Steve Stemler, associate professor of psychology and co-coordinator of education studies, has spent two decades systematically studying the purposes of school. He is the co-author, together with Dr. Damian Bebell, of The School Mission Statement and maintains the web resource purposeofschool.com. He is the author of an op-ed recently published in The Hartford Courant that provides advice for parents who are now educating their children at home due to coronavirus-related school closures.
You’ve done a good deal of research on the purpose of school, a topic on the minds of many parents these days as they’re getting an up-close look at their children’s daily school experiences. Can you tell us how you went about studying the purpose of school?
One of the main techniques I use to study school purpose involves systematically analyzing and coding the content of school mission statements. School mission statements have a couple of advantages. First, they are the one common denominator that all schools share. In order to be accredited, schools are required to have a mission statement, so that provides a very nice common element. In addition, they are typically short statements that are meant as public documents that communicate the fundamental values of the school. I have also conducted survey, focus group, and interview research on the dimensions of schooling that people find important.
Interview studies I have conducted with school leaders suggest that school mission statements are often crafted very deliberately with input from multiple stakeholders to reflect the needs of their community. Thus, I always recommend that people have a look at the mission statement of their own local school to see what values are being emphasizing.
School mission statements provide one source of evidence for these themes, but there are other approaches that have shown similar results. For example, surveys of businesses routinely show that they want students who not only possess strong writing and quantitative skills, but who also possess strong interpersonal skills, cultural competence, and ethical reasoning.
What did your analysis of school mission statements uncover? Do they tend to be pretty similar, or are there significant differences? What are some common themes?
Across thousands of mission statements, we have extracted 12 major themes that emerge. Six of them relate to desired student outcomes and the other six relate to the environment the school is trying to provide.
For example, themes related to student outcomes include statements that can be categorized as relating to cognitive development (e.g., problem-solving, critical thinking), social-emotional development (e.g., finding joy in learning, respecting others, becoming self-sufficient), civic development (e.g., becoming a responsible citizen, a contributing member of society), physical development, and career development (e.g., developing technological skills, marketable skills). Themes related to the kind of environment a school wants to provide relate to things like providing a safe and nurturing environment, a challenging environment, a technologically advanced environment, and so on.
We have found that in our studies of thousands of school mission statements, the number of themes endorsed tends to follow a normal curve, with most school mission statements endorsing around three to four themes, but those four themes vary by school and they also vary systematically by school type. For example, in random samples of public high schools throughout the United States, we have found that three themes come up fairly consistently: civic development, social-emotional development, and cognitive development. The emphasis placed on the different themes does vary to some extent by school type (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, CTE) and by level (e.g., elementary versus high school).
What is your advice for teachers and school administrators as they translate the education they provide to an online model?
My main advice would be to be thoughtful about the core elements of your school mission as you translate the experience online. The cognitive/academic experience of providing students with specific content is important, but most educators realize that it does not fully capture the essence of the school experience. Most students already have more content than they know what to do with at their fingertips every day via the web, public libraries, and such. Education is not just about content. It is also about curation of the content and systematic attention to the development of the whole student. As educators, part of our job is to create a context in which students can develop cognitively, socially, emotionally, and civically.
And what advice do you have for parents who are working to provide their children with the best school experience possible within the limitations of the home environment?
It is really important to be attentive to the social and emotional needs of your children during this difficult time, particularly as we are all socially isolated from our other support structures such as friends and extended family. Many schools have figured out how to deliver content, but the piece that is less well-developed within the context of distance learning is the social-emotional connection that schools provide. As a parent, you can play a major role in filling this gap, and it can take the form of something as simple as engaging in conversations with your children and actively listening to what they have to say.
What are realistic expectations for a “successful” distance learning experience?
I think focusing on success is not the right way to think about this issue. We have all had to make major changes to our lifestyles, and everyone is just trying to do the best they can to get through this time. That being said, we can all think about a few simple things that relate back to the purpose of school because those provide some foundational blocks and they really apply to everyone, not just students. We can try to be deliberate about finding time to attend to aspects of our cognitive development, our social development, our emotional growth, and our physical development as we engage in the very important civic act of social distancing.