significant change necessary to enhance ownership of learning is making vastly more information about themselves available to students. This will require gathering and organizing much more than what is included in a report card or transcript. It will require multiple measures, almost all of which will be low stakes or no stakes, that let students reflect on who they are, how they learn, and what they know.

Instruction will need to be much less focused on knowledge transmission and more organized around facilitating ways students acquire needed knowledge on their own in order to apply what they are learning in meaningful, contextualized ways. Educators already employ many methods that build ownership of learning, such as project-based learning, independent studies, competitions such as Odyssey of the Mind or science fairs, courses such as the International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge or its extended essay, internships and field experiences, and other options for students to make choices that build their self-knowledge.

A key organizing method to make all of this work is goal-driven learning. In a goal-driven model, student instructional programs have an element of customization and personalization to them that is based on individually-developed student goals. These goals can be content-based in nature. They can also be focused on acquiring or sharpening a range of learning skills. Or, they can be more personal in nature, reflecting the desire to develop self-knowledge further.

Realigning schools with the new goals of adaptability, self-knowledge, self-management, and ownership of learning requires new data systems that are much more powerful than current models and that function closer to real-time. The output of these data systems can be in the form of diagnostic reports, comprehensive profiles that consider college and career readiness, and much more personal, individualistic plans that enable students to make better choices about their futures.

Schools that adopt the new goals of education and implement the instructional programs and data systems necessary to achieve those goals will be equipping their students to be adaptable, self-empowered adults who can navigate and succeed in a world that is changing at an unprecedented rate.

[1] Strauss, Valerie. “What’s the Purpose of Education in the 21st Century?”. Chronicle of Higher Education  (February 12, 2015).

David Conley

David Conley

Dr. David Conley is a national thought leader in several areas including college and career readiness, student ownership of learning, systems of assessment, and new models of educational accountability. He has conducted numerous research studies on what it takes for students to be ready to succeed in college and careers, and he writes extensively on this topic. Most recently, he studied assessment and accountability systems, specifically those using new techniques and multiple measures. His most recent book, The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment, was published in July, 2018 by Harvard Education Press.