The Purpose of Schooling: Imagination and Creativity

We need a radical rethinking of the purpose of schooling.

It’s the longest-running debate in US education: What should be the purpose of school? To train a skilled workforce? To sort people and reward the “smartest”? To help individuals reach their goals? To socialize people into “American culture”? To build a foundation for democracy? The answer has long been “all of the above” — although at different times in our history one or another has taken prominence.

It doesn’t take more than a glance at the current presidential race to recognize that these days the economic purpose of school is front and center. Proponents of this perspective argue that improving education will boost the US economy. While this may in fact be an appealing outcome, it is a partial and limited vision of what schooling can and should be. With our rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected society, and so many dire social, political, and environmental issues calling for solutions, we need a more robust and holistic understanding of what schools are for.

I propose the following framework: The purpose of schools should be to develop imagination and creativity.

When I say imagination, I am not talking simply about fantasy or play, though these are important pieces of the puzzle. As Merriam-Webster puts it, imagination is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” It’s about empathy: imagining how it might feel to be someone else in another body, another situation, another culture. It’s about personal achievement: imagining futures for yourself and how you might reach them. It’s about resilience: imagining what obstacles you might face, and how you might leap them. And it’s about creating change: imagining how your life, your community, or your world might be better.

Importantly, imagination must be built on a foundation of understanding. One cannot imagine how the world might be if one does not understand how the world is. And nothing fuels imagination like learning about parts of the world beyond our everyday experience. This might mean learning about a culture on the other side of the world that works differently than the one we know; or it might mean learning about atoms and quarks, things that we all experience but are too small to see. So developing imagination encompasses traditional learning areas such as history, anthropology, physics, etc. But these topics are taught in the service of developing an historical, social, scientific imagination rather than as separate pieces of information devoid of context.

The related but distinct notion of creativity has long been connected with specific fields such as art, and with individual geniuses. But creativity can take place in any arena, and on many different scales. When I say a school’s purpose is to develop “creativity,” I mean very simply the ability to create. To create a piece of technology from its component parts. To create a theory about the world from pieces of existing theories and your own experiences. To create community. To create new ways of being with one another. And yes — to create art.

Understood in this way, creativity relies on many “basic skills” that we expect our schools to teach. If we want to develop creativity across multiple fields (and we do) students need to be literate in written languages, mathematics, visual languages, computers, health, and more. To focus on creativity is not to put aside these skills for unbounded play time, but to situate these skills in real, creative applications. And it definitely means focusing on the kind of “higher-order thinking” that we say we want from schools, but that are rarely prioritized in public education.

Creativity is often understood as a set of individual skills and dispositions that lead someone to think “out of the box.” As such, it has been increasingly recognized as a “21st century skill” that can help drive innovation (and thus the economy). But I am taking a broader view of creativity not only as an individual characteristic, but as a system. As some theorists have shown, creativity takes place not just within a person but in a larger system that includes colleagues, audiences, the history of the field, and more. So developing creativity is also about developing the ability to understand what has come before you, to connect and collaborate with others, and to see yourself within a larger context.

What this would mean for schools
As I hope I’ve made clear, this framework does not throw out everything that we have been doing in schools. Students still need to learn about science and reading and math. It doesn’t even involve inventing new pedagogies — the tools we need are out there, even if not in the mainstream. But it does call on us to shift our thinking in some fundamental ways.

Perhaps most obviously (particularly for this blog), this framework would mean a much more integral role for the arts in schools. While some outcomes of arts education are hotly contested, most people recognize that they are powerful tools for encouraging imagination and creativity. Art should not be only a separate elective class but a set of practices integrated across disciplines.

This framework also pushes us away from the common view that schools are filling students up with something they are lacking (a deficit view). Instead we see our goal as supporting the growth of something that is already there. After all, we know that all children have the capacity for amazing displays of imagination and creativity. What they need is to have this ability nurtured, supported, and broadened.

This framework also suggests the need for an education that involves making and doing real things. Instead of only learning facts and writing papers, students should be guided through the process of understanding, imagining, and creating. Project-based learning is an excellent example of a pedagogy that takes this seriously, engaging students in projects that draw on multiple skills and disciplines, require collaboration, and address real-world issues.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this kind of focus has the potential to make schools much more fun and engaging for students — no small feat.

Transformative teaching that encourages imagination and creativity is happening right now, though not always in schools. It must necessarily look different across schools based on the context — the particular students, families, communities, and teachers involved. But I argue that this overarching framework could help to realign our thinking towards what is truly important — and perhaps help us, collectively, improve our ability to imagine a better world and begin to work towards it.



This post was inspired by Kay Merseth, who has the students in her school reform course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education all write papers on what the purpose of schooling is — an important and overlooked exercise. Here is my humble attempt. Thanks Professor Merseth.