You Can Lead a Horse to Water

What is the purpose of education?

Whether we’re talking about primary, elementary, secondary, or postsecondary education, what is its purpose, the real purpose, the reason we are investing so much time and money in this endeavor. Short answer – behavior – establishing, maintaining, changing, if necessary, and ultimately, refining, behavior.

You can refer to the process as preparation, socialization, indoctrination, domestication, acculturation,  or self-actualization.

Or you might prefer to talk about dispositions and habits of mind.

Whatever label you choose to apply, the goal is behavior.  

The education endgame is, and always has been, influencing how students behave when they leave school for the final time whether that was at the end of eighth grade as was the norm through a good part of the 20thcentury or following twelfth grade with a high school diploma. Perhaps the end of formal education comes after completing a certificate program at a local community college, earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution of higher education, completing law school or medical school, or surviving the war of attrition to earn a Ph.D. and settle into academia, or heaven forbid, become an expert in educational measurement.

Whether you are 18 or 28, if the education system, along with the rest of the social infrastructure has done its job, you will be ready, willing, and able to assume your role as a functioning and contributing member of society.

As John Adams wrote to his son John Quincy in 1781, “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

Or as expressed 200 years later in the oft-cited decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Rose v. Council Better Education in which the Court declared an efficient system of education must have as its goal to provide each and every child with:

  1. Oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization;
  2. Knowledge of economic, social and political systems to enable them to make informed choices;
  3. Understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state and nation;
  4. Self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;
  5. Grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;
  6. Training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and,
  7. Academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.

Function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization, make informed choices, understand issues, appreciate cultural and historical heritage, choose and pursue life work, compete favorably with counterparts

The knowledge, skills, competencies, and standards that fill the curriculum, some of them more important than others, are a means to that end.

These thoughts about behavior flooded my mind as a I recently read a report titled Improving Financial Literacy Education – Considerations for state, districts, schools, and teachers implementing financial literacy. In the timely report prepared for the Region 2 Comprehensive Center Network, Jessica Bailey and Diana Wogan make a compelling case for the dire need for improving the financial literacy of the nation’s young people. In the report, Bailey and Wogan present the following definition of financial literacy:

Knowledge of basic economic and financial concepts, as well as the ability to use that knowledge and other financial skills to manage financial resources effectively for a lifetime of financial well-being (Hung et al, 2009).

That definition includes two key aspects of establishing desired behaviors, knowledge, and the ability to use that knowledge.

What’s Missing?

The standards movement in education (i.e., state standards, assessment, accountability) has focused very heavily on knowledge and has been somewhat successful in ensuring that all students have been exposed to and possess (at least momentarily) basic knowledge in critical areas.

Ensuring that students have the ability to use that knowledge, to apply it to evaluate problem situations and arrive at effective solutions has been on the education radar for more than a quarter-century now but has proven to be more of a challenge. Twenty-first century skills and deeper learning have become the elusive brass ring to those who spend their lives on the standards, assessment, and accountability merry-go-round.

But what if we finally grab that brass ring through some sort of innovative, integrated, curriculum and assessment design.  Does possessing knowledge and skills and the ability to use them mean that students will be disposed to apply their knowledge and skills when faced with novel, complex situations – or even fairly routine daily decision-making.

Reading about the need for financial literacy brought me back to the 1990s and the dire need at that time to improve the health literacy of the nation’s young people. Smoking, obesity, eating disorders, drug use, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and teen suicide were all factors that compelled states and school districts to revamp their health curricula and develop health assessments.

What combination of factors led to behaviors in some of the areas listed above improving, some remaining unchanged, and some continuing to get worse?

Current data about the fitness of adults in the United States suggest that knowledge about the importance of physical fitness and the ability to engage in activities that promote physical fitness clearly were not sufficient to ensure that students would be disposed to engage in those behaviors when they left school.

Disposition and Behavior are Embedded Within Everything 

It’s easy to think about dispositions and behaviors when discussing topics like financial literacy or health issues. And we can easily make the connection between courses in art and music appreciation and the desire to influence future behavior. But we less often make the same connection to dispositions and future behaviors when discussing subject areas like reading, mathematics, and science.

Yes, we want students to develop reading skills, but the literature that we assign in English, French, and Latin classes from Shakespeare to Steinbeck to Camus to Virgil to The Hare and the Pineapple has always contained life lessons that are intended to influence behavior – or at least plant a seed that will be watered and fertilized repeatedly across the curriculum.

More importantly, we want students to become readers. The field trips to the library, the Scholastic book sales, monthly book reports on books of our own choosing, summer reading lists and contests, etc. that we all experienced were meant to instill a love of reading. If they did the opposite, the system failed miserably.

Excerpts from the descriptions of the required English courses in my high school catalogue in the 1970s



Grade 9 – In the study of literature an introduction to the analysis of human behavior and motivation; the nurturing of the habit of reading for pleasure.


Grade 10 – An exploration of the motives and behaviors of man as shown in the different literary forms; …an emphasis on reading for pleasure.


Grade 11 – An examination of the problems of mankind as found in literature with particular attention to the success or failure of man in his struggles to solve his problems; …an emphasis upon reading for pleasure.


Grade 12 – An examination of the matter of the “external verities” an analysis of problems and solutions as they are depicted in literature; an analysis and discussion of the universal and eternal problems occurring in the reading material; …an emphasis on reading for pleasure.

In science, the pendulum had swung too wildly over the years from science as inquiry to science as a collection of facts. The NGSS, with its three-dimensional approach attempted to stop the pendulum in just the right spot between the two. I cannot predict what the long-term impact of the NGSS will be, but I was not particularly encouraged that the initial efforts that I witnessed prior to the pandemic appeared to be adding layers of complexity to the basic concept that there are 9 crosscutting concepts, 8 practices, and 12-13 core ideas.

Yes, there are seemingly infinite pathways within that 3-dimensional science space, each representing an opportunity to engage students in science.  Remember, however, that “fewer, clearer, higher” is more than a neat slogan used to market the Common Core. The idea is to help students discover the pathway(s) that engage them, not to force them into a mind-numbing death march down each and every pathway.

As for mathematics, the queen of the sciences and the key to all that is beautiful, well, it’s just too painful for me to think about how poorly we have done in producing students with a mathematical disposition – the dire need for financial literacy a case in point.

It’s not for lack of trying, of course. As I recall, one of the first life lessons they tried to teach us via mathematics in elementary school involved the power of compound interest – and how that power could be used for good (savings) and evil (debt). An important endpoint, to be sure, but perhaps not the best starting point to engage students. Remember, at the end of this lesson Michael Banks still wanted to feed the birds.



I see civics standards and curricula now that privilege activism over simple knowledge and facts. Admirable. But as shown above, forced participation, or participation for credit, is not the same as and does not necessarily lead to engagement. You can lead a horse to water…

Circling back to the seven capacities listed by the Kentucky Supreme Court, the task of designing curriculum, instruction, and yes, assessment to produce productive citizens becomes exponentially more difficult as we are paralyzed and polarized by discussions of what it means to be a productive citizen; when we cannot forge a shared cultural and historical heritage (regardless of the role, if any, our ancestors played in creating that history), and when we even find ways to argue over what should be common, core values.

But that only makes it more important to produce students who are disposed toward science and reading and the arts and mathematics and civics and learning.


Image by Steffen Wachsmuth from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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