Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


What's the point of schooling?

  • 29 June 2021
Every teacher’s least-favourite question is: ‘When are we going to use this in real life?’

The reason we hate this question is, of course, that we teach many things in school that do not have a practical purpose for most people. You don’t analyse the themes of Macbeth or learn calculus because you’re necessarily going to use them when you leave school. You learn these things because someone, somewhere, has decided that education has an inherent value, and that learning these things will enrich your life.

Whether they do enrich your life, well, is a different question. (I do quote Shakespeare almost daily, but I acknowledge I’m probably an outlier.)

Recently the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) — who you may know from such hits as NAPLAN and My School — has opened public consultation on the Australian Curriculum. This means, of course, that it’s time for another round in the Australian culture wars!

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has already raised concerns about what John Howard would call ‘black armband history’, as well as noting his confusion about changes to the maths curriculum. Tudge is no education expert, and while I trust the advice of educational professionals over a newly-appointed minister, there is no doubt that Tudge has power in this sphere.

The question being asked, however, is one that puts the cart before the horse. The question of ‘What do you want to see in the national curriculum?’ presupposes the answer to another question: What even is the purpose of schooling?

'Before we talk about what to teach, we have to take a step back and analyse what we actually want schools to be, and how we structure learning to achieve this.'

This is a question that seems simple on the surface, but if you ask half a dozen people you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. Many young adults, for example, complain about how education has not equipped them with life skills such as the ability to do their tax return, apply for a bank loan, or even write a CV. For a long time early years teachers have raised concerns about parents expecting schools to teach truly basic life skills, like toilet training. On the other hand, politicians are constantly bemoaning an alleged over-emphasis on the humanities, especially ‘identity politics‘ and ‘woke-ism‘, demanding a ‘back to basics‘ approach that instead focuses on the Three Rs and marketable STEM knowledge.  

What we